By Anne Rhee
This is a vignette-style epistolary piece that relies on several different narratives to reflect on what it means to be a poet.
ON POETRY 
I suppose I have always been composing poems. It depends on the definition you are following. A quick Google search gets you “a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure.” But I always hated that definition. Poetry, in my mind, is best described as alien. Its very nature, in practice, can range from the most formal—exhibiting techniques like the aforementioned—to being unintelligible.
But everything is alien at first until it becomes bureaucratized. Legitimized. Coded into the system.
Before the establishment of a written system for the Korean language, the elites of the country would write using a system derived from Chinese characters called Hanja. The gap between the poor and the rich when it came to literacy was vast, but most of the population would communicate in the spoken form of Korean. The very act of speaking Korean was considered alien because it had not been legitimized; instead it existed out of the bounds. It was too difficult to appropriate. In the 15th century, Sejong the Great created a written system to match that of the spoken Korean. That is the current system that generations continue to pass down today. No longer is the language alien; it has been subsumed and solidified into legitimacy.
I’d like to think that before Sejong the Great’s2 innovation, language moved and lived at its own pace. Without constraints on how to express themselves, the birth rate for new words would have skyrocketed, families of words constantly regrouping and moving between the villages of stories, humans following.
Words were our masters then; we struggled to keep up because our mouths danced faster than our thoughts did.
I learned about poems in elementary school, as everyone does. After a read-aloud, the teacher encouraged us to write our own. This was what made me begin to grow bored with English class. The very task of using a dictionary to search up words with similar phonology was tedious and difficult. It seemed more like writing for the purpose of adhering to form, and not for expression, which I later understood was the true purpose of writing. I don’t remember what I ended up writing then, but it was probably a pithy number of sentences concerning a cat, a bat and a mat.
During this period of time, I dreamed of becoming a singer. I was in the school’s jazz choir; we sang Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, arrangements of music designed to disrupt consistency and steadiness. Evenly, well-proportioned out staccato was replaced with texture in the varying lengths of each note. In my head, I imagined building a jungle out of the lyrics, the melody a drizzling rain that dotted the ground with roses of raindrops.
If you asked me how I would define poetry, I probably would look at you puzzlingly for a few minutes, and then answer like so:
“I don’t think that you can ever really come close to defining poetry. But if I was forced to, probably as the art of disjointing arrangements of words, of manipulating language. Praxis, survival. Comfort, isolation.”
That is my definition for now. But after all, I’ve only been alive for seventeen years. Who knows what this will look like next year?3 Or in a decade?
Time is a lot like writing. Both are liquid, both are difficult to grasp. Elusive. Both change with age; writing changes in texture and rhythm while time grows heavier, more unforgiving. But the difference is that writing is an attempt at capturing what is felt in the moment. Time gives up when against life. Which is why I choose the first over the second.
King Sejong’s new written system was unpopular at first. Many of the political elites, including government officials, and those who had been close to the ruling family for decades protested. They came up with a litany of reasons to oppose it: it was too inefficient, too impractical to switch over to an entirely new written system.
And in response, the king decided to push for even stronger public support. Writers and artists alike were ordered to write in 한글4 from then on. Poems, novels and famous works of literature were translated into this new language. In that way, 한글 can also be labeled as a political achievement.
However, if King Sejong had not been a man in his position, it would be highly unlikely that the language I and millions of others write in today would be the same.
In her essay “Where is Our Black Avant-Garde,” Zinzi Clemmons writes: “I’ve always been drawn to books with odd arrangements of words. Perhaps it’s because I came to literature as what I believed to be an outsider.”
I am starting to think I am the same way. I grew up consuming stories at a voracious speed, because I was and am still looking for something that I can feel that spark of similarity to.
Among the various essays I ended up submitting to universities this past year, this became the subject of one of those essays. “Perhaps,” I wrote, “no, I am certain this is the reason why I write today. Why I will write in the future.” I never believed that this hunger to recognize my reflection in a piece of work was because of that reason. It is ironic that through writing I came to this realization.
King Sejong did not make 한글 political. It had already been political before being converted into a written system. Prior to becoming the “official written and spoken language,” 한글 had its roots in the provinces. It was a form of communication among those that were considered illiterate.5 It didn’t matter to them, because the words danced out of their mouths and into the air, like sparrows.6
They were the first to establish trade routes, trading hanboks7 of adjectives and 된장8 fermented with nouns.
They were the first migrants; words travel faster than people do, so they sent their words ahead of them, building homes before they got there.
They were the first writers—storytelling, is after all, the child of the voice. They didn’t need paper to see the worlds they were creating.
I chose poetry because it is easy. That sounds superficial, but it’s the truth. I felt too limited by what was taught as fundamental tenets of writing in school: the hamburger method, the five-body paragraph template, the use of transition words, and rhetorical devices. It all felt too twisted to me.
It is not incorrect to say that I did not discover what poetry is until this year. Actually, a few months ago. Or rather, I did not begin discovering what poetry is until this year. I am still young and trying to break free of the habits that the education system has instilled in me. I had read groundbreaking experimental pieces of writing in the past—Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and unnamed blackout poetry, but I did not understand them. Back then, I think I was searching too hard for a larger meaning in everything, a phase where I believed every piece of writing could be universally applied on some level to humanity.
Writing is not like that. Poetry is not like that. It’s provincial, local, raw. It doesn’t exist to appeal to everyone. It was borne from the mouth. It has its own heartbeat. At least, for the writing that I want to create. I say “create”, and not “produce,” because that makes me feel like another cog in a system so obsessed with making art “productive.” Instead, I will dismantle words and put them back together into new shapes, new sculptures. I will re-learn how to write
in Korean because sometimes the spoken English language lacks shape or motion. I want my poems to be shaped crookedly, bent in awkwardly friendly positions, dancing to the rhythm of the speaker’s breathing, tinged with the smell of fermented cabbage and spotted with birthmarks of countless edits. I will give up the beauty in images I am creating now to invent new beauty. And I don’t expect to be recognized for it: I will stay underground for most of my writing career, (figuratively, I hope), but this is what it means to be a poet. This is what it means to be alien in art. Hopefully, I will not alienate other aliens along the way.
people words are the roots of a nation people, and the roots should be strong free so as to create a peaceful nation . new worlds…” — King Sejong (strikethrough the author’s own emphasis)
1“Bittersweet” – WONWOO X MINGYU, ft. Lee Hi. (2021).
2 He was my ancestor, so I can’t exactly say that the creation of this written system should have never happened.
Some degree of filial piety is necessary here!
3Time capsule idea.
4 English pronunciation: hangul. Definition: name of the Korean language.
5 I say “considered to be illiterate” because while the state designated them as illiterate, since they couldn’t read.
6 “Wings of Return”. DMZ Colony. (2020). Choi Don Mee
7 Translates to traditional Korean clothing. Today, it’s worn for ceremonial purposes.
8 Translates to soybean paste.
I ended up writing this piece in an epistolary style (inspired by Lily Hoang and Ocean Vuong), creating multiple vignettes. Each vignette, upon first glance, may seem disjointed from each other, but when read as a full piece, I aimed to create a multi-faceted story about the development of the Korean language system, about how I came to write poetry and how I will approach poetry in the future. The process ended up taking several days to write, and each vignette was surprisingly time-consuming to write.
Anne Rhee is a writer based in NYC. She began writing poetry for fun three years ago and has recently started writing short stories and different multimedia pieces. She likes to focus on themes such as immigration, generational divides, and language. Her pieces have been published in the Girls Write Now Anthology and the Stuyvesant Spectator. She was also a recipient of two Bronze Honorable Mentions from the Scholastic Writing competition. In her free time, she likes to make Pinterest boards, lists, and listen to Ariana Grande.
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