Saving Gasa by Hazel San Buenaventura

Gasa (Korean: 가사) is a traditional kind of poetry which sprung during the Joseon period – acting as a mode of propagation and promotion of the hangul (Korean: 한글) writing system developed by King Sejong (Korean: 세종대왕). It comes in verse form and its usual content focuses on sentiments and expressions. The content can escalate into graver feelings such as admonitions. A gasa, structurally, consists of twinned feet of three or four syllables each per line. It is in free verse form which is why it was regarded before as prose or an essay not poetry.

a form of verse, although its content can include more than the expression of individual. Most gasa poems center on the themes of nature, virtues, and romantic love. Those themes are considered traditional themes. Consequently, themes of the gasa included sadness, melancholy, longing, etc. The themes also evolved and diversified over time that women also wrote gasa – naebang gasa (Korean: 내방 가사) “and as these expansions occurred, kasa became more quotidian in subject and longer in execution” (KTLit).


Below is an excerpt from a work by the early Joseon dynasty poet Jon Geuk-in:


There is between heaven and earth

many a man who’s worth as I.


Why don’t they know the great Joy

Of living in the wooded mountains?


With a grass hut of a few bays

built to face a clear blue stream,


In the lush wood of pine and bamboo

I am the master of wind and moon.


The Spirit of Korean 26-한국의 고전 시가(영문) 102


Unlike the sijo (Korean: 시조), another type of traditional Korean poetry which is still being written and is still in the slates of the contemporary, the gasa “has long been consigned to oblivion for modern Koreans who learn it only in their high school days” (Chung). The world’s fast pace and the expanding use of English has made it harder for older and traditional kinds of literature to survive. Luckily, a scholar’s initiative saved gasa from this fate for “the traditional poetry has been revived in an English translation by Prof. Lee Sung-il, who retired from the English Department of Yonsei University last month” (Chung).


Prof. Lee Sung-il’s initiative is a feat to target a greater readership for the art of gasa. In 2009, he released the first ever translated book of gasa poems entitled “the brush and sword.” It is composed of 15 gasa poems from the early 15th to the late 18th century and has the original Korean and a parallel English translation. Additionally, the book also has comments and notes from him that discusses the poetry he translated. In this deed of Prof. Lee, the steps in saving and promoting gasa is possible. Gasa can become a topic of study of not just Korean scholars but foreign scholars who want to specialize in Korean Classical Literature.


Another method in the restoration and also resurrection of the gasa art of poetry is the opening of the Gasa Poetry Hall (Korean: 한국가사문학관 ; Romanized: Hanguk Gasa Munhakgwan). It is located in Damyang, Jeollanam-do (Korean: 전라남도 담양군). The Gasa Poetry Hall houses 18 representative Gasa poems which makes Damyang the “heart of Gasa poetry.” The county erected the poetry hall to pass on the traditional and cultural importance of gasa poetry. The Korean tourism site gives the glimpse of the hall where “historical literature such as “Myeonangjip” (a collection of Gasa poems by Song Sun) and “Songgangjip,” (a collection of Gasa poems by Jeong Cheol) are on display… Other major tourist attractions in the area are Soswaewon Garden and Sigyeongjeong Pavilion, whose beauty has been source of inspiration for Gasa poets throughout history.” The entire site proves the desire to reestablish and revive gasa.


In the English speaking world, gasa creeps in as a scholarly endeavor. In 2014, the University of London held a lecture that shed light on twelve gasa poems. The lecture’s site reveals the abstract of the entire gathering:


The lecture will deal with one of the representative phenomena of the Late Joseon vernacular poetry – musical gasa poems. This kind of poems serves an example of a new form that originated within a traditional genre framework, illustrating an important feature of the period. Thus, a similar process of a new type of texts formation is characteristic for other poetry and prose genres as well, marking the examined stage of Korean literature development.


The musical gasa poems present a variety of texts containing different poetical genres elements, deeply relate with musical tradition, and show an active reaction to the widening of the readers’ audience in the 18-19 cent., therefore concurring with the general specifics of the literary world at the time. Such issues as the question of authorship, change in imagery system, borrowed elements usage etc. are to be regarded basing on the musical gasa example.


The ongoing feat to reestablish the gasa art of poetry is making its way throughout the globe and any Korean literature advocate hopes not a culmination but a continuity in flourishing and progress.


Gasa, the traditional poem, which means verses proves its stance as an academic field of interest the way the contemporary meaning of gasa shows its prowess in the world. The widely known meaning of gasa is lyrics – song lyrics and this takes the world by storm with the power of the Hallyu wave and the standing of Korean Pop music in the world stage. However, in this triumph, I can only hope for the same with its ‘predecessor’ – an art in its form, an endeavor to take which is the gasa form of poetry.


Works Cited:

“The History of Korean Modern Literature: Classical Lit II – Sijo & Kasa.” 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
“SOAS University of London (The School of Oriental and African Studies).” 20140207. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
“Weather 03-21-2016.” Korea Gasa Literature Collection (한국가사문학관). Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
“Ancient Korean Poems Resonate in English.” Koreatimes. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.



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