Part Ⅲ. Extreme Lyricism Movement

Principles and Potential of Extreme Lyricism in Korean Poetry


In the Korean literary scene lately there has been enthusiastic debate about what is known as “lyricism.” Such debate begins from critical reflection upon the way that the prominent concept of the lyric relies too heavily upon European aesthetics, which in turn, stems from the custom of a system of classification separating lyric, narrative, and drama. Indeed, theories of poetics throughout Korean literary circles all explain the principles of lyricism in similar ways: internalizing the external, lasting ephemerality, self-identity, or the abundant present tense. Therefore, while narrative explores the disconnect in the relationship between the self and the world, lyric in contrast removes any distance between the self and the world. However, such an explanation is merely an aesthetic custom. It does not itself express the unchanging concept of lyricism. In this regard, it is worth noting the efforts to reconsider the explanation of lyric principle according to European aesthetics as the self-expression of the ego.

     Of course, until now the overriding view on the principles of lyricism in the Korean literary scene has been to define it as that which interprets and comes to grips with the world, then transforms it by means of the self-expression of the subject. This led to the lyric being understood as the expression of a kind of identity that does not come into conflict with the world; this notion was held up as a principle that takes the first person subject of “I” as the origin and expresses experience in “the abundant present tense.” In the end we can refer back to Hegel, who explained that “what is properly lyric is not objective fact and its plastic portrayal, but the echo of the external in the mind, the mood aroused by it, and the feelings of the heart in such surroundings.” *

     Accordingly, the urge to maintain and protect such principles of lyricism remains strong in literature to this day. This accompanies the belief that the aesthetic completeness of modern Korean poetry is realized through the dansi, or “short poem,” tradition. In excluding unnecessary language as much as possible and paring back to the minimum required for reason and feeling, the strength of short poetry comes from opening the possibility for readers to interpret a poem using their imaginations. Of course it is true that there is also an inherent danger that such practice can give rise to the over-frequent use of adage or aphorism, or of a poem ending with the abrupt transcendence of a subject, or even poems being written as little more than a memo of an idea without any linguistic artistry. The recent shift in Korean poetry towards narrative, as well as how poets are composing increasingly longer works, arise from a strategy to overcome such limitations. However, the movement towards short poetry that uses transcendence and implication as a foundation to realize an aesthetics of omission, is gaining strength on the value of the lyric as an invaluable method of creativity. This way of writing, which is vigilant not to allow over-signification by leaving things unsaid, calls for a high level of craftsmanship from its practitioners. It is the concept of “extreme lyric poetry” that has naturally come to the fore at the very apex of such an artisan spirit.

     The poet and critic Choi Dong-Ho sustains an enthusiastic engagement with extreme lyricism. While pointing out the various negative aspects he encounters in the poetry of younger poets, such as gratuitous difficulty, hybri...