Kim Kwang-kyu


Kim Kwang-Kyu was born in Seoul in 1941 and studied German language and literature at Seoul National University. In 1960, early in his university career, he participated in the demonstrations of the April Revolution that were repressed by a tragic massacre on April 19, which led to the fall of President Syngman Rhee. He later studied for two years in Munich 1972-4. Although he had discovered a talent for writing during his middle and high school days, when his work had been published in school magazines and even won a national prize, he did not begin to write poetry after that until he was in his mid-thirties and had come back from Germany. His first published poems appeared in the review Munhak kwa chisong in 1975, the same year in which he published Korean translations of poems by Heinrich Heine and Günter Eich. In 1979 his first volume of poems Urirŭl chŏksinŭn majimak kkum 우리를 적시는 마지막 꿈 (The last dream to affect us) was published but that was virtually supressed in the political tensions surrounding the assassination of the president in October that year; a second volume Anida, kŭroch’i ant’a 아니다, 그렇지 않다 (No, it’s not so) followed in 1983, a third K’ŭnaksan ŭi maŭm 크낙산의 마음 (The heart of Kŭnaksan) in 1986, a fourth Chomp’aengi ch’ŏrŏm 좀팽이처럼 (Like a fusspot) in 1988. There followed Aniri 아니리 in 1991, Mulkil 물길 (Waterways) in 1994 and Kajin kot hanado ŏpchiman 가진 하나도 없지만 (Nothing of my own, but still . . .) in 1998. Since 1980 he has been a professor in the German department of Hanyang University (Seoul) and he has published translations of 19th century German poems (1980), of poems by Bertolt Brecht (1985), of radio dramas by Günter Eich (1986), and of poems by Günter Eich (1987). He has received a number of major Korean literary prizes for his poetry: in 1981 the first Nokwŏn Literary Award and the fifth Today’s Writer Award; in 1984 he received the fourth Kim Su-Yŏng Award. In 1994 he was awarded the Pyonun Literary Prize. In recent years, he has been actively engaged in promoting literary exchanges between Korea and Germany and has given readings of his poetry in numerous cities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He has equally given readings in Japan, in the United States, and in Colombia.

In 1988 the late Kim Young-moo (Professor of English, Seoul National University) published a selection from Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first three volumes of poems, with a critical essay. These were translated by Brother Anthony and were published by Forest Books (London) in 1991 with the title Faint Shadows of Love. The volume received the Translation Prize in the Republic of Korea Literary Awards for 1991. A volume of German translations was published in 1999 and won the same award in 2001. Translations of his work have also recently been made into Spanish and Japanese.


His poems are characterized by a plainness of style and presentation close to prose, yet they nonetheless never lose the essential poetic tension, perhaps because of their skillful use of irony and satire. He has written much poetry sharply critical of the abuses of human dignity caused by corrupt politics and the structural contradictions brought about by the industrialization of society. His subtle protests at the dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s were especially prized and he is also one of the first Korean poets to write on the themes now known as 'ecological' with his feeling for the ravages society has wrought on the world of nature. From time to time he writes poems indicating ways in which transcendent experiences can occur even to people living in the radically secularized and unreligious present. His delicate touches of humor distinguish him from most modern Korean poets.

The resolute simplicity of Kim Kwang-Kyu’s poetry is the result of his decision to place content far ahead of form in his scale of values. He shuns every artificial device by which he might give a falsely “poetic” tonality to his verse. Instead, he remains wedded to the epigrammatic tradition, in which the poetry results from the elegant skill with which important notions are expressed. His is an intellectual poetry, with each poem firmly committed to the affirmation of a humanistic vision of the world. Readers may need to be warned that the first-person speaker in his poems should not be identified with the poet. There is so natural a feel to the life stories and ‘confessions’ that many poems contain that the confusion is easily made. The speaker of many poems is rather a modern Everyman expressing in various ways the alienation and the bewilderment caused by modern city life.

The alienation is very often expressed through an ironic contrast between the present and the past, between nature and society, or between the rural and the urban. In many poems Kim Kwang-Kyu refers to childhood memories of another, seemingly more human Korea in which, despite poverty, people were more attentive to each other and to fundamental values. This enables many Korean readers to sense his concerns very directly, for modernization and urbanization are such recent phenomena that the majority of the poet’s own generation were born in rural villages before moving to the cities with their parents in the 1970s or 80s. As Kim Young-Moo wrote, there is no sentimental nostalgia here, no deliberate attempt to romanticize childhood memories, but certainly a major strategy in Kim Kwang-Kyu’s work involves establishing contrasts that include notions of a lost Paradise. To that extent it would be possible to see in his world view versions of an ongoing Fall, a process of degeneration that the poet sometimes terms “a return to the swamp.” Beneath his poems, illuminated by the gentle humor, there shines a glimmer of hope in a redemption—a sense that things do not necessarily have to be as bad as they are, that humanity has a possibility of making other choices, following other priorities.



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