21 July 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/30

Two Poems on Fishing

Should I go drinking and wenching?
Oh, no. It isn't proper for the poet that I am.
Shall I go hunting wealth and honor?
I am not inclined that way either.
Well, let me be a fisherman or shepherd
and enjoy myself on the reedy shore.

When it stops raining at the fishing site
I will use green-moss for bait.
With no idea of catching the fish
I will enjoy watching them at play.
A slice of moon passes as it casts a silver line
onto the green stream below.

Kwon Homun, translated from the Korean by Jaihiun Kim

Two poems from a sixteenth-century Korean poet: I don't know if they are linked in the original or just in the translation, but there is a natural movement between the two. In the first the poet chooses an image for himself -- a life that will define the kind of poet he is seen to be. Carousing does not suit him: we still have a Byronic overlay (or maybe it's been updated to Dylan Thomas) in our conception of how "a poet" should behave in public, but I can easily see TS Eliot or Marianne Moore agreeing with Kwon that it is not suited to all poets. He also rejects the search for official position -- for public honors and the wealth that will probably come with them. The formality of his phrasing -- "I am not inclined that way either" -- may help us see why a boisterous or public life is not for him. He chooses the solitary but active life of a fisherman or shepherd: connected with nature, away from the often frustrating and pointless clamor and confusion of human society. This is a pastoral poem, and is often the case with such poems, it emphasizes the beauty of such a life instead of its real-world difficulties.

In the second poem, we see him as a fisherman -- only, dependent on the vagaries of Nature, he isn't actually fishing; he's waiting for it to stop raining so that he can go to the fishing hole. Perhaps he won't even be able to fish today at all; as we find out at the end of the poem, it must be night already since the moon is out. But the poet doesn't seem disturbed or anxious; perhaps this is an example of the philosophical patience that fishing is said to teach. He's not even particularly interested in catching fish; this is not fishing as a hard-scrabble way of scratching out the necessities of life from a harsh world, but a dream image of fishing as a moral choice and aesthetic pleasure: at peace, enjoying the flash of the fish through the water, so in harmony with Nature that the moon, in the vivid closing image, is doing the same thing the poet is doing: as the moon rises, its reflection looks like a silver line cast onto the stream (the stream is green, which connects it with the green moss the poet uses for bait). As with Chinese ink painting, a few vivid strokes of the pen conjure up a complete world, remote but invitingly beautiful.

These poems are from The Art of Angling: Poems About Fishing, edited by Henry Hughes, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

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