Sowohl, meaning “white moon” or “humble moon,” is the pen name of Kim Jung-Sik. Born in 1902, he lived most of his life in Chung-Ju, a small town northwest of Pyongyang in present-day North Korea. Chung-Ju, his ancestral home for many generations, was renowned for its natural beauty: the Yellow Sea in the west, the nine majestic mountain peaks toward the north and east. Rivulets from the mountains converged to form a river that wove through the villages and irrigated the rice fields throughout the lower valley–a pre-industrial, unspoiled countryside. This landscape surely nurtured Sowohl’s poetic sensibility; an intimacy to nature, like a second skin, resonates throughout his poetry.
Sowohl grew up during the tumultuous Japanese Occupation of Korea. When he was two years old, Japanese railroad workers robbed and beat his father, leaving him with a permanent mental disorder. Sowohl’s grandfather was responsible for his early education and, before Sowohl attended primary school, he taught him classical Chinese characters as was the custom for Yangban, the landowning class. Sowohl began writing poetry at the Oh-San secondary school where he met his mentor, Kim Uk. Kim Uk was a well-established poet and a translator of French symbolist poetry, and his influence on young poets was far-reaching. Although the Oh-San school was burned down by Japanese authorities for its participation in the March 1 Liberation Movement in 1919 and forbidden to reopen again, Kim Uk remained a mentor and friend to Sowohl. When Sowohl was eighteen, Kim Uk introduced his poetry to the literary world, hailing him as a gifted new poet.
In 1925, Sowohl’s first collection of poems, Azalea Flower, was published, and he was regarded as a brilliant poet. Sowohl found an authentic modern lyrical form by employing both traditional folk rhythms and colloquial expressions. The poem “Azalea” was particularly beloved: the azalea flowers that brighten the mountains of Korea after the harsh winter, instead of being the hopeful sign of spring, become a metaphor of the colorful sorrow of dejected love and the means to sublimate that anguish.
By the end of the 1920s, Sowohl had ceased writing and was struggling with financial difficulties, depression, and heavy drinking. In 1934, he committed suicide at age 32.
Sowohl is the most beloved modern poet in Korea and many of his poems were composed into songs still widely sung today. His simple words and his mournful rhythm resonate deeply with people across generational and social divisions, the trauma of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War which resulted in one million refugees from the North, and the massive migration from the countryside to cities in the South. Sowohl’s poetry consoles people’s yearnings for their homeland, which for many Koreans still lies inaccessible beyond the 38th parallel of the Demilitarized Zone, and reminds them of their deep bond with nature.
I began translating poetry as a way of quenching my homesickness while raising children in the U.S., far away from my native home of South Korea. At the time, my language deficiency felt bottomless since English was my third language. I believed translating would deepen my understanding of the English language as well as teach me something about writing my own poetry.
I was acutely aware of the difficult task ahead of me; the concision of Sowohl’s diction and his unique lyrical qualities defy translation into English verse. Despite inevitable losses, in these translations I have attempted to capture some of the musicality present in the original Korean. And I tried to retain the same physical layout of the original poem as much as possible.
For this translation, I am very grateful for the encouragement and critical input of my late teacher, Ottone M. Riccio and my fellow poets, the poetry group previously known as the Lincoln group and the Boston Literary Translators group. I especially thank Lee Mendenhall for taking the time to proofread the entire manuscript with care and make many invaluable suggestions. Lastly, I thank my family, especially our two daughters, Pendry and Julia, for inspiring me and helping me to complete this project.
– Sekyo Nam Haines
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