Kim Chong-sam was born in North Korea and educated in Tokyo. Critics talk about the centrality of the images of water and stone in his work, with water representing peace and stone representing pain. They also refer to him variously as Bohemian, marginalized, intellectual etc. Kim Chong-sam is certainly very aware of the pain of life; he is also very aware of transcendent moments of joy. His poems bridge the classical hanshi tradition and the imagist-modernist tradition. With his penchant for vignettes from rural Korea' he depicts scenes in a few quick strokes of the pen in the manner of Yi Kyubo and then uses the landscape to express his feelings. "Fragance in a Dream" is typical. The poet uses mountain, tiled-roofed house, tree, and sweet lady to conjure up not just Kim Sowol himself but also Sowol's typical poetry landscape and the inherent sense of han that is so much a part of it. The reader will note that in "Someone Asked Me", a representative poem from Kim Chong-sam's late period, the speaker is eating pindaettok when he discovers what a poet is. This is not an idle choice; there are implications here of the common man who has always been the victim in Korean society. The poem may be based on the sentimental cliche of "the good citizen", but the technique speaks for itself. To some it is imagist-modernist; to others it is what Korean poets have been doing since Koryo.
Someone Asked Me
What's poetry? Someone asked me.
I don't really know, I replied,
I've never managed to be a poet.
from Mugyodong to Chongno,
through Myongdong to Namsan,
and on past Seoul Station.
Sundown found me in South Gate Market,
nibbling on pindaettok.
Suddenly I knew.
People like these
pure, bright-souled, good-hearted
who in spite of incredible hardship
are enabled to live careful lives,
people like these
are the alpha of this world,
its noble race,
its eternal illumination:
had four sons
who caused her nothing but hardship
till the day she died.
My eldest brother died tragically.
Another brother died at 64.
I've been critically ill many times myself:
I suffer from a chronic ailment.
I look across at the women's section in the public graveyard;
a passionate cry is wrenched from my heart
"Mother, I'm still here.
I hoped for a few lines worth leaving when I die,
but I haven't written them yet."
In a Mountain Valley
A crippled tree
in a mountain valley
had lush leaves
with brilliant hues.
Human life is short, but....
The Northern Side
Say what you will about beauty;
to me it's a tragic landscape.
Were she alive,
she'd be ancient like myself.
If dead, where is she buried?
A girl without guile;
poor but exceedingly dutiful.
Fragrance in a Dream
I met my brother Kim Sowol
in a mountain village:
a few neat, tiled-roofed houses,
one fresh-leaved tree,
a gentle breeze,
a sweet lady.