"I an fond of looking at pictures," Kim Chun-su once wrote,
"though I am bad at drawing." This remark suggests the basic nature of
his poetry; his poems indeed often look like pictures. His typical poem,
however, is not an ordinary one. What he draws with words, as a rule, is
tersely simplified and highly refracted. He has mentioned or written about
a number of Western painters like Chagall, Miro and Goya. He has also confessed
to having acquired certain methodological hints from such painters as Paul
Cezanne and even Jackson Pollock.
Kim Chun-su was born in 1922 in a rich family of Chungmu,
a town on the southern coast of Korea. His poetry abounds in sea-imagery,
and memories of his childhood persist in his poems with the setting of
that seaside town. After finishing primary school in Chungmu, he went up
to Seoul to attend what is now Kyonggi High School, one of the most prestigious
schools in Korea. But for no reason other than his dislike of the Japanese
teacher who was in charge of his class, he quit the school a few months
before graduation and went to Tokyo. In Tokyo, he was enrolled in the Department
of Arts at Nihon University, but he could not complete his undergraduate
course. For he was arrested by the Japanese military police as a 'subversive
Korean'and had to spend seven months in police cells in Yokohama and Tokyo.
Upon repatriation to Korea, he recuperated and went into hiding in the
Diamond Mountains, the most scenic spot in Korea, and in Chungmu till Korea
was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945.
On Korea's liberation, Kim Chun-su started teaching at
a high school in his home town, while also participating in local cultural
movements with other poets, artists and musicians from the same locale.
Towards the end of the 50s, he began teaching at colleges and, from 1961
through 1979, he taught at Kyungbuk University in Taegu. He subsequently
taught at Yungnam University from 1979 to 1981, when he was suddenly made,
'without his knowing how it all came about,' a representative of the National
Assembly. After his term at the National Assembly, he also served as Chairman
of the Broadcasting Deliberation Committee for two years.
Meanwhile, however, he never stopped writing poetry.
His first volume of poems, The Cloud and the Rose, was publised at his
own expense in 1948, followed by Swamp in 1950. He has now published, in
rapid succession, a dozen volumes of poetry, several volumes of selected
and complete poems derived from these, and also several studies of poetry
as well as informal essays. During this time, he was recognized with distingished
awards, such as the Asian Free Literature Award(1959) and the South Kyongsang
Cultural Award(1966). He was elected a member of the Korean Academy of
Arts in 1981.
Kim Chun-su as poet is an avowed purist and experimentalist.
From around 1970, he has repeatedly declared that he does not believe in
ideas, let alone ideologies, and not even in history. He was most influenced
by Rilke in the early phase of his career, but in later years he advocated
what he called 'the poetry of no meaning.' The 60s was a transition period
between his early phase and later years. The Ballad Tune and Other Poems(1969),
his fifth volume of poetry, contains poems of this period which combine
the rhythm of certain Korean folk ballads with a technique of word-play
as an attempt to critique civilization. 'The poetry of no meaning,' which
characterizes his later years, begins in the early the 70s. We note this
specifically in the second part of Fragments on Ch'oyong, Written, on and
off, over a quarter of a century from the late 60s and published in its
entirety in October, 1991.
The Fragments on Ch'oyong is an oblique autobiographical
poem consisting of four parts of varying length and based on a Korean legend.
Ch'oyong is a mythic figure, reputedly a son of the dragon King of the
Eastern Sea, whose human wife was seduced by an incarnated evil spirit.
The poet explains that his Ch'oyong is an individual--implicitly the poet
himself--victimized by history. "History in this case." he adds, "represents
evil, being a malignant will itself." His view of history, where violence
and ideologies are equated with history, derives from his personal experiences.
This pessimism brought Kim Chun-su to realize that despair can breed a
technique which can console when combined with play. The result is 'the
poetry of no meaning.' It has no logic; it is simply a display of free
associations or momentary fantasies.
Between The Ballad Tune and Other Poems and Fragments
on Ch'oyong, Kim Chun-su wrote three more volumes of poetry, of which Latin
Sketches(1988) concerns his European trips. One of his latest volumes,
The Woods that Sleep Standing(1993), is a collection of poems in prose
which he describes as 'a chemical combination of realism and anti-realism.'
Kim Chun-su, one of the most important living poets in Korea, is now in
his mid-seventies and continues to write. The last phase of his poetry
is yet to be seen, but we can be certain he will always be original and
Whenever the wind shook it,
raised sorrowful sounds.
Cockscombs, lilies, balsams and the like
bloomed in season
and faded without a sound.
Even in cold midwinter,
the lonely sunshine dozed
on the stepping stones
and was gone.
Only time kept flowing listlessly;
people lived as in a dream
and passed away.
Until I spoke his name,
he had been
no more than a mere gesture.
When I spoke his name,
he came to me
and became a flower.
Now speak my name,
one fitting this colour and odour of mine,
as I spoke his name,
so that I may go to him
and become his flower.
We all wish
to become something.
You to me and I to you
wish to become an unforgettable gaze.
Prologue for a Flower
I am now a dangerous animal.
The moment my hand touches you,
you become darkness, unknown and remote.
At the tip of a trembling twig of being,
you bloom and fall, without a name.
I weep all through the night
in this nameless darkness seeping through my eyelids,
lighting a lamp of remembrance.
My weeping will gradually turn into a whirlwind,
shaking a tower,
and become gold when it penetrates the stone.
--My bride, her face veiled!
Bare Tree; a Prologue to Poetry
The winter sky vanishes into a mysterious depth;
the infinite, which may or may not be,
has dropped the luxuriant foliage and fruits,
making the fig tree stand bare;
but might that be poetry
that is almost, almost reaching the tip
of the sensitive twig?
the moment language is asleep,
the infinite comes smiling
the luxuriant foliage and fruits dropping as historical
but might that be poetry
that blinks at the tip
of the sensitive twig?
Snow Falling on Chagall's Village
Snow falls on Chagall's village, in March.
At the temple of a man looking forward to spring,
a new vein
At the trembling temple of the man,
caressing the new vein,
the snow, with thousands of wings,
descends from heaven, covering
the roofs and chimneys of Chagall's village.
When snow falls in March,
the winter berries of Chagall's village
revive in olive
and women make
the most beautiful fire of the year
in their ovens.
The Latin word 'Ars' has tied
he is glad to be tied up.
Velazquez, all of them,
shout that 'Ars' makes the world
be born anew.
At Toledo I heard El Greco
say the same thing.
He whispered in the dim inner room
of the house he rented.
Only Goya felt the pain
of the iron chain
eating into his flesh.
Maja, the woman 'Ars' created,
had her head cut off,
and one day
the outlines of his portraits wore out
like the Jesus of Rouault.
They have no background even.
Go and look!
His scream is shaking
the Prado even now.
Translated by Kim Jong-gil. He is Professor Emeritus
of English Literature at Korea University. He is a poet and critic in his
own right, and has translated poetry both from and into English. At present,
he is a member of the Academy of Arts of the Republic of Korea.