Traditional Korean Poetry Has Rich History


Hwang Jini, a 16th-century poetess who wrote romantic sijo poems

This is the third part in a series of articles by Choi Yearn-hong who is to publish his memoirs under the title of My American Memoir: A Korean-American Life, later this year in the United States. The writer was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and University of Seoul. He is a poet, essay critic and a long-time columnist for The Korea Times. ― ED.

By Choi Yearn-hong

Not many people in this modern age read much poetry. Koreans, however, are an exception. Each year South Korea publishes more than 200 good poetry books, which on average sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies each.

These numbers have declined since the 1970s, when a couple of Korean poets sold more than one million copies of their poetry books. Still, the market for poetry in South Korea today is the envy of American poets, who along with their European counterparts cannot expect such widespread readership.

Korean poetry also has a rich history. In my opinion, the best collection of classical Korean verse in translation is ``The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry'' edited by Peter Lee, and published by Columbia University Press.

From this book, we can find a significant relationship between the past and present of the Korean poetry. Was poetry popular one thousand years ago in Korea? Yes, it was. This book proves it. Ancient Chinese sources described the Koreans as ``a people who enjoy singing and dancing,'' referring to religious festivals of the ancient Koreans. Songs and dances were involved in spring and autumn communal religious affairs, honoring heaven and thanking the earth for the good harvests and well-being.

This ground breaking anthology, edited by Peter Lee of the University of California, Los Angeles, who founded the field of Korean literature in the Korean studies program in the United States, offers a representative selection from the four major genres of native.

Korean poetry: the Silla (or Shilla) songs known as hyangga, Goryeo songs, sijo and gasa. The editor took the daring step of including oral literature in a section of old songs and shaman songs at the end of anthology with poem in Chinese, hansi. Within each genre, works are arranged chronologically, so that the reader can trace the genre's development. The translations have been prepared by distinguished scholars and literary translators and are readable and well annotated.

Comment From Earl Miner of Princeton University: "This is a major cultural event, one owed above all to the unrivaled knowledge, devotion, and good taste of Peter Lee. It is a full treasury of poems short and long, in Korean and Chinese, from the hut and from the palace, showing the Korean genius for adaptable originality amid intermittent Chinese hegemony and Japanese incursion. English readers have at last access to a full sample of literature that now exists for them for the first time.''

I agree with Miner. This book is the best collection of classical Korean verse in translation we now possess. Jonathan Chaves of George Washington University also wrote highly about this book:

``The selection is absolutely thorough, and a particular treat is the inclusion of some of the fine Chinese-language poetry by Korean writers. The list of contributors is a who's who of the beset Korean poetry scholars and translators, including Lee himself, David McCann, Richard Rutt and others. The two long shamanist narrative poems are themselves worth the price of admission.''

King Sejong of Yi Dynasty in the 15th century created Hangul, the Korean alphabet. But long before the Korean alphabet was proclaimed, the Korean people phonetically borrowed the Chinese characters for their native poems and songs. The learned Korean people wrote their poems in Chinese as the Chinese did. Koreans called those poems hansi.

In this review, I would like to limit my discussion to the Silla hyangga, Goryeo song, sijo and gasa. Differences among them can be made on different dynasties, times, rhythm, and themes. But they all reflect the Korean heart and mind. The first poem in Silla hyangga in this anthology is: Song of Sodong by King Mu of Baekje (600-641). The poem is still romantic, clever, intriguing: in the seventh century, poetry was already a powerful tool of seducing the beautiful princess of neighboring Kingdom of Silla. King Mu was Sodong. He spread out a poem and let the Silla children sing it ― a song so popular that it spread throughout the capital and reached the royal palace. Princess Sonhwa did not have a choice.

Princess Sonhwa,

After a secret affair,

Steals away at night,

With Sodong in her arms.


I select one Goryeo song, Song of Jeongup, in this limited space. This song is about a merchant's wife waiting for her husband's safe return. This song could have originated in the old city of Jeongup in the Baekje Kingdom, and continued to be sung by the Goryeo people.

O moon, rise high,

And shine far and wide.

Ogiya ogangdyori

Au tarongdiri

Are you at the marketplace?

Ah, may you not step onto wet ground.

Ogiya ahangdyori

Leave everything, whatever it is.

Ah, may darkness not overtake him.

Ogiya ogangdyori

Au tarongdiri


Goryeo songs are characterized by a recurrent refrain that reflects their folk and musical origins and their oral transmission. They were performed and transmitted orally up until the 16th century.

Sijo and gasa (two four-syllable semantic units of Korean lyric verse) were developed toward the end of the Goryeo Kingdom in the 14th century. The Sijo became increasingly popular as a medium for expressing the sentiments of the people. I present two sijo poems by Yoon Sundo and Hwang Jhini in this space:

How many friends do I have? Count them:

Water and rock, pine and bamboo ―

The rising moon on the East Mountain.

How happy I am

When I welcome my five friends!

What else do I need

When I have five friends?


Yoon Sundo (1587-1671) who is regarded as the greatest poet in the sijo form, wrote many works, including a lengthy poem entitled, ``The Angler's Four Seasons,'' but the above short sijo he composed is also popular even today. He is the first Korean poet to expose the beauty of the Korean language and it graceful and delicately varied yet forceful rhythm.

Hwang Jini (1506-1544) wrote the most romantic sijo poems. Her poem below is sensual, metaphorical and beautiful even to modern men and women. This poem and five other romantic poems in this anthology deserve to be printed in the New Yorker and other first-class literary magazines.:

I will break the back of this long, midwinter night, folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt, that I may draw out the night, should my love returns.

From the beginning, romance, prayers for the King and Queen, Buddha, filial piety, Good Earth and nature were the objects of Korean poetry. Rhythm has been changed over the years.

This Columbia anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry missed the inclusion of Goguryeo's second King Yuri's love song, "Golden Orioles" written in B.C. 17. I don't know why Lee missed the first recorded Korean poem in his volume. Translations can be an art. Loss in translation of poetry from one language to another may be enormous. But I translated Hwang Jini's poem above somewhat differently:

I will cut into halves that waist

Of the long midwinter night;

Roll it up to be placed

Under the warm spring breeze quilt

And I will unroll it in the night

When my beloved arrives.


Traditional Korean poems were popular and successful with their oral performances. Recited narrative was interspersed with primal song that not only welcomed, entertained, and sent off gods and spirits, but also moved mountains and set all nature dancing in harmony. Thus oratorical performances were significant features of vernacular poetry in traditional Korea.

But modern free verse has lost the rhythm and musicality that the traditional verse possessed. So I can find one reason why modern poetry has lost the readership:

Unnecessary sophistication and ambiguity in modern poems are losing the popular ground.

That is my finding from reviewing the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry.

Contemporary Korean poets and critics should rediscover the value of this anthology. Many poetry lovers are sick and tired of modern poetry, which is beyond their comprehension.