The Rise of a Modern Sensibility

The dawn of a new generation of poets opened the possibilities of experimentation and diversification.


One of the driving forces of modern Korean poetry has been the pursuit of modernity. The efforts to attain a sense of the contemporary that went beyond traditional lyricism became active in the Korean literary scene in the 1930s. Korean poetry, however, only began to include the diversity and depth of modernity after liberation and division in the 1960s when a new generation emerged as literary leaders. After liberation, poets Kim Soo-young and Kim Chunsu pursued two aspects of modernity: a “critique of reality” and the “autonomy of language,” both of which had a major influence on the subsequent development of poetry in Korea.

The struggle against the detached and lofty nature of Korean literature and the oppressiveness of Korean society meant that the poetic methodology itself came to signify resistance against reality. The way poetic language responded to the oppressive reality of the times was in itself an aesthetic achievement and a form of resistance. The “April 19 generation” that entered Korean literature after the epochal April 19 Revolution in 1960, was the leading force behind it. The poetry of this generation recognized an oppressive reality as the problem of existence and explored the poetic methodology that could expose it. Such poetry was based on the relationship of tension between the autonomy of literary language and reality. It can be seen as the exploration of modernity in Korean poetry as a response to the industrialization that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The April 19 generation’s literary achievements began to appear as collections of poems from the latter half of the 1970s: Lee Seung-hoon’s Bridge of Fantasy (1977), Hwang Tong-gyu’s When I See a Wheel I Want to Roll It (1978), Mah Chonggi’s The Invisible Land of Love (1980), Chong Hyon-jong’s I Am the Uncle-star (1978), Shin Dae-chul’s For a Desert Island (1977), Oh Gyu-won’s To a Boy Who Is Not a Prince (1978), Kim Kwang-Kyu’s The Last Dream to Affect Us (1979), Kim Hyeong-young’s Mosquitoes Make Noise Alone (1979), Choe Ha-rim’s At a Small Village (1982), Lee Ha-suk’s Transparent Inside (1980), Cho Jeong-kwon’s The Seven Forms of the Mind That Looks at the Rain (1977), and Kim Myung-in’s Dongducheon (1979) are achievements that reflected such trends in poetry after the 1960s. Awareness of a new cultural freedom and independence, and pride in writing in their native language as the “Hangeul generation” became free from the oppression of language during the Japanese colonial period, made such adventures in modernity possible. Hwang Tong-gyu’s “Tension in Methodology,” Oh Gyu-won’s “Irony and Satire,” Chong Hyon-jong’s “Poetics on Life and Freedom,” Mah Chonggi’s “Lyrical Perspective,” and Kim Kwang-Kyu’s “Common Critical Mind” are important examples of such adventures.

Such pursuits of modernity continued in the 1980s. Having experienced the structural violence of Korean society at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s made the new generation reflect fundamentally on the concept of freedom, the literary ideal of the previous generation. With the emergence of another generation, more progressive aesthetic poetry continued and the language of negation and deconstruction came to the fore. In this context, the poets of the 1980s posed more fundamental questions on the custom and the grammar of the poetic genre based on the achievements in poetic modernity attained by the previous generation. The desire to negate the reality they faced unfolded as an adventure to deconstruct and reconstruct the poetic structure itself.

The publication of Lee Seong-Bok’s When Does a Rolling Stone Awaken? (1980) was a symbolic event that was followed by Choi Seung-ja’s The Love of This Age (1981), Kim Hyesoon’s From Another Star (1981), Kim Jeong-hwan’s A Song That Cannot Be Erased (1982), Goh Jung-hee’s Abel of This Age (1983), Choi Seungho’s Heavy Snow Warning (1983), and Song Jae-hak’s Collection of Poems on Ice (1988). These new poets pushed forward with works that revealed an inner, oppressive reality by using an even stronger language of negation. Hwang Ji-woo’s Even Birds Leave the World (1984), and Park Nahm-cheoll’s Human of the Earth (1984) pushed such deconstructive methodology to an extreme. The new sensibility symbolized by Kim Youngseung’s Reflection (1987), Ki Hyung-do’s The Black Leaf in My Mouth (1989), and Bak Ju-taek’s Mobile Architecture of Dreams (1991) was a meeting point for the experimental mind of the 1980s and the emotions of the 1990s.

Modern Korean poetry of the 1990s emerged under a new set of cultural circumstances. Korea’s procedural democracy expanded as a result of the June Uprising in 1987 and the symptoms of a consumer society began to appear on a full scale in the 1990s. With the new information-oriented society and capitalism as a part of daily life, modern Korean poetry reinvestigated its aesthetic identity. The poets of the 1990s reexamined the status of poetry in the age of popular culture. A diversity of themes—the aesthetics of death and extinction, the exploration of urban daily life, connecting with popular culture, the digital environment and cyberspace, the poetics of the body, and feminism and sexuality—brought about a pluralism that had not existed in the previous era. The generation that grew up on popular culture began to express the images of daily life as a consumer society. Various cultural aspects of the consumer society emerged as themes of poetry. Jang Jung-il’s Meditation on a Hamburger (1987) and Yoo Ha’s We Should Go to Apgujeong-dong on a Windy Day (1991) were a starting point. New poems that explored the issue of existence in the reality of the new popular culture included Jang Kyoung-lin’s Lion Is Escaping, Catch the Lion (1993), Yeon Wang-mo’s The Premonition of the Dogs (1997), Sung Kiwan’s Have You Been Shopping? (1998), Seo Jung-hak’s The King of Adventure and the Aristocrats of the Coconut (1998), Kang Jeong’s Execution Theater (1996), and Joo Chang-yun’s Sheep Hanging on a Coat Hanger (1998). They presented the emptiness and the chaos behind the dazzling spectacle of capitalism.

Meanwhile, works that transformed the grammar of lyrical poems to reconstruct the other side of the city with a modern language continued to take place. Kim Ki-taek’s Fatal Sleep (1991) and Lee Yoon-hak’s The House of Dust (1992) are representative works of this trend. Works that used idiosyncratic language to express the gloomy existential reality hidden behind the age of consumer capitalism are: Chae Ho-ki’s Bitter Love (1992), Nam Jin-woo’s A Prayer for the Dead (1996), Haam Seong-ho’s 5 Billion and 670 Million Years of Solitude (1992), Ko Jin-ha’s Francesco’s Birds (1993), Kim Joong-sik’s Golden Corner (1993), Cha Chang-ryong’s Unending Plowing (1994), Park Hyung-jun’s I Will Now Talk about Extinction (1994), Song Chan-ho’s Empty Chair of Ten Years (1994), Park Jeong-dae’s Short Stories (1997), and Kim Tae-dong’s Youth (1999).

The literary development of female poets enriched the poetic space after the 1990s. A new aesthetic revealed previously neglected perspectives and a decentralized discourse style. The female poets who exposed the sense of a feminine existence more minutely formed a strong power that enriched the poetry of the 1990s. Following the works by female poets such as Kang Eun-gyo, Moon Ch...