Yi Sang’s Global Poetry

The Empire Within

Yi Sang’s global poetry.


Not long after the publication and surprise success of her first novel, The God of Small Things, in 1997, Arundhati Roy was invited onto a live radio show in London. The appearance did not go to plan. As she recalled in a 2018 lecture:

The other guest was an English historian who, in reply to a question from the interviewer, composed a paean to British imperialism. “Even you,” he said, turning to me imperiously, “the very fact that you write in English is a tribute to the British Empire.” Not being used to radio shows at the time, I stayed quiet for a while, as a well-behaved recently civilized savage should. But then I sort of lost it, and said some extremely hurtful things. The historian was upset, and after the show told me that he had meant what he said as a compliment, because he loved my book. I asked him if he also felt that jazz, the blues, and all African American writing and poetry were actually a tribute to slavery. And whether all of Latin American literature was a tribute to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

To give the empire any credit for Roy’s book was obviously absurd. Her novel arrived 50 years after Britain’s formal exit from the subcontinent. But the historian’s comment pointed to an even more inchoate judgment. “English is as good or as bad as the idea of India itself,” Roy noted in her lecture, and it was similarly fractious in her life. Her parents spoke English during their brief time together; Roy began learning it at as a young girl, after her first language of Baganiya. In a country of nearly 800 languages, Roy observed, English became “a practical solution” to the problems created by colonialism, namely a regional resistance to the vastly more politicized language of Hindi.

Roy cited Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism as proof that an endogenous language can be used to maim and oppress. On the flip side, she argued, B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste showed that a text written in an imperial tongue could simultaneously connote and dismantle “privilege and exclusion.” Thus, “English has continued—guiltily, unofficially, and by default.”

The question of speech and empire, and what language a colonial subject should use, is a constant subtext in the poems, essays, and fiction of the avant-garde modernist Yi Sang. During his short life, Yi wrote in his native Korean and his received Japanese, while experimenting with, and thus subverting, the rules of both languages. Japanese gave Yi a measure of freedom: He read the French Surrealists and Dadaists in translation and adopted their unsentimental style to process his own dislocation under empire. Through colonial exchange, he absorbed European culture and American imports, from Jean Cocteau to Coty perfume to MJB coffee. Japanese was his awkward portal to a wider world, much as English was for British subjects and their descendants, like Roy. As Yi wrote in a story about an imagined trip to Tokyo, “With a foreign language as big as the ocean under my armpit, I couldn’t easily become hungry.”

A new book of Yi’s poems, essays, and short stories, newly translated by the trilingual team of poet-translators Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, and Joyelle McSweeney, helps capture his global oeuvre and shows how he both mined and tore apart colonial grammar. His synthetic, surrealist lexicon described the life of Seoul and conveyed the grim, sometimes absurd realities of the working class under colonial rule. Above all, his mélange of East Asian and European styles helped formulate an artistic model for subverting the empire from within.

Yi was born Kim Haegyong in 1910, the first year of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula. His father was a printer who’d become a barber after losing several fingers in an accident; his mother gave birth to two more children after Yi. As a toddler, Yi was taken in by his more well-to-do paternal uncle, who had no son, and was raised as his heir. Yi showed a gift for draftsmanship from an early age and dreamed of becoming an artist. But his adoptive father worried that he’d starve and urged him to study a more practical subject. He agreed to train as an architect, adopting the pen name Yi Sang in East Asian fashion, and landed a comfortable post in the colonial government in Seoul.

As a civil servant employed by an occupying power, Yi made the most of his circumstances. He did the work he was hired to do, drawing up plans for construction projects. He also designed magazine covers, painted, and composed poetry and prose off the clock. Having attended school in Japanese, as nearly all Koreans did at the time, he was able to enter state-sponsored competitions that required him to write in the official language.

Yi was restless but might have remained in his job had he not fallen ill. In his early 20s, he contracted tuberculosis, forcing him out of work and into the countryside to give his lungs a break. He returned to Seoul with a companion, a gisaeng (Korean for “geisha”) named Kum Hong, and with her opened a downtown café that became something like Les Deux Magots: a bohemian refuge from the Japanese soldiers and flags that lined so many streets.

Among the artists and intellectuals hanging out at the café were members of Guinhwae (Circle of Nine), a group of writers and poets, all young men, who wrote in Korean and employed a range of styles. They included the poet Kim Kirim, who shared Yi’s passion for Western modernist verse (in one of his most famous poems, he describes spring as a “lazy leopard, / glittering, / itching for motion”) and the novelist Park Taewon (incidentally, the grandfather of Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite won the 2020 Academy Award for Best Picture).

Yi soon joined the group and, for the few remaining years of his life, created dozens of enigmatic, imagistic poems and stories. His writing was often edged, knifelike, with damning portrayals of the destitution and spiritual homelessness of colonial life.

In 1934, through a Guinhwae connection, Yi began to publish “Crow’s Eye View,” which he envisioned as a 30-poem series, in the Chosun Central Daily newspaper. (Chosun, also spelled “Joseon,” was the last kingdom of Korea; it is still what North Koreans call the peninsula.) The series’ title, written in the traditional Chinese used by Koreans of the time (and still sprinkled throughout modern Korean), borrows from a common idiom nearly identical to the English “bird’s-eye view.” But Yi used the character for “crow” instead of the generic “bird” and incorporated symbols of his own.

The poems themselves are jarringly peculiar, even today, and in their original form resemble a merger of experimental calligraphy and mathematical proof. Yi combined words with modified numbers and ornaments, proving poet Elisa Gabbert’s argument that punctuation (think: Emily Dickinson’s feral dashes) may be the “bare-minimum” criterion for what makes a piece of writing poetry. The fifth poem of “Crow’s Eye View” reads:

Next comes the utterly Dada number six, which begins:

Birdie parrot [*] 2 horsies

2 horsies

[*] Birdie parrot is a mammal.

How I—I know of 2 horsies is how ah I do not know of 2 horsies. Of course I keep hoping.

And here is the surreal entirety of number 13:

My arm is cut off while holding a razor. When I examine it, it is pale blue, terrified of something. I lose my remaining arm the same way, so I set up my two arms like candelabras to decorate my room. My arms, even though they are dead, seem terrified of me. I love such flimsy manners more than any flowerpot.

What any single line means is unclear. But taken together, the poems convey a sense of violent absurdity.

“Crow’s Eye View” was received the way a properly avant-garde work should: as an insult or a threat. Like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which famously caused a riot at its 1913 premiere, Yi’s series provoked accusations of insanity and pleas to stop publication. After number 15 in the series, halfway through the planned cycle, the Chosun Central Daily gave up and canceled the rest. Yi responded with a hysterical clapback fit for social media but never published:

Why do you all say I am crazy? We are decades behind others, and you think it’s okay to be complacent? Who knows, I might not have enough talent to make this happen, but we really should be repenting for the time we’ve wasted dicking around…. I sweated picking these 30 poems out of 2,000 pieces that I wrote between 1931 and ‘32…. I pity this wasteland where I can hear no echo for my howl! I won’t ever try something like this again—sure, there is always some other method, but for now I will let this be. I will study quietly for a while, and in my spare time try to cure my insanity.

In whatever spare time Yi had, he wrote verse and made illustrations for friends in Guinhwae. He tried to make a living in the marketplace, but he was a bad (or unlucky) capitalist—his café failed, as did his relationship with Kum.

In 1935, still sick with tuberculosis, Yi took two trips to a still preindustrial Korean countryside to rest and write. But the resulting essays reveal a bookish cosmopolitan lamenting his distance from the city. He employs figures of speech that romanticize the urban even as they unfold against a pastoral landscape. “The bugs are loud. It is as if the window of a dance hall has been left open,” he writes in one essay. In another, titled “Ennui,” he asks, “Do these villagers have hopes and dreams? I am sure they all hope for a good harvest in autumn. However, that is not hope. That is mere survival instinct.” (“Ennui,” like many pieces in the new book, was published after Yi’s death, thanks to Guinhwae.)

Yi wanted more than to merely survive, and thus he soon returned to Seoul, fell in love with a woman named Pyon Tong-rim, and married her. In 1936, he entered his most productive writing year. He published the novella Wings and moved to Tokyo, eager to see a global metropolis. That fantasy, like his reverie in nature, did not last. After connecting with Korean artists in the city, he was arrested and jailed for committing the vague offense of “thought crimes” against the Japanese Empire. It was only on account of his tuberculosis that Yi was released—but not to his home. He died in a Tokyo hospital at the age of 26, one day after his father and grandmother did. Rumor has it that he asked for a taste of lemon on his deathbed.

The surviving photos of Yi, with his elfin ears and curly hair, are beguiling. The great poet is just a boy in a dark student uniform, or a young man in short sleeves, a necktie, and suspenders, arms crossed, judging the world. What if Yi had lived a long life? Long enough to return from his trip to Tokyo and eventually make his way to Paris, home of the first Surrealists?

Surrounded by French architecture, cafés, couture, and bookstores collecting the writings of the world, Yi might have joined circles of artists practicing genre-bending crafts—similar to what he and his friends had tried to do in Seoul, but without the burden of imperial surveillance. He might have learned French and English and continued to build out his undefinable, polyglot code in verse and oil paint. In this thought experiment, he might even have returned to a unified, peaceful Korean peninsula.

While Yi and Korea met a much grimmer fate, the poetry he made throughout his brief life contains many possible worlds. In 1934, around the age of 24, never having set foot outside occupied Korea, he wrote “* Words * for * White * Flower *,” a dour love poem set in a rice paddy aerated by an out-of-place spike:


My face becomes a strip of skin before your face in moonlight my words of praise for you are left unsaid but like a sigh they tickle open sliding paper door and creep into your hair smelling like camellia fields and transplant seedlings of my sorrow


Wandering in a muddy field your high heels made holes it rained and the holes filled with water…

In “◈Two People ••••• 1 •••••,” from “Bird’s Eye View,” published in Japanese in 1931, Yi swaps city for countryside but retains the viscera. He combines Western hero and antihero into a brief, electric pastiche:

Jesus Christ began his sermon in shabby clothes.

Al Capone captured the Mount of Olives for what it was and went on his way.


Sometime after the 1930s——.

At the neon-lit entrance to a certain church, a chubby Capone sold tickets while stretching and shrinking the scar on his cheek.

Yi’s work is every bit as otherworldly as André Breton’s. His poem “Paper Tombstone: The Missing Wife” even seems to allude to the French Surrealist’s “Free Union”: “My wife with her rocket legs / With movements of clockwork and despair / My wife with her calves of elder-tree marrow / My wife with her feet of initials.” In Yi’s rendition of a wife on the move:

My wife must be a kind of bird. She gets so skinny, almost weightless, but she cannot fly because of the ring on her finger…. Sometimes, she opens the window and takes a look at the vast emptiness, but never twitters with her fine voice. My wife seems to have known how to fly and how to die at the very least, because she never leaves a footprint on earth….

The woman in Yi’s poem is avian, somewhere between caged and free. She is also a commuter with a “made-up face.” “My wife goes out to work every morning. Each day, she deceives men, even though the order she gets them might change,” he writes. Sex worker or bird? Surreal, in any case.

Wallace Fowlie, the late scholar and translator of French modernism, wrote that Surrealism and Dada represented “a divorce between the poet and the real world around him,” an artistic reaction to World War I. Yi seemed to channel this divorce in his own response to the burdens of colonial life. His choice of style might also have been the best way to transmit empire’s nightmares while evading the imperial censors. “Though I keep pulling, the gate does not open, because my family inside is barely alive,” Yi writes in “Family.” “I burn like a straw effigy in the night. My family is trapped inside the sealed door, but I cannot trade myself in.”

In a prefatory chronology to Selected Works, Jack Jung notes that Yi and Guinhwae were presaged by a league of socialist writers called the Korea Artista Proleta Federacio (an Esperanto name, of course). The members of KAPF adopted a social realist, rather than a modernist, approach: Their stories and novels feature poor and working-class protagonists suffering the indignities of a feudal turned capitalist economy. Broadly Marxist, the league aligned itself with similar efforts in Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union, as well as the Communist International, until it was forced to dissolve after the arrest of some two dozen members.

Yi was no realist, but neither did he abandon the world around him. His stories and poems are formally absurd yet populated by the everyday: the urban poor, unhappy couples, strivers, gamblers, predatory businessmen—stock characters under the colonial gaze. Yi’s work is similarly rich in allusions to landmark buildings and mass-market products, all the raw materials of a stolen city (Seoul) patterned after a colonial metropolis (Tokyo).

Yet the up-to-date expansiveness that Yi imagined before going to Tokyo, he came to judge with comedic severity. The grand Marunouchi office building, with its arched entrances and zippy elevators, “was at least four times bigger and far more amazing in my mind,” he writes in his essay “Tokyo.” In the Ginza shopping district, a model of central planning, he recalls, “I went to an underground public toilet by a bridge, and while excreting, I recited all the names of my friends who bragged about visiting Tokyo.” Yi’s poems and fiction also express a critique from below, if in subtler ways. Selected Works includes “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs,” an experimental short story about a spider man and woman that also manages to discuss gendered labor, violence in military camp towns, and casino capitalism (and achieves a sense of claustrophobia by doing away with the spaces between words).

Paul Éluard, the French Surrealist and member of the French Resistance during World War II, believed that good artists had common cause with the working class. “Poets, worthy of their name, refuse, as the proletariat does, to be exploited,” he wrote. “Real poetry is included in all that does not conform to that morality which, in order to maintain its order and its prestige, builds only banks, barracks, prisons, churches, brothels. Real poetry is included in everything that delivers man from that terrible wealth which has the appearance of death.”

Yi may not have identified with the peasants of the Korean countryside, but he practiced his own brand of politics. In Guinhwae, he found comrades and an artistic home not unlike what KAPF sought to build. The year before his death, he took up his father’s trade as a printer and published the first and last issue of a Guinhwae journal called Poetry and Fiction. The members who outlived him found no postcolonial freedom in the middle decades of the 20th century. The Japanese occupation morphed into World War II, which morphed into national bifurcation and the Korean War. Park Taewon, Bong Joon-ho’s grandfather, went north, perhaps hoping to make art in a leftist paradise. The same is thought to be true of Kim Kirim, who went missing during the Korean War.

Yi himself never made it back. But his homeland is less a nation than an ecstatic world of moneyed ingenues, mirrors, blood, camellias, geometric shapes, equations, talking animals, razor blades, and missing fathers. Beneath these objects and signs are layers of existential questions, the literary scholar and critic Kwon Young-min recently observed: “Why should people live this way? Why must poetry be made this way? Why do some lives travel such mazy, jagged roads?” For Yi’s fellow subjects under Japanese rule, in languages native and imposed, these questions must have resonated with particular force. They still do, today, refracted through his weird distillations of love and empire and the urban mundane.

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