Kim Chi-ha’s narrative poem “The Five Bandits”


Whoever writes poetry, you should be daring, not finicky-fussy. Write straight like this.

My writing-brush had an untamed spirit, a rugged tip,

and for that crime I was dragged off to jail, butt-flogged,

but that was all a long time ago; now my joints and sinews itch,

my rash lips flip, wrists mutter and twitch,

coercing me to write again no matter what; I can’t stand it.

Oh my god! What the hell? I don’t care what happens to me.

Even if my butt gets flogged again, beaten till it catches fire,

I’m going to write one ever-so-strange story about some thieves.

This is how Kim Chi-ha’s (기지하 1941-) narrative poem The Five Bandits kicks off and never pauses in its humour and sharp criticism of the elite. It is well known what happened next after the poem got published in the May issue of Sasangkye in 1970: Kim was arrested and imprisoned along with the editors of Sasangkye magazine on charges of having violated the infamous anti-communist law. The magazine was forced to close down.

Five Bandits

Poet Kim Chi-ha and the editors of Sasangkye on trial

The poem is interlaced with many cultural and social references. The title itself, for example, refers to the “Five Eulsa Traitors“(을사오적) who signed the 1905 treaty with Japan turning Korea into a colony. By making use of narrative strategies that are commonly used by shamans in their songs (with its many onomatopoeia) the poem becomes a rip-roaring read. For (English) translators it is really hard to convey all the references and sounds and keep the original speedy reading and meaning intact.
Happily there are some translators who have dared to take on such a difficult task to make this poem more widely known. One translation can be found in the excellent Sources of Korean Tradition (vol.2), but I recently also found a translation done by Brother Anthony on his website on Korean Literature. (the poem can be found here)

Five Bandits cover

Cover of a poetry collection including The Five Bandits