This month I’m going to discuss a poet I discovered over the summer who is fast becoming one of my favorite poets: Yi Sang. He was a Korean poet, essayist, and fiction writer who wrote in the 1930s, and was part of a literary group called Kuinhoe, which consisted of Sang and eight other writers who are now recognized as an important literary modernist group. Kuinhoe had to disband after the Japanese government (who occupied Korea at the time) arrested some of them. Yi Sang was arrested for what the Japanese government classified as “ideological crimes” and died in a Tokyo hospital while he was still under arrest at the age of 27—after his tuberculosis flared up. Yi Sang was a brilliant modernist avant-garde writer, and although his life was cut short by tuberculosis and the Japanese government, he managed to write some very poignant poetry. The book I have is his Selected Works which came out in 2020. Sang wrote in Korean and Japanese and the book includes more than one translator. The poem I’ll be discussing was translated by Jack Jung. The poem is titled “Poem No. 2” and it’s part of a series called Crow’s Eye View, which was published in a newspaper called Chosun Central Daily in 1934. Thirty poems were supposed to be published, but the newspaper stopped publishing them after the fifteenth one because readers complained about them. Here’s a snippet of Sang’s honest response to the series being cancelled:
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 am of different stuff than those gangs who think they are poets after writing a few here and there….I am sorry that after I began this series with a dragon’s head, I won’t even be allowed to attach a snake’s tail, let alone a rat’s tail, after so much rebuke and criticism.
It’s safe to say that Sang’s particular style of poetry was misunderstood by a readership that did not see (or like) how he pushed the envelope aesthetically and politically in his poems. The fact that he was arrested for his writing further proves that his work was seen as politically dangerous. I see it as being politically honest, which might as well mean dangerous to any oppressive government. Of all the modernist writers during that time, I think Yi Sang was the most controversial, the most honest—even as he used poetic elements to cleverly get his points across. Reading his work in the current moment, his poems feel very transparent and open to me in all the right ways.
Most of the poems in Selected Works are prose poems, as well as poems that would be classified as experimental. What I find intriguing about Sang’s poetry is that it’s more meditative than it is lyrical, and the meditative quality of his work is an interesting contrast to his engagement with science and mathematics (many of his poems read like science experiments and also include symbols, numbers, and equations). And yet, many of his poems also engage with nature and the personal. Sang worked as an architect for some time, so I do feel like his profession influenced his work in certain aesthetic aspects that allowed him to be more methodical in how he approached certain topics that he felt needed to be expressed in poetic terms. Here is “Poem No. 2” in its entirety:
When my father dozes off beside me I become my father and I become my father’s father and even then my father is my father like my father so why do I keep becoming my father’s father’s father’s……father why must I jump over my father and why at last must I live and play the roles of myself and my father and my father’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s all at the same time here—
This poem alone shows why the Crow’s Eye View poems were problematic for readers. This is the second poem in the series and it’s essentially an antipatriarchal poem, although I’m not sure if Yi Sang would’ve consciously classified it that way. But, on a subconscious level, this poem is highly skeptical of patriarchy and how it plays out in the family unit from generation to generation. The opening line “When my father dozes off beside me I become my father and I become my father’s father…” is quite interesting in how it sets up this dynamic in metaphorical terms: When my father dies, I will take his place. This subconsciously reads as an acknowledgement of the patriarchal system and the speaker’s role in it. However, the speaker doesn’t simply take his father’s place, he becomes all the fathers before him in his familial line: “why do I keep becoming my father’s father’s father’s.” Although the word father is possessive, the repetition of the word is what’s most important. Here, Sang is cleverly engaging with the problem of identity: he doesn’t really know what he’s becoming. All he knows is that it’s his “father’s father’s father’s.” And the repetition of the word reads like he’s attempting to trace a lineage that he can’t quite grasp onto. Who is his father; and who are the fathers in general? What have they been doing? Replicating themselves. And when he asks the question, “father why must I jump over my father,” it seems to suggest that he’s supposed to be evolving the family line in some way, which would essentially cause patriarchy to evolve, and he’s asking his own father because his father should have the answer, but he doesn’t. There is no answer. When he asks the question, “and why at last must I live and play the roles of myself and my father and my father’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s all at the same time here—” he is literally pointing to the problematic nature of patriarchy as being an unfulfilling cycle with no end. The poem itself ends mid-sentence, with a dash. There’s no way to end the poem, just like it seems like there’s no way to end the cycle of patriarchy. It’s primary function is to maintain a never-ending chain of masculine bodies that never quite achieve full self-realization and never quite advance the system, but are ultimately expected to uphold perpetuate it.
This is exactly why I admire Yi Sang as a poet and a political thinker. He is engaging with the problematic nature of patriarchy on an aesthetic level. “Poem No. 2” is straightforward enough to help me as a reader to understand that the “father’s father’s father’s” dynamic is a problem, especially concerning identity. From the speaker’s perspective, he has to play more than one role: the role of himself and the role of his father, while also being expected to “jump over my father”—maintain the bloodline and transcend it at the same time. I can see why readers would be outraged by this kind of material, especially in the 1930s. Aside from the fact that Korea was being utterly brutalized by Japan culturally and politically, Sang is pointing to a bigger problem—a systemic problem—that goes beyond colonization: patriarchy. It is my guess that one could present this poem to any culture during that time—Western or Eastern—and the reaction would have been the same: disgust. I don’t mind going so far as to say that this is a feminist poem written way ahead of its time. It’s a poem that predates second wave feminism by thirty-plus years. Another reason why I admire Yi Sang so much is because, compared to other modernist writers of the time, he wasn’t afraid to hit the nail on the head in his poems. He was more direct in his criticism of Korean society and Japanese occupation. Political and cultural oppression, unfortunately, is a universally understood condition, and Yi Sang highlighted that feeling and turned it into incredibly poignant art so that it could be understood globally. It’s a rare ability to be able to do something like that, especially in poetry, and I’m grateful that he was able to express what he saw and experienced so honestly and so directly.
This month I’m discussing a song by The Doors called “Maggie M’Gill.” I’ve been a fan of The Doors for as long as I can remember, especially in my twenties—I listened to The Doors a lot at that time. I’ve always been interested in Jim Morrison as a poet and a counterculture figure. I guess it would be safe to say that I looked up to him somewhat as being in touch with his instinctual self and also being a radical. When I was in high school, I did a history project on him, and read a bit of his poetry. There are other more famous songs by The Doors I could’ve picked, but that’s one of the reasons why I’m choosing to talk about “Maggie M’Gill.” It’s not a song I listened to when I was younger. However, I recently started digging through The Doors’ music again and this song really impressed me. It’s been in my head quite a bit, musically and lyrically. It’s got a great blues riff and some interesting lyrical moves by Morrison. In fact, if I could point to only one song that a person who’s never heard The Doors should listen to, it would be this one, interestingly enough. I think it does all of what The Doors were known for, but in a more compact and potent way. I’d also like to make a slightly controversial statement regarding The Doors: being a punk rocker, and being influenced by Jim Morrison and The Doors, I’d like to classify them as being a precursor to punk music. I think the energy and the sentiment of the band are similar to what punk bands became in the seventies and eighties, but on a grittier, more aggressive level. The Doors were a rock band that operated from a psychedelic/blues positioning, but Jim Morrison was also a poet, so the music is informed by the poetry of the time, which, on a counterculture level, was engaged with stream-of-consciousness and personal expression. These musical and poetic elements influenced the punk movement, which does owe a debt to a band like The Doors, who helped pave the way for primal-driven bands to express themselves more freely. Jim Morrison was the first rock and roll performer to get arrested onstage. Prior to the arrest, he told a cop to “eat me.” This was in the late 1960s, and it’s hard to not see that as a very punk rock thing to do.
“Maggie M’Gill” consists of three verses and an outro, and this song structure speaks to Jim Morrison’s inclination toward poetry. Although he’s an excellent vocalist, I feel like Morrison is more of a spoken word poet backed by a band who knew how to write good riffs and organ melodies. The song is from the group’s fifth studio album, Morrison Hotel, which came out in 1970, so the band was already well-versed in its musical and lyrical sensibilities. The song starts out with a simple but killer blues riff that repeats all throughout the song, backed up by a steady drumbeat. It repeats a few times and then Morrison (whose voice contains a nice bit of grit to it) sings the first verse:
Miss Maggie M’Gill, she lived on a hill
Her daddy got drunk and left her no will
So, she went down, down to Tangie Town
People down there really like to get it on
After doing a little bit of research, I read someone’s interpretation of the song as being about a prostitute. Interestingly enough, I didn’t think of Maggie as being a prostitute, but I could see how one might interpret the song that way. I saw Maggie as being more of a reject who found a home in Tangie Town, which reads as a metaphor for the counterculture subculture, a place where people are in touch with their animal instincts, for better or for worse. What I like so much about this song is the nature of Morrison’s singing. Here, the spoken word element really shines through, enhancing the bluesy, mellow, sexual energy of the music. The second verse is similar to the first verse in that it references Tangie Town as a place where people like to “get it on,” but the first two lines address the listener: “Now if you’re sad and you’re feeling blue / Go out and buy a brand new pair of shoes” and then Morrison suggests that the listener “go down, down to Tangie Town.” To me, this translates as, if you, too, feel like a societal reject, come join us (the counterculture).
After the second verse, there is a musical interlude that includes a nice blend of organ melodies and a simple repeating guitar riff. Ray Manzarek is a brilliant organ soloist. His organ work is similar to that of a guitar soloist, and although the organ is subdued in the song, the musical interlude shows what made The Doors so unique: that wonderful combination of Manzarek’s organ and Robby Krieger’s guitar. Here, the blues and the psychedelic mix in a very natural and organic way. After the musical interlude, there’s a pause in the song before it restarts with the initial blues riff, and the song essentially refreshes itself. This is echoed in the final verse:
Illegitimate son of a rock ‘n roll star
Illegitimate son of a rock ‘n roll star
Mom met dad in the back of a rock n’ roll car, yeah
Well, I’m an old blues man
And I think that you understand
I’ve been singing the blues
Ever since the world began, yeah
This is where the song takes a major lyrical—and what I would also classify as postmodern—shift. The music stays the same, but the lyrics venture into a more aesthetically creative space. “Illegitimate son of a rock ‘n roll star” could refer to Maggie M’Gill becoming accidentally pregnant, possibly, but I want to suggest another reading that takes poetics into account. Let’s not read this as a narrative, but as a poem. The third verse is a lyrical turn that allows the lyricist to appear. When Morrison sings “I’m an old blues man / And I think that you understand,” he is signaling a new entry point into the song: The song is really about me, the singer. It becomes apparent that the lyricist is a witness; he’s older and he’s seen a lot, and he knows not only Maggie’s type, but the type of people who seek out a wild subculture in order to get away from societal oppression. When he sings “Mom met dad in the back of a rock ‘n roll car,” he doesn’t seem phased at all; it’s just a basic truth. Here, music and sex and quick love all intertwine as a result of people escaping a culture that dehumanizes them in order to experience pleasure. Obviously, this is the larger implication of the song, and Morrison doesn’t state this implicitly, but when he sings “I’ve been singing the blues / Ever since the world began” it’s hard not to recognize him as seer of sorts. He’s been witnessing this human desire to escape cultural oppression across time and place. Tangie Town is not the first destination for those seeking to embody their primal desires and it won’t be the last. This much is clear. But on an aesthetic level, the song shifts in a very postmodern way because the song becomes aware of itself as a song about the counterculture scene. And here, Morrison becomes aware of himself as a singer. The outro is him singing “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie M’Gill / Roll on, roll on, Maggie M’Gill.” She’s not a person per se, but rather, a symbol of counterculture identity: societal rejects seeking sexual liberation and/or release.
Yi Sang and The Doors have a lot in common, actually. To start, Yi Sang and Jim Morrison both died at the age of 27, long before they should’ve. And that brings up the obvious question: what more could they have done if they’d lived longer? Both the poet and the singer were brilliant poets in their own ways, but ultimately, what they have in common is that sense of self-awareness in a socially-conscious sort of way. Both the poet and the singer were skilled at being direct in terms of what bothered them on a societal and political level. Yi Sang was railing against political oppression on a creative level (which led to his arrest) and The Doors were absolutely a politically radical band that helped fuel the counterculture scene as a way to resist societal oppression. What is also interesting to note is that Yi Sang was a modernist poet and The Doors feel very much like a postmodern band. The subtle difference is that Yi Sang used art to bring light to the problematic nature of systemic oppression and The Doors used music and lyrics to embody a different way of being in the world that was more instinctual and radical—and against societal oppression. They were very much aware of themselves as a rock band with psychedelic and blues elements; Jim Morrison was very aware of himself as a spoken word poet. In this sense, the band was more of an embodiment of their aesthetics whereas Yi Sang used his aesthetics to expose the problems of empire, patriarchy, and oppression. Another similarity is the fact that both Yi Sang and Jim Morrison were arrested, essentially for being who they were—nonconformist radical artists (Morrison was arrested more than once for being “obscene”). Because they expressed themselves freely through their art, they both became targets, which led to their untimely deaths. Those who want to take on radicalism in their work would do well to explore the poetry of Yi Sang and the music/lyrics of The Doors because the poet and the band weren’t simply controversial and rebellious; they were pointing to and railing against real problems in society that have never been fully addressed or dealt with, even if society has progressed in certain ways since the 1930s or the 1960s—oppression is still a problem in all cultures.
March 6, 2023