The focus of this edition of MPT is on poetry from Korea, and the work I read for the issue startled me, I’ve never read anything like it. The images were raw and gristly, the situations odd and untamed. The poetic imagination of many of the Korean poets published here seemed to me to be Blakean in its boundlessness, but fragmented: godless, modern and sorrowful. Most of all I felt a sublimated rage in the work which seemed to drive it to new expressions and new contortions. None of this poetry is easy or comforting, mostly it isn’t lyrical, and sometimes it barely seems poetry – just the skeleton of what might once have been poetry. As I read the poems collected here I could feel a common consciousness: an awareness of a world badly skewed, inhospitable, deathly.
Several of the poets refer directly to a political situation in their work, like Kim Hyesoon, whose work here concerns the ‘unjust dead’ of Korea. Some of the work is unsettling because of the suggestion of horror and the atmosphere of dysfunctionality. The remarkable work by Yi Sang, to which Kim Hyesoon alludes in her interview, is published here in English translation for the first time, and it is unnerving: an epic fractured in a hand-glass.
This powerful poetry would have seemed important to publish a year ago, but more distant: voices from a long way off, from a place with a different and bloody recent history (although if you have read Freely Frayed,ㅋ=q, Race=Nation Don Mee Choi’s essays on the political relationship between the US and South Korea, the power imbalance inherent in bringing this poetry into English, then you would not have allowed yourself this complacency of distance and washed hands). But now we are ourselves in a very different place. The slow rise of nationalism, fear and irrationalism has finally brought our world to what seems to many the brink: the most powerful man in the Western world is a craven fool, full of vanity, Falstaff masquerading as the King, autocratic and corrupt to a degree we have not yet known. Radiating out from him, leaders of countries, makers of laws and morals, writers, poets, readers and citizens must all decide in our various ways whether we repudiate him and his like, and are cast from his system – or whether we make deep moral compromises in order to influence even a little for the good. Whether we give up our peaceful lives to be activists, or whether we protest by asserting our right to peaceful lives. Whether our civic duty is to listen to the news, to share it and to debate it, or whether the relentless bad news saps our ability to do good in other ways. Whether the mask of anger or the mask of compassion fits. We make these decisions over and over again as we contemplate each shift downwards.
And if we are poets and writers then we now must start again. It is not possible to write in a vacuum. Kim Hyesoon speaks in her interview of the way words are denied their metaphorical reach by events and this in itself is a form of censorship. Words are now actively disappearing around us. We must make the language work harder for us, the language we have left, while we have it left.
In this sense then there is a real urgency in publishing this work. We need to read work by poets who can show us a way of writing and asserting the human in a world which seems increasingly inimical to our existence, with fewer and fewer words and images at our disposal.