Songs of Delight: Surpassing the Bounds of Our Lives

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byHwang Tong-gyu

New creation in the arts is preceded by new perception and new discovery. This tendency is more pronounced in literature, which uses words as a means of expression, and all the more so in poetry, which derives its main force from the condensed use of words. In order for ordinary sentence structure to be sublimated to the level of art, a chemical transformation must take place owing to some new discovery. A poet takes various elements at hand, combines them organically, and lifts them to the province of new creation. In this respect, the process of poetic creation can be likened to the course of religious truth seeking or training. By looking at the sixty-year journey Hwang Tong-gyu has traveled as a poet, we can see that this comparison is no exaggeration.

     “A Joyful Letter,” Hwang Tong-gyu’s debut poem that many still love to read and reread, is a work that brought about a paradigm shift in Korean romantic poetry. Until its release, poets had sung only of eternal love. The narrator of the work challenged contemporary assumptions by confessing that even though he felt true love, at some point the feeling would end. We can see from this example that Hwang attempted to break free of existing poetic conventions from the outset.

In his first and second poetry collections, One Clear Day (1961) and Elegy (1965), the quest for truth in the midst of depression and loneliness is a recurring motif. The man in the poems is adrift, having lost his love, but he meets someone else as he is coming out of the break-up, and intends to find peace of mind by traveling along a new path. Throughout his life, Hwang has adopted this attitude of the seeker.

     He rose to a more prominent status in literary circles through the publication of his selected works, Snow Falling in Samnam (1975). Included in this volume were forty-nine representative poems from his early period, along with eleven poems that had not yet appeared in books. By gathering together the poems he’d written to date, it was possible to see his distinctive personality at a glance. In particular, the works released in a ten-year period dating from the mid-1960s garnered much attention, as elements could be interpreted as reflecting the participatory action and resistance to existing circumstances that were characteristic of those times. These works show genuine social reflection on the part of an individual who cannot be indifferent to human suffering.

     After Hwang’s fifth collection, When I See a Wheel I Want to Roll It (1978), was issued, another important change could be seen in his poetic world: he developed a predilection for geukseojeongsi (dramatic poetry). In geukseojeongsi, some change takes place in someone’s thought or behavior within the span of the poem, just as it would within a dramatic work. For Hwang, adapting this style was a new attempt to break free from the bounds of lyric poetry and comprehend various modes of human existence.

     Another of his major accomplishments was a poetry cycle, begun in 1982 and finished in 1995, entitled Wind Burial. Together, these poems constituted a report detailing changes in the poet’s perception of life and death from when he was in his mid-forties until his late fifties. As he finished the cycle, Hwang observed, “It took me fourteen years to grasp that you can only reach transcendence by not transcending anything at all.” In the process of meditating on death, the poet unexpectedly discovered the mystery of life and the beauty of being alive.

     As his poems became freer in form after Song in Berkeley Style (2000) and I Used To Rely on Chance (2003), he integrated Western methodology and an Eastern way of thinking together in a unique world of his own devising. Notably, he created a special book of poems with a dialogue between Jesus and the Buddha that deconstructed the dichotomy between the two. The book takes us from a state where the sacred and secular are undifferentiated to a spirit of greater love in which there is neither you nor I, and we can embrace everything without discrimination.

     The Silence of Flowers (2006); Winter, 5 Minutes Past Midnight (2009); and Joy of Living (2013) were poetry collections released a few years apart in and around the time he turned seventy. Reading each collection separately, the feeling is so different that readers might even suspect each was composed according to its own design. This is an effect of the re-genesis of the poet’s consciousness: after he releases a book, he tries to transcend it with successive efforts, always striving to attain a higher dimension of poetry. In this respect, Hwang can be called a poet ceaselessly striving and exploring, a poet of the living spirit (der lebendig Geist).

     If we take a look at his most recent collections, we can see that aspects of aging, extending even to the experience of disease and suffering, all serve as motivation for him to create. Hwang’s creative mental energy atomizes the decrepitude that accompanies senility and pain. He has passed from the stages of savoring the flavor of life and the body to tasting the flavor of pain. He writes, “That clear taste of pain/ Life on earth/ As long as a trace of life remains/ Would it be erased?” No matter how bothersome life is in our mundane world, he attempts to find the “joy of living” in the lives of ordinary people harassed by day-to-day reality rather than rise to a transcendent plane. When he explains what the joy of living is and where it comes from, he refrains from using abstract terms; he explains it quietly with reference to his personal experience.

     The glorious moments felt at life’s summit have faded from the horizon, but being old does not mean giving up on the joy of living. There is a flavor to the lives of the elderly, and to the bodies they care for and enjoy. It is a life force so mild that it can never be felt by a youthful body, and it excites a joy of great delicacy. In Joy of Living, many poems are dedicated to this life force and the joy of life.

Works published after Joy of Living also deal with the problems of life from a variety of perspectives. Hwang’s attention is drawn to the constant movement and fine tremors that are the telltale signs of every existing life form, even ones that can’t be named. He observes that the force of life is emanating strongly from all sentient beings, and he feels the thrill of it, the sheer delight of life in it. Furthermore, he realizes that sharing in the delight of living things empowers us to surpass the bounds of the finite human body. It is uncommon in the field of Korean literature to arrive at this kind of awakening, so the significance of his artistic creation cannot be stressed enough.



by Lee Soong-won