Early Modern Poetry
Poems exalting modern thought and lifestyles first began to appear at the turn of the century but many of these songs merely reflected the values of the so-called Enlightenment Movement in a mechanical fashion. It was really not until the 1920s that the first important works of modern Korean poetry emerged. After the failure of the March First Independence Movement, tendencies of nihilism and romantic decadence were prevalent in the Korean literary world; young poets of the era sang of the rage and sorrows of the individual, often in free verse. Emerging also were lyric poets of high caliber who brought the colonial status of the Korean people and the tragedy of losing national sovereignty into the realm of poetry. Among the representative poets of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s were Kim Sowŏl, Kim Ŏk, Chu Yohan, Pyŏn Yŏngno, Pak Yŏnghŭi, Hwang Sŏgu, and Yi Sanghwa. In particular, Kim Sowŏl¡¯s ¡°Azaleas,¡± a lyric of loss in traditional meter, and Han Yong-un¡¯s ¡°Silence of Love,¡± a deeply religious meditation on the colonial situation of the Korean people, are considered milestones in the development of modern Korean poetry.
The discovery of Modernism and a growing sensitivity to linguistic sophistication resulted in a greater variety of poetic expression in the 1930s. Pak Yŏngch¡¯ŏl, Kim Yŏngnang, Chŏng Chi-yong, and others, who viewed refinement of language and exploration of rhythm as central tasks in poetic composition, brought a heightened awareness of literature as art. Kim Yŏngnang used the folk lyricism and rhythms of speech native to the south-western provinces of Korea to create an emotionally lush poetic language, and Chŏng Chi-yong opened a new horizon of poetic possibilities through chiseled expression, tempered sentiments, and precise visual imagery. Meanwhile, Kim Kirim, Kim Kwanggyun, and Chang Manyŏng began to write poems based on urban sensibilities.
The period also witnessed the literary experiments of the avant-garde poet and fiction writer Yi Sang. In his unashamedly self-preoccupied sketches of the modern consciousness, the self is inconsolably fragmented, and this fragmentation is mirrored in the formal innovations of the poet—the use of nonsense sentences that resist attempts at sense-making, the importation of graphs, tables and mathematical formulas into the body of the poem, etc.—Yi Sang aggressively rejected existing habits of contemplation and the literary conventions that accompanied them. At the opposite pole, Paek Sŏk gave expression to the spirit of traditional village life by preserving the local dialect and customs of his native place in his poetry, while Yi Yong-ak sang lyrically of the wretched plight of the Korean people. In the late 1930s, Pak Mog-wŏl, Cho Chihun, and Pak Tujin, who together came to be known as the ¡°Green Deer School,¡± found spiritual solace in the beauty of nature as it maintains harmony with all forms of life, unlike the human desolation surrounding them. Yi Yuksa sang of the resolute poetic spirit which endures and resists the trials of colonialism, and Yun Tongju found in poetry a matchless vehicle of expression for a chaste, sincere soul beset with shame in a world that prides in its own corruptibility.
In the case of poetry, a renewed interest in the tradition of Korean lyric poetry expressed the desire to recover the Korean language as a medium of literary expression. Pak Mog-wŏl, Sŏ Chŏngju, and Yu Ch¡¯ihwan were among the masters of the lyric who began their career during the colonial period, while Pak Chaesam, Yi Hyŏnggi, Chŏn Ponggŏn, Kim Kwangsŏp, Kim Chongsam, and Kim Chong-gil were among the lyric poets who began to publish after Liberation. At the same time, the period witnessed the rise of new forms of Modernist poetry: experimental prose poems containing new urban sensibility and verse revealing a critical attitude toward authority and the absurdities of society. In this latter category belong the works of Kim Su-yŏng, Kim Ch¡¯unsu, Pak Inhwan, and Song Uk.
The abolition of literary censorship and the free use of the Korean language that accompanied the Liberation accorded a new level of freedom, vitality, and purposiveness to the act of poetry composition. The post-Liberation poets were now faced with the task of bringing the Korean language to a mature level as the vehicle of poetic expression. Also necessary were efforts to view human life from different angles and broader perspectives that had been barred to them as colonial poets. The result was the expansion of the world of poetry.
Sŏ Chŏngju (1915–2000), often known in Korea by his sobriquet Midang, was a central figure in this expansion. He left behind over eight hundred accomplished poems, records of the poet¡¯s lifelong search for new modes of expression, from early lyrics to ruminations on ancient Korean history. Traditional lore and patterns of ordinary village life also served as sources of poetic inspiration for Sô[DM1] Chôngju[DM2]. If there is certain unity to be found in his prodigious output, it is perhaps his insistence on the physicality of specifically Korean language.
In the aftermath of the ideological strife and the violence of war that characterized the post-Liberation era, one current of poetry in the 1950s sought a return to the ideals of purity and lyricism. These poets shied away from expressing direct interest in concrete historical reality, and explored instead new ways of giving depth to the world of traditional lyric poetry. Yu Ch¡¯ihwan, Shin Sŏkchŏng, Pak Tujin, Pak Mog-wŏl, Cho Chihun, and Pak Namsu were among the poets who showed a consistent interest in the lyric from the colonial period onward. Yu Ch¡¯ihwan and Pak Mog-wŏl, in particular, offered distinctive explorations of nature and life.
Yu Ch¡¯ihwan (1908–67) is remembered as a poet of considerable moral strength and sincerity. With a passionate affirmation of life as the basis and moral rigor as the vehicle, his poetry seeks to navigate the void of life and overcome its meaninglessness. In the latter half of his career, Yu Ch¡¯ihwan turned to fundamental speculations on the question of existence and transcendence, and expressed them in a particularly masculine voice. He is often linked to the ¡°Life School¡± of poetry also exemplified by Sŏ Chŏngju.
Pak Mog-wŏl (1916-78) incorporated the controlled rhythms of Korean folksongs in his poetry to evoke the natural landscape and express the folk spirit rooted in it, carrying on the tradition of Korean lyric associated with Kim Sowŏl. These characteristics can be glimpsed in his early collections, Green Deer (1946) and The Mountain Peach (1955). The nature sketched in The Mountain Peach, in particular, is more symbolic than realistic; transcending the limitations of space, natural landscapes come to embody the Korean spirit, and remain self-sufficient, unaffected by the vagaries of life. Through extreme condensation, Pak Mog-wŏl creates concentrated images of remarkable beauty and pregnant meaning. His experiments in prosody frequently utilize the vacuum created by omission of meaning or the lack of a predicate to achieve an elliptical style that has a powerful resonance.
If renewed interest in lyricism, of the kind seen in the works of Pak Mogwôl and Yu Ch¡¯ihwan, characterized one of the two important currents in Korean poetry after Liberation, a certain self-awareness regarding the language of poetry marked the other. This awareness revealed itself on the one hand in the expansion of poetry¡¯s prosaic potential by writing about concrete sociopolitical problems that until then had been considered beyond the pale of the properly poetic, and through efforts to produce more limpid distillations of poetic language on the other. In the works of Kim Su-yŏng and Kim Ch¡¯unsu, these new possibilities for poetic expression gained compelling articulation.
Kim Su-yŏng (1921-68) began his literary career as a member of ¡°The Second Half,¡± a group of young poets who declared a decisive break from the aesthetics of lyricism which had dominated Korean poetry in the first half of the 1950s. Challenging the familiar language and fatalistic worldview of lyric poetry, the group rejected tradition and espoused a new wave of Modernism, expressed through innovation in language and an engagement with social concerns. Kim Su-yŏng was the leading member of the group. The poems contained in his first collection The Game on the Moon (1959), marked by surrealism, have an abstract and arcane quality in their aggressive rejection of tradition, but in his subsequent poems, Kim explored the sorrows of ordinary citizens who live, deprived of their individual freedom, within an oppressive society.
The unmistakable link between the ideals of freedom and democracy articulated in the 4.19 Movement and the poetry of Kim Su-yŏng has led many to characterize him as the epitome of a critical intellectual who positions himself against the oppressive society and a pioneer of the movement that later came to be known as the ¡°participation¡± school of poetry, a view of literature that stressed its responsibility vis-à-vis sociopolitical issues. It would be more accurate, however, to see Kim Su-yŏng as a poet who relentlessly explored the relation between poetry and life, based on the important recognition that poetry is produced within the space of everyday life. Thus the world of poetry does not delineate a realm separate from that where life takes place, but rather it takes shape within the domain of eating, drinking, and coughing, a world of a ¡°fading radio¡¯s chatter,¡± of ¡°thorny runners and brambles,¡± and most importantly, of love. This belief in the inseparability of life and poetry underlies Kim¡¯s formal experiments in prose poetry; it is also the reason why two divergent paths of poetic development have both been ascribed to him—direct engagement with the existing society as subject matter and the attempt to realize the possibility of freedom in the matter of poetic language. For Kim Su-yŏng, after all, freedom was a matter both of social reality and of poetic language.
Kim Ch¡¯unsu (1922- ) pursued the absolute purity of poetic language by adopting the Symbolist poetics of the West. An obsession with purity manifested itself as exploration of the infinite in his early poems, and of meaninglessness in later poems. Influenced by Rilke, his early poems, in such collections as Clouds and Roses (1948), The Swamp (1950), The Banner (1951), A Neighbor (1953) A Sketch of Flowers (1959) and The Death of a Girl in Budapest (1959), dealt with existential loneliness and the tragic condition of life, expressed as a hunger or prayer for an absolute world that lies beyond the power of language to describe.
In poetry as well, the critique of contemporary society was seen as an urgent task. Kim Chiha, Shin Kyŏngnim, Ko Ŭn, Cho T¡¯aeil,, and Yi Sŏngbu attempted to resurrect the spirit of the people articulated in such traditional art forms as pansori and folksongs as a means of denouncing the lack of political freedom.. Using a more cerebral language, another group of poets concentrated on the process by which human beings become deformed in industrial society by experimenting with expression and form. Yet another group of poets, including Hwang Tonggyu, Chŏng Chin-gyu, Chŏng Hyŏnjong, and O Kyuwŏn, displayed new linguistic sensibility as they sang of life¡¯s ambiguities and the contradictions of the times from a personal viewpoint.
Korean poetry after 1970 exhibited an expansion of social interest with poets like Ko Ŭn, Shin Kyŏngnim, Kim Chiha, Yi Sŏngbu, and Cho T¡¯aeil giving artistic expression to social concerns and a critique of the political oppression accompanying industrialization. Through poetry, they sought to articulate a desire for a new praxis in regard to social justice. The emphasis on praxis sometimes led to forays into the ideological territory regarding the concepts of the nation, justice, freedom, and the people.
The early poems of Ko Ŭn (1933-) are often felt to have been inspired by Buddhism, for he began to write in the later 1950s, while he was a Buddhist monk. By this reading, they exhibit what might be termed a ¡°Zen¡± approach to understanding—an intuitive apprehension of things in themselves. These first poems can also be seen as songs of emptiness and perishability. An interest in all that perishes underlies Ko Ŭn¡¯s poetic endeavors from his first collection, Other World Sensibility (1960), to When I Went to Munŭi Village (1974), and is intimately connected to the poet¡¯s response to death, symbolically expressed as a longing for a dead sister (Ko Ŭn had no sister). In Ko Ŭn¡¯s earlier poems we can often glimpse hints of a nihilist spirit deep in death¡¯s shadow
Shin Kyŏngnim (1936-) first came to critical fame with Farmers¡¯ Dance (1973), which consists of a series of realistic portraits of Korean farmers and migrant laborers in the actual conditions of their life—suffering and impoverishment brought on by rapid industrialization. The poetic voice remains highly physical; unlike earlier poets whose attempt to capture the farming village resulted in a landscape poem or a pastoral, Sin¡¯s farming village is, first and foremost, the site of life. Filled with narrative elements—concise but highly accurate descriptions of farmer¡¯s lives and perceptive observations that capture their ways of thought—Farmer¡¯s Dance imparts a robust sense of reality. Suggested in Shin Kyŏngnim¡¯s poetry is the feeling of communal solidarity shared by the classes that have been alienated by the process of industrialization.
Kim Chiha (1941- ) was the protest poet par excellence in the era of military dictatorships. In Five Thieves (1970), which he called a ¡°ballad,¡± Kim Chi-ha offers a scathing critique of the corrupt political world of his time through an experiment in poetic form. By drawing into the poem elements of traditional Korean oral genres, including the kasa, t¡¯aryŏng, and p¡¯ansori narrative, the poet tests out new hybrid possibilities. For example, he incorporates bold and unrestrained commentary, a feature of oral narratives that stands at some odds with the modern aesthetic values of poetic tension and control. ¡°Five Thieves¡± brings together the lyrical and the narrative, the humorous and the tragically beautiful in a vivacious mixing of genres. Repetitions, audacious omissions, and aggressive uses of slang or idioms make the poem a space simmering with heteroglossia. It is the spirit of satire, however, that weaves the different discourses together as a coherent whole. An offspring of a critical mind and acute powers of observation, his satire seizes upon contradictions of contemporary life and probes them mercilessly. The target of Kim Chiha¡¯s satire is political authoritarianism and deep-seated corruption in Korean society; the ¡°Five Thieves¡± are the corporate conglomerates, congressmen, high-level bureaucrats, military generals, and heads of government ministries that form the very top echelon of Korean society, the putrid pool from which oppression and corruption are bred
Parallel to the seminal works of poets like Kim Chiha, Shin Kyŏngnim, and Ko Ŭn published in the 1970s, can be found a widespread concern among intellectuals and dissidents with the minjung, meaning ¡°common folk¡± and referring to the exploited workers, peasants, and fishermen at the bottom of modern Korean society. It was a key concept at this time, suggesting a critique of Korea¡¯s socioeconomic or political realities and indicating a belief in the enduring spirit of the simple Korean people. A different set of interests guided the works of such poets as Hwang Tonggyu, Chŏng Hyŏnjong, and O Kyuwŏn: experimentation in language and form, lyrical treatment of the affairs of the human heart, intellectual inquiry of industrialization¡¯s deforming effect on human lives. In their poems, the distorted reality is reflected in twisted language, antihumanist elements articulated using the language of paradox, of cynicism, and of irony. Their obsession with the interior landscape of individuals rather than the larger sociopolitical scene sometimes leads to isolationist tendencies or abstruseness, but the works of these poets broadened the horizon of poetic imagination, and achieved greater allusiveness and multiplicity in the realm of poetic language.
Hwang Tonggyu (1938-) exhibited melancholia and a tragic worldview in the early poems contained in the collections One Clear Day (1961) and Elegy (1965), but responded sensitively to the darkness of the times in the 1970s. In Snow Falls in the South (1975), Hwang Tonggyu evoked the agony and inner conflict arising from fear of political violence and the sense of helplessness in being unable to face it fully. At times, he criticizes contemporary society through paradox and irony, at other moments, he exposes his thoughts regarding his helpless self in a somewhat sentimental voice.
High levels of youthful energy marked the literature of the early 1980s. At a time when established literary magazines were being forced to cease publication or reduce their activities by heavy political censorship, young writers came together spontaneously in literary groups and published their own magazines. Breaking out from under the influence of the older generation of writers, they articulated an autonomous voice of protest. Many talented fiction writers came of age in this period, and their fictional imagination expanded in scope. It was the activities of young poets, however, that most attracted attention; readers flocked to bookstores to buy volumes of their poetry, which often became bestsellers. At no other time in Korean history were so many volumes of poetry sold. For this reason, the early 1980s has been called the ¡°era of poetry¡± by some. At the center of this explosive phenomenon were young poets like Yi Sŏngbok, Hwang Chi-u, Ch¡¯oe Sŭngho, Pak Namch¡¯ŏl, Ch¡¯oe Sŭngja, Kim Hyesun, and Chang Chŏng-il. Full of hostility toward the establishment and authority, these poets dismantled existing poetic language and grammar to express their dissidence against the times and against the existential conditions of their lives. Their poetry, vibrant with imagination and employing language unlike any that had come before, struck a deep chord that resonated widely.
In a society where personal desires rather than social interests were actively pursued, and where the internet and popular culture were fast becoming the dominant medium for communicating with others, literature and the arts also changed. The majority of young poets now sported sensibilities finely attuned to popular culture and responded actively to the lure of the internet. At the same time, they experienced a confusion of values, the loss of identity, and an alienation of desire. Poets like Chang Chŏng-il, Yu Ha, Yi Munjae, and Ham Minbok wander like bohemians or lost children within the vast terrain of popular culture and sing of the meaninglessness and emptiness behind the glittering world. To these poets, popular consumer society is at once a monstrous thing to be criticized and resisted, and an alluring mirage from which they cannot escape. Poets like Kim Kit¡¯aek, Chang Sŏngnam, Hŏ Su-gyŏng, Na Huidŏk, and Ch¡¯oe Chŏngnye sing in unique ways of lives alienated by this shimmering world. In their poems, ordinary life appears fragmented, having lost the stable basis needed for coherence, and filled with inner agony—loss of love, impossible desires, insecurities of existence, and severance of relations.