Kim Su-yŏng was born in Seoul in 1921. His early poems, some of which were published in 1949 in the collection Seroun dosiwa simindurui hapchang (The New City and the Chorus of Citizens), were marked by the Modernism so popular at that time. In his lifetime, he only published one volume of poetry, Dalnaraui Jangnan (A Game Played in the Moon), in 1959. After his death in a car accident in 1968, further collections of poetry and of his critical essays were published. Mineumsa Publishing Company published his complete works in two volumes in 1981. His last poem, Pul (Grass), only published after his death, has provoked particular critical attention and debate. The essays Siyeo, chimul beteora(Poetry, spit it out, 1968) and Bansi-ron (Theory of Anti-Poetics, 1968) are particularly important manifestos arguing for a renewal of poetry and aesthetics.

In his early poems he employs all the strangeness that Korean versions of Imagism permits, in a highly aestheticizing vein, but after 1960 he came to reject the idea that certain lofty topics alone are worthy to be the subjects of poetry. Later works focus on the most ordinary events of daily life, often pathetic or bathetic, domestic and social. He equally rejects the idea of "decorum" (special poetic language and tone) and uses ordinary speech, vulgar terms and slang expressions. His tone is frequently colloquial, satiric or self-mocking. Yet in poems adressing social realities, sufferings, and hopes, he can rise to a rhetoric of heroic style. His poems are often prosaic, since he consciously rejected artifical techniques of rhythm, yet he is capable of great intensity because his poems are always reflections of his own intense emotion, even at their most iconoclastic.

A Screen

The screen cuts me off from absolutely everything.
Back turned, facing
away from the corpse, standing awkwardly, like someone drunk
the screen shows no interest in anything at all.
On your face, so like the front of a corpse,
are a dragon and a setting sun.
Declaring that what must first of all be cut off is sorrow,
far above the heights of falsehood
the screen sets a lofty waterfall, suggests a secluded isle.
Placed in the most difficult spot, the screen
stands before me containing the corpse and concealing the corpse.
As I gazed at the screen
from behind my back the moon was shining on the seal
of the screen’s maker, 67-year-old Haesa .

Note: This poem can only be understood if the reader knows how, in older Korean days, when someone died at home, the body was placed in a room with a folding screen standing in front of it, hiding it. People coming to offer incense and pay respects to the dead person did so facing the screen. One well-known artist with the pen-name Haesa  was Kim Sŏng-gŭn (1835~1919).
The following poems are taken from Variations : Three Korean Poets. (Kim Su-Young (1921 - 1968), Shin Kyong-Nim (1935 - ), Lee Si-Young (1949 - ))  Published in 2001 by Cornell East Asia Series.

A Game Played in the Land of the Moon

A top is spinning.
Human life, child's or adult's, enthralls me,
I love to watch it, and here before my wide open eyes
a child is spinning a top.
I reflect that a child at play is beautiful,
just as children playing at housekeeping are beautiful,
forget to converse with the house-holder I am visiting,
longing for the child to spin the top once more.
Casting aside everything¦¡my work,
for I live in the city as one hard pressed
and my life,
more enthralling than any novel,
here I am, solemnly sitting,
conscious of my age and the dignity age brings,
watching with truly candid eyes a top spinning.
Now the top turns black and stands there spinning.
No matter whose house I visit, it always seems relaxed, not busy,
compared to where I live:
quite out of this world, in fact.
The top is spinning.
The top is spinning.
A thread wound round the foot of the top, most strange,
one end held between the fingers, the top thrown to the floor,
and there it spins, soundless, pale grey,
a game played in the moon, long unseen here.
The top is spinning.
The spinning top moves me to tears.
I am not supposed to cry in front of the house-holder,
he's stouter than I am, below the jet painted on his wall,
and this evening, a time assigned to my destiny and my mission
to be for ever improving myself,
it would not do for me to be in the least bit inattentive,
yet the top spins on and on, as if mocking me.
Since the top lies farther back in my memory
than any aeroplane propeller
and more weak things than strong compose my good heart,
the top is now spinning before me
like some sage from thousands of years ago.
It's a sad thing, come to think of it,
but it seems to be spinning upright as if to say:
We must not weep, you and I, for the power to spin ourselves,
for that something we both share.
The top is spinning.
The top is spinning.



The trees have sunk their roots rather deeper toward winter.
Now my body is no longer mine.
My heart's sudden palpitations, its colds and chills, are not mine.
House, wife, son, mother, none is mine again.
Today, as usual, I work, and worry,
earn money, fight, and do what has to be done from now on
but henceforth my life has been given over,
my order belongs to the order of death,
everything has turned into the values of death.
It's ludicrous how every distance has become foreshortened,
ludicrous how every question has disappeared,
and I find myself with all too many words
about things I have to tell everyone,
but people have no ears for my words.
All these unspoken words...
they make it hard to deal with my wife,
they make it hard to deal with my kids, hard
to deal with my friends,
everything has got far too hard, my lips remain sealed
and I find myself resorting to dreadful insincerity.
All these unspoken words...
tints of heaven, tints of water, tints of chance, words of chance,
most powerless words piercing the walls of death,
words for death, words serving death,
words utterly hating what is simple and honest,
these words of omnipotence,
words of winter, words of spring,
now my words are no longer mine.


Emerging From an Old Palace One Day

Why do the littlest things make me livid?
Why am I not livid with that palace and its debaucheries,
but livid that I got a lump of fat for a fifty Won beef-rib,
pettily livid, swearing at the pig-like woman in the sollong-t'ang restaurant,
swearing pettily?
Why do I only hate the night-watchmen
who come calling three or four times to collect their twenty Won,
not once fairly and squarely
demanding freedom of expression
for an imprisoned novelist, incapable of exercising that freedom
in opposing the despatch of forces to Vietnam?
My petty traditions, eternal as now, lie stretching before me,
a structure of feelings.
For example, this happened to me:
When I was in the 14th field hospital in the prisoner of war camp
in Pusan, an intelligence agent, astonished to see me making sponges
and folding gauze pads with the nurses, asked why I didn't join
the prison police; I ask you, what man would do a thing like that?
Right there in front of the nurses.
What is upsetting me now is just the same
as that sponge-making, gauze-folding.
Hearing a dog bark and surrendering to its cry.
Surrendering to the clamor of a youth, still wet behind the ears.
Even the falling ginko leaves are brambles I must walk through.
I am standing aside; indeed, I never stand right at the top
but move a bit to one side. Yet I know
that standing a bit to one side is a slightly cowardly deed!


So here I am, petty and livid.
Livid with the barber,
since I can't be livid with the landlord; livid with the barber,
since I can't be livid with officials high or low in the local government offices;
livid with the night-watchmen, for twenty Won, for ten Won, for one,
isn't it ridiculous? For one single Won.
Tell me, sand: how small am I?
Wind, dust, grass, tell me: how small am I?
Really, now, how small?


Variations on the Theme of Love

Open your lips, Desire, and there within
I will discover love. At the city limits
the sound of the fading radio's chatter
sounds like love while the river flows on,
drowning it, and on the far shore lies
loving darkness while dry trees, beholding March,
prepare love's buds and the whispers
of those buds rise like mists across yon indigo
Every time love's train passes by
the mountains grow like our sorrow and ignore the lamplight
of Seoul like the remnants of food in a pigsty.
Now even brambles, even the long thorny runners
of rambling roses are love.
Why does love's grove come pushing so impossibly near?
Until we realize that loving is the food of love.
Just as water in a kettle boiling on a stove
nearly spills over but not quite, love's moderation
is a torrid thing.
Interruption is love, too.
I know nights when love persists
like the green eyes of a cat shining in
death-like darkness, from this room to that,
from grandma's room to the room of the errand-boy.
And I know the art of producing such love.
The art of opening and closing eyes
--the art of the French Revolution,
the art we learned not long ago on April 19,
only now we never shout aloud.


Lovely firmness of peach seeds, apricot seeds, dry persimmon seeds.
Wicked faith
of the storm stirred up by silence and love.
The same in Pompeii, New York, and in Seoul.
Compared to the vast city of love I am burying,
greater even than faith,
aren't you a mere ant?
My son, this is not designed to teach you fanaticism.
Grow up until you come to know love.
Humanity's final moments,
the day you drink your cup to the dregs,
the day America's oil dries up:
before you reach such distant times, the words
you will register in your heart are words you will learn
from the city's fatigue.
You will learn this firm silence.
You will wonder whether
the peach seed is not made of love!
Sometime the day will come
when peach seed and apricot seed
will leap up, maddened by love!
And that will not be the false meditation
of a mistaken hour like your father's.

The grass is lying flat.
Fluttering in the east wind that brings rain in its train,
the grass lay flat
and at last it wept.
As the day grew cloudier, it wept even more
and lay flat again.
The grass is lying flat.
It lies flat more quickly than the wind.
It weeps more quickly than the wind.
It rises more quickly than the wind.
The day is cloudy, the grass is lying flat.
It lies low as the ankles
low as the feet.
Though it lies flat later than the wind,
it rises more quickly than the wind
and though it weeps later than the wind,
it laughs more quickly than the wind.
The day is cloudy, the grass's roots are lying flat.