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The Poet by Yi Mun-Yol
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bookshelves: korean-literature, 2017

Yi Mun-yol (이문열) is perhaps my favourite of the Korean authors from the post-war generation of Korean authors, based on his classic My Twisted Hero and his first novel, The Son of Man, which was one of my favourite reads of 2016 (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).
The Poet tells the story of the 19th Century Korean itinerant poet 김병연 (Kim Pyeong-yeon), better known by his nickname 김삿갓 (Kim Sakkat – or Kim of the Bamboo Rain Hat.

For more on the poetry, see the English edition of his collected works – my review https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

김삿갓 was born to a pivotal moment in Korea’s development:

He was born and grew up in an age when new ideas, especially the Practical Learning and Catholicism, were being introduced from China. There was no challenge to the monarchy or the system of government as such, but questions were beginning to arise in structural terms about such issues as the possession and distribution of wealth and the nature of human relationships.

As a child, 김삿갓 grew up in a noble family, but his grandfather, governor of a Northern region, was convicted of treason when he first surrender to a rebellion, then was believed to have actually joined his sympathies to the rebel. The grandfather was hung and quartered and the death sentence would normally have applied to his descendants to the 2nd generation, so the young 김삿갓 was taken to live with a family retainer as his son. Even when clemency of a sort was granted to the family, the stench of treachery still lingered.

The entire retaliatory system against treason was tenacious and thorough, even when it deigned to show a degree of leniency. They royal court might have decided against carrying out the penalty directly, but that by no means meant that the system as such had abandoned its malice towards them.
[…]
The ideology of the system, long incubated through various pedagogical methods, together with the examples of fearful punishment frequently meted out on traitors, had raised people's responses to an almost instinctive level. Not only the classes who shared in the structures and advantages of society, but even those who were the victims of those structures, had been conditioned to shudder instinctively at the very word "traitor" and to consider treason as some kind of deadly disease that could be caught merely by being in the proximity of the descendants of such a person.


이문열’s novel is ostensibly a historic retelling of 김삿갓’s life, but the author writes it as a commentary on the traditional accounts of his life, attempting to fill in the gaps and provide his own more coherent, albeit partially fiction, version. As an example, the traditional accounts start with the teenager winning a poetry competition with a polemic against the treacherous governor, not realising the family connection, only to find out afterwards that his target was his own grandfather. Here the author questions the likelihood of this – could the poet really have grown up fleeing for his life and moving from prosperity to poverty, shunned by society, without realising why - and suggests what might have happened by giving his own, unsourced account of his life up to the competition.

Ultimately, the novel equates poetry will rebellion, having little sympathy for more abstract and academic approaches:

Not all non-conformists are poets. But all poets are non-conformists. Some poets have absolutely none of the usual characteristics of a non-conformist. They are faithful to the normal order of life, laughing at its joys, weeping at its sorrows. Yet they too are non-conformists. For if a person is a poet at all, he is bound to deviate from the norm at least in the use of language. Language can rise to the heavenly realms of high poetry only when it transcends the muddy ground of practicality.

After becoming a father and seeming to settle down, 김 makes the radical decision to leave his wife and children and become an itinerant poet, donning the trademark hat that would give him the name by which he became known:

It was now, as he prepared to set out, that he put on for the first time the large bamboo hat destined in later times to give him the nickname which replaced his true name completely. He wore it to conceal himself from Heaven's gaze, to which he felt that he could no longer expose himself with a clear conscience, on account of the sin of disloyalty to the throne he had inherited with his blood from their grandfather, and the sin against family piety of which he himself had been guilty towards his grandfather, to which had to be added a further sin against piety since he had been unable to fulfil his mother's lifelong hopes.

Perhaps there was yet another feeling of guilt he hoped to hide under that all-covering bamboo shield, that arising from the pity inspired by his wife as she saw him off, trembling with a nameless dread yet never once asking him not to go, with Hak-kyun out playing childish games and little Ik-kyun nothing more than a new-born baby.


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(the Korean caption reads, 'where shall [I] go today')

김삿갓 is almost as famous for his colourful life as for his, clever but cutting and often scatological, poetry but이문열’s focus is on how his poetry developed and the influences from his life that led to his poetic development.

As for the other incidents that happened in the Diamond Mountains, the reporting of them can be left to the colourful legends about him. The main concern here is his life as a poet, not as a buffoon, a philanderer, a beggar, or a sharp tongue. There is just one episode that needs to be told in detail, that involving his encounter with the Old Drunkard. For it was that meeting that finally led him to take the turning that made a poet of him.

This fateful meeting took place in the Diamond Mountains (now known as 금강산 or Mount Kumkang and in North Korea), an area to which the poet returned frequently and which inspired much of his poetry. The drunkard in question turned out to be a poet and questioned 김삿갓’s own aesthetic approach, based more on his burning sense of guilt and resentment than any real poetic sensibility:

He had set out. Away from home and kindred, from the past and its wounded, shattered ambitions. But he was still only someone deviating from the norm, not yet fully a poet. Needless to say, he frequently wrote poems, but only as one necessary accomplishment of a scholar or a pastime suitable for a gentleman, their dominant emotion was not essentially poetic, but the sentiment of resentment and idleness which now replaced the ambition that had previously burned in him.

But the Old Drunkard tells him:

”True poetry stands solely by its own worth. It doesn’t have to grovel before the powerful, it has no need to be cowed in the presence of learning. It doesn’t have to keep one eye on the feelings of the rich, it has no need to fear the hatred of the deprived. It is not to be measured with the yardstick of what is right, or weighed only on the scales of what is true. It is self-contained and self-sufficient.”

이문열 also has another purpose in mind than a simple (if worthwhile) historical novel. 이문’s novels often touch on religion and the poet’s guilt has clear echoes of original sin:

The shadow of a complicity that ultimately came to seem like a sense of original sin, on account of the way guilt with crime was considered to be inherited; with public sentiment for the preservation of the system more like an obsession than simple obedience and the lust for revenge always being revived by the inertia of the lower administration, he eventually came to consider the state and its laws as nothing but latent violence.

And equally pertinently the stain on his record equally echoes that of those whose families end up caught on opposite sides of the Korean War, both in the war itself and the subsequent decades of anti-Communist/anti-capitalist persecution in the South and North respectively, a situation that applies to the author himself ( a topic explored further in the novella Meeting With My Brother, next on my 이문열 reading list).

The novel contains a clever nod to this towards the end when the poet finds himself caught up in a popular rebellion. The poetry included at this point in the novel, unlike the other poems featured which are historic originals, is actually of the author’s own invention, as the translator explains:
The revolutionary poems in this chapter, unlike the poems quoted previously, are not part of the works traditionally ascribed to the poet. They are composed by Yi Mun-yol in conscious imitation of radical "workers' poems" written in recent years in South Korea or of the militant songs of the North Korean regime.
The novel ends, movingly, with the historically documented and unsuccessful attempt of the poet’s son to make his father come back to the family home. In the novel, his son realises the attempt is ultimately futile:

Would he be able to make clouds move and flowers bloom, once back in his own shabby room with its thatched roof? Would he still be able to live lofty and indifferent like some old pine tree or a moss-covered rock, once supported by the labours of Ik-kyun, his wife, and mother, and doing his own share of trivial housekeeping chores? Would his father still be able to be a poet, in the midst of cold stares directed at an old failure come home to prepare for death, or surrounded by a throng of third-rate poets drawn like moths around a light to the faded name of someone who in youth had been famous? Would he still be able to be a poet?
[…]
The man moving away in the glimmering darkness was not his father. He was a poet, and nothing else. A poet tied down by nothing in the whole world. His father moved beyond the brushwood gate of the inn and stepped on to the grassy forest trail; at that very moment he vanished completely. "Has he turned into a tree? Or a rock? Or a white brier rose? Or the early morning mist now beginning to thicken . . . ?" As those thoughts came to him, Ik-kyun quickly changed his still unspoken words of protest into a blessing:

“Farewell. May you ever find peace and plenty in your poetry."


Ultimately a fascinating character study of a poet’s life and vocation, albeit one where the prose is very far from lyrical. The English reader also struggles a little with the poetry, which relies rather heavily on Chinese and Korea world-play (see review of the Collected Works linked above) and has to take the traditional accounts, on which the author comments, on trust.

The translation is by Brother Anthony of Taize, a truly wonderful ambassador for Anglo-Korean relations and for Korean literature, working here with Chong-wa Chung, and who also provided a very helpful introduction as well as notes on these topics where needed.

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Useful reviews and articles:

The complete text of the book:
http://anthony.sogang.ac.kr/Poet.htm?...

Brother Anthony of Taize on translating Korean literature:
http://www.asymptotejournal.com/inter...

Two articles in the excellent Korean Literature in Translation website:
http://www.ktlit.com/the-poet-by-yi-m...
http://www.ktlit.com/kim-sakkat-korea...

Tony’s Reading List, the other go-to place for K-lit reviews:
https://tonysreadinglist.wordpress.co...

The Complete Review review (the go-to site for pretty much all translated literature):
http://www.complete-review.com/review...
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Reading Progress

August 21, 2017 – Shelved
August 21, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
September 22, 2017 – Started Reading
September 22, 2017 – Shelved as: korean-literature
September 25, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017
September 25, 2017 – Finished Reading

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