Where the Power of the Pen Still Lives On

In Korea, poetry is still loved by the public, and many people aspire to be poets. Here’s a look at the influences and inspirations that propelled Korean poetry into the modern age.


Korea, like many East Asian countries, was greatly damaged during the progression of modern history. With a throng of foreign warships swarming to its shore, the country could no longer stay a recluse. After Korea was colonized by neighboring Japan, the people of Korea who had always had a deep respect for literature, tried to escape hardship by embracing Western civilization. The most urgent priorities for Koreans were learning the modern sciences and establishing a stable economic foundation. But it was also important for them to understand the literary forms of the modern Western world and begin practicing a new form of literary art in order to imbue their language with a unique power, as well as awaken to their fate and boost national pride in the midst of despair. The Korean people grasped the essence of Western literature in a relatively short period of time, and immediately set to creating outstanding works of modern literature. Such a feat was made possible due to a literary tradition of over a thousand years spent mastering Eastern classics and literature, but also due to the urgent call of the day. The fetters of colonization, however, could not be removed for more than three decades; liberation led to national division with the South and the North, divided by an inflow of foreign ideologies and a bloody, fratricidal war.

The 1960s of Korea began with the April 19 Revolution, through which students and citizens rose up to topple the dictatorship. The revolution is significant in the context of Korea’s spiritual history, in that it awakened the people to the fact that they were key players in the making of history. A politically heightened spirit led directly to poetic passion. Everyday citizens penned a poem, and more. Poetry was all the rage, and poetic imagination surpassed political imagination. The spiritual force leading to this poetic fervor came from various sources. Poets, who had long been making an effort to give a Western literary form to Korean native mythology and sentiments, now attempted to fuse the modern achievements in the humanities with the mythical imagination of the Korean people. Poets believed that the universal analogy connecting humans and nature had been nullified as a result of the inflow of unfamiliar cultures into Korea and the passive modernization of the colonial era. These poets sought a foundation for democratic growth in the meditation of nature as well as classic ethical teachings of the East. The poets who had honed their sensibilities through a study of Western or modern art, wrote poetry with poetry itself as the end goal, and at the same time, tried to make the sophisticated language of poetry the allegory of a pure spirit, free from worldly desires. By their side were poets who glimpsed the hope for an absolutely pure language in the purity of the self-confession found in Christianity, a religion still unfamiliar to the Korean people at the time. However, poets who made a keen observation of the political and social realities believed that through constant and careful reflection on everyday life, the possibility of a newly unfolding history, as well as the possibility of an advanced language, could be founded simultaneously. The political changes incurred by the civic revolution are significant in that they led the poets of Korea to devise poetic methods appropriate for the era in which they lived, by finding their own language and discovering themes large and small in their own lives. As implied by the title of the poem, “Shells Shall Depart,” by a major poet of the era, outdated ideas and foreign ideologies were nothing but empty shells, to be filled with deep reflection and affection for life and humans.

The changes in society, however, did not include the realization of the hopes embodied by poetry, and once again, poetry grew in its power to inquire and express amid the strife against a coercive military regime. Such a phenomenon was not limited to poetry, which had always engaged in political struggle, actively advocating social participation. Regardless of which side they were on, poets who had lived under the ideals of a neo-Confucian tradition that asserted conformity of learning and action, tried to clearly define the relationship between the outstanding...