Hwang Tong-gyu is one of Korea’s finest poets. He has been writing poetry for the past fifty-eight years since his debut in 1958. His poetry stands out both for its literary merit and popular appeal. The following is an interview conducted by literary critic and longtime researcher of Hwang’s poetry, Ha Eung-baek.
A Poet’s Sense of Identity
Ha Eung-baek: You have graduated from a department of English and studied abroad in Edinburgh. There are probably many poets in our country that studied English literature at university, but you went on to teach English Literature at Seoul National University and in a way you are someone who has used English all his life. With this background, what would you say are the fundamental differences between English or American poetry and Korean poetry?
Hwang Tong-gyu: The poetry of Western Europe has a much stronger sense of identity and sense of language than Korean poetry. However, our poetry has become very Westernized, so there isn’t much of a difference now. When I say “sense of identity,” I mean something that asks “How should I live?” This differs from individualism in that it revolves around questioning how I, as a human being, should live my life. This mode of thought is more prominent in Europe than in Korea’s poetry tradition. Wordsworth, Eliot, Yeats, and Rilke—they all have this theme.
Ha: You have worked both as a teacher and as a poet. Have you ever felt friction between the two?
Hwang: Art is unforgiving to teaching. You must show. There must be many people who have been taught through showing. Yet, there is a basic difference between showing and teaching. Having said that, there are many American and European poets who are employed in that most time consuming of jobs, being a university professor. They too must struggle. If you don’t, it is hard to make good poetry. I am not a magician, so it is difficult. You cannot say “now I will show you, and now I will teach you.”
Ha: You were born in 1938, which, to speak in a Korean context means you were born under Japanese colonial rule. When you were eight years old, you witnessed liberation in 1945; when you were thirteen, you lived through our people’s greatest tragedy, the Korean War; when you were at university, you experienced both the April 19th Revolution and the May 16th Coup. You have been faced with many important events in our country’s recent history. How does this historical background relate to your poetry?
Hwang: I don’t think my life has been smooth even now. In some ways, it is as if I have lived without knowing the true meaning of peace. Even after those events, our lives have never been peaceful because of the relations between the North and the South. These have all had an effect on my poetry and therefore you will not find the word “happiness” in my poems.
Ha: You say that, but after you reached middle age, words associated with happiness, such as “radiance” often appear in your work.
Hwang: More than to convey happiness, I used the word “radiance” to express the realization of what’s not smooth or the attitude that one can still love things that are not smooth.
Ha: So could “not smooth” be a figure of speech representing a rough, bumpy life?
Hwang: Yes. Young people these days might not understand, but there were many of us who could not live the way we wanted. For example, choosing one’s major (I didn’t always want to choose English Literature). I originally wanted to go to the College of Music and major in composition, but I couldn’t because I was never able to receive proper music education when I was young. At the time, there was no one to teach me, so I couldn’t learn. I had never even been able to touch an instrument, so I had to give up. I ended up picking what seemed to be the closest subject to music, poetry. You couldn’t read world literature then because reading English books meant learning English for six years, which was equivalent to going to England itself. You couldn’t just do as you pleased. After studying, if I had had the freedom to, I would have become a translator, not a professor. But I couldn’t refuse when I was offered a professorship. You couldn’t live as a translator then. There were lots of different mitigating circumstances like that. I don’t know if people would accept it now, but at that time we tended to naturally accept that fundamentally, life was not smooth.
Searching for Humanity’s True Nature
Ha: Am I right in saying that there is a poem from your early works written when you were in your twenties called “A Joyful Letter”? This poem might be a favorite among your readers.
Hwang: That is a bit of a pity to me since it is one of my early works.
Ha: Many critics have looked at this poem and said it told a story of labor. Up until that point, love was often equated with “waiting.” Your position, like “If you leave, I shall wait,” was considered important, and from what I understand, one’s way of waiting is integral to this poem. However you look at it, it seems like this couldn’t possibly be something said by a twenty-year-old. While this theme of waiting was common in traditional poetry, I would have thought that you wouldn’t have been capable of such literary insight at such an age.
Hwang: During the War, I discovered the true nature of extant love could not be resolved through waiting. At that time, no such thing as eternal love could be seen around me. I couldn’t speak of love the same way that the poets who came before me had. And I was also probably influenced by existentialism then. Although I probably didn’t understand existentialism, I must have picked up on its feeling or main elements. The existentialism understood in Korea at that time was more of the end-of-the-century version that had wandered a bit from its origins—possibly closer to end-of-the-century nihilism. Existentialism has an extraordinarily str...