Foreword, by Yun Tongju.

I enjoy writing about the classes I am taking this quarter, probably because this is my last schooling quarter for a long time to come but also because for once, I am taking classes on topics I am genuinely interested in. I’ve mentioned this before: I am sitting in a Korean literature class this quarter, and well, analytical reading is not easy! I am not the only engineer in this class (of only four students…) but I think I have the least experience in literature and writing. Which puts me at a significant disadvantage, but after a few weeks of stress and feeling incompetent, these days I’ve thrown caution and my insecurities to the wind. I’ve come to enjoy the learning process: sharing my opinions and listening to what others have to say about our weekly reading pieces.

Learning Korean literature is fascinating because Korea is a country with a rich and tumultuous history. My class focuses specifically on modern (colonial) and contemporary (post-war to present-day) eras and honestly, we’re barely scratching the surfaces of historical points and timelines, but it is so, so interesting to stop at specific timelines and pay close attention to the kinds of literature that were written and put out during those periods. The class doesn’t discuss as much poetry as I wish it would – I think my professor is simply more of a fiction person, less poetry – but whenever we do, like this morning, I find myself especially engaged and vocal.

Like I said, I don’t know much – not about Korean history and literature, nor poetry – but there is so much to unearth and therefore learn, in these two-hour twice weekly class. I think someday in the future when I am more well-versed in both topics, I will be able to formulate more concrete, coherent, and critical analyses and opinions about them. I hope when that day comes, I’ll look back and think, “Ah, that class was an impetus.”

I’ve meant to share some of my favorites from the class, whether fiction or poetry, but somehow never got to them. Partly because I think I won’t do them justice if I simply introduce them as is, because as I mentioned earlier, each piece represents and stands for something from specific timeline and period, you know? Historical and background context especially matter when discussing these written works.

But I want to share this one today, because it is powerful, poignant, and timeless. This poem is concise and like all poetry, emotionally straightforward upon first read, until you pause and linger upon certain terms and word choices. All of a sudden, the lines blur and you’re questioning, over and over, is the poet saying what I think he is? I am especially tickled by the title, Foreword, because I believe it takes on a literal form while at the same time, acts as a pun and arguably, even allegory. The poem is penned by Korean poet Yu Tongju, who gained recognition only after his passing – at a young age, many believed in the hands of imperial Japanese – in 1945.

The early 1900s were hard and painful years in all aspects for colonial Korea, in the clutches of the Japanese. Unsurprisingly, many intellectuals were trained and educated in Japan and Yu Tongju was one of them. I think he was alive at an especially interesting and crucial timeline – during and just a little after the war, an in-between period. The sentiment and confusion at that time were felt not simply by Korea as a nation, I believe it’s even more so by the Koreans, especially those who little or a lot, had benefited materially and indirectly from Japan.

Yu Tongju, in his short lifetime, has only a collection to his name, published posthumously in 1948. It has such a beautiful title too: Sky, Wind, Stars, and Poetry. Still, the influence of his poetry is significant to Koreans until today. As Professor McCann from Harvard University noted in his book on translation of modern Korean poetry, Yu Tongju’s most famous poem, Self-Portrait, presents a portrait of ‘colonial mentality’ but stands as a remarkable enactment of a poem’s own mode of existence (McCann, 2014).

Here, I present to you my favorite piece from my class discussion this morning:

“Wishing not to have
so much as a speck of shame
toward heaven until the day I die,
I suffered, even when the wind stirred the leaves.
With my heart singing to the stars,
I shall love all things that are dying.
And I must walk the road
that has been given to me.

Tonight, again, the stars are
brushed by the wind.”

– Yun Tongju, Foreword

__

Reference

McCann, D. R. (Ed.). (2004). Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry. New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com.

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