Some 200 years before Johannes Gutenberg, the lifework of Yi Kyu-bo was set with metal movable type on handmade mulberry paper.
Yi Kyu-bo (1168-1241) is regarded by many Koreans as their greatest classical poet, and like the great Japanese poet Sugawara no Michizane I discussed recently
Yi wrote in Chinese.(*) The Koreans were even more under the thrall of the Chinese than were the Japanese, so, yes, they too had "universities" and an examination system to train and recruit gifted men for their governmental bureaucracy, with precisely the same Confucian ideals subscribed to from Vietnam to Manchuria, and from what is now Turkestan to Japan. The Chinese culture had very long arms in Asia.(**)
Due to a certain penchant for rice wine and song, Yi had to take the exams four times before he passed, and a certain lack of personal ambition slowed his rise in the bureaucracy, though he eventually became a minister in the government of the Koryo dynasty. Towards the end of his life he had to witness the invasion of Korea by the Mongols, though he did so from the relative comfort of the court exiled on an island off the coast. He died before the Koryo dynasty negotiated a disadvantageous peace with the Mongols, who had already established their Yuan dynasty in China.(***)
In Singing Like a Cricket, Hooting Like an Owl (1995), Kevin O'Rourke offers a very small selection of Yi's thousands of poems and none of his extensive prose texts. But one can hardly complain to Mr. O'Rourke, because that seems to be about all there is in English except for some bits scattered in anthologies.(!) So thanks for letting us see something, Kev! O'Rourke is a professor at a Korean university with at least two other books of translations from the Korean under his belt, so one has some reason to feel one is in good hands.
On the basis of these translations I have found Yi to be very pleasant company, but his poems do not compare favorably with those of the best Chinese and Japanese poets I have read. There is a groundedness and humility in his work I greatly appreciate, and I hope others will translate his work so that we may have a clearer idea of his accomplishment.
Let's turn to the poems. First, an ironic confession of obsession:
Poetry: a chronic disease
I'm over seventy now,
an official of the first rank;
I know I should give up writing poetry,
but somehow I can't.
Mornings I sing like a cricket;
evenings I hoot like an owl.
I'm possessed by a devil I can't exorcise;
night and day it follows me stealthily around.
Once possessed, there's never a moment free;
a pretty mess it's got me in.
Day after day, I shrivel heart and liver
just to write a few poems.
Body fats and fluids depleted,
there's nothing left but skin and grizzle.
Bones protruding, struggling to recite,
I strike a very foolish figure.
I have no words to elicit wonder,
nothing to pass on that will last a thousand years.
I clap my hands, guffaw, and when the laughter
bout subsides, I begin to recite again.
My life and death hang on poetry;
not even a physician could cure this disease.
Chances are good that his thousand year prediction will be false.
Then the lament of an official who takes his responsibilities seriously:
Don't say administering a district is a joy
Don't say administering a district is a joy;
on the contrary administering a district is nothing but headaches.
The magistrate's office is noisy as the market place;
litigation files are piled high as a hill.
How can I impose taxes on a poor village?
It's painful to look at the prisoners that fill the jail.
No smile cracks my lips;
when will I really be able to enjoy myself?
And, finally, one of his wry, down-to-earth poems (however, it could be read as a threat to the Korean people from a high official in a position to make changes in the enforcement of the laws; I don't know enough about the man to be able to judge):
The mad rout of the rat
My reason for raising a cat was not to catch you;
I had hoped that the sight of the cat
would make you cower and hide.
But you don't hide;
instead you bore through the walls,
you come and go at will: why, why?
It's bad enough that you come out to play;
how dare you instigate this present mad rout!
Your squabbles are so raucous that you interfere with sleep;
you steal our food with incredible speed.
The fact that you whizz around in spite of the cat
shows that the cat is lacking in skill.
The cat may not be doing its job,
but your crimes are weighty still.
I can whip the cat, I can drive it out,
but you are difficult to catch and tie.
Rats, rats, mend your ways
or I'll govern you with a fierce new cat.
The formal, allusive poems a man in his position had to have written were left out of the selection; background and context are sparingly provided for some of the poems.
(*) The Japanese call their Chinese-language poetry kanshi, while the Koreans call it hanshi. When in Rome...
(**) If only they would be satisfied to leave it with the culture. I fully recognize the irony when an American says that... Just know that I am one of those unpatriotic, pointy-headed intellectual Americans, not a flag waver.
(***) The Mongols used the Korean peninsula as a base from which to launch their attacks on Japan. Fortunately for the Japanese, the Mongol fleets were destroyed by bad weather, leading to the legend of the kamikaze - the divine spirit wind; unfortunately for the Koreans, the Mongols had impressed large numbers of Koreans into their fleet and made the Koryo government pay most of the costs. Almost total losses in both respects.