During his short life, Yi Yook-sa (1904-44), a Korean poet and independence activist, composed only about 40 poems. Yet his compelling poems, written during the darkest period of modern Korean history, captured the heroic spirit of the Korean people’s resistance and the nationalist movement against Japanese colonial rule.
“The Vertex” is an anthology of 36 of Yi’s poems, in both Korean and English, compiled and translated by Lee Sung-il, a professor emeritus of English literature at Yonsei University.
“The Vertex: Poems of Yi Yook-sa” translated by Lee Sung-il. (Somyong Publishing Company)
The title comes from Yi’s 1940 poem of the same name, which was translated by Lee’s late father Lee In-soo and published in 1947 in The Seoul Times, an English newspaper at which he was serving as editor.
The 36 poems, including three composed in Chinese, were all written during the last 10 years of Yi’s life ― his most politically active years, when he was working as a journalist and publishing both poems and critical essays.
During Yi’s tumultuous life, he was arrested and imprisoned a number of times for political reasons. In 1927, Yi was involved in the bombing of the Daegu branch of the Choseon Bank ― a channel for economic exploitation of Korea by the Japanese ― and was arrested and spent 18 months in prison. He went on to adopt his prisoner number, 264 (pronounced “yi yook sa” in Korean), as his pen name.
Lee Sung-il describes the late poet as a man of the pen and the sword whose poetry was “an intense expression of his passion for his native land, beauty and truth, and life itself.”
Though he was a political activist, his poetry was not a vehicle for his political thoughts, said Lee: “On the contrary, poetry often provided him with moments of temporary relief from the pressing thoughts of politics.”
Lee has translated numerous pieces of Korean poetry, both modern and classical, into English, including Yi’s. He took the helm of this project to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Yi’s death and 110th anniversary of his birth, while introducing Yi’s poems to a global readership.
This anthology has personal meaning for Lee, as “The Vertex” ― the poem his father translated ― was included as the first poem in the book, while Lee’s son Lee Soo-young designed the cover, making it a three-generation project.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org)