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Poems from Korean by Jeong Yakyong Dasan, Translated by Won-Chung Kim and Christopher Merrill

I’d Like to Leave Seoul


The River Han flows ceaselessly,
and Mt. Samgak keeps soaring above.
Mountains and rivers change,
but the sly ones thrive.
Someone slanders someone else,
and people repeat the lie
until it becomes fact.
Where can the honest man find his footing?
The feathers of the phoenix are so weak
it cannot nest in the hedge thorn.
Riding a gust of wind, my sad heart
wants to leave Seoul,
not because I like to wander,
but to stay here is useless.
How can I deliver my loyal heart
when the ruthless guard the palace gate?
Hence the saying of the ancient saint:
“The sly one is the enemy of virtue.”

Going Back to Sonae* on a Boat


A solitary boat is launched on the River Han,
the spring wind ruffles the silky surf.
The harsh world behind me,
I find solace in my fleeting life. 
The forest of Mieum** is boundless,
the fortress of Onjo*** beautiful.
I’m seven feet tall—

how can I handle the world?

*Sonae is a stream in Mahyeon, Dasan’s 
home town. 
**A town on the way to Sonae.
***This seems to refer to the Weerae Fortress in Hanam City.

Killer Whales


A killer whale has the nose of a wolf and the skin of     
    an otter.
It moves in pods of tens and hundreds
so quickly, as if flying, hunting in the water,
that fish don’t sense them coming until it’s too 
   late.
A gray whale swallows a thousand seoms* of fish in 
   a gulp,
not even a shadow of fish remains after it passes.
Unable to catch any fish, mad at the gray whale,
the killer whales conspire to kill it.
One pod hits its head,
another encircles its tail,
a third attacks its left side,
a fourth strikes its right.
Some butt up against its belly,
some jump on its back and yell,
the rest shout from all directions.
Its flesh is cruelly chewed to pieces.
When the gray whale thunders, spouting water,
the wave roars and a rainbow rises in the sky.
But soon the rainbow dims, the wave subsides.
Alas! The poor gray whale is dead.
One can’t fight against many—
the small fry rid themselves of a large obstacle.
Why did you do such a cruel thing,
for such a trivial reason—the competition for 
   food?
The sea is immense,
and still you can’t live together, waving your tails in 
     peace.
*One seom equals 180 liters of grain.

The translations are reprinted with the permission of the translators. The originals are in the public domain. 


Jeong Yak-yong or Chŏng Yagyong (1762-1836) was a Korean poet, philosopher, and scholar of Neo-Confucianism. His pen names were Dasan and Yeoyudang. One of the greatest thinkers of the later Joseon period, he wrote some 500 books on philosophy, science, and theories of government, including Admonitions on Governing the People. He held significant administrative positions, and his interest in Catholicism led him to live in Kangjin, where he wrote most of his scholarly books.

Won-Chung Kim is a professor of English Literature at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, where he teaches contemporary American poetry, ecological literature, and translation. His recent books include East Asian Ecocriticisms: A Critical Reader, which he co-edited with Simon Estok, and Food Ecology. He has received the Freeman Fellowship and grants from the Daesan Foundation and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He has translated into English twelve books of Korean poetry including Because of Rain: Korean Zen PoemsCracking the Shell: Three Korean Ecopoet, and Seungja Choi’s Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me. He has also translated John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra and H. D. Thoreau’s Natural History Essays into Korean.

Christopher Merrill has published seven collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, numerous translation awards, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Ingram Merrill Foundations. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa since 2000, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO from 2011-2018, and in April 2012 President Barack Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.

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