In a recent interview with Maeil Business News Korea, the poet Shin Dalja said, “Whenever I see a pheasant’s eye flower, it reminds me of my life—unattractive and small. But people take notice of it because it blooms, surrounded by ice, earlier than any other flower in the spring. That’s all that it’s known for. Musing on its tenacity, I just can’t think other way: I myself am an unattractive and small pheasant’s eye. . .”
As a matter of fact, the pheasant’s eye flower is neither showy nor glamorous. And it may indeed be unattractive in some people’s eyes, as the poet remarked. But is it an appropriate analogy for the poet herself? While one may sense her humble heart through those words, we know that as a poet, Shin has never been “unattractive and small.” Shin is not only one of the most prominent poets in the contemporary literary scene of Korea, she also enjoys a wide readership in Korea. She is especially well known for her vivid representation of a feminine sensibility and her portrayal of the hardships women have to go through even in our age of gender egalitarianism.
Viewed in this light, we might bestow a new meaning on Shin’s portrayal of herself. Most of all, we should take into consideration the social and cultural conditions she has dealt with in her career; even though circumstances have improved lately, being a woman poet has been something like those flowers, surrounded by ice, blooming early in the season. Shin, like almost all other women poets in Korea, has had to endure prejudice and discrimination.
If we are to choose a poem that fits the poet’s portrayal of herself, we might pick “An Oil Lamp.” The poet happened to see “[a] white porcelain oil lamp” lie “for well over ten years pale and forgotten / in a corner of [her] house.” Though the lamp “was holding a dead black wick,” she knew it was not dead, only “forgotten.” As if to make sure that the lamp was truly not dead, the poet “poured in a little oil an...