Do Jong-Hwan: Poems of Love, Loss, and Hope

When we consider the immense popularity enjoyed by Do Jong-Hwan, both as a poet and as a person, it is quite surprising that it has taken so long for a volume of his most popular poems to be published in English. This new publication offers the additional advantage of being bilingual, so that readers also have access to the original texts of the poems.

 

     Ivy

 

     At times when we feel that

     it is a wall, unavoidably a wall,

     then

     without a word ivy goes climbing up the wall.

     At times when we say that

     it is a wall of despair

     with no drop of water, where not one seed can survive,

     unhurrying, the ivy advances.

     Hand in hand, several together, it climbs on, a span’s breadth at a time.

     It grasps the despair and will not let go

     until the despair is all covered in green.

     At times when we shake our heads, saying

     that wall cannot be climbed,

     one ivy leaf leads thousands of other ivy leaves

     and finally climbs over that wall.

 

     “Ivy” is one of Do Jong-Hwan’s most popular poems, reproduced (in Korean) thousands of times on the Internet by his admirers. Like many of his poems, it begins with a familiar scene linked to nature and the traditional countryside (modern apartment blocks rarely have ivy-covered walls) but then takes the scene as an image of a truth about human existence. The patient progress of ivy up a dry, harsh surface ends in victory as it reaches the top of the wall and passes beyond. Despair is overcome; new hope is born.

     Born in 1954 in Cheong-ju, North Chungcheong Province, Do Jong-Hwan first became a recognized poet some years after he began to work as a high school teacher. The extreme poverty of his family had meant that the only form of higher studies available to him was the teacher training college. During his student days, seeing him confronted with many difficulties, friends persuaded him to join their literary club and so he first became aware of poetry.

     The death by cancer of his wife in 1985, just two years after they married, and a few months after the birth of their second child, inspired him to write a volume of love poems, Hollyhock You, which brought him critical acclaim and instant fame. It has sold over one million copies. However, he was so identified with the mourning voice of those poems that when he remarried six years later, many readers were scandalized. Some have never forgiven him, so strongly they had fixed him in a stereotyped situation of grief and loss. They forgot that grief, too, is at length overcome by new love.

     In 1989, his efforts to democratize Korea’s educational system meant that he was forbidden to teach for ten years. Once the ten years ...