Calling Ghost: On Kim Sowol, Translation, and the Soul of Poetry





1.

            Kim Sowol (1902-1934) is the pen name of Kim Jung-shik, by far the most well-known poet in Korean literary history. The name Sowol is made up of two characters, So (소 素) and Wol (월 月). There are couple of ways to translate it: the white moon, the bright moon, the true moon.  He was born in North Pyongan Province. His hometown is now located within North Korea. Despite his undeniable stature in modern Korean poetry, or perhaps because of it, he is received differently in two Koreas. According to an interview with a North Korean defector, Kim Sowol was judged by North Korean authorities to be “drenched in defeatist sentimentality, ideologically limited poet who was unable to provide practical methodology to overcome the reality (of his time).”[1] Accordingly, for many decades, his work was banned from being studied and discussed in the North. In the South, however, Sowol fared better in some sense. His poems are taught from textbooks. They have also been turned into the lyrics of popular songs; a major poetry award is named after him; a new edition of his selected poems gets published almost every year. Most South Koreans can recite at least one of his poems on the spot.

South Korean textbooks teach us that Sowol was the poet who brought the music of traditional Korean folksongs into the modern era with ingenious lines composed in tight syllabic meter. The poet who sang about unavoidable departures, lost loves, and unsatisfied longings, he is a male poet who wrote in a feminine voice. His poems draw their imagery from the Korean countryside and its rich legends and folklore. Despite all this acclaim, many readers only praise his forms and rhythm, and most scholars shy away from saying much about the content of his work. After all, Sowol was emotionally transparent. His themes of longing and love are difficult to say intricate things about. They are truths often repeated, as apparently clichéd as they are beautiful. And yet there is something pulsing beneath them that we might not see at first because we do not feel compelled to figure it out. When we read Sowol’s poetry, we may feel as though we already know what he is talking about. We might shy away from this since we can’t speak its name without blushing or rolling our eyes. Embarrassed before such frankness, we forget to consider for whom or what Sowol expresses this love. I believe that is a question worth exploring.

            Little is known about Sowol’s life. Only basic facts remain about who his parents were, where he tried to live and failed, who his mentor was, who his wife was, who his children were, where and when he published his poems, and what was his first and only book of poems. A small debate continues about how he died: it was either by suicide by opium overdose or some chronic illness. Sowol was from the town of Gwaksan in North Pyongan Province, which is further north than the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Not much is known about his parents other than that his father suffered from a debilitating mental illness acquired after being beaten up by Japanese railroad workers in his town. He was raised by his grandfather, who owned and managed a gold mine that was depleted by the time Sowol reached adulthood. He was married at 14 years old to a girl named Hong Dan-sil. She was three years older than him. They had six children together and were apparently very much in love. He attended Osan School, founded by Korean independence activists. Its purpose was to educate young Koreans with modernized, Western-style school system outside of Japanese imperial influence. It was also where Sowol met his mentor Kim Ok (1896~?), a poet and translator. Kim Ok was an important figure in early modern Korean poetry, whose anthology of translated European poetry, Dance of Anguish (<오뇌의무도> 1921), began the new era of modern Korean poetry. Among this volume’s seminal achievements, Kim Ok’s translations introduced Symbolism and vers libre to Korean literary language.

One poem from Dance of Anguish became the blueprint for Kim Sowol’s most well-known poem, Jindallaekkot (진달래꽃 / Jindallae Flower /Azalea). It was Kim Ok’s translation of W.B. Yeats’s Aedh Wishes for the Clothes of Heaven (1899)[2] Yeats’s original poem is written in two quatrains. Aedh is a Gaelic male name meaning fire. It is also the name of the god of the underworld in Irish mythology, who was one of the Children of Lir. Three-to-four beats in each of Yeat’s lines softly carry the visionary drama of starry desires and the dreams of an impoverished speaker. The speaker, Aedh, wishes that he can gather the lights of heaven and lay it before the feet of his beloved.

“Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Kim Sowol takes this motif of laying down something beautiful before someone’s feet and makes it his own. The music that carries his Korean lines are 7-to-5-beat syllabic meter, which comes from Korean folksongs. Sowol, unlike Yeats, does not reach into dream-realm or Korean mythology to find something to lay down. His speaker goes to a hill near his hometown, picks the wild pink flowers there, and scatters them. Sowol also introduces a sudden pang of bitterness—departing loved one is sick of seeing the speaker. The Jindallae flowers are scattered for them to step on, and the speaker resolves to not weep at their departure, even if that may prove to be their death. In Yeats’s Aedh, we wonder at the irony of a dreamer saying that he cannot afford his dream. In Sowol’s Jindallaekkot, we chew on the irony of spitefulness rising out from heartbreak, transformed into an act of beauty.  

“Jindallae Flower”

Once I am shaped as the reason of your disgust, pushing
you toward somewhere not here, there
will be no words, my letting-go enduring graciously.

On a hill where herbs grow in Yongbyon province
Jindallae flowers are blossoming, and here
I have brought an armful I plucked to scatter them before you

as you take those steps away from here, and for each you take
a flower will need to be crushed, so take care to tread
lightly as you leave me be

in the shape of who I am that disgusts you so, pushing
you toward somewhere not here, though
this may be my death, no, tears won’t flow where I am.

Comparing these poet’s contexts grants us some important insight into the fate of poets like Sowol. In his early work, Yeats heavily depended on Irish folklore and mythology for his poems, which were often song-like in their tetrameter verse, with exact rhymes adorning their stanzas. Yeats eventually moved on from this style. The poems he wrote in his old age contained immense depth and historical consciousness. Moreover, he wrote many essays about both his poetics and his visions. The influence his work has had on English poetry and world literature is incalculable. Kim Sowol, on the other hand, was able to publish only one book of poetry in 1925, also titled Jindallakkot. He also wrote a single short essay about his poetics, but compared to Yeats’ entire oeuvre, it is a drop in a bucket. Sowol’s book was met with little fanfare. The Korean literary scene at the time was burning with the desire for social revolution, and the writers of KAPF ruled the stage in the literary capital of Seoul. KAPF is an acronym for Korea Artista Proletara Federatio, the Esperanto name for Korean Federation of Proletarian Art. The leader of KAPF, Kim Kijin, wrote a brief review of Kim Sowol’s book of poetry upon its publication and said:

“Mr. Kim Sowol—in my view, the best he can do as a poet is his light-hearted folksong lyricism—his sensitivity shows no significant development beyond that, and his poems are all terribly similar to one another. I think his weakness is his rich tendency to make everything palatable for the popular taste.” [3]

Kim Kijin, like many members of KAPF, believed that literature must be used to create a class consciousness for the people to liberate themselves. And for that project, he wanted literature to be challenging and modern. It is surprising that he even bothered to write these few words about Sowol’s book. Perhaps Kijin was weary of the accessibility and potential popularity of Sowol’s poetry. For him,  Sowol’s style, with all its harkening back to nature, old legends and lost loves, would stand in the way of literature becoming the field for class struggle. Whatever fears Kim Kijin may have had about the popular taste, Kim Sowol’s popularity did not materialize in Sowol’s lifetime. Sowol, who had even gone to Japan to study business administration before the publication of Jindallaekkot (but was forced to return in the aftermath of 1923 Great Kantō earthquake), died in extreme poverty at thirty-two completely unknown.

In a series of brief essays published after Sowol’s death, his mentor Kim Ok frequently lamented Sowol’s loneliness. These essays were also likely published in response to the sudden explosive popularity of Sowol’s poetry almost immediately after his death. Some facts, including ones I’ve shared above, about Kim Sowol’s life are found in Kim Ok’s elegiac essays, but they are in no way exhaustive. [4] Kim Ok is overcome with his loss in these reflections, rather than describing what he taught Sowol, or what Sowol read and thought about. One important fact we do get is that Sowol started writing poetry when he was seventeen, and that some of the poems in that only book were among his first. The manuscript was with him when he traveled to Seoul after Osan School was closed and when he was studying in Japan for a year. It was still with him when he came back to Seoul, where he was unable to find community. He would leave the city and return to his home in Gwaksan with this manuscript, and he continued to add more and more poems in it. In its final form in 1925, when Sowol was twenty-three, the book Jindallaekkot contained 127 poems in sixteen parts.


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Kim Sowol also wrote and published a single short poetics essay, Shihon (시혼/詩魂) in 1925. [5] Shihon can be translated as either “Poem’s Soul” or “Soul of Poetry.” Sowol likely meant both. In it, Sowol writes about “soul” that each of us possesses, which he argues is different from our mind and body, and that it is as close to us as our shadows. However, Soul of Poetry is not the same thing as one’s soul. Soul of Poetry (Shihon) is what rarefies an artist’s soul as the fundamental element of its being. Soul of Poetry is an eternal being of perfection, an immutable form. A soul that is expressed in an art form finds itself as the soul of that art, Sowol writes, and a soul expressed in whatever kind of work and achievement is expressed as soul of such. Soul of Poetry is like mountains, rivers, the moon and stars, but its core is that eternal and immutable soul of a human being. Therefore, for Sowol, transformations seen in Soul of Poetry in composition of different poems by the same poet cannot be different in kind or quality. The only difference that we see is the changing shadows of the poet’s spirit. Sowol understands that there are many shades light casts on an object, that a soul is often affected but unchanged by the politics and economy of contemporary society. What people often think of the work of a single poet has nothing to do with the quality of soul of poetry, because that quality never changes. The only change is how the aesthetic sensibility of the reader might perceive those shadows and shades.

Sowol reveals in his concluding paragraphs of this essay that his theory of Shihon is in response to the criticism by his mentor Kim Ok, who had written in an essay published a year before about Sowol’s recent poems that “souls of these poems have not attained depth in their interiorities.” Sowol claims that Soul of Poetry does not become deeper or shallower in the works of a singular poet, nor does the poet create a new soul for each of his poems. Soul of Poetry’s true form is the soul itself, eternal and immutable. The poems that we compose have aesthetic value in that they are shadows of the soul of poetry, and those shadows cast by the singular soul that composes it.

One of many striking things about Sowol’s essay on his poetics is that he never once says “my soul” or “my soul of poetry.” Because of how pronouns in Korean grammar work: they are often left unsaid and implied by context. But then again, the context of this essay seems to imply that the soul Sowol is thinking about is not necessarily his soul alone, but something akin to being the soul of the world, a kind of spiritus mundi, something both communal and societal in its near infinite scope. The poet and Soul of Poetry are instruments through which this soul expresses itself amidst different shadows.

Reading Sowol’s poems in the context of his philosophy begs a renewed approach. The poem “Jindallae Flower,” for Sowol, was not simply a single poem about a jilted lover letting go of someone who has grown sick of them. It is by nature a part of the poet’s larger project. We could perhaps read Jindallae Flower in this way: with it, Sowol was at once mapping out the lyric language of his people and the particular estrangement this speaker was feeling toward his soul in its shadowy forms. Sowol’s poetry ultimately explores how those shadows manifest themselves in those rivers and mountains, dreams and legends, and lost loves.



2.

            Consisting of five poems, “Godok,” the eleventh of sixteen parts that make up Sowol’s bookJindallaekkot,  is one of the shorter sections. My English translations of these five poems titles are “Rapture,” “Grave,” “Heart Speaks to Ghosts,” “Cold Evening,” and “Calling Ghost.” “Godok” (고독/孤獨), can be translated in numerous ways: alone, solitude, loneliness, on my own, far away from anyone or anything one can depend on or feel close to. I have decided to stick with loneliness for the purposes of this essay. It is unclear whether Kim Sowol wrote these poems before or after he worked on and published his essay Shihon. Having said that, the way he speaks about poetry and poetics in that essay, at least to me, suggests that it was not spur of the moment theorizing, but instead a brief explanation of long-held beliefs about what poetry is supposed to be: an expression of some greater soul that does not name itself, but reveals its various shades through poetic output. In that sense, the five poems of “Loneliness,” which are focused on the shamanistic art of summoning the dead, stand as the most direct confrontation between Kim Sowol’s speaker and the soul, or the ghost, of his poetry. However, the callings and summoning in these poems do not result in any kind of dramatic meeting between the human and the supernatural. What we end up with instead is a name being pulled apart in the air, the signified and the signifier both coming undone in a dark series of invocations. 

            Presenting and analyzing Sowol’s poetry as a series rather than as individual poems is in part to be corrective about the way most have read his work, including myself. These poems can and do stand on their own, but their breadth of meaning and beauty become fully apparent when they are interacting and informing one another in these groups that Sowol set for them. As aforementioned, Sowol’s poems have been taught in South Korean schools for decades and are well-beloved. But when I first read them, the poems were cut out from their sequences and groups. Textbooks only carried the poems in which the influence of traditional Korean folksong lyricism were most apparent. Despite being perhaps the most popular Korean poet in Korean literary history (or perhaps because of it), Sowol’s poetry was presented in piecemeal fashion, fragmented and slight, and really did seem to be about lost loves and solitary wanderings in nature and nothing more. And, it has almost always been the case that Sowol gets prized and praised for his technical achievement alone. Sowol, presented thus, was a poet of simple and convenient ideology, rewarded only for his style that beautifully rendered purportedly unchallenging themes. Sowol, viewed through this limited lens, was likely the safest poet to teach in public schools for the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of South Korean government that rose after the Korean War: ideologically unchallenging, innocently beautiful.

            An odd way that some of Sowol’s readers pushed back against his branding as an apolitical poet of Korean longing and sorrow was to instead style him into the ill-fitting role of a patriotic, nationalist poet crying out against the loss of his country. This attempt to make a freedom fighter out of Sowol, I suspect, was in reaction to the wholesale ban North Korea imposed on Sowol for being exactly the type of poet the South Korean military government wanted. One particular poem that often falls victim to this type of reading has been Chohon (Calling Ghost in my translation):


“Calling Ghost”


A shattered name
Pulled apart in the air. A name
No one owns. A name I will
Call till I die.

In the middle of my heart a word remains
I could not say in the end.
I loved someone once.
I loved someone once.

The red sun hangs above a western mountain peak.
A herd of deer weep their sorrows.
On this mountain that stands apart
From all else I call your name.

I call your name till it breaks my heart.
I call your name till it breaks my heart.
The sound from my call slants past,
There is too much between the sky and the earth.

Standing here I may turn into stone
But I will call your name till I die.
I loved you once.
I loved you once.


The retroactively patriotic reading of this poem is that the loved one being called is Sowol’s lost country stolen from him and millions of Koreans by the Japanese Empire during the Japanese Annexation of Korea (1910-1945). Such a reading is not completely baseless, since there were many poets from the same period, indeed actual freedom fighters, who created love poems which were thinly veiled allegories about the downfall of the Korean nation. However, when we look at “Calling Ghost” as the conclusion of the series of five poems that make up the  “Loneliness” section, it is neither based on the secret symbols of patriots, or the deep sorrow over a dead lover. What we find is a speaker wandering far from modern civilization, who has exiled himself in visions of graveyards and village shrines. There, using the language of Korean shamans, surrounded by the presence of dead spirits who seem to haunt him through the sound of nature, the speaker of Sowol’s poems performs his alienation from his soul and the loss of his intimate connection to the spiritual world. This performance of spiritual alienation, ironically, gives poetic shape to what has been lost and disconnected. The absence makes us see and feel in part the soul and the spiritual world that rule Sowol’s poetics and poetry.

            The first poem in the Loneliness sequence, “Rapture,” is a montage of nature images and the sound that various things make, including a haunting vision of a ghost. Its original Korean title is yeolrak (열락/悅樂), which means intense joy and pleasure beyond finite desires in Buddhist terminology. In the next poem “Grave,” we find the speaker searching for ancient records in a graveyard, haunted by a song that he cannot trace back to its origin. He looks for it, but he is also looked for this graveyard, as if he is himself the spirit of the dead: “Someone calls and pulls me out.” The next two poems take a step back from this intense moment of spiritual precarity, and the speaker addresses his own heart. His heart, which is constantly drawn to what may lie beyond (as in a later poem of the section titled “Heart Speaks to Ghosts). The speaker also positions himself as someone distant from civilization (“far from the streetlights”), who is listening to the sound of things that are not visible to us from the surface: “I am / listening to melting snow flowing under snow.” (“Cold Evening”). In “Heart Speaks to Ghosts,” the Korean title alludes to Korean shamanistic practice. The word for speaking to ghosts in Korean is binansoo (비난수), which is a type of invocation or prayer for spirits and/or gods, akin to speaking in tongues.

            In the last poem of this sequence, “Calling Ghost,” [6] the speaker returns to being the invoker, amidst several angles of invocation. In “Grave,” the speaker himself is called. In “Heart Speaks to Ghosts,” the speaker addresses his heart that wants to invoke the ghost. In “Calling Ghost,” the speaker then calls out. This vacillation between the invoked and the invoker are the many shadows of Sowol’s notion of Soul of Poetry. What’s more, these poems dramatize the dynamic in which rejection of modernity is linked to the speaker’s return to graves and broken shrines. He returns to them to re-engage his connection to the spiritual world where they call him and he can call them in return: “On this mountain that stands apart /From all else I call your name.”

And this calling goes like this: it is an act of using a name that is being “pulled apart in the air,” and it is already “a shattered name.” The speaker of the poem reinstates again and again the poetic language’s ironic ability to call forth the invisible and the supernatural that only works when such invocation begins with an acceptance that what it is doing is beyond its ability. The failure, or the limit of our language, is the experience that allows us to have a glimpse of the shadow of the soul that fuels Sowol’s art. In this understanding of Sowol’s poetry, we find a new way to approach not only his work, but the many Korean poets he influenced. We may be able to situate the writings of such poets of mythic idiom as not merely a rejection of modernity and escape into fantasy, but labors of love that worked toward founding a way of life that is true to life itself through, though shared, lyric subjectivity. Sowol instead stands apart from political ideologies of two Koreas—he is standing at the entrance of a third way.


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            Translating Sowol’s poetry has been for me a constant negotiation between what is possible in Korean and what is possible in English. The process of translating Sowol for me recalls W.B. Yeats’s poem The Fascination of What’s Difficult—if Yeats was cursing at all the impossible details of theater production, I find myself cursing at all the little grammatical and musical ingenuities that Sowol performed that scream again and again that what they are doing is only possible in Korean. As a case in point, I will show how I went about translating Calling Ghost here.

            The first stanza is made of four lines. They all end in exclamation points in the original Korean, and each of them can be transliterated as follows:

            Utterly shattered name!
            In the empty air pulled apart name!
            Call master none name!
            Calling I die name!

And the syllabic music of each line in Korean goes like this: 3-3-4/4-3-4/3-4-4/4-4-4. That sequence of three and four syllables is pervasive in not only Sowol’s poetry but also in many Korean poems since Sowol, and it was Sowol who created this type of musicality in modern Korean poetic style. Attempting to fill out the lines to imitate the syllabic count of the Korean forces the translator to be superfluous in English, overburdening the line with unnecessary words. On top of that, English, being accentual-syllabic, does not easily bend toward having purely syllabic music (unless the reader makes a point of it when reading the poem out loud)—its natural accents get in the way, demanding to be heard over how many syllables there are in the line.

All this is to say that Sowol’s lines do not read like they were stuffed to fulfill a specific number of syllables for each line. They read and sound like they are words picked out from everyday speech, even when the language might feel highly formal. What I mean is that the word order in Korean flows naturally. Sowol’s syllabic music sneaks into our Korean-language ears without announcing itself. Also, exclamation marks do not feel the same way that they might feel in English. In the poem’s original printing, which was vertical, the exclamation points look almost like em-dashes at the end of each line: