Poetry Centered

Jack Jung: Echoes of Yi Sang

December 16, 2020 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 2 Episode 4
Poetry Centered
Jack Jung: Echoes of Yi Sang
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Jack Jung shares poems in which he hears echoes of the themes, musicality, and imagery of Korean modernist poet Yi Sang. Shadow selves recur in each selection: Jung introduces early recordings of James Tate in 1968 on sparring with his shadow (“Shadowboxing”) and W.S. Merwin in 1969 reading a mythical poem about anti-creation (“The Last One”). He also discusses Sawako Nakayasu’s playful, desperate poem in which ants become a double of humans (“Battery”). Jung closes with his translation of Yi Sang’s “Crow’s Eye View, Poem No. 15,” which considers our shadow selves and provides what Jung calls a “much-needed lyrical recognition of our failures and suffering .”

Listen to the full recordings of Tate, Nakayasu, and Merwin reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:

James Tate (1968)
Sawako Nakayasu (2007)
W.S. Merwin (1969)

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.79] Thank you for joining us for Poetry Centered, the podcast that brings you poetry readings from Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online archive of recorded poetry, spanning from 1963 to today. In each episode, a guest host introduces three recordings from the archives and closes with a poem of their own. 

[00:00:25.23] Our guest host today is translator and poet Jack Jung. His translations of Korean modernist poet Yi Sang's poetry and prose were published earlier this fall in Yi Sang: Selected Works. Yi Sang serves as the focal point for this episode as Jack brings together poems in which he hears echoes of both Yi Sang's musicality and the shadow versions of ourselves, our doubles, that his work so often explored. 

[00:00:52.62] Jack introduces early recordings of James Tate and W.S. Merwin, as well as a more recent recording of Sawako Nakayasu. You'll hear Yi Sang's own vision through Jack's translation at the episode's end.

Jack Jung:
[00:01:07.89] Hello. This is Jack Jung, recording in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first poem in my selection is James Tate's "Shadowboxing," recorded on November 20, 1968. As I listen through Voca's incredible audio archive, I have found myself searching for poems that not only left impression on me but startled me because of how they echo the themes, musicality, and imagery that I found in the works of Yi Sang, a Korean poet from the 1930s, who was arguably the first surrealist of Korean literature and whose writings have influenced generations of Korean poets and writers since. 

[00:01:51.73] I started translating Yi Sang right around when I first began to study and write poetry seriously. The poems of Tate, Nakayasu, and Merwin I have chosen all use some form of explicit repetition for musical effect. And they use that incantation to bring out shadowy versions of ourselves, our doubles. 

[00:02:18.73] Yi Sang was also interested in our darker selves. He is a poet of mirrors. And he, too, favored using repetitions and variations that arise in those repetitions to explore the worlds reflected in his mirrors. In James Tate's poem, that kind of reflection I've talked about is literally a shadow. It is also fascinating for me to listen to Mr. Tate's younger voice in his early poems. Because his late poetry that I'm more familiar with tends to be more of a surrealist parables, little episodes that track the bewilderment of people lost in homes and towns that they can no longer recognize as their own, in those superficially funny-- but ultimately terrifying-- dreams. 

[00:03:15.47] But on the other hand, Tate's early poems, like "Shadowboxing," that I've had pleasure to listen to in Voca tend to be about himself and his vision of imagination and self. They show similarities to his late poems in wry sense of humor and wit. But that sense of a mind on fire, of imagination, I assume turned into smoldering flames that warmly lit the paths of lost people in our modern world as Tate continued to write. 

[00:03:49.67] Another thing I noticed, of course, is Tate's very discreet use of music of words in "Shadowboxing." As I've said before, the poem repeats phrases, has some rhyme. And unlike his late poetry, which are almost all written in prose, these are broken in lines. 

[00:04:08.53] Yet there is something common about American poets writing after mid-20th century as they move away from modernists and new critics, this focus on removing any sense of artifice from poetry by using plain-spoken words only. And yet still setting them up in such a way that plain-spoken becomes musical, becomes-- and I keep using this word-- incantation. 

[00:04:36.05] And in Tate's "Shadowboxing," that incantation summons an image of sublime quality that is overwhelming to both the speaker and the reader as the shadow, our other self, which we thought were extension of ourself, become a greater experience that we are, in fact, a part of. So here is James Tate reading "Shadowboxing." 

James Tate:
[00:05:07.02] The next poem is called "Shadowboxing." And the he in the poem is the shadow, in case you get confused. Sometimes you almost get a punch in. Then you may go for days without even seeing him. Or his presence may become a comfort for a while. He says, I saw you scrambling last night on your knees and hands. He says, how come you always want to be something else? How come you never take your life seriously? 

[00:05:44.16] And you say, shut up. Isn't it enough I say, I love you? I give you everything. He moves across the room with his hand on his chin and says, how great you are. Come here, let me touch you, you say. He comes closer. 

[00:06:03.68] Come closer, you say. He comes closer. Then-- whack! And you start again, moving around and around the room, which grows larger and larger, darker and darker, the black moon. 

[00:06:22.97] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Jack Jung:
[00:06:29.18] The second poem in my selection is Sawako Nakayasu's "Battery," recorded on March 22, 2007. The poem "Battery" by Sawako is from her collection The Ants, which came out in 2014. But here, we are about to listen to the poem seven years before it was published in that collection. And Sawako's collection, The Ants, expands and creates this entire universe of the ants as they go on about their lives, mirroring the lives of humanity in some ways. 

[00:07:05.50] Just as we encounter ants everywhere, we encounter these unmistakable reflections of ourselves in Sawako's ants. But the ants do not always live or get to live. They get torn apart and get woven into things. And in the case of "Battery," they're used as battery fuel. 

[00:07:28.99] And if the ants so closely resemble us, if they are our doubles in this world Sawako creates, what does their perishing for the sake of material things to say about us humans? In "Battery," Sawako's language takes off and totally embraces experimentation with repetition. And grammar is pushed to a near breaking point. As the words get repeated, they rise, and fall, and work as though they're the electricity that is charging up the battery that is this poem. 

[00:08:04.94] I also think, if I'm not mistaken, "Battery" is also near at the beginning of Sawako's book. And its energy, its imperative to charge-- well, it gets us going into this world events where ants seem more human than human speakers that sometimes appear throughout the collection. But "Battery" isn't just a poem of ignition that starts us off on this journey. There is a tension between playfulness and desperation-- desperation to get out of the desert, desperation that leads the speaker to use ants as fuel, and also desperation to repeat, repeat, and repeat the words of objects, and places, and states of being with different meanings of very interwoven throughout the piece. 

[00:08:54.97] The meaning of the word very changes throughout from something exact and precise to meaning something some kind of extreme amount. And at some points, it becomes what is otherwise inexpressible way of using the word that only works within this poem, such as when it says "very help." The "very" in "very help" contains the precision, the degree, and the desperation all at once. 

[00:09:25.42] I had pleasure to work with Sawako in translating Yi Sang for the selected works that's been published by Wave Books. Sawako is an accomplished translator of Japanese poetry. And her translation of Sagawa Chika, a woman avant-garde poet and one of the first female modernists in Japan, are extraordinary. For Yi Sang: Selected Works, Sawako translated Yi Sang's early Japanese poems, which he wrote before exclusively writing in Korean for the rest of his brief life and literary career. 

[00:09:59.80] Yi Sang, in fact, self-translated some of his Japanese works into Korean. And Sawako and I have translated those poems into English from each of our source languages. That, I find, is a mirroring in its own way. But perhaps more importantly, I find translations that bring together a work of a writer who wrote in both his first language and the language of his oppressor as performative of a truly diverse community that the world of literature can offer, as opposed to any kind of mandate on language and literature that colonialism and imperialism dictated on us in the name of some pseudo-unity. So without further ado, here is Sawako Nakayasu reading "Battery." 

Sawako Nakayasu:
[00:10:52.30] "Battery." We get lost in the desert-- lost, very lost. And although we aren't going to tell anyone that we can't possibly be any more than two miles from civilization, the fact remains that we are lost, very lost in the desert, very desert. And the car, very car, is having a hard, very hard, very hard time getting started up again. 

[00:11:13.36] And so we kick it, very kick it in its ass, very ass. And the car is still having a hard, very hard time. And we are feeling lost, all the more lost, very lost in this desert, very desert. And there's no one around us-- no, no one very around us at all, very all. 

[00:11:29.26] And there are birds, very birds, of which there are many, very many. But the birds, very birds don't know, don't know how to help us, and us, and us help start the car, very car. And we are more lost, more lost. And we need help, need very, very help, need very, very help help. And there's no, no, no one around us, except if you count, count, count those ants in the ant hill. 

[00:11:51.37] That is all we have. All we have are the ants, very ants. And then we wire them up. Yes, wire them up. Yes, I said wire, wire, wire. And with the force of all the ants, all wired, all wired up. And then on the count of three, we all yell, charge! 

[00:12:07.39] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Jack Jung:
[00:12:13.62] The third poem in my selection is W.S. Merwin's "The Last One," recorded on January 14, 1969. Merwin was one of the first poets whose work I fell in love with. Reading The Lice in college was a revelation for me. And I was delighted to find the last one in the Voca collection. In fact, the reading in 1969 took place only two years after the book had been published. 

[00:12:44.87] At the time, America had been waging war against Vietnam for more than a decade. The country was polarized as ever. Many civil rights leaders were persecuted and assassinated at this point, political leaders as well. I assume, as it seems to us now, a better tomorrow was slipping away from ordinary citizens' hands. 

[00:13:08.86] In this reading, Merwin introduces his book, The Lice, as a work of dissent, and this poem, "The Last One," as a mythological poem about anticreation. In Merwin's "The Last One," we meet shadows-- not the singular shadow like that of James Tate's, but a whole society of them, so to speak, like the ants of Sawako Nakayasu's "Battery." 

[00:13:36.22] These shadows are byproducts of all of the destructive action that they, in the poem, take. That they who decided to be everywhere, because why not? The they who cut everything. That they who cut down the last one and tried to banish its shadow. 

[00:13:55.47] But this shadow ultimately becomes theirs instead. Each repetition of they, which happens in almost every line of this poem, elaborate on this mythical crime and its ironic punishment. Merwin uses repetitions in this poem. And here, it is clearly incantatory in the most immediate sense of that form. 

[00:14:20.08] Even though the poem came out in the 1960s, the poem feels like it is as old as language itself. I think it may be because poetry, in its most basic form, is repetition. And through repetition, we remember. And this poem tells us the origin of how we got our darker selves. 

[00:14:45.66] Of course, the mythical story contained within these repeated lines could easily be read as an allegory of Vietnam War, an indictment of American style of imperialism. It could also be read as an allegory of environmental destruction, which is perhaps the greatest concern of Merwin's writing and life. 

[00:15:05.52] However, other than what this poem is an allegory of, I think the power of it lies in its applicability, that its tale of anticreation speaks to us on an individual level as well as on a communal level, and that its story applies not only to Merwin's time but our difficult time as well. I was also very lucky to have listened to Merwin read this poem, and others, out loud in 2011. Of course, this description is dependent on my memory. But when he read this poem in 2011, he read as a poet of great stature. And despite the poem's content, there was something incredibly calming in his aged voice. 

[00:15:53.19] But here in 1969, Merwin is much younger. And there is a more immediate sense of anger heaving underneath the tone as he reads this poem of dissent against the crimes of the society he belongs in. And so here is WS Merwin reading "The Last One." 

[00:16:15.87] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

W.S. Merwin:
[00:16:20.12] I want to go on from that book to the next one, a book called The Lice. And the title, lest you waste time wondering how one arrived at a title like that-- I got a Greek scholar to help me fiddle with it so I got it the way I wanted it. And he said it was close enough to Heraclitus. And this way, it reads-- all men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece. 

[00:16:50.64] So he was deceived by boys catching lice. They said to him, what we have caught and what we have killed, we have left behind. But what has escaped us, we bring with us. And it seems to work for all poems, but it worked for this book, which is a kind of descent book, e-s-c particularly. 

[00:17:18.80] And before I get into the poems which are more typical of the book, I want to read one which is typical of the theme of the book but not of the kind of poems that are in it, and not of anything that I'd ever written before or have written since. It's a poem that-- again, if one's talking about the ironies that go into things, one of the private ironies about it was the fact that it takes its-- the form of it was suggested by a Brazilian-Indian creation myth. 

[00:17:54.22] And the poem itself is nothing at all like a creation myth, except that it-- I mean, in subject. Formally, it's a kind of mock narrative that's at the same time incantatory. And so the disparity between what it's doing and how it does it is ironic. And you can tell from the title that it's a poem an anti-- it's not an anticreation myth. It's a mythological poem about an anticreation, which is a different thing. And it's called "The Last One." 

[00:18:29.18] Well, they've made up their minds to be everywhere, because why not? Everywhere was there because they thought so. They with two leaves, they whom the birds despise. In the middle of stones, they made up their minds. They started to cut. 

[00:18:47.74] Well, they cut everything, because why not? Everything was there because they thought so. It fell into its shadows, and they took both away-- some to have, some for burning. Well, cutting everything, they came to the water. They came to the end of the day. There was one left standing. 

[00:19:07.11] They would cut it tomorrow. They went away. The night gathered in the last branches. The shadow of the night gathered in the shadow on the water. The night and the shadow put on the same head. And it said now. 

[00:19:24.93] Well, in the morning, they cut the last one. Like the others, the last one felt into its shadow. It fell into its shadow on the water. They took it away. Its shadow stayed on the water. Well, they shrugged. They started trying to get the shadow away. 

[00:19:41.96] They cut right to the ground. The shadow stayed whole. They lay boards on it. The shadow came out on top. They shown lights on it. The shadow got blacker and clearer. They exploded the water. The shadow rocked. They built a huge fire on the roots. 

[00:19:58.25] They set up black smoke between the shadow and the sun. A new shadow flowed without changing the old one. They shrugged. They went away to get stones. They came back. The shadow was growing. They started setting up stones. It was growing. They looked the other way. It went on growing. 

[00:20:18.10] They decided they would make a stone out of it. They took stones to the water. They poured them into the shadow. They poured them in. They poured them in. The stones vanished. The shadow was not filled. It went on growing. That was one day. 

[00:20:33.28] The next day was just the same. It went on growing. They did it all the same things. It was just the same. They decided to take its water from under it. They took away water. They took it away. The water went down. The shadow stayed where it was before. It went on growing. It grew onto the land. 

[00:20:51.18] They started to scrape the shadow with machines. When it touched the machines, it stayed on them. They started to beat the shadow with sticks. Where it touch the sticks, it stayed on them. They started to beat the shadow with hands. When it touched the hands, it stayed on them. That was another day. 

[00:21:12.66] Well, the next day started about the same. It went on growing. They pushed lights into the shadow. Where the shadow got onto them, they went out. They began to stomp on the edge. It got their feet. And when it got their feet, they fell down. 

[00:21:26.48] It got into eyes. The eyes went blind. The ones that fell down, it grew over, and they vanished. The ones that went blind and walked into it vanished. The ones that could see and stood still, it swallowed their shadows. Then it swallowed them too, and they vanished. 

[00:21:43.64] Well, the others ran. The ones that were left went away to live, if it would let them. They went as far as they could, the lucky ones with their shadows. 

[00:21:55.52] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Jack Jung:
[00:22:03.66] And the fourth poem I will read is my translation of Korean poet Yi Sang's "Crow's Eye View, Poem Number 15." As I said at the outset of this program, the poems we have listened to and the poets who have read them so far have some echoing connection to the poetry of Yi Sang, a Korean poet of the 1930s whose work stands as the most experimental and challenging from his generation of Korean literature. 

[00:22:37.28] In the 1930s, Korea was fully annexed by the Japanese empire, and Korean people were treated as second-class citizens. Poets, writers, journalists were often threatened, jailed, and tortured alongside Korean freedom fighters. Yi Sang, in his youth, had dreams of becoming a painter. But he chose to become an architect instead for practical reasons. 

[00:23:00.54] But when he became ill, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and quit his job and became a full-time writer and poet, he also opened a cafe called Jebi-- which is "swallow" in English, after the bird-- to support himself and his lover, a gisaeng, or a Korean courtesan woman. 

[00:23:21.41] Even though his cafe business did not work out in the end, he was able to make connections to literary establishments by befriending a few writers who frequented the place. These writers became the founding members of Guinhoe, which can be translated as the Society of Nine. And they were the great modernist group of early Korean literature. 

[00:23:46.92] Impressed with Yi Sang's strange writings that mixed modern science, geometric configurations, long-forgotten literary Chinese characters, and lines that ignored common grammatical rules while often adopting repetition as their chief musical effect-- the styles of which were influenced by surrealism and data-- Yi Sang's more successful literary friends helped them get published in one of the few Korean language newspapers at the time. 

[00:24:18.27] And the Crow's Eye View series, which was the series that was published in the newspaper, was meant to be a series of around 30 poems. However, as these poems were published every week, there was a huge outcry from the Korean public that accused Yi Sang of being a raving lunatic. And readers threatened to boycott the newspaper. 

[00:24:46.94] Yi Sang's friend, who was the art and literature editor of the newspaper, kept a letter of resignation on himself during this period, promising to resign if the Crow's Eye View series was forced to stop. But ultimately, the newspaper stopped the series. And Yi Sang made his infamous debut into Korean literature with only half of his vision accomplished. 

[00:25:10.76] Crow's Eye View number 15 was the last poem to be published. Yi Sang would go on to publish more poems and gain recognition also as a short story writer. But his career was cut short when his tuberculosis worsened after he was jailed in Tokyo by the Japanese police. At the time, the imperial police force could jail any Korean without trial for up to a month if they were deemed suspicious enough. 

[00:25:37.80] However, Yi Sang's legacy lived on. And now Yi Sang is arguably the most influential writer in Korean literary history. And I also believe that he has an important place in what we might call world literature. Poem number 15 is one of Yi Sang's famous mirror poems. And the me inside the mirror is a well-known figure in Korean literature. 

[00:26:03.73] Yi Sang here, with this reflection, also connects the idea of a darker self, or perhaps simply a double, to explore the relationship between the world outside of the mirror and the world inside of the mirror. His poem is using repetitions as a kind of a pseudo-incantation. And it explores the story of me, and me inside the mirror, and makes them take on something of a mythic quality. 

[00:26:35.15] Without a doubt, there is a strain of pessimism in Yi Sang's poetry. And it can be found in this piece too. There are also moments of suicidal ideation, which is also ever-present in his writing. But by looking deeply into the frozen reflection of himself in this mirror, Yi Sang's clarity gives us much-needed lyrical recognition of our failures and suffering. And so here is Yi Sang's "Crow's Eye View, Poem Number 15." 

[00:27:14.72] "Poem Number 15." One. I am in a room with no mirror. Of course, the me inside the mirror has gone out right now. I shudder in fear of him. Where did he go? What is he plotting to do with me? 

[00:27:38.79] Two. I sleep on a cold bed, damp from embracing my crime. I am absent in my explicit dream. And the military boot carrying a prosthetic leg dirtied my dream's white page. 

[00:27:59.15] Three. I sneak into a room with a mirror to free myself from the mirror. But the me inside the mirror always enters at the same time and puts on a gloomy face. He lets me know he is sorry. Just as I am locked up because of him, he is locked up, shuddering, because of me. 

[00:28:21.00] Four. I am absent in my dream. In my mirror, my counterfeit does not make an entrance. He craves my loneliness despite my uselessness. I have finally made up my mind to recommend suicide to him. I point him toward the viewless window. It is a window for suicide. But he instructs me that if I do not kill myself, then he cannot kill himself either. The me inside the mirror is almost a phoenix. 

[00:29:00.11] Five. After covering my breast above my heart with a bulletproof shield, I aim and shoot at my left breast in the mirror. The bullet goes straight through his left breast. But his heart is on the right side. 

[00:29:20.89] Six. A red ink is spilled from an imitation heart. In my dream, I am late. I am sentenced to death. I am not the ruler of my dream. It is a great crime to seal up two humans who cannot even shake hands. 

[00:29:43.28] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

[00:29:52.25] Thank you so much, Jack, for sharing your knowledge and insight with us today. And as always, thank you, listeners, for joining us. If you're enjoying the show, would you consider giving us a rating or leaving us a review on whatever platform you're using? This helps new listeners find the show. And we would be grateful for your time. 

[00:30:11.07] We'll be taking a break over the upcoming holidays, but we'll be back again on January 13 with an episode hosted by Cynthia Cruz. If you're looking for more poetry to listen to over the break, check out Voca on your own, where you can browse over 1,000 recordings of poetry. We look forward to bringing you new episodes in the new year. 

[00:30:32.33] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. 

[00:30:56.48] Poetry Centered is supported by the work of-- 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:30:59.78] Diana Marie Delgado. 

Tyler Meier:
[00:31:01.55] Tyler Meier. 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:31:02.90] --and I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive, online at voca.arizona.edu. 

James Tate's "Shadowboxing"
Sawako Nakayasu's "Battery"
W.S. Merwin's "The Last One"
Jack Jung reads his translation of Yi Sang's "Crow's Eye View, Poem No. 15"