Rediscovering the Self Through Lyricism

  • onOctober 31, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byHwang Tong-gyu

Through the 1960s, Korean poetry pursued the creative integration of social consciousness and lyricism rather than traditional sentiments, based on the experiences of those who had lived through the April 19 Revolution. Such change could be seen in the leading poets such as Seo Jeong-ju, Kim Hyun-seung, Park Mok-wol, Kim Gwang-seop, Pak Tu-jin, and Cho Chi-hun. For example, Seo Jeong-ju built his own linguistic fortress with a unique mythical imagination and a mastery of the language while Kim Hyun-seung explored the existence of an individual who stands face to face with God. Park Mok-wol turned around from his nature-oriented imagination and delved deeply into the joys and sorrows of the city people and Kim Gwang-seop criticized civilization in The Pigeons of Seongbuk-dong, which was a rare attempt at the time. These poets all explored topics with immutable values such as nature, the individual, the inner self, existence, and the classics, thus diversifying the genre.

Just as the poetry of the 1960s wa s ba sed on the possibilities created by the April 19 Revolution, the poetry of the 1970s bloomed amid political oppression and the waves of industrialization. While Ko Un, Shin Kyeong-nim, Kim Ji-ha, Cho Tae-il, Lee Sung-boo, Jeong Hee-sung, and Lee Si-young demonstrated social lyricism, Hwang Tong-gyu, Chong Hyon-jong, Choe Ha-rim, Mah Chong-gi, Oh Kyu-won, Kim Kwang-kyu, Kim Myung-in, and Park Jung-man presented diverse inner experiences based on ontological explorations. Meanwhile, poets like Heu Young-ja, Chung Jin-kyu, Lee Keun-bae, Kim Huran, Oh Tak-bon, Yoo An-jin, Park E-dou, Ra Tae-joo, Lee Soo-ik, Song Soo-kwon, Oh Sae-young, Lee Geon-cheong, Kang Eun-gyo, Shin Dalja, Lim Young-jo, Lee Sung-sun, Moon Chung-hee, Kim Hyeong-young, Cho Jeong-kwon, Hong Shin-seon, Sin Dae-chul, Kim Jong-hae, Kim Jong-chul, Lee Ga-rim, Kim Seung-hee, Lee Jun-gwan, Lee kee-chul, Cho Chang-whan, and Yoon Suk-san continued their path in exploring lyricism.

Such trends continued in the 1980s with poets exploring human existence through the ups and downs of individual life histories. Poets such as Jeong Ho-seung, Lee Seong-bok, Choi Seungho, Choi Seung-ja, Lee Ha-suk, and Ki Hyung-do presented poems that explored an authentic existence by embodying the inner self of a person living in a capitalist society and the social violence that induced it. In particular, Ki Hyung-do lifted language up to the highest degree of tragedy by comparing “death,” an event in an individual’s life, to social violence.

A number of female poets formed the main body of poetry in the 1990s. This signified a shift that had previously centered on reason, power, and men, to a focus on emotion, diversity, sexuality, and life. Examples of this change can be found in poets such as Chun Yanghee, Kim Hye-soon, Bak Ra-yeon, Hwang In-suk, Choi Jeong-rye, and Jeong Keut-byeol.

In a similar vein, a dramatic increase in ecological poems can be regarded as a notable trend in poetry in the 1990s. Environment-friendly poems, contemplative poems immersed in nature, post-humanist poems that affirm all living things, and poems critical of civilization can be included in this trend. Poems by Kim Ji-ha, Chong Hyon-jong, Lee Sung-sun, Lee Ha-suk, Choi Dong-ho, Ko Jin-ha, Ko Hyeong-ryeol, Lee Si-young, and Shim Ho-taek are some of the examples.

In the 1990s, active critical discourse on modernity emerged in Korean poetry. They demonstrated a great diversity, ranging from clarifying the attributes of “modernity” that Korean poetry had achieved from an aesthetic point of view to examining the dysfunction that modernity had brought about. In particular, the ecological imagination was based on the critical reflection on the “modern.” At the same time, we remember the new poets of what can be called the 1990s style “new lyricism” who aimed to restore the minute details of the senses. These poems consistently presented the patterns of internal psychology rather than external events. The “new lyricism” revealed the psychological and existential conditions that modern people felt at every single moment of life, while the “old lyricism” celebrated universal emotions that relied on nature. With a subtle linguistic awareness, these poems made an important contribution to the development of modern poetry.

Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives was finally completed in 2010. This means that modern Korean history written in poetry over a long period of time and through diverse experiments has finally been finished. Ko’s work is not an epic but rather a collection of lyrical poems that clearly reveal the dynamics of modern Korean history. Shin Kyeong-nim shows the depth of life that was based on his experiences while Huh Man-ha combines a unique mythical imagination and linguistic self-consciousness. Hwang Tong-gyu presents a new world of poetry that is renewed constantly and Chong Hyon-jong maintains the zenith of fundamental thinking in pithy poems. Mah Chong-gi shows the beauty of his mother tongue found in a foreign land while Chung Jin-kyu transfers the rhythm of nature with the eyes that discover the depth of human lives in nature. Oh Sae-young confirms that poetry is originally meant to comprise the image of an object and the world of lyricism that arises from it. Oh Tak-bon discovers metaphysical logic in trivial sensual experiences and Lee Geon-cheong demonstrates a beautifully original imagination through the discovery of a “whale.” Kim Jong-hae writes about imaginary embodiments but makes sure that such an embodiment is a world that evokes universal experience. Kim Ji-ha combines ecological imagination and national form in his poems, and Kim Jong-chul carves beautiful images of the mother and the hometown, showing the depth of eternal memory.

It is also worth examining the works by poets who explore feminine identity. Yoo An-jin expresses beautifully how one can reach new self-awareness in life in the midst of trivial objects. Shin Dalja perfects the imagination of passionate love with sizzling yet sophisticated linguistic senses, and Moon Chunghee demonstrates self-awareness of language itself in the process of applying his native language to the abundant objects that we encounter in everyday life. Chun Yanghee presents an elegant linguistic style, a narration of memories and the vicissitudes of love while Kim Seung-hee, with an acute sense of the world of chaos, shows how to attain a paradoxical salvation by giving the rhythm of life an aesthetic touch. Choi Moon-ja writes authentically about a symbolic ritual that heals the scars of life.

Lee Ga-rim expands his poetic territory by combining a classical imagination and material embodiment and Kim Hyeong-young maintains his position by perfecting religious thought and depth of lyricism. Kim Myungin demonstrates a consistent depth of poetry and an understanding of the true condition of language, Shin Dae-chul a vast scale and fine self-awareness, Lee Si-young narrative impulse and unique concerns on “poetry,” and Hong Shin-seon a depth of lyricism while contemplating nothingness. Choi Dong-ho’s spiritual poetics demonstrate a profound thinking in poems that have been enriched with experiential details. Poems by Jo Jeong-kwon express his eloquent linguistic sense through the self-consciousness that he has formed through musicality.

Kim Sinyong continues to feel imaginary pains even after the disappearance of a painful life but endures them with aesthetic sorrow. Do Jong-hwan uses correct, proper language of enlightenment to demonstrate the depth of spirituality and how he can free himself completely from lonely self-contemplation. Lee Jae-mu writes poems that show how instantly the body responds to the outside world while demonstrating self-awareness as a poet. Ahn Do-hyeon unites the objects and the poet or the objects and the readers with a close affinity that is almost like a rapport between parents and children, and simultaneously creates a cognitive shock that would make the readers open their eyes to the authenticity of life. Jang Seok-nam shows the stature of a leading poet of lyricism with the purity of memory and an acute sense of language. Ra Heeduk presents objects that reveal their hidden beauty the minute the poet’s hand touches them. Song Chanho recreates the grand apocalypse that “records” the disappearance of things with great compassion and love. By printing sad memories, Park Hyung-jun shows how poetry can resist the retrogression of time. Bak Ra-yeon demonstrates a maturity that embodies individual objects and concepts through the point of view of a woman’s sensuality rather than with an affectionate motherhood. Moon Tae-jun enhances the reputation of Korean lyrical poetry with faithful memories and delicate lyricism. Yu Hong-june demonstrates an imagination that reaches the depth of life through the traces of death embedded in everyday life. The ecological poems that present skeptical views on modernity have been continued by poets such as Park Nam-jun, Ha Jong-oh, Lee Moon-jae, Lee Hi-jung, Jang Cheol-mun, Lee Jeong-rok, Jeon Dong-gyun, Lee Byungryul, and Gwon Hyeok-ung.

As such, Korean lyrical poems have shown diversity and dynamism that discover the individual and the inner self. The return-to-self aspect in lyricism gives meaning to objects and represents the attributes of reflection that bring such meaning into one’s life. Through the process of a poetic imagination that brings vitality and life into objects, the poets clearly demonstrate a lyricism that is a return to the self and a reflection upon that return.


1. The Festival of Pain
Chong Hyon-jong, Minumsa Publishing Group
1974, 129p, ISBN 9788937406119

2. Pyeongang, The Princess of Seoul
Bak Ra-yeon, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1990, 100p, ISBN 8932015821

3. The Horn
Shin Kyeong-nim, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2002, 96p, ISBN 8936422189


A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours

By Hwang Tong-gyu

I walked watching the stars.
I was about to cross after I got off the local bus
behind the apartment’s back entrance, but I just kept walking.
The stores’ shutters came down, as if trying to conceal their inner cold.
Still, one or two snowflakes blew in the wind
from the snow that had briefly fallen late that night.
The dust must have died down for now.
How long had it been? I adjusted my coat, collected myself,
and walked to the last stop watching the stars.

The last bus stop. Not so long ago, on one side
of the small triangle-shaped square,
an ironmonger’s with scissors and knives
hanging outside its window like baroque music, was demolished,
and a farmer’s market with the sign To the Field took its place.
The building lights go off and a streetlamp reads the sign.
On the opposite side, a Shilla Bakery closes its doors for the night.

Where the last side begins, a woman stares hollow-eyed
at her cell phone, as if waiting
for her daughter or husband on the last bus.
She is tall, her waist slightly bent,
and she is memorizing something in a just audible voice.
I stand by her as if I know her
while rubbing my hands together, and look up to the sky.
In the sky that seems to have frosted over, Ursa Major,
over there, Cassiopeia…and Orion.
None torn into separate stars, all still alive!

The woman in a just audible voice now says decisively,
“Now I’m going to kill myself.”
The streetlight just shines off her pale face.
There is no murderous trace staining it.
I feel somewhat at ease.
Silently, I also think, “Just let him or her come!” several times.

A star brightens, and asks,
“What are you waiting for? Someone who might not come?
A world without darkness? A world without dust?
The life of a comet radiating light
as its body of dust freezes and melts in the dark
is probably not a bad life.”
Who let out a dry cough?
If someone hadn’t been next to me,
I would have spoken up precisely to the star,
“I won’t speak about the dark or the light
next to those desperate in their waiting!”
Like the outside of a scuba diving mask,
the stars shimmer, then stop.
It’s time for the last bus to arrive.

Translated by Krys Lee


To My Root

By Ra Heeduk

I can remember you
when you were my root in a deep place
and I was soft earth, just plowed.
Ah, my love,
steam rose from the spot where your breath first touched me
and I trembled at the joy of drawing my clean blood to flow into you.

My root thirsting for the clean well,
please rise in me.
Because my flesh, bedazzled, breaks easily,
dip your feet merrily in my clean blood and spurt it out.

When you grabbed my spine and reached farther
I became a good vessel, I sheltered you.
A flaming wind thrashed me,
but I felt a secret stupid joy,
always blessing the tip of your growth.

See how my flesh toughens
when you climb down through me.
Please drink my last cup,
because I’m old and murky,
a husk pierced by strings of sorrow.

When you were my root in a deep place
worms sprang up in my mind;
but I’ve become an empty vessel.
When your green stems shine in the sunlight,
I will be plowed into the soft earth on the hillside.

Translated by Kim Won-chung and Christopher Merrill



By Moon Taejun

In room 302, which houses six patients from Kimcheon Hospital,
she lies in bed with her oxygen mask and struggles with cancer.
She lies there like a flatfish on the floor of the sea.
I lie down beside her like another flatfish.
When one flatfish glances at another, she bursts into tears.
The emaciated woman cries, with one eye moving into the other.
She looks forward only to death, I look back at the billowing days of her life.
I remember her life in the water, wading to the right and left,
the lanes she took, the cuckoo’s song at noon,
the evenings she boiled thin noodles, and the history of her family
that for generations couldn’t build mud walls.
I remember the winter day that her legs slowly forked
and her back bent like branches under heavy snow.
The sound of her breath roughens like the bark of an elm.
I know she can no longer see the world beyond death;
One eye has moved darkly into the other.
I swim and twist to the right and left, toward her, I lie down quietly beside her.
She sprinkles on my dry body drops of water drawn through her mask.