[Herald Interview] Poetry in a world with no answers

By Rumy Doo

Prolific translator, professor Brother Anthony discusses poetry past and present

  • Published : Jun 22, 2016 - 17:21
  • Updated : Aug 2, 2016 - 11:19

When Brother Anthony was teaching English literature at Sogang University in the 1980s, he would frequent bookstores on weekends -- bookstores that were filled with students of all ages sitting on the floor, reading poetry.

“They expected to find sincerity in poetry,” he told The Korea Herald last Friday in an interview at his office in Seoul, filled to the brim with books and teapots -- Brother Anthony is a renowned Korean tea enthusiast.

“If you’re searching for some kind of in-depth meaning in life, you’re bound to turn to poetry. Poetry is the search for an individual to express meaning,” he said.

Brother Anthony, professor emeritus at Sogang University and translator of Korean poetry, sits in his study in Seoul on June 17. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Born in Cornwall, England, in 1942, Brother Anthony often refers to himself as “the only Cornish-Korean.” He became a naturalized Korean citizen in 1994, 14 years after he first set foot in Korea. He is also a member of the Taize monastic order based in France and taught for 30 years at Sogang University until his retirement in 2007. 

He is a prolific translator of Korean literature, having translated works by famous poets such as Ko Un and Ku Sang. This year, Brother Anthony released two translations of poetry compilations -- “No Flower Blooms Without Wavering,” which contains works of Do Jong-hwan, and “Night-sky Checkerboard” by Oh Sae-young -- and participated in editing and translating an anthology, “The Colors of Dawn: Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry.” 

(From left), "Night-sky Checkerboard" (Phoneme Media) by Oh Sae-young and "No Flower Blooms without Wavering" (Seoul Selection) by Do Jong-hwan, both translated from Korean into English by Brother Anthony; "The Colors of Dawn" (Manoa), edited by Frank Stweart, Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-gwi

The anthology, published by the University of Hawaii Press, features poets such as Sim Hun, born in 1901, alongside more familiar modern and contemporary poets such as Kim Chi-ha.

Poet Do, according to Brother Anthony, is an accessible poet because his message is “simple.”

“Everybody knows what love is and pain is and sorrow is and hope is. (His) poems are about these simple universal values,” he said.

Brother Anthony lamented how nowadays, life for students is more about “getting a job,” “fun” and “superficiality.”

“Just preparing for job interviews is not life,” he said. “But the world right now is very confusing, and it’s hard to understand what’s going on.”

The respected translator hoped, however, that younger students would try to find meaning in other, if less conventional, ways while navigating the complexities of the modern world. 

Brother Anthony, professor emeritus at Sogang University and translator of Korean poetry, sits in his study in Seoul on June 17. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Uncertainty pervades recent poetry as well, he added.

“The older poets knew, or thought they knew better, what kind of world they were living in and what kind of poetry you could write in that world,” said Brother Anthony.

Poetry today, however, is more a series of fragmented images and “disjointed impressions” that are not linked by grammar or narrative sense, he said.

“Younger poets now, they can do whatever they like, but it’s not clear what has actual meaning and value. They’re not sure what they’re trying to say. The world is shaky and apparently it’s not clear often what you mean by poetry,” he said.

All an artist can do is “try to produce a work that has validity and meaning in the present time and more or less speaks to modern humanity,” he said.

By Rumy Doo (