“Despair gives birth to craft, and craft is what makes us despair.”

An interview with the poet and translator Jack Jung on the work of the great Korean modernist poet Yi Sang; a bit about Keith Jarrett's stroke and Tolstoyan pacifism; and some links.

Our brilliant friend Jack Jung is a poet and translator. Michelle met him two years ago at the University of Iowa through a mutual friend, and was impressed by his self-effacing humor, his love for Milton, and knowledge of tarot cards.

Jack is one of the translators of a new collection of work by the great Korean writer Yi Sang, released last month by Wave Books. Yi Sang is considered the most influential avant-garde poet of Korea’s colonial period, when a regime of cultural repression and censorship was imposed by the occupying Japanese government. Born in 1910, Yi trained as an architect and worked for the government-general of Japan, winning several major architectural prizes. At the same time, he fell in with a leftist experimental writing group, the Circle of Nine. Influenced by Surrealism and Dadaism, he incorporated equations, diagrams, drawings, and other devices into his poetry and prose. In 1936 he moved to Tokyo, where was soon arrested for “ideological crimes.” He died there in 1937, at the age of twenty-seven.

In Part 1 of our interview with Jack, we look at Yi Sang’s life, Dadaism, and how Korea’s remarkable history and the climate of Japanese censorship helped create these dense, difficult poems. In Part 2, we’ll ask him some nosier questions: how he adjusted to America at age thirteen, and why he went back to Korea after college. He’ll also school us on what Milton meant by “a broad and ample road.”

Selected Works is the culmination of a translation project Jack started when he was nineteen. For the past ten years, he says, Yi Sang has been like an “older brother.”

Jack with Yi Sang.

Prairie Lights Books is hosting a conversation between Jack and Alexander Chee on October 28. Venez nombreux!


Albert: How did you first encounter Yi Sang’s work?

Jack: In Korea, Yi Sang is like a “final boss” for all high school students. College entrance exams will throw selections from “Crow’s Eye View” [a sequence of poems] at you.

Photo of Yi Sang, born Kim Haekyŏng.

I left Korea before high school, but I did encounter him before I left. When I was a kid, I rented movies from a local VHS store, and the owner was nice enough to let me take out scary movies. There was a series of Korean knockoffs of the X-Files, and one of those movies was based on Yi Sang’s poems. Yi used “Poem No. 4” and “Poem No. 5” from “Crow’s Eye View” as codes to talk about the sinister things Japanese generals were doing.

But I really came to Yi’s poetry in college. My poetry teacher Jorie Graham had told me translation was one of the best ways to learn composition. I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to translate Korean poems, and she was kind enough to show me some of his poems.

Michelle: What was it like to read him for the first time? Was it visceral? Confusing?

JJ: The first poems I fell in love with were the more accessible ones: “Cliff,” “Flowering Tree,” “Poem No. 1,” and “Poem No. 2.”

MK: Wait, you just named all my favorite ones! Does that mean I only like accessible things? Am I a simpleton?

JJ: It means you’re going to get addicted and spend the next ten years translating his poetry.

“I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it.” Hugo Ball, from the 1916 Dada Manifesto. Later Ball wrote, “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments… The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language.”

My first reaction to Yi Sang was so different from how I felt about other Korean poets. I remember one academic said he was someone “who is always in our future,” who is always writing from ahead of us. That still stands true.

“Poem No. 2” appealed to me as a reader because it has that heavy weight one feels coming from any kind of background—that patriarchal weight, not only of the expectation to satisfy our parents or our fathers, but of society’s view… In his essays, Yi Sang constantly chastises himself for failing to be the man of the house, the breadwinner. He says: I should be a better son, and I’m not because I don’t know how to make money.

You can read that poem on multiple levels. You can look at it biographically: Yi Sang came from a broken family. His biological father and mother were alive, but because of the Korean cultural system in which it was desirable to create a line of first-born sons, he was adopted by an uncle who hadn’t been able to produce a male heir. He was living with his uncle while his actual parents were still alive. Later—it’s not clear exactly what happened—he was returned to his biological parents, because his uncle and aunt ended up having a male child. So that doubling of identities kept happening all around him.


MK: Can you tell us more about how Dadaism came to Korea?

JJ: Yi Sang was a singular Dadaist. No one in Korea did experiments like this until much later. Among his contemporaries, the most experimental anyone got was prose poetry. Yi was the only one who inserted diagrams in his poems.

In Japan, there had been Dadaists in the 1910s. I recommend checking out the book Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning, which covers the early period of Dadaism in Japan. That poetry is very reminiscent of what you might see in Yi Sang’s—the use of repetition, diagrams, strange drawings.

The problem in Yi Sang’s biography is it’s almost impossible to recreate what he and his contemporaries were reading, because of the intense censorship by the Japanese regime.

Yi Sang was born in 1910, the same year Japan annexed Korea. That initial decade is considered a “dark period”—the Japanese colonial government was super restrictive and enacted culturally genocidal policies.

Then, on March 1, 1919, there’s a mass uprising of Korean people. It ends in bloodshed and immediate political oppression, but it forces Japan to change its policies. Japan becomes aware that it can’t just take the iron-fist approach. It has to be more velvet glove. So the Japanese allow newspapers, magazines, and journals in Korean to open up and publish. Obviously everything has to go through censors.

So Yi Sang comes of age during this opening for the Korean press. But in the 1930s this openness is restricted again. In 1933, Japan invades Manchuria and wants to expand further into China. The war is covered up with propaganda, and the government tightens its controls on press freedom.

Yi Sang gets lucky—well, I don’t want to say lucky, since he dies in 1937 at the untimely age of twenty-seven. But he does avoid the worst period of Japanese occupation, in which most of his friends quit writing, disappear, get killed, or end up Japanese collaborators.

AW: Sorry to sound like a college entrance exam, but what is “Crow’s Eye View” about?

JJ: Yi trained as an architect, and I read “Crow’s Eye View” as an attempt to create a blueprint for the structure of Korean society. The poems in the sequence are all written from the perspective of a bird.

One of Yi Sang’s primary motifs was the mirror—he has so many mirror poems. For a while Korean academia produced all these articles about Yi Sang and Lacanian mirror theory.

MK: Yeah, why was he so obsessed with mirrors, copies, and imitations?

JJ: Yi Sang despaired at his identity as a Korean. Working as an architect for the governor-general, he was reminded daily that he was a second-class citizen in the Japanese empire. Yet the Japanese culture he sees is not really “traditional” Japan—it’s a westernized version of what Japan is supposed to be.

Yi Sang was trained in Western-style architecture—he was charged with creating these Japanese-led revitalizations of neo-Gothic structures. The Japanese governor building in Seoul was the largest building of that style in East Asia.

The Japanese General Government Building in Seoul, 1929.

So, amidst the sudden onset of imperialism and modernization, Yi Sang is wondering, What makes us us? When you look at Korean culture in the last hundred years, it’s filled with all these gaping holes where you lose connection with the past.

You can see these attempts to grapple with Western and Japanese culture in Yi Sang’s Japanese poem sequence “Solid Angle Blueprint.” There he’s interested in Einstein’s relativity theory and in light. He has poems about the philosophy of time travel and going to the origins of ancient civilizations. This search for his father’s father’s father, this going to infinity and tracing—he’s talking about how we’re constantly copies of some singular source. In other poems, you can intuit that he sees the Korean and Japanese languages in this mirroring relationship.

AW: Was Yi Sang unique in writing for both a Japanese and a Korean audience?

JJ: He’s unique in that a lot of his major works are also in Japanese. Many other Korean poets and writers disowned their Japanese work after liberation, or just didn’t talk about it. Or they started writing in Korean as a political statement. They just stopped writing in Japanese altogether. Yi Sang’s early poems were written in Japanese, but later he would write only in Korean. Once he started publishing in Korean, he stopped writing in Japanese altogether.

Even now it can be a touchy subject. When Yi Sang’s very first book was published by his friend in 1949—it was also called Selected Works of Yi Sang—it only contained his Korean works. He didn’t even consider including anything he had done in Japanese, even short stories and poetry.

After the Korean War, a scholar created a three-volume edition of his collected works, asking some poets to translate Yi Sang’s Japanese work into Korean. He didn’t publish the original Japanese. This gave rise to the mistaken assumption that the poems in the edition had originally been published in Korean.

One thing Japan and Korea may eventually have to contend with, in the case of Yi Sang, is the fact that the most innovative modernist poet of the time was a Korean writing in Japanese. I might get canceled for saying that. [We all laugh.]

AW: Can you teach us how you read “Poem No. 4” and “Poem No. 5”? Do you read them out loud?

JJ: I’m going to try to read them out loud at the upcoming reading.

MK: How are you going to do that?

JJ: I’ll read out the numbers.

MK: Am I supposed to feel, as a reader, that the text is creepy, haunting?

JJ: It is creepy. It is haunting. Let me show you this original publication facsimile of “Crow’s Eye View.” It appeared right in the center of the page:

In the original publication, “Poem No. 4” and “Poem No. 5” are connected, almost as if they’re a single poem. In our translation, we decided to separate them, but it’s interesting to consider how they were originally presented.

How I read “Poem No. 4” is that Yi Sang is a primary doctor giving a diagnosis to a patient’s countenance: This is what your face looks like. It’s a bunch of numbers, with the black dots going across it like a scar.

I would also read this as part of a larger sequence within “Crow’s Eye.” The sequence begins with a poem about a child’s sense of terror at being unable to escape a road that leads nowhere. “Poem No. 2” is about playing the role of the father figure, while “Poem No. 3” is about the inability to escape violence in a colonial setting. They build on each other to this point. And in “Poem No. 4” we’re all reduced to this sequence of numbers.

Since he was an architect, Yi was interested in the sequence of numbers as a kind of mathematical progression. No matter how big a number you start out, you end up getting smaller and smaller until you reach zero. The numbers represent this world. Yi Sang gives a primary diagnosis: we’re reaching nonexistence.

Now, on to “Poem No. 5.” Did you guys have any idea what this poem was doing?

AW and MK: [Stare silently at page for a long time]

JJ: OK, so the first line I translated as

A single trace shows erasure of both left and right.

One academic has hypothesized that this is about Yi Sang being diagnosed with TB, and that the erasure—the removal of both left and right—is the metaphorical removal of his lungs. That’s one way of reading it. But I think the second big line, with the Chinese literary characters that I translated as


is a line from Zhuangzi, a Chinese Daoist text. The context of the line is a story in which Zhuangzi is out in the mountains, in a grove of chestnut trees, and he sees this great bird come and touch his forehead. When the bird flies away, Zhuangzi says: “These wings do not know how to fly and these eyes cannot even see me.”

The story continues. He sees this cicada, and a praying mantis pounces on the cicada. Then a bird catches the praying mantis. The story is about the cycle of predators, these beings that all have something bigger that they can’t even see, always about to eat them. Something about nature is completely inexplicable or beyond our comprehension. These things are there to do us in.

So in the first line, which begins “a single trace,” the speaker has lost all sense of direction because he has read this passage from Zhuangzi’s text about the bird and the praying mantis and the cicada and it’s caused him to collapse before a short, fat god.

If humans don’t have this understanding of greater reality, they might as well be drowning animals.

That’s my reading, but there are so many different ways other people have read this poem. Nobody really knows what the figure means. My take is that the way the lines are drawn seems to put them in a relationship where they’re like wings, pointing inward and pointing outward.

AW: Interesting: the direction of the figure in translation isn’t the same as in the original facsimile.

JJ: Exactly. In other translations, where they change the text from vertical to horizontal, they rotate the figure clockwise. But here I decided to make it so that the original shape still corresponds to the shape of some kind of wing. The arrows are also pointing toward the text, as they do in the original.

But ultimately, I think the poem is about how the text causes a great realization and leads to despair. And I do think despair is one of the signature themes in Yi Sang’s work. One of his famous quotes is “Despair gives birth to craft, and craft is what makes us despair.”

MK: I love that. What does it mean to you?

JJ: For me it encapsulates a lot of Yi Sang’s work and what he’s trying to do, why he’s so obsessed with form and style, why these poems feel highly experimental and outlandish-looking and why they’re necessary. Once you live with them for a while, they feel like a necessity—perhaps the only true way to describe the despair he felt during that period.

What we’re listening to this week


I wrote about Gary Peacock’s death a couple of weeks ago. My college roommate Girish sent along the devastating news that Keith Jarrett suffered from two strokes earlier this year, most likely ending his public performing career. (That whole piece is worth reading, and it includes a choice link to a 1997 profile of Jarrett by Andrew Solomon, where Jarrett comes off as a raging asshole.) Girish’s email brought me back to our time together in college. For my birthday he pooled money and surprised me with a turntable. We spent a lot of time crate digging and listening to records together.

Two of Keith Jarrett’s earlier albums were in our regular rotation. The first was Fort Yawuh recorded with his “American Quartet” of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian. “De Drums” is my favorite track:

The second was “Nude Ants,” with his “European Quartet” of Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen. I’ve always had a soft spot for the opening track, “Chant of the Soil.” Even though I admire his later work, I think deep down I’ll always prefer 1970s Keith, when his music was funkier, earthier, groovier.


Two weeks ago we wrote about how we loved reading Tolstoy with our incarcerated students. I enjoyed this podcast on Tolstoyan pacifism, which features Albert’s undergraduate advisor Samuel Moyn and helped me think through Tolstoy’s broader political & moral projects.

Moyn reads aloud this passage from War and Peace:

“‘Yes, yes,’ Prince Andre said distractedly. ‘One thing I would do if I had power, I would not take prisoners. What are prisoners? It’s chivalry. The French devastated my home and are on their way to devastate Moscow. And they've offended me and offend me every second. They're my enemies. They're all criminals to my mind. They must be executed. If they're my enemies, they can't be friends.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Pierre, gazing at Prince Andre with flashing eyes. ‘I agree with you completely. Take no prisoners,’ Prince Andre went on. ‘That alone would change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is, we've been playing at war. That's the nasty thing. We act magnanimously and all that. It's like the magnanimity and sentimentality of the lady who swoons when she sees a calf slaughtered. She's so kind she can't bear the sight of blood, but she eats the same calf in sauce with great appetite. We're told about the rules of war, about chivalry. It's all nonsense. Take no prisoners, but kill and go to your death. Whoever has come to this, as I have through the same sufferings, would reach this conclusion. If there was none of this magnanimity and war, we'd go to it only when there was something worth certain death.’” 

Attempts to make war humane—like past efforts to make slavery humane—may prolong or legitimize it. Moyn talks a bit about Tolstoy’s evolving ideas, and how we’re all “morally compromised … in the midst of unjust structures.”

Overheard in the Kuo-Wu household:

“Do you think George Lucas modeled Ewoks off babies?”

Links for the week

Some News

  • The mother of our friends, Eunice and Albert Cho, passed away last week. Here’s their beautifully written tribute to a beautiful person. Sunsook “Sue” Cho was born in Korea in 1949 and grew up in the shadow of war, surviving extreme poverty, frostbite, and malnutrition. She emigrated to Alberta, Canada as a nurse, caring for rural and First Nations patients. For the rest of her life, she continued to take care of people. These lines made us tear up:

    She saved money scrupulously by refusing to buy herself anything at full price, while ensuring her children received every educational opportunity possible. Only once they had reached college did she allow herself to indulge in her favorite pastimes, finally purchasing cello lessons, a prized professional-grade table tennis paddle, and calligraphy brushes.

  • Our friends Kyra & Alex Lilien are at Mount Ranier in Washington right now, searching for Sam Dubal, who disappeared while hiking. Today is Day 15. He’s still in a window of survivability, even with hunger and hypothermia, which many medical experts estimate between two to three weeks with the type of gear he was carrying. Some things you can do: Tweet at Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt (@Interior, @SecBernhardt) to continue the search; call Linda Walker, Acting Regional Director for National Park Service, Region 9, at 415-623-2100; sign the petition to continue the search, and join efforts to find him, if you’re an experienced hiker. Thank you so much.