- Distant Poetry:Rethinking Modern Korean Poetry within Area Studies
Korean literature in translation is currently enjoying an unprecedented boom in the English-language publishing world. It is worth noting, especially as much of the spotlight now is directed toward contemporary novels, that interest in traditional and modern Korean poetry in translation has been around for years.1 English translations of Korean poetry were products of scholarly, literary, and readerly passion and commitment, and pivotal to the early-stage growth of Korean literary studies in the United States. With the recent expansion of the field within Anglophone area studies, a number of important monographs have appeared in the past decade, bringing together methods of literary, visual, and cultural studies, mostly focusing on modern fiction as embedded within broader sociohistorical processes of modernity, colonialism, nationalism, and the Cold War. What would it mean, then, to [End Page 183] consider modern Korean poetry as being embedded within these geohistorical processes? Is there something to be said about the field's apparent pull toward prose fiction, and does it relate to the treatment of literature primarily as a document yielding "social and cultural information" about a culture or group?2
This tropism can be linked to a global methodological and ideological turn within literary studies since the end of the twentieth century, characterized by a shift away from hermeneutics and toward historicism and the social sciences.3 It is also compounded in the case of Korean studies, and area studies more generally, by a "transnational turn"4 that often seems to use literary texts as token artifacts to construct cultural identities coherent enough to replace the national or ethnic categories of yore. This special issue attempts to address these pitfalls in different ways. While our essays leverage the ability of a transnational approach to challenge the "nation" as a supposedly homogeneous matrix of ethnicity, culture, and language—as in Ku In-mo's study of plurilingualism, relay translation, and regionalism in the works of Kim Ŏk—they nonetheless remain keenly aware of the fact that transnational rhetoric has long been inherent to imperialistic discourse—as in Jae Won Edward Chung's critique of the displays of transnational solidarity in Kim Ch'un-su's poetry. Just as important, we felt that transnationalism was just as much a matter of perspective as a matter of practice, hence the regional diversity of our contributors. In particular, research on poetry and poetics in [End Page 184] South Korea has, in the past decade, opened exciting new trends of inquiry into fields such as translation studies, rhythm and orality, visual studies, or philology—and we are excited to bring a glimpse of this dynamism to an Anglophone audience.
The current regime of academic knowledge production may push literary studies toward the treatment of texts as information rather than as aesthetic works with their own specific logic and politics.5 Yet historical rigor and attention to the conditions of artistic production and circulation need not necessarily be antithetical to consideration of literariness. Indeed, opposing the two merely mirrors the false dichotomy between text and context, while we may move beyond it by acknowledging the performative nature of literary discourse: Literature, considered as a speech act, does not only reflect or represent reality but also actively shapes it. When Cho Kang-sŏk explores how contemporary South Korean poets have redrawn, through their lexical, syntactic, phonological, and generic experimentations, the boundaries of the concept of poetry, or when Benoit Berthelier explores how stylistic and linguistic differences were used to produce an exclusionary definition of literature, both authors remind us that poetry affects the world in which it is embedded and is redefined with each new poetic utterance. Shifting from a static, communicative model of language and literature to a dynamic, performative one lets us bury the specters of essentialism and authenticity as we consider that texts are not only saying something (for instance, about a culture that they are supposed to represent) but doing something: struggling to challenge and redefine notions of nation, language, or literature.
Awareness of the pragmatic force of language6 likewise informs our treatment of translation. The...