- Teaching the Performative Dimensions of Korean Literature
Poetry from the premodern era in Korea and in most cultures was originally created to be sung, yet music and performance are key elements of the oral tradition that are often lost when transmitting knowledge about poetry and literature today. One of the challenges of teaching works from the Korean oral tradition arises from the hegemony of the written text over oral performance that persists in academia and contemporary culture. As a teaching fellow at Harvard University, I worked with my advisor, Professor David McCann, to address this imbalance in the way we teach Korean literature. This essay reflects on our teaching methods in these courses and argues for the necessity of teaching the performative dimensions of Korean literature and world oral traditions.
Emblematic of the traditional view that greater literacy results in the diminishment of the oral dimensions of culture is the term "residual orality," which has often been discussed to describe the apparent remains of the oral tradition in literate societies and their literatures.1 The most recent volume of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, published in 2012, implicitly supports this view by referring to oral narratives such as the Korean p'ansori epic The [End Page 105] Song of Ch'unhyang as "oral literature."2 This tendency to canonize oral storytelling by making it a form of "literature" is also practiced in Korea, where p'ansori continues to be studied by literary scholars in the field of kubi munhak ("oral literature").3 Walter Ong notes that the term "oral literature" is problematic because "it reveals our inability to represent to our own minds a heritage of verbally organized materials except as a variant of writing."4 The term "oral literature," and its widespread use in literary scholarship, not only perpetuates the hierarchical stance of literacy over the oral, but also has the effect of flattening and reducing the performativity and four-dimensionality of the oral tradition. From this perspective, the oral tradition is made to fit within the realm of literature in order to make it a subject worthy of study, without acknowledgment that the written text of an oral tradition is a disembodied form of the poem or narrative in performance.
Literature is often taught in this disembodied manner, limited to text on a page, but it need not be. As part of my research on Korean oral traditions and written literature, I conducted twenty months of extensive fieldwork in Korea over the span of a decade (2007-2016), studying with masters of traditional Korean music in p'ansori and sijo performance in order to deepen my understanding of these art forms. In my teaching with Professor David McCann on Korean oral traditions, I brought a somatic knowledge of Korean poetry and oral dramatic narrative to the classroom, teaching our students to embody the tradition themselves through singing sijo. Many of our students had never considered the significant role of music in the creation and practice of poetry, and I was overjoyed to witness my students making this connection with their own voices. In both a general [End Page 106] education course on Korean culture, Forms in Korean Cultural Korean History, and a course offered through the East Asian Studies department, Writing Asian Poetry, our discussions of the relationship between how a sijo poem appeared on a page and how it was organized in performance by breath groups were enriched and deepened through vocal explorations of the form. In their evaluations of these courses, numerous students noted that the experience of hearing sijo sung and learning to sing the art form were highlights of the course.
In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T.S. Eliot asserts that the canon is always in flux and that one writer, one poet, can change the entire meaning and trajectory of the canon through her contribution.5 In our Writing Asian Poetry class, as students interacted creatively with these verse forms, they saw how their own voices added to and extended the tradition of East Asian poetry. In the course, students engaged with East Asian verse forms by writing poems in English modeled after Korean sijo, Chinese T'ang...