Transformation and Idea Formation in the Poetry of Seo Jeong-ju
An interesting feature of “Midang” Seo Jeong-ju’s poetry is his poetic transformation.Midang said himself that his study of literary expression was a process of being influenced by the poets who went before him and then trying to overcome their influence. Accordingly his poetry draws a kind of “poetic contour map,” creating a position for Midang as a literary heir to Korean poetry. There is more than meets the eye in this confession of the process of composing poetry as combining passion for original creativity and studying the poets who came before. This statement served to make the absolute core of Midang Seo Jeong-ju’s sense of identity as a poet visible. It reflects the “traditionalism” and “original creativity” which made up the two pillars of modern Korean poetics, and the way in which they served as the most central “aesthetic norms” in the process through which his poetic world unfolded.
The linguistic expression in Midang’s first collection of poetry, Hwasajip, has at its base the “tradition” that he inherited through his study, but the life force contained within that expression is laid bare through a kind of Nietzschean physical, sensory revealing. The main characteristic of Midang’s poetic expression is its freewheeling nature, with image, musicality, direct language, and poetic context going back and forth between the lines. In terms of form, these characteristics are very clearly closely related to the formal character of the poets he cited as having influenced his work. However, rather than being based on his incredible technical ability, Midang’s originality lies in his sense of identity as a poet constantly tackling the question of “What is poetry?” Having opened his eyes to “loving one’s fate” through Nietzsche’s concept of the “human,” it is clear to see that the core of Midang’s poetry is taken up by his collection Hwasajip. In the transformation of his poetry then, rather than seeing a transformation in terms of form, we see a change in his fundamental outlook on life.
By accepting the physicality and instinct of “human becoming,” being faithful to one’s desires and a love of fate as one’s own volition, the poems in Hwasajip present a strong life force and bodily physicality. This was impossible to find in earlier works of poetry in Korean, and meant that Hwasajip was an epoch-making collection, bursting with unconditional human will. In an extremely unusual way for the time, Hwasajip shows a strong volition to go beyond the usual standards of beauty defined by what is “moral” or determined in relation to “good and evil.” In this regard, it created a landscape that had not been seen before in Korean poetry, and a poetic specificity that has been difficult to find since then.
The genius poet Yi Sang called Seo Jeong-ju a “terrifying character,” having read his poem “Leper.” In “Leper” Yi Sang saw a unique work of poetry, both desperate and sad, but also one that contained an unyielding will, a strong volition for life, more animal than human. “Leper” was a completely new kind of poem, unlike anything else in Korean poetry at the time. This short poem represents an unconditional “will for life” and “composure of one winning in spirit, transcending fate” that went far beyond the morality of the causes of the oppressed sentiments of the colonial subjects of the era. Therefore it could indeed be read as a “terrifying” work, a strong life force lay bare.
Examining Midang’s poems in Hwasajip, we can say that the way of expression, rather than representing proficiency or completeness, displays frank language, coming close to the spoken “voice” or raw “movement.” This voice plays out in the midst of circumstances wherein Midang’s “love of fate” and “reliance on life” are oppressed by objective external situations and hierarchies. To put it another way, in se...