Sunday 25 September 2016

Poetry: Self-Portrait (trans. Peter H Lee)

Anthony Cronin

Published 28/03/2016 | 02:30

Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin
Anthony Cronin. Photo by Tony Gavin

Korean is not a language we associate too readily with modernist poetry - unlike Chinese and Japanese, perhaps because of the stature of their principal translators such as Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. So Chong Ju was a Korean poet of considerable reputation in his own country.

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Though he was often accused of complacency and conservatism where the Japanese occupiers and subsequently the Korean dictators were concerned, he was nonetheless esteemed. He was influenced, as can be seen here, by European surrealism and later, by Buddhist thought and teachings.

His pen-name was Midang, meaning 'not yet fully grown' or perhaps 'adolescent', and his hundredth anniversary is celebrated this year. The translator here, Peter H Lee, is himself a Korean who came to Europe as a student in the 1950s and, through his translations and teaching, is largely responsible for whatever acquaintance the West has with Korean literature. 

Self-Portrait

(trans. Peter H Lee)

So Chong Ju

Father was a serf, seldom came home at night.

At home my grandmother, old as

The shrivelled root of leek,

And a blossoming date-tree.

Being with child, Mother wanted just one apricot.

I was a mother's son with dirty fingernails

Under a lamp by the mud wall.

With bushy hair and staring eyes,

I am said to resemble Grandpa on Mother's side,

Who in 1894 went to sea and never returned.

For twenty three years the wind has reared two thirds of me,

And the world has become a more embarrassing place.

Some have read a convict in my eyes,

Others an idiot in my mouth.

Yet I will repent nothing.

At each dawn, brightly assailing,

The dews of poetry settled on my brow,

Mixed with drops of blood.

And I have come this far panting

Like a sick dog with his tongue hanging out

In the sun and in the shade.

Sunday Independent

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