The Poet by Yi Mun-yol, translated from the Korean and with notes by Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taize
London: The Harvill Press, 1995 ISBN 1860460100
How often it is in life that something looked forward to and hoped for turns out to be disappointing, and those things sprung upon us, or that we stumble across despite ourselves, are great experiences. So it is with The Poet. My wife, who has an artistic temperament, bought this book second-hand because she liked the cover art (Tiger by Song'am) and, through a mis-communication I thought she had purchased it for me owing to its subject matter. I never would have purchased or read the book if left to my own devices, and that would have been my loss.
The Poet is a fictional re-telling of the life of Kim Sakkat, a wandering poet of the early nineteenth century in Korea. Written in a dry, almost academic style, Yi Mun-yol describes how Kim's grandfather aligns himself with a rebel force, and when he is captured and executed by the King, the rest of the family fall into exile and disgrace. Kim Sakkat is unable to enter the civil service and, burdened by shame and bitterness at his fate, becomes a wandering poet. Yi uses the bare bones of this story to write about betrayal, loyalty, fame, honour, wealth, truth and of course, poetry. He does this by describing the development of Kim's poetry during his journey through life.
Early on, before Kim realises that his attempts to re-integrate into the upper classes are fruitless, he composes a prize-winning poem condemning his grandfather's treachery. Disgusted with himself for betraying his family, he begins his life as a wanderer. It is at this stage that he has what turns out to be a pivotal meeting, with an old poet in the mountains. Although Kim doesn't realise it at the time, the old poet explains to him the true meaning of poetry - to be at one with the World, not to try and change it. Kim thinks the old man a dreamer, and goes on his way.
Yi describes the stages of Kim's poetry as stages in his life: his earlier works written to try and impress the upper class milieu into which he would have liked to be accepted were technically perfect and traditional in structure and theme - supporting the status-quo. Once he realises the pathway up the social classes is barred to him, Kim consciously sides with the lower classes, and begins to write works that are revolutionary in form - incorporating Korean language with traditional Chinese characters for the first time - and proletarian in content; writing of work, drink and sex, with much more humour than in his previous works.
The final stage in his poetic journey begins after he meets the old poet again and realises that the old man was right after all. Kim's final years and poems almost call nature into being as he recites: they are poems of what is, rather than what could be, or what he'd like to be. It seems, after a life of bitterness, anger and regret that Kim will die happy.
Like all good fiction, The Poet consists of many layers. As the reader discovers in the prefatory material, Yi's father, a communist, defected from South Korea to the DPRK during the Korean War. The Poet shows Yi not only working with themes that impact on him personally, but also looking at how society as a whole deals with betrayal and "traitors". As the book develops, Kim's knowledge of his grandfather's actions grows. As a child, all he knew was that his grandfather was a traitor to the King, siding with a rebel force. Later, during his travels, he meets an ex-rebel, who describes how Kim's grandfather was trying to bring about change and a better world for those under rebel control. Later still he meets someone else who questions that version of events. Yi shows us that one needs to be careful in what one believes, as nothing is black-and-white, and no one person's motives are entirely pure.
There is a strange section towards the end of the book where Kim becomes the poet for a band of revolutionary vagabonds, writing to instil bravery into the men, and revolutionary spirit into the locals. His work becomes widely popular, but fails utterly to help the revolution - words don't replace deeds in this case. This seems to be the final step in the progression for Kim in realising that poetry and words do not get you things in the "real" world - except maybe a meal or a drink here and there - and it is best to write the poetry that resonates within oneself.
The language in the book is spare, bald and matter-of-fact. Yi, in dealing with a real life, has twisted the story to make it his own by writing in a pseudo-academic style, correcting "mistakes" in the generally accepted life of Kim. The short chapters each deal with a specific event, yet while we know some of Kim's deepest thoughts, he is still an elusive character when he finally walks out of the frame of the story in the last pages. Yi's style, at least in this translation, reminds me of David Malouf's Ransom.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell