Reflections on Poetry and Communication
Zen Poetry and Realism Reconsidered
I would like to make some reflections on poetry, focusing on ‘the space of communication’, one of the key words of this festival. Perhaps my talk better suits the theme of tomorrow’s forum, ‘the communicative sea’, than today’s ‘the imaginative sea’.
Seventeen years ago, I contributed to the festschrift volume for the poet Ko Un’s sixtieth birthday an essay about the possibility of a meeting between Zen poetry and realism (“Zen Poetry and Realism: On Ko Un’s Three Recent Collections of Verse,” in The Literary World of Ko Un , ed. Paik Nak-chung, Shin Kyung-rim et al., Changbi Publishers 1993; also included in my book, The Rewards of Korean Literature in the Age of Reunification , Changbi 2006). Characterizing his poems of the 1990s, I noted “the way they solidify the ‘inherent Zen-like quality’ that ‘all poems have,’ while also achieving a degree of realism rarely found in works of shorter verse,” ( The Rewards of Korean Literature in the Age of Reunification , p.221). This characteristic is maintained also in his later works and the thirty volumes of Maninbo ( Ten Thousand Lives , completed in 2010). However, it must hold true for every authentic poetic achievement, not just for Ko Un’s. To avoid a misunderstanding, I hasten to add that ‘realism’ in this context does not necessarily entail the adoption of realistic or naturalistic techniques. The concept involves rather the poet’s attitude of adequately perceiving and responding to the reality in his/her time.
Demands for communication are particularly frequent in today’s Korea. It is because we are having so many cases of absence of communication in every part of society, including the political sphere. The realm of Korean poetry does not quite represent a ‘space of communication’, either, which might indicate a phenomenon at some distance from ‘the sea-like spirit of poetry’. But is this against the spirit of poetry as such?
It is undeniable that, like other forms of art, poetry has performed the function of a communication medium. Especially before the development of printing, verse rather than prose served as the dominant medium of literary communication, since it was easier to follow and learn by heart and readier to be combined with other genres such as song and dance. In the modern society, however, the importance of verse has largely diminished, as the novel emerged as the most popular channel of communication and many subjects previously treated in verse moved over to the realm of prose. Now, the development of new spaces of communication like electronic visual media is producing yet another change. With the novel requiring to be read alone and taking much time, shorter verse which can be recited for and together with a mass audience and more easily combined with other media has regained a relatively high status. On the other hand, it is yet to be seen whether such retrieval could prevail over a larger trend of the decline of literature in general.
There have also been a number of instances arguing that communication is not one of the many functions of art, but the very essence of it. Tolstoy is one of them, and in What is Art? he argues that the reason for the failure of most of existing theories to properly define art is “that the conception of art has been based on conception of beauty,” (Leo N. Tolstoy, What is Art?, tr. Aylmer Maude, The Liberal Arts Press 1960, Chapter 4, p.47). He then goes on to propose his own definition that art is “one of the means of intercourse between man and man” (Chapter 5, p.49), a human activity of deliberately “infecting” others with one’s own feelings (Chapter 5, p.51). According to him, the stronger infective power it has the more successful it is as art (Chapter 15, p.140), while good and bad art can be distinguished by the kind of emotion it infects people with (Chapter 16). Plato also noted the infective power of art but, wary of its pernicious effects, wished to expel poets from his ideal republic. In contrast, Tolstoy actively defends art as a means to deliver and communicate the ‘religious perception’ peculiar to each age, that is, “an understanding of the meaning of life which represents the highest level to which men of that society have attained” (Chapter 16, p.143).
Here, I do not have time to elaborate on Tolstoy’s theory of art, (for a relatively more detailed examination, see my essay “The Literary and the Human”, National Literature and World Literature Ⅰ , Changbi Publishers 1978, especially pp.89-100), but if there is indeed an understanding of the meaning of life which represents the highest level attained by each age, there is no denying the importance of transmitting it through emotions and feelings as well as through the language of reason and science. One could even say that undertaking such a grand task may correspond to ‘the sea-like spirit of poetry’. Nor should we find any problem with Tolstoy’s calling this highest level of understanding a ‘religious perception’ or ‘religious sense’, if we take the essence of religion to be an exploration of man’s relation to the ultimate (“man’s relation to God,” in Tolstoy’s words, Chapter 10, p.97) untrammeled by the dogmas or rituals of a particular religion.
Tolstoy does prove himself too narrow-minded and dogmatic in applying his theory of art to concrete works. Perhaps, it has something to do with his somewhat hasty conclusion that “to establish brotherly union among men” (Chapter 9, p.71) is the one and only goal in our age. More fundamentally, however, his doctrine must run into the Buddhist criticism that brotherly union or whatever other goal, as long as it is articulated in language, inevitably falls short of the enlightenment beyond language [‘not establishing words and letters’], that is, religious perception at truly the highest level.
I am not attempting to establish a hierarchy between Buddhism and Christianity (or Tolstoy’s version of Christianity). I bring in Zen Buddhism only to pose a certain fundamental question about Tolstoy’s theory of art, despite general sympathy with it. Tolstoy rightly observes that artistic communication distinguishes itself from communication through the language of reason in that it exercises the infective power of feelings. However, if this observation leads to the dichotomy between ‘the language of reason vs. the language of feeling’, it would distort the true nature of art. Tolstoy himself never formulates it that way, but he does fall short of a solid understanding of the fact that the infective power of authentic art involves the working of reason as well, thus appealing to the unified sensibility (to use T. S. Eliot’s term) prior to ‘the dissociation of sensibility’ that separated thought from feeling. In other words, the difference between discursive language and artistic language does not signify a difference between the language of reason and the language of feeling. Rather, it is the difference between the language limited to reason and the language employing reason and emotion together, or poetic language “pushing forward the whole body with the whole body” (Kim Su-young).
If the highest (religious) perception of a given age is to be truly that, it must continuously push itself forward to a new level, standing on the frontier. It needs to combine a powerful impulse to share with one’s contemporaries what it already has attained to and an earnest effort to explore what it has not yet attained and does not even know whether it could share. That is exactly the raison d’être of Zen poetry, which moves beyond everything communicable through language and endeavors to capture what might be impossible to communicate, and it is also why, unlike Tolstoy, we may not easily dismiss certain works just because they seem obscure. Yet, unless the obscurity ultimately serves the achievement and sharing of the highest perception by the whole humanity as brothers and sisters, but becomes something enjoyed for its own sake by a limited circle of artists and their audience — when, that is, “instead of an artistic activity aiming at transmitting the highest feelings to which humanity has attained, those flowing from religious perception, we have an activity which aims at affording the greatest enjoyment to a certain class of society”(Chapter 9, p.71) – it could hardly escape Tolstoy’s accusation that it represents the decadent and false art of a privileged class.
This also justifies the demand that, while poetry should have some Zen-like quality, it also should show the ‘realist’ urge to achieve and spread the best understanding of reality in a given age and to change the world in accordance with that understanding. To repeat, ‘realism’ in this context differs from privileging naturalistic representation in art, and Tolstoy himself firmly opposes taking up realism in the latter sense as the standard of judgment, (Chapter 11, p.104). Of course, that does not mean that naturalistic representation must perforce be excluded. Whether or not the use of naturalistic details contributes to the successful combination of ‘Zen-ness’ and ‘realism’ should be decided case by case.
Ko Un’s Maninbo I mentioned at the beginning deserves and demands such a critical examination. For a proper performance of such a task involving 30 volumes, one would need to take up and scrutinize neither too many nor too few specific poems, rather than just making some general remarks. I myself look upon it as a standing assignment, but for the moment must leave it standing. Instead, I would like to conclude my talk by reading a poem written by another poet of a different character belonging to a different generation.
The warrant was dismissed but I had to report for reinvestigation
They’ve collected records of all my cell phone calls
From May 2008 to March 2009
My case is just a breach of night-time rules in the General Road Traffic Act
But a furtive glance shows that the records are graciously specific about time and place
Like near Tom N Toms Coffee at Cheonggyecheon . . .
The interrogator says they’ll also bring records of all the text messages
And that another candlelight demonstrator had his house searched
And his bankbooks seized, then
Spinning his chair and smiling
He says, come clean and ‘blow’
What should I blow
I would prefer to blow a balloon
Prefer to blow a leaf-flute
Prefer to blow a huge yawn
A trumpet or an accordion would be fine too
I say one year’s record of calls
Not enough to measure my brain
A few years’ record of text messages
Not enough to judge me, please be serious
If you want to delve into my past
You should have at least searched the genetic information
Of homo sapiens carved into sand mountains in the desert
Should have collected the evidence of some thousand meters of sedimentary layers in the sea
Should have at least confiscated the cry of birds
The blowing cool winds
If you want to know me that much you should say you love me,
What the hell are you up to
(The full text of “At Hyehwa Police Station” by Song Kyung-dong, Answering Trivial Questions , Changbi 2009)
The poem can primarily be read as a work of resistance exposing improper and excessive law enforcement by the police in the crackdown on candlelight rallies. It is rich in precise realistic descriptions and, even when the speaker’s imagination gets fully activated in the later stanzas, the poem never entirely breaks away from the realistic sphere. The point, however, is not realistic faithfulness itself, but the fact that it describes the pathetic and petty reality in such a precise, detailed way that a different world, the world of genuine being open to ‘the imaginative sea’ (so to speak) is evoked all the more convincingly. The climax of this brilliant final stanza is, indeed, the last two lines.
If you want to know me that much you should say you love me,
What the hell are you up to
Not because these lines contain the message of ‘love’ emphasized by so many people including Tolstoy. In fact, the word ‘love’, when used too easily, can slacken poetic tension, (as sometimes happens also in this collection of Song’s). But the sheer absurdity of demanding the police interrogator that he should say he loves the suspect if he wants to properly investigate him prevents any such slackening, and “What the hell are you up to” in the last line throws a finishing blow. This question, which today’s young Internet users would probably shorten and misspell in their accustomed way, reaches the height of lighthearted jeering, but without at all reducing the weight of the understanding that in “the cry of birds” and “the blowing cool winds” lie the truth of ‘me’ and the truth of us all.
Translation by Hwang Jung-A