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?