Shin kyong-rim was born in 1935 in Ch'ongju, North Ch'ungch'ong
Province. When he was young, Shin Kyong-rim frequented the people of Korea's
rural villages and collected the traditional songs they sang. Much of his
poetry represents a modernization of things he heard then.
His poems often express the pain and hurt of Korea's
poor, not only those of remote villages but the urban poor and those marginalized
in society. He uses easily accessible, rhythmic language to compose lyrical
narratives that are at times close to shamanistic incantation, or at others
recall the popular songs still sung in bars. His literary career dates
from the publication of three poems, including "The Reed" in 1956 but after
that he published nothing, immersing himself instead in the world of the
working classes, the "Minjung", and working as a farmer, a miner, and a
merchant. The experience of those years underlies his work as a poet. His
fame dates mainly from the publication of the collection Nong-mu "Farmers'
Dance" in 1973.
Many of the poems in this collection are spoken by an
undefined plural voice, a "we"encompassing the collective identity of the
Minjung, the poor farmers, laborers, miners among whom the poet had lived.
He makes himself their spokesman on the basis of no mere sympathy; he has
truly lived as one of them, sharing their poverty and pains, their simple
joys and often disappointed hopes. Appearing in a literary culture accustomed
to the individual "I" speaker of the western romantic tradition, Nong-mu
gave rise to a critical controversy out of which emerged a major poetic
movement of social involvement, in which Shin Kyong-rim has continued to
play a leading role. He has served as president of the Association of Writers
of Peoples' Literature, and of the Federated Union of Korean Nationalist
Other volumes of his poetry include "Saejae"(1979), "Talnomse"
(1985), "Kananhan sarangnorae"(1988), "Kil"(1990). Much of his work composes
a loosely framed epic tale of Korean suffering, as experienced by the farmers
living along the shores of the North Han River, the poet's home region,
in the late 19th century, during the Japanese colonial period, and during
the turmoil of the last fifty years.
No poet has so well expressed, and so humbly, the characteristic
voice of Korea's masses, both rural and urban. Shin never sentimentalizes
his subjects but rather takes the reader beyond the physical and cultural
exterior to reveal them as intensely sensitive, suffering human beings.
The sky urges me to turn into a cloud,
the earth urges me to turn into a breeze,
a little breeze waking weeds on the ferry landing
once storm clouds have scattered and rain has cleared.
To turn into a peddler sad even in autumn light,
going to Mokkye Ferry, three days' boat ride from Seoul,
to sell patent face-powders, on days four and nine.
The hills urge me to turn into a flower,
the stream urges me to turn into a stone.
To hide my face in the grass when hoarfrost bites,
to wedge behind rocks when rapids rage cruel.
To turn into a traveller with pack laid by, resting
on a clay hovel's wood step, river shrimps boiling up,
changed into a fool for a week or so, once in thrice
The sky urges me to turn into a breeze,
the hills urge me to turn into a stone.
In a Country
Village on April 19
The door has been rattling all night long
in the damp breeze sweeping down the alley.
Over the messy dung-heap by the broken-down wall
apricot flowers are in bloom, dizzyingly
they bloom, get plucked off, trodden down,
yet they bloom again, it's April.
I had reached a lonely village high up on the South Han
and as I wandered down empty streets free of curfew,
all at once the forgotten
battle cries of that day came to mind.
The days lived since then slant like motes of dust.
Time has passed like a rolling stone.
The night was dark, no one believed
we would ever hear that day's bells again.
I recalled a friend, his brow struck by a cold stone,
a friend fallen into so deep sleep,
blood staining his finger-nails.
It might be April, the wind was still chill,
despite apricot flowers, the sobs rose higher,
the damp breeze came clinging to the flowering branches,
whimpering like those friends' laments.
Azaleas bloom, and forsythias too, they get plucked off.
The night hardly grew any brighter.
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.
- A wandering spirit's song
Go your way in peace, they say, go your way in peace.
With your broken neck, hugging severed limbs,
go a thousand, ten thousand leagues down the road
to the land
beyond, without night or day;
go your way in peace, they say, go your way in peace.
Sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.
Though a myriad million years pass, never open those
blinded with blood as you fell in barley field, meadow,
or patch of
sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.
Seize hold, with your slashed and slivered hand
seize warmly hold of these blood-covered hands.
A new day has come, the sun is shining bright,
birds are carolling, the breeze is balmy,
so seize hold with your slivered hand, they say, seize
I cannot go with my broken neck and severed limbs,
I cannot quietly close my blood-blinded eyes,
cannot seize hold, cannot seize with this slivered hand,
I cannot seize your blood-covered hands.
I have come back, with blood-blinded eyes glaring,
I have returned
with my broken neck, hugging severed limbs;
I grind my teeth and wish bitter frost may drop from
I cannot seize hold with this slivered hand,
I cannot seize your blood-covered hands;
I have come back, a dense storm-cloud,
to alleys, markets, factories, quays;
I have come back, a violent clamor.
Rock Swift's Nest
Country folk in the old hometown used to
shake angry fists, accusing us of running off,
while the country folk hereabouts
glare fiercely, accusing us of sneaking in.
Get away and don't come back, those spat.
Never set foot here again!
These set up barricades.
On a stony hill field we unload tattered bundles
off a wagon, delivery van, truck,
build a grim mud hovel on some mountain slope.
'It's better than nothing, my little fledglings
can frolic here. It's like a rock swift's nest.'
Ah, we know for sure:
those tears now brimming in your eyes will soon
flash out as green flames,
will soar up as flames
engulfing all the world.
Note: Rock swifts build their nests in blazing mid-summer
high on cliffs beside streams. They are associated with disasters and people
dread to see them around their houses. It is said that if a green light
shines from their eyes it presages some great misfortune.(Poet's note)
People believe that they create a path for themselves
the path does not quietly conform to what people intend.
Either it drags people onward until suddenly
there they are, stranded in failure at the edge of a
or it deliberately dives into a flood, forcing them to
Seeing this, people claim that the man-made path teaches
the wisdom of living, not the other way round;
equally they claim that it calls people abroad
and shows them every kind of place and way of living;
that is how it instructs them in the principles of life.
So they believe that such is all the path's intent.
They do not realize that the path leads people
from the outside inward
and obliges them to scrutinize their own hidden depths.
The path only grows subservient to those who know
that it leads not outward but inward,
embroidering itself with flowers, increasing their scent,
casting a shadow and enabling people to cool their sweat.
People who once know that will never be heard to claim
that it was they who made the path they took.
On a winter's Night
We're gathered in the backroom of the co-op mill
playing cards for a dish of muk ;
it's market-day tomorrow. Chattering merchants
shake off the snow in the yard of the inn.
Fields and hills shine newly white, snow comes
swirling thickly down.
They talk about the price of rice and fertilizers,
about the local magistrate's daughter, a teacher.
It seem's Puni, up in Seoul working as a maid,
is going to have a baby. Well, what shall we do?
Let's get drunk. The bar-girl
smells of cheap power, still, let's have a sniff, eh?
We're the only ones who know our sorrows.
Shall we try raising fowls this year?
Winter nights are long, we eat muk ,
down drinks, argue over the water rates,
sing pop-songs to the bar-girl's chop-stick beat,
and as we cross the barley-field to make fun
of the newly-wed man at the barber's shop,
look, the world's all white. Come on snow, drift high,
high as the roof, bury us deep.
Suppose we send a love-letter, say,
to those girls behind the siren tower hiding
wrapped in their skirts? We're
the only ones who know our troubles.
Suppose we try fattening pigs this year?
After Market's Done
Plain folk are happy just to see each other.
Peeling musk melons in front of the barber's
gulping down makkolli sitting at the bar
all their faces invariably like those of friends,
talking of drought down south, or of co-op debts,
keeping time with their feet to the herb peddlar's guitar,
so why am I all the time longing for Seoul?
What about going somewhere and gambling at cards?
Shall I empty my purse and go to the whore-house?
We gather in the school-yard, strips of squid with soju.
In no time at all the long summer's day's done
and off we go down the brightly moonlit cart-track,
carrying a pair of rubber shoes or a single croaker,
home after market's done.
The ching booms out, the curtain falls.
Above the rough stage, lights dangle from a tree,
the playground's empty, everyone's gone home;
we rush to the soju bar in front of the school
and drink, our faces still daubed with powder.
Life's mortifying when you're oppressed and wretched.
Then down the market alleys behind the kkwenggwari
with only some kids running bellowing behind us
while girls lean pressed against the oil shop wall
giggling childish giggles.
The full moon rises and one of us
begins to wail like the bandit king Kokjong; another
laughs himself sly like the sly schemer Sorim; after
what's the use of fretting and struggling,
shut up in
with farming not paying the fertilizer bills?
Leaving it all in the hands of the women,
we pass by the cattle-fair
in front of the slaughterhouse
we start to get into the swing of things.
Shall we dance on one leg, blow the nallari hard?
Shall we shake our heads, make our shoulders rock?
Sleet filtered down over the gold mill and
in the guest-room of the carrier's just below it
we boarded for four bushels of rice each.
Yon-sang and Tok-taek had gone home to celebrate
the holidays, the wind driving past the cliffs was grim
all day we sat hugging the iron stove with its oak wood
talking about a kid whore called Yongja
we'd met at a boarding-house in front of Chech'on station.
Sometimes we went rushing off to the widow's tavern
for a bite of pork that we chipped in to buy on credit.
At about full moon, when heavier sleets always fell,
the carrier's grandson, gone away to make his fortune,
came back even poorer than before and
we held a party for him to celebrate only
the party soon turned into a fight.
The village lads and the labourers from Hansan
divided into gangs and traded blows,
knocked heads together, threw dishes about.
The unseemly conduct didn't last long;
soon they were sorry and burst into tears,
began a new party and danced about to the yukjabegi.
If anyone clenched their fists and stepped outside
the valley mining village was dark as pitch; there was
not one girl left, all were off working as housemaids.
Falling down, tumbling about, we
bellowed out songs. At first light
we were not afraid though dogs barked and cocks crowed,
the sleet had now turned into a solid snowfall,
the mountain paths were treacherous, slippery with ice.
Translated by Brother Anthony, Professor of English
at Sogang University, and Young-moo Kim, Professor of English at Seoul