An article published in Kyoto Journal 60, July 2005
Pain and Truth: a pilgrimage with some Korean poets
by Brother Anthony of Taizé
It is hard to know where to begin and where to end when proposing an
itinerary through modern Korean poetry. There is so much of it, and it
is so integral to an understanding of recent Korean history. It is
often far-removed from the decadence associated with art-for art,
though some have taken that turning, it is true. But twentieth-century
Korea has been forced by circumstances it never chose to pass twice
through Hell -- the first Hell a particularly vicious and oppressive
form of colonialism, the second the current state of division following
the most deadly war of the twentieth century. It is hardly surprising
to discover that many Korean writers have been called to serve as
Virgil to their nation’s Dante, announcing at least the hope of a
moment when their suffering people might “come forth again to see the
stars” as in the last line of Dante’s Inferno.
We might start with Shin Kyŏng-nim’s very first poem, published in
1956. It offers an example of pathetic fallacy that is not simply
sentimental. In Korea, we realize, even the reeds weep in pain. Pain
has been busy there:
For some time past, a reed had been
quietly weeping inwardly.
Then finally, one evening, the reed
realized it was trembling all over.
It wasn't the wind or the moon.
The reed was utterly unaware that it was its own
quiet inward weeping that was making it tremble.
It was unaware
that being alive is a matter
of that kind of quiet inward weeping.
Beside it may be put the last, posthumously
published poem by another fine poet. Kim Su-yŏng was an intellectual
and originally an art-for art poet, a student and teacher of English
literature, intrigued by the Modernists. But after the failed
revolution of 1960, that was betrayed by the contradictions, greeds and
wounds in Korean society, he became spokesman for a shift toward
natural-sounding language and social relevance in literary and critical
discourse. One evening in 1968 he was killed by a speeding bus. His
last poem, unpublished when he died, clearly a very great poem made
more intriguing by the sudden death of its author, has inspired a large
debate as to its meaning. Should it be read as an allegory, an
evocation of some aspect of the Korean people’s suffering? Or is it
simply a lyric? Celebrating what reality? Whatever the preferred
answer, pain cannot fail to be a major part of it.
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.
With their weeping reeds and grass, such poems illustrate one of the
ways Korean poets have tried to respond to the pain around them and
within themselves. The result in both cases is a delicate expression,
strong in tone, shunning facile sentiment, in which truth and beauty
The idea of ‘poetic beauty arising from pain in truth’ offers a useful
thematic clue to follow in negociating the gyres of Korea’s recent
poetry. It is encouraged by Ko Un’s account of the poet Yi Yong-ak in
an early volume of his Maninbo / Ten-thousand Lives:
He left us the most painful and lovely of all
the modern poetry written in our land,
he left us the most painful and truthful of all.
In the 1930s when we were under Japanese rule
he would stand, hungry,
in the center of Seoul,
waiting for anyone he knew to come by.
Soon after Liberation in 1945,
Sŏ Chŏng-ju published a volume of poems, Nightingale,
in praise of long journeys to Western realms
and went out to the publication party
dressed in a fine silk shirt.
Yi Yong-ak turned up at the party
and drew him into a corner:
‘Chŏng-ju, a word in your ear.’
Thereupon he pulled a knife from his belt
and slashed that fine silk shirt,
spat : ‘You hopeless bourgeois,’
and walked out.
(. . .)
A man of poetry who never lied,
he shines out, a distant lamp shining
down a long night road.
Ko Un thus memorializes one remarkable Korean poet
mainly by reporting his attack on another, far better known one: a
brief episode pregnant with deeper meanings. It is best understood in
terms of the conflict between the poetry practiced as disincarnate,
egocentric art and that related to social concerns, prompted by
experience of one’s own and others’ pain in a quest for truth.
There was only a year’s difference of age between Yi Yong-ak and Sŏ
Chŏng-ju but they were poles apart; Yi was born in the harsh northern
regions of what is now North Korea, Sŏ came from the balmy south-west.
Like many of the most talented Koreans of the time, Yi Yong-ak had gone
to study in Japan, eager to find a new vision of modernity, and like
many others he returned more than ever convinced that the future lay on
the socialist side of the ideological equation. He went North during
the Korean War, hoping to find there the fulfillment of his dreams. It
seems he survived until 1971; many other poets and intellectuals who
made the same choice, such as Im Hwa, were soon shot in purges.
Sŏ Chŏng-ju was never in prison, and had other silk shirts made. He was
surely a very great poet, true as far as art for art’s sake can be
true, and the title poem of the Nightingale volume for which he got his
shirt slashed is as good a sign of that as any:
The path my love took is speckled with tears.
Playing his flute, he began the long journey
to western realms, where azalea rains fall.
Dressed all in white so neat, so neat,
my love's journey's too long, he'll never return.
I might have tressed shoes or sandals of straw
woven strand by strand with all our sad story.
Cutting off my poor hair with a silver blade,
I might have used that to weave sandals for him.
In the weary night sky, as silk lanterns glow,
a bird sings laments that it cannot contain,
refreshing its voice in the Milky Way's meanders;
eyes closed, intoxicated with its own blood.
My dear, gone to heaven's end alone!
That was published in 1948, the year in which the
Republic of Korea was established in the South. About the same time,
after the shirt-slashing incident, Yi Yong-ak was put in prison in
Seoul as a dangerous leftist, not long after expressing his very
different version of the attraction of far-off lands:
The north’s my home.
That north’s a land where women got sold.
When the wind freezes hard in those distant hills,
then blows free again,
my heart is unable to close its eyes
to that tormented northern sky.
Yi Yong-ak is one of Korea’s many ‘Diaspora’ poets,
one especially qualified for the term since he was a man of multiple
exiles, one who had lost many homes. Much of his early poetry evokes
the pain of the Koreans forced by poverty under Japanese rule to live
in exile beyond the northern frontier, in the bitter winters of
Manchuria. He himself took the road of exile to study journalism in
Tokyo then returned to work in exile from his northern home, in Seoul,
and his final exile, apparently homeward, has him vanishing into a
world surely very different to that which he had left or dreamed of
Other poets of that same Diaspora came walking in
the other direction, southward, away from a northern home, as Ku Sang
did to escape probable liquidation for the ideological impurity of his
first collection of poems. How could he have dreamed as he took his
leave of his mother in 1946 that they would never meet again, that he
would never again set foot in his beloved Wonsan, though he lived until
2004? His pain is that of millions:
Whenever I pass Komo (Mother-cherishing) Station near Taegu,
my mother is waiting.
Out in front of the garden gate, she is waiting,
looking scarcely older than my wife looks now,
looking just as when she saw me off
the day I crossed the 38th Parallel,
out in the lane, she is waiting.
Living helter-skelter, day by day,
rattling the empty lunch-box in my satchel,
coming home from school by train, as in that childhood,
so now when my hair is as grey
as my father's was when he died,
out by the station she is waiting.
My mother, who stayed behind
alone in our North Korean home,
alive still, or dead, I do not know,
has come here now and is waiting.
His family had left Seoul for the north, where his father was to become
a school-master, in the early 1920s and he later recalled how, during
that journey, ‘my first buds of knowledge unfolded and I wept.’ That
sorrow and the many other sorrows that followed it may explain why, in
later life, the image many people had of Ku Sang was of a man who was
for ever laughing, or as one child put it, ‘like a little boy playing
by himself.’ For pain is not always well expressed by groaning or gloom.
Ko Un and Ku Sang were close friends, drinking companions in younger
years. Ko Un has often told that he dates his poetic vocation to the
day, in 1949 or 1950, when he discovered a poetry book lying
mysteriously lost on a quiet country road. Reading those recently
published poems of Han Ha-un, he says, ‘My heart seemed torn apart by
the force of the shock those lyrics produced on me.’ Han, too, was an
exile. Born in the same northern region as Yi Yong-ak in 1919, the same
year as Ku Sang, he came south early, studied agriculture, developed
leprosy, and so become society’s ultimate exile:
one finger froze
and as I scratched my head, it dropped to the ground.
That bit of bone, that scrap of flesh
I’ll wrap carefully in a piece of cloth torn from my collar,
cover that with a white bandage, put it in my pocket.
When the weather’s warmer
I want to go to some sunny spot on Namsan.
Digging a deep, deep hole, I’ll bury it there.
Funerals, burials, tombs are frequent images in the
poetry of pain; hardly surprising, considering the degree to which
death was a familiar companion to the Korean people over so many years.
Death in exile or in prison under Japanese rule, with the poet-martyrs
Yi Yuk-sa and Yun Dong-ju; death in Cheju-do and across the peninsula
in the struggles for political control after 1945; three million deaths
in the Korean War; the unknown, violent end of so many writers
kidnapped or freely gone North; the students mowed down during the 1960
April Revolution in Seoul, then in 1980 in Kwangju; desperate young
heroes immolating themselves in protests . . . Exile was not an
experience limited to those who had left home and found that there
could be no return; we might say it was the inescapable lot of every
Korean, of North and South, in China, Japan and Hawaii, and beyond.
History had raised a high wall between their childhood and their
present lot. But soon it became the special fate of a whole generation
of South Korean village youths, mobilized to provide cheap labor in the
factories springing up in the towns in the 1960s and 70s, ‘dark Satanic
mills’ with no Blake to write a ‘Jerusalem’ for them.
Instead, Shin Kyŏng-nim set aside his pen after
publishing an initial batch of poems in 1956 and for more than ten
years roamed the land. Working as a laborer and peddlar, he became one
of the many, and saw much that no one was supposed to see, before
returning to complete university studies:
One young woman all alone
follows weeping behind a bier.
A procession with no funeral banners, no hand-bell in front.
along the smoke-veiled evening road,
a breeze scattering falling leaves
down alleys with neither doors nor windows,
while people watch hiding
behind telegraph posts and roadside trees.
the dead man's name
that dark and moonless day.
That was written in 1970. Shin’s return from exile
was heralded by the publication in 1973 of a remarkable collection,
Farmers’ Dance, only 40 poems, expanded in a second edition that
appeared in 1975. The poems are dated. In 1965, he had written:
After we've lost every trace of laughter all day long
when we try to smile in front of the alley grogshop
our faces twist and contort.
When we clasp each other's hands warmly
our hands feel cold and rough.
As we limp through night-covered poverty
freed from all the people who hate us
we rage, and repent,
curse but then part,
and when we push open our rooms' curbside doors
and call our wives' names,
our voices turn into keening laments.
(The Road Back Home)
Such poems shocked the critics, accustomed to the
conventions of romanticism, where the individual poet’s ‘I’ persona
performs its solitary, egotistical meanderings amidst rhapsodic
landscapes. Many of Shin’s poems speak in a collective ‘we’ that might
well have got him into ideological hot water, for all forms of
collectivism were considered signs of incipient socialism, the
forbidden ideology of the enemy North. Instead, it remained a critics’
quarrel, while a generation of readers marveled to find a poet who had
expressed the truth of their pain in a voice rich with the rhythms of
the suffering Many. The exiled multitude had found a poetic haven.
One of the dimensions of the Korean exile especially
hard to endure as the years passed was the exile from a free expression
of resistance and dissent. The years of repression, only growing more
intense during the industrialization of the 1970s, offered none of the
forms of even token democracy. Shin Kyŏng-nim had served to give voice
to the silent masses moving inexorably from the half-hearted, limping
dances of poverty-stricken villages to the grim routines of the urban
slums. It fell to Kim Kwang-kyu to break the silences of the more
educated and therefore more seriously compromised urban elite. It was
only now that the edge of satire could be felt, the note of humor that
is even today so seriously lacking in Korean writing. There had been
long decades when pain was ineluctable, when the only question could be
the dignity with which individuals pursued their descent to the tomb.
By the later 1970s, at least for members of more fortunate families,
those years lay in the past.
Kim Kwang-kyu was a student at Seoul National University at the moment
of the 1960 Revolution. When Shin Kyŏng-nim’s Farmers’ Dance appeared,
he was studying in Germany. He came late to poetry-writing, after he
returned from abroad, when he had already translated poems by
Günter Eich and while he was preparing to translate poems by
Bertolt Brecht. His first volume appeared late in 1979, just at the
right moment for it to be virtually suppressed in the security
clampdown following the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee.
That only made it more attractive to those who shared a thirst for a
new voice of protest and hope in the dictatorial deserts imposed by
One baby crab,
caught with its mother,
while the big crabs, tied together by a straw rope
foam and wave aimless legs,
tumbles out of the hawker’s basket
and crawls off sideways, sideways over the roadway,
in quest of past days of hide-and-seek in the mud
and the freedom of the sea.
It pricks up its eyes and gazes all around,
then dies, squashed across the roadway,
run over by a speeding army truck.
No one notices how a light of glory shines
where the baby crab’s remains rot in the dust.
(Death of a baby crab)
This allegory, recognized as once as a reference to
the deaths of the many young, innocent victims of repression, sings the
dignity of the fudamental human aspiration to freedom and a happy life.
Yet the baby crab is dead without return. The other desert of Kim’s
concern is the concrete jungle of urban mediocrity, where people are so
accustomed to conformity that they do not even need the dictators’
security police to keep them under control:
There’s no audience, yet
everyone’s carrying a pole
and walking the tightrope up in the air
where so many ropes are crisscrossed
that if there’s no way ahead on one
they jump across to the next
and even when resting keep switching
from one to another and back.
But if you fall
between the ropes you
into the unfathomed dark.
With so many ropes crisscrossing
it sometimes looks like solid ground
but if you blink one eye and
make a false step
you’ve had it so,
trying hard not to fall,
controlling their swaying bodies,
everyone’s ever so cautiously
toeing the line.
That takes us out in directions leading to exiles
from freedom that are not at all specifically Korean. Those deserts are
universal. It is perhaps not surprising to find that a friend of Kim
Kwang-kyu, Mah Chonggi, has been writing award-winning, poems in Korean
throughout his decades-long career as a doctor and medical professor in
the United States. He moved there not long after being arrested and
tortured for daring to criticize the dictator of the moment.
Doctor-poets are in a delicate position, for the pain they suffer is so
often strongly related to the pain of others. Mah Chonggi is no
exception and he first began to write because otherwise he could not
endure watching so many friends die. The transition from living person
to lifeless corpse was made all the more painful by the obligation he
was under to observe the autopsies. His poems speak of other pains,
too, more private ones but one example must speak for all:
When the light goes out in the westward sickroom,
the dark shadow of winter
passes beyond the low hills
and the chill bricks of the autopsy room
ring to the sound of a skull being sawed,
it’s no finale.
I first learned about
natural life in anatomy class.
That’s when the cold came.
On my lonely, youthful bed
I often found myself sentenced to death.
The dazzling vertigo of the remaining hours.
Don’t you see? The solitary deathbed
of the tall guy who gave up.
Don’t you see? This is no finale.
The next-but-final point on this chart of pain and truth brings us back
to the crux of the matter. So many of the stories of Korean pain are
common to hundreds, or thousands, yet every case is unique. Early on
August 6, 1945, an 8-year-old Korean girl was sitting in the shade of a
tree in the yard of a Shinto shrine on the outskirts of Hiroshima, that
was serving as a school. The tree sheltered her from the flash of the
bomb that erased her father from the face of the earth, somewhere
nearer the city center. She soon returned to a newly liberated Korea
with her mother and brother.
In the early 1950s her brother studied at Seoul National University and
among his friends was another Korean who had grown up in Japan, Chŏn
Sang-Pyŏng, a strange fellow with a loud voice and no concern about
making a career. Several years before, still in school, he had shown
his form-master a poem he had written after hearing mourners weeping
before a tomb on a hill above the sea:
The reason why the river flows toward the sea
is not only because I’ve been weeping
all day long
up on the hill.
Not only because I’ve been blooming
like a sunflower in longing
all night long
up on the hill.
The reason I’ve been weeping like a beast in sorrow
up on the hill
is not only because
the river flows toward the sea.
A senior poet who read that had marveled to find a
teenager of such acute sensitivity, and wondered how he would ever
survive life in the modern world. The poem was published, others
followed. When that girl, Mok Sun-ok, later met her brother’s friend,
he was one of the many usually penniless writers and artists who
frequented the cafés and bars of Seoul’s downtown Myŏng-dong
area. Ko Un, Ku Sang, Han Ha-un, Shin Kyŏng-nim, and many others were
all to be found, at least on occasion, drinking (often on credit) in
the bars up those dark alleys. Immensely innocent as to the ways of the
world, for much of the time Chŏn had no fixed job and no fixed abode.
In 1967, after some friends of his dared to visit the North Korean
embassy in East Berlin hoping to initiate some kind of dialogue, he was
taken in for questioning and charged with spying for the enemy. Cruel
electric shock torture failed to turn that into any kind of truth but
it and months of prison left him gravely weakened.
There is no room to tell the story of his dramatic
disappearance, into an asylum, the marriage Mok Sun-ok agreed to
because he could only survive if there was someone to care for him,
their twenty years of cheerful companionship in utter poverty. He died
in 1993. Still now she lives with her 95-year old mother and earns
their living by running a café in Seoul’s Insa-dong. Its name is
Kwichon, the title of Chŏn’s most wonderful poem, written in 1970,
after the torture and months of imprisonment, when he was so sick he
felt sure he would die. It represents one end of our quest, for in it
thousands of readers have found truth and beauty, a truth attained
through immense pain by one sometimes described as ‘our land’s most
truthful poet,’ one with the heart of a child:
I'll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,
I'll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes
I'll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world
I'll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .
(Back to Heaven )
That might have provided a suitable ending for our itinerary, but most
of the poems quoted here I translated with the help of Kim Young-Moo
and his voice deserves to close our journey through Hell, our
pilgrimage through pain. He was an academic, a humble and gentle one,
and came late to composing poetry, during a time of voluntary exile
teaching Korean literature in Canada. His second collection of poems
was delivered to his hospital ward in 1998 a few days after an
operation for lung cancer, that had proved to be too late. His third
collection was published in 2001, when the spreading disease had broken
his bones and he was lying crippled at home. Having refused any more
intrusive treatment, he had been able to spend a whole year living with
his family in Perth, where his greatest joy had been a pilgrimage to
the great sacred rock of Uluru, about which he wrote a series of poems.
Some of the best poems are short, and one of his finest is also his shortest:
Meeting lotus leaves,
wandering raindrops have turned into pearls.
Where can I find my own lotus leaf?
Whose lotus leaf can I be?
(Lotus leaves: Mystery of meeting)
But his deepest poem, and the one providing the best close to this
itinerary of pain and truth, was the ‘death poem’ (such as Buddhist
monks leave) he composed during his last hours of consciousness, in
hospital at last, three days before he died. To almost the very end, he
had refused pain-killers, insisting on his right to live even his pain
to the full as an integral part of his own existence. He was, indeed, a
In this land one poet
blossomed – a wild flower,
played in the wind, then went away.
He enjoyed the songs of crickets and birds,
enjoyed even more
the sturdy fin-strokes
of minnows, neighborly, kin-like.
The world of wild greenery
where cool drops of dew hang, many-hued jewels
— it’s so full of tenderness.
Books containing the poems quoted, translated by Brother Anthony.
Kim Su-Yŏng, Shin Kyong-Nim, Lee Si-Yŏng. Variations: Three Korean Poets. 2001. Cornell East Asia Series No. 110.
Shin Kyong-Nim. Farmers' Dance.1999. Cornell East Asia Series No. 105.
Midang, Sŏ Chŏng-Ju. The Early Lyrics, 1941-1960. 1998. Cornell East Asia Series No. 90.
Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng. Back to Heaven. 1995. Cornell East Asia Series No. 77.
Kim Young-Moo. Virtual Reality. 2005. DapGae.
Kim Kwang-Kyu. The Depths of a Clam. 2005. White Pine.
Ko Un. Ten Thousand Lives. 2005. Green Integer.