Pak Mogwol, the Epitome of Pure Lyricism

Born in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province in 1915, Pak Mogwol first became well known for writing children’s poetry. In 1933, his poem “Tong-ttak-ttak Tong-ttak-ttak” was selected for a prize by the magazine Child, and in the same year another poem, “Welcoming the Swallows,” was awarded a prize by New Family magazine. Then in 1939 his work was recommended by Jeong Ji-yong and published in the September edition of Sentence, thus launching his career as a poet in earnest. From then onwards, Pak Mogwol made a place for himself in the history of modern Korean poetry as the consummate creator of concise, simply constructed lyric poetry.

     As a nature poet, drawing on and embodying the sensual realities humming in nature and metaphysical meaning, he is best remembered as part of the Cheongnokpa (Green Deer Group) which was born out of the three-poet anthology published in 1946 and entitled Cheongnokjip (Green Deer Collection), which was also Pak’s first published collection of poetry. In this work there is a strong undercurrent of a specific form of purely lyrical methodology running throughout.

     The subject matter of Pak Mogwol’s early poetry is nature. However, rather than being a physical kind of nature where the principle of survival of the fittest rules, or an agricultural, bucolic kind of nature, it is nature transformed, so to speak, in the imagination of the poet, reflecting his attitude and outlook on life. An examination of poems such as “Blue Deer” or “April” which are typical of his early works, shows that such a hypothesis is highly convincing. The settings of these poems such as “Cheongun Temple on a faraway Mountain,” “Jahasan,” and “a remote peak/the wind laced with pine pollen” are not so much realistic descriptions of locations in Korea. Rather, they are nature imagined, projected with archetypal ideals to accompany characters such as a “blue deer” and a “blind young woman,” who are the real focus of the poems.

     This perfectly intact, imagined world of nature is continually transformed and reproduced in lines such as: “Every wine-mellowing village/ afire in the evening light,” from “The Wayfarer,” and “The mountain/ Gugangsan/ a rocky violet-tinged mountain,” from “Wild Peach Blossoms 1.” This nature, then, becomes something which, shaking off the dust of the everyday world, people can seek without constraint, and be held within its warm embrace. In this way, the nature that appears throughout Mogwol’s early poetry is not inherently the real nature of the agricultural world, but an image of ‘Eden’ conceived of by the poet’s own longing for the divine, the source of all things. Therefore, when the blind young woman in “April,” “puts her ear to the lattice door/ and listens,” it alludes both to the sound of nature and at the same time to the “sound of silence” as an imagined model of divinity.

     Towards the middle of his career, Mogwol turned his focus to the sphere of everyday life and, in particular, the communal unit that is the “family.” At the same time, through the substantiality of life and death, his poems sang of earthly love. Consider “Lowering of the Coffin,” which, through the narrator’s eulogizing his own flesh-and-blood younger sibling, allows the soul of the deceased to depart—a masterpiece that expresses devoted love and compassion. The dark heavy image of descent in lines such as: “The coffin was lowered by ropes/ as if into the deep well of the heart,” “world where snow and rain comes down,” and “when fruits fall” acts both to evoke the death of the younger sibling as it happened and to allow us to feel the depth of the narrator’s inner sorrow. In particular, the onomatopoeia of “jwa-reu-reu” and “tuk” appear as vehicular language making the distance between life and death tangible. Here the ropes serve the purpose of lowering the coffin, but they also act as a sort of link between the impassable boundary that divides life and death, and thus the ropes become a means of transmitting the love felt by the living. Therefore, the ropes lower into “the deep we...