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Korean contemporary poetry of today

Hoseung Jung

Talk given at the World Congress workshop weekend SYDNEY 7/8 Oct 2000

The first poetry book which I wrote was ‘From despair to joy’ in March, 1979, when I was twenty nine years old. 1979 was a very important year for modern Korean history. It was the year of the ‘October 26 Situation’, where President Park Jonghi after 19 years of military dictatorship was shot dead by the Head of the Central Intelligence Department, Kim Jaekyu. At the time the democratic basic rights of Korean citizens were non- existent. The media was heavily restricted and there was no freedom of assembly or association. Those who thirsted for, expressed and acted for a free democracy where thrown into prison. The people of Korea were not even able to breathe, were kept as quiet as a dead mouse not being able to whisper a word. Even when in a taxi we weren’t able to talk freely. If by any chance customers were to swear about or criticize the current government then it was possible that the taxi driver might take them not to their destination, but to the Central Intelligence Department instead. It was a period of terrorism upon the Korean people by their very own country. It was in such a time that I was a young poet. In an age where democracy was buried so completely I was lost as to how I, as a poet, should be living. At that time I was able to meet a poet named Kim Jiha.

After publishing a poem longing for democracy, he is a poet who spent all of the 1970’s in prison.

In the back alley of a new morning
I write your name, oh Democracy
Long has my memory forgotten you
So long ago did my footsteps stray away from you
Only one strand is left
A memory of the thirst within my burning chest
I write your name in secret, oh Democracy.

In a back street where the sun is yet to  rise
Footsteps, a crackle, a knock on the door
A cry of pain, the scream is so long
Upon your name, deeply engraved
Within a groan, a wail, a sigh, upon my chest
Upon the lonely dazzle of your name
Is the pain of a life lived
Are the memories of that blue freedom
Are the blood stained faces of our taken companions, now come back.
Shaking hand, shaking chest
With mouth clenched and shaking rage on a wooden plank
With clumsy hands I grasp chalk
I write
As I sob silently
I write your name in secret
With a burning thirst,
With a burning thirst,
Hurrah Democracy!

The above poem by the poet Kim Jiha is titled ‘With a burning thirst’. Through this poem I realised that poetry cannot turn away from the pain of reality, and it made me think about the tears and the agony of that time. Up to that moment my poetry stopped at the world of traditional Korean emotions (JeungHan). Koreans are a people with much emotion (Jeung) and many tears, and through such a national trait flowered traditional lyric poetry. But although upholding and flowering tradition was important, at that time I thought we also shouldn’t disregard the painful hurt of reality. As a poet I thought I must wipe away the tears of that generation. My poems ‘The Blind Couple Singers’, ‘Jesus of Seoul’, etc were based of the pain of that time.

From 1980, once again Korea went into military dictatorship under Jeon DuHwan and Noh Taewoo. Once again Koreans seeking desperately for democracy had to spend a time of despair and frustration. The ‘Kwangju Democracy Movement’ happened in May of 1980 and two thousand citizens of Kwangju were mercilessly killed by the guns of the military. Noh Taewoo’s government, which reigned after Jeon Duhwan was much the same. Young men set fire to themselves in protest as many died for a democratic Korea. At such a time it was necessary for poets to write People’s poems (Minjoong-shi) which sang of the suffering of the people of Korea.

You can discover the image of the people of Korea under oppression in the wretched death of a young crab run over by a military truck in the poem ‘Death of a young crab’ by Kim Kwangkyu.

Caught with his mother
One young crab
While the large crabs caught in the net
Were blowing froth, clawing in the air
Our young crab slips out of the box
Sideways, sideways he crawls along the asphalt
The days he played hide-and-seek in the mud
The freedom of the sea, where have they gone
As his eyes pop out and he looks around
A military truck runs him over
He explodes, dies on the road
The body of a young crab rotting in the dirt
A dazzling light which nobody can see

But at that time it wasn’t only People’s poetry(Minjoong-shi) which made up Korean poetry. There was Pure poetry (Soonsoo-shi) which sang of the innocent beauty of the world and its reality, and there was also poetry which sang of the life and tears of labourers working in a sub-standard labour environment. Next is part of ‘Grave of a hand’ by a young labourer Park Nohae.

The hand of Jeong
He who while laughing and sucking on an ice block,
Promised that if never else,
This Children’s day holding the hands of wife and    
He would go to the Great Children’s Park,
The hand of Jeong went flying.

Because he was wearing dirty work clothes
Not the President’s Granada,
Not the factory director’s Royal Saloon,
Not even the team manager’s Stellar was he allowed to ride,
After bleeding and bleeding was he taken to the hospital
In the baggage compartment of a Titan

His hand, still flapping between the machines
Is taken out of a glove soaked in oil,
All words are forgotten as I look at the hand of a labourer of 36 years of sorrow
I carry the hand, wrapped in a plastic bag
And go to Jeong’s house in the hill town of Bongcheoun-dong
I see the bright eyes of his wife and the sparkling eyes of his  son
I couldn’t possibly give them the hand
The hand of Jeong which I carry
Has grown cold and bloated
We wash the hand with soju
And bury it underneath the factory walls

Thankfully as Kim Youngsam’s democratic government went into power in 1991 the gates of democracy were opened for Korea. Following that the collapse of Eastern powers that had held onto the Communism ideology also had a large effect on Korea’s poets. Such a change in circumstances was an opportunity for reflection for the many poets who had written People’s poems during that period. People’s poetry had drifted away from the foundation of poetry, lacking in lyricism, being mainly prosaic and with many parts schematised. But now in Korea politically, the roots of democracy began to spread, and poetry began to venture back into lyricism with a new relationship between poem and poet being formed. I was interested in the tragedy entwined with human life. That was the beginning and the ending of my poetry. Human life is inevitably a tragic existence. Poetry also cannot exist apart from this tragedy. All I wish to do is through my poems understand, express and comfort this human despair. If through my poems you can feel a tragic joy or tragic ecstasy then I can ask for no more.

I think that poetry must be as warm and cosy as a mother’s bosom and it must comfort and solace people. I also believe that anyone and everyone is a poet. Inside of everyone’s heart are poems, all that I do is put those poems to paper for them. Korea is currently the last remaining divided nation. Although Korea is one nation, it has been split up into North and South for fifty five years. I believe that when Korea is unified we will be able to talk of true Korean contemporary poetry.

I wish to finish my talk by giving to you a poem which sings of the tragedy of unification.

You came in my dream
You left with a whisk at twenty three
At forty seven, a traveller
You return
If only I could meet you in my life
After many days, you who always worried, return
All you did was cried
With your head on my knee
Without a word
Like a child all you did was cried
Cried your heart out
How did you become so thin?
After so long, yet you live
You really came looking for me
You told me
Never again would you leave your mother’s side
Your hands wet with tears
That is what you told me

Kim Kyudong ‘A mothers letter from the North’

POEMS BY Hoseung Jung

A Poem written on water

Only one of a thousand of my hands wiped away your tears
Only one of a thousand of my eyes shed tears of you
Over land and sea, the deep night shows no road
The moonlight flies towards me, stabs me in the heart with a knife sharpened
to a deep blue
Now a thousand of my hands wipe away your tears
Now a thousand of my eyes shed tears for you

Whom I love

I love not the person who has no shade
I love not the person who does not love the shade
I love the person who has become the shade of a tree stump
For the sunlight to be clear and bright it needs the shade
Sitting in the shade
Gazing at the sunbeams flashing between the leaves
How beautiful is this world

I love not the person who has no tears
I love not the person who does not love tears
I love the person who has become a teardrop
For joy is not joy without tears
What kind of love is love without tears?
Sitting in the shade
Someone wipes away the tears of another
How serene is that beauty


People sometimes become the horizon
People sometimes leap out of the horizon
When the night turns to dawn
When they bury their mothers and come down the mountain
When what they called love all becomes hate
People sometimes leap out of the horizon

Child Buddha

In the garden of Kyoungju Museum
Upon the flowerbed where cockscomb and balsam blossom
Headless stone Buddhas sit side by side
The sunlight glares off them

Primary school children now on summer holidays
Stream off the tourist bus
Come towards the headless Buddhas
They put their heads there instead

Child Buddha.
So everyone, once in their lives
Could become a Buddha
The stone Buddhas have cut their throats

Jesus of Seoul
Jesus holds a fishing rod and sits on the Han river. Jesus lights a campfire
on the riverside and dries his wet clothes. Even though everyday the grass
of the fields are stabbed by mankind’s knife and fall to the ground, and
like the flower of the grass the flower of man blossoms and folds, Jesus
cries in the winter rain leaning against the wall of Sodaemun Prison only to
watch man become beautiful.
A drunken night. Jesus’ long shadow creeps over the horizon. Quickly, a
crescent moon follows the back of Jesus, who has eaten a cold bowl of
life’s rice. Was the pain which overflows within peace, the longed for
freedom held in tears still there? Jesus smokes a cigarette alone while
thinking of the bread and the love of Seoul, the bread and the tears of
Seoul. While he watches man disappear into man’s dew in a night where
people sleep as they chew sand. Fallen leaves drop by Seoul for a moment
before they depart, and Jesus walks to the end of despair.
I am thirsty. The dreams of men fall asleep before Seoul does, so I am
thirsty. Where is the walking man who holds the lamp. The path in the field
is no where to be seen, he who sits on a pile of ash and weeps while he
tears his clothes. A gunshot is heard and snow begins to fall, the first
snowfall drops between the depth of love and belief, a stone held onto in
Seoul, there is nowhere to throw it. The people I long for, again you who I
pine for hold your glass up with me. Nowhere in snowy Seoul is there a place
for me to place my sleepy head even for a moment, so hold your glasses up
with me. With our glasses raised we evade into the dark the knife edge of
this world, you who have fallen beneath the knife, walk along the snow
covered road of this night in Seoul. The lamp of the evil man has not yet
gone out, and the ears of those who have listened to the dawn of Seoul are
wetted by the grass, I am thirsty. The dreams of Seoul fall asleep before
the men, I am thirsty.
I want to drink man’s cup. I wish to meet someone from a beautiful memory,
share a drink and share a bindaeduk made of tears. On a spring day where a
flower petal falls like a knife, as I listen to the clothing sweep against
the grass, I wish to live not in a land of emotions but in a land of people.
I wish to light Seoul’s lamp so as not to let man’s lamp go out each
morning, I lean against the window of a poor man and long for my yearning.
He who worships me is sad, he who is sad for me despairs. He who is joyous
for me is sad, he who despairs for me, is in more anguish. I was not in
agony for my neighbour, and I did not gaze at the stars of a poor man, those
who call my name in earnest are miserable, and those who love my name in
earnest are wretched.

The blind couple singers

Lost in the dark as the snow falls
They have far to go and they are lost
On this road on this winters night where not even a snowman stands
They sing, for no one will come to them
There is only people who go around the world while getting snowed on.
Calming the cries of the baby carried on their back
They have far to go, the snow falls hard
To love what cannot be loved
To forgive what cannot be forgiven
Sing while we wait for the snowman
Sing a song of the whole world waiting
People who walk in the falling snow while they shiver in the dark
Song becomes road as they overtake
Overtaking a snow covered road of no return
Until beauty retrieves this world
Until joy comes forth from despair
The snow falls hard, they have far to go
Sing of the love of indifference
Sing a song of waiting for the snow man
They’ve become a snowman on this winter night’s road
They’ve become a snowman who won’t melt even in Spring


At the end of the road there was a mountain
At the end of the mountain there was a road
When the road ends once more there was a mountain
At the end of the mountain there you were
Between your knees your face was buried, you were crying
I am sorry
I am sorry because I love you

Dear Daffodil

Don t cry
To be lonely is to be human
To continue living is to endure loneliness
Don t idly expect a phone call that will not come
Walk on snowy roads if it snows
Walk on rainy roads if it rains
Across a sea of reeds, a dark breasted long bill is watching you
Sometimes, even God is lonely and sheds tears
The birds alight on the tree branches because they are lonely
You sit next to the water because you are lonely
The shadow of a mountain will fall over the village once a day, dropped by
its loneliness
Even the sound of a bell disperses because it is lonely