Saturday, December 31, 2005

On discovering Korean Poetry at my hairdressers

I took my son to Boko's, our very friendly local Korean hairdressers. You'll find it on Coombe Road, opposite New Malden Station, above an Italian (or Italianish) cafĂ©. I was offered a pile of books and papers to peruse while Andrew was being shorn. I never expect to read any thing decent in a hairdressers, doctors or dentist. But in amongst the pile was a book called ‘Korea’s Golden poems’: 50 poems in Korean, with English translations alongside. They were really interesting: crystal clear, painting pictures using elements of the natural world (trees, waves, raindrops) to illuminate the inner feelings of us human beings.

The poem that really grabbed me was called ‘My Mind’. In it the poet compares his mind to a lake. The lake is occasionally furrowed by a gentle wind, there are people fishing on it, or lying down and chatting beside it. The poet reminds himself to keep the lake properly in anticipation of the coming of a great swan.

The poem got me thinking: about how to wait for things constructively, actively; and about how important it is to distinguish the people and things in your life that are really important to you. The poet seemed to have no control over when the swan would come, but he does have control of the environment that the swan would visit.

I took the swan to signify anybody or anything who brings joy into your life. But of course no-one or no-thing can bring joy into your life unless you are ready to receive them and to sustain the friendship/ relationship/interest. The poet was describing a situation where there were no swans around his lake, just diverting distractions. But the poet was careful not to be consumed by the distractions, he wasn’t going to let his lake be cluttered to such an extent that there was no place for the swan when it came.

I thought about who/what the swans are in my life now ( and what the swans might be in the future). I thought about my wife and kids; the great swans in my life. And about my friend Michael who died just before Christmas and who had been a friend who really made me laugh, who got me out of my shell, and who simply made me feel happier and more alive. Friends like Michael don’t come into your life any more frequently than Halley’s Comet. He is going to be missed on my lake/life (and in many other people’s lives too).

It was my turn to get my haircut. In between my haircut and hairwash I went back to look at the book to see who wrote ‘My Mind’. But I couldn’t find it instantly and I didn’t want to linger on the book because the people in Boko's are very generous and I was worried they might offer it to me to take home. So I left not knowing who wrote it.

I searched the internet for two hours but couldn’t any mention of ‘My Mind’. But I did find a superb site at which Brother Anthony of Taize (An Sonjae) provides lots of English translations of Korean poems, as well as some information about the poets

And I found out about an amazing poet called Ko Un, who many Koreans hoped would win the Nobel prize for literature in 2005 (our own Harold Pinter got it instead). One of the things Ko Un is attempting to do is to write a poem about everyone he has ever known. So far he’s written about 10,000 of these poems in 20 volumes and he’s still going strong.
Here is a link to ten of them, translated by Brother Anthony
And here is some backround about Ko Un:

The book I found at Bokos hairdressers is described at