Rediscovering the Self Through Lyricism

As Korea struggled with democracy and industrialization, poets explored lyricism and the inner self.


Through the 1960s, Korean poetry pursued the creative integration of social consciousness and lyricism rather than traditional sentiments, based on the experiences of those who had lived through the April 19 Revolution. Such change could be seen in the leading poets such as Seo Jeong-ju, Kim Hyun-seung, Park Mok-wol, Kim Gwang-seop, Pak Tu-jin, and Cho Chi-hun. For example, Seo Jeong-ju built his own linguistic fortress with a unique mythical imagination and a mastery of the language while Kim Hyun-seung explored the existence of an individual who stands face to face with God. Park Mok-wol turned around from his nature-oriented imagination and delved deeply into the joys and sorrows of the city people and Kim Gwang-seop criticized civilization in The Pigeons of Seongbuk-dong, which was a rare attempt at the time. These poets all explored topics with immutable values such as nature, the individual, the inner self, existence, and the classics, thus diversifying the genre.

Just as the poetry of the 1960s wa s ba sed on the possibilities created by the April 19 Revolution, the poetry of the 1970s bloomed amid political oppression and the waves of industrialization. While Ko Un, Shin Kyeong-nim, Kim Ji-ha, Cho Tae-il, Lee Sung-boo, Jeong Hee-sung, and Lee Si-young demonstrated social lyricism, Hwang Tong-gyu, Chong Hyon-jong, Choe Ha-rim, Mah Chong-gi, Oh Kyu-won, Kim Kwang-kyu, Kim Myung-in, and Park Jung-man presented diverse inner experiences based on ontological explorations. Meanwhile, poets like Heu Young-ja, Chung Jin-kyu, Lee Keun-bae, Kim Huran, Oh Tak-bon, Yoo An-jin, Park E-dou, Ra Tae-joo, Lee Soo-ik, Song Soo-kwon, Oh Sae-young, Lee Geon-cheong, Kang Eun-gyo, Shin Dalja, Lim Young-jo, Lee Sung-sun, Moon Chung-hee, Kim Hyeong-young, Cho Jeong-kwon, Hong Shin-seon, Sin Dae-chul, Kim Jong-hae, Kim Jong-chul, Lee Ga-rim, Kim Seung-hee, Lee Jun-gwan, Lee kee-chul, Cho Chang-whan, and Yoon Suk-san continued their path in exploring lyricism.

Such trends continued in the 1980s with poets exploring human existence through the ups and downs of individual life histories. Poets such as Jeong Ho-seung, Lee Seong-bok, Choi Seungho, Choi Seung-ja, Lee Ha-suk, and Ki Hyung-do presented poems that explored an authentic existence by embodying the inner self of a person living in a capitalist society and the social violence that induced it. In particular, Ki Hyung-do lifted language up to the highest degree of tragedy by comparing “death,” an event in an individual’s life, to social violence.

A number of female poets formed the main body of poetry in the 1990s. This signified a shift that had previously centered on reason, power, and men, to a focus on emotion, diversity, sexuality, and life. Examples of this change can be found in poets such as Chun Yanghee, Kim Hye-soon, Bak Ra-yeon, Hwang In-suk, Choi Jeong-rye, and Jeong Keut-byeol.

In a similar vein, a dramatic increase in ecological poems can be regarded as a notable trend in poetry in the 1990s. Environment-friendly poems, contemplative poems immersed in nature, post-humanist poems that affirm all living things, and poems critical of civilization can be included in this trend. Poems by Kim Ji-ha, Chong Hyon-jong, Lee Sung-sun, Lee Ha-suk, Choi Dong-ho, Ko Jin-ha, Ko Hyeong-ryeol, Lee Si-young, and Shim Ho-taek are some of the examples.

In the 1990s, active critical discourse on modernity emerged in Korean poetry. They demonstrated a great diversity, ranging from clarifying the attributes of “modernity” that Korean poetry had achieved from an aesthetic point of view to examining the dysfunction that modernity had brought about. In particular, the ecological imagination was based on the critical reflection on the “modern.” At the same time, we remember the new poets of what can be called the 1990s style “new lyricism” who aimed to restore the minute details of the senses. These poems consistently presented the patterns of internal psychology rather than external events. The “new lyricism” revealed the psychological and existential conditions that modern people felt at every single moment of life, while the “old lyricism” celebrated universal emotions that relied on nature. With a subtle linguistic awareness, these poems made an important contribution to the development of modern poetry.

Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives was finally completed in 2010. This means that modern Korean history written in poetry over a long period of time and through diverse experiments has finally been finished. Ko’s work is not an epic but rather a collection of lyrical poems that clearly reveal the dynamics of modern Korean history. Shin Kyeong-nim shows the depth of life that was based on his experiences while Huh Man-ha combines a unique mythical imagination and linguistic self-consciousness. Hwang Tong-gyu presents a new world of poetry that is renewed constantly and Chong Hyon-jong maintains the zenith of fundamental thinking in pithy poems. Mah Chong-gi shows the beauty of his mother tongue found in a foreign land while Chung Jin-kyu transfers the rhythm of nature with the eyes that discover the depth of human lives in nature. Oh Sae-young confirms that poetry is originally meant to comprise the image of an object and the world of lyricism that arises from it. Oh Tak-bon discovers metaphysical logic in trivial sensual experiences and Lee Geon-cheong demonstrates a beautifully original imagination through the discovery of a “whale.” Kim Jong-hae writes about imaginary embodiments but makes sure that such an embodiment is a world that evokes universal experience. Kim Ji-ha combines ecological imagination and national form in his poems, and Kim Jong-chul carves beautiful images of the mother and the hometown, showing the depth of eternal memory.

It is also worth examining the works by poets who explore feminine identity. Yoo An-jin expresses beautifully how one can reach new self-awareness in life in the midst of trivial objects. Shin Dalja perfects the imagination of passionate love with sizzling yet sophisticated linguistic senses, and Moon Chunghee demonstrates self-awareness of language itself in the process of applying his native language to the abundant objects that we encounter in everyday life. Chun Yanghee presents an elegant linguistic style, a narration of memories and the vicissitudes of love while Kim Seung-hee, with an acute sense of the world of chaos, shows how to attain a paradoxical salvation by giving the rhythm of life an aesthetic touch. Choi Moon-ja writes authentically about a symbolic ritual that heals the scars of life.

Lee Ga-rim expands his poetic territory by combining a classical imagination and material embodiment and Kim Hyeong-young maintains his position by perfecting religious thought and depth of lyricism. Kim Myungin demonstrates a consistent depth of poetry and an understanding of the true condition of language, Shin Dae-chul a vast scale and fine self-awareness, Lee Si-young narrative impulse and unique concerns on “poetry,” and Hong Shin-seon a depth of lyricism while contemplating nothingness. Choi Dong-ho’s spiritua...