"As If Keen to Catch the Sound of the Night Rain"
- onOctober 23, 2015
- Vol.29 Autumn 2015
- byJang Gyung-ryul
“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Walter Pater is suggesting here that music is the only art form that is free from the dichotomy of form and content. In other words, music is pure art, free from the burden of representing or recreating the real world. The fact that the poet Hwang Tong-gyu originally wanted to be a composer is well known; and knowing about his interest in music might help us to better understand his poetic world. For poetry, unlike music, is a verbal art and cannot be free from the demands of representation or recreation, so naturally visual motifs or images provide the creative impetus for the majority of poets. In Hwang’s poetic world, however, there exist many examples of poems with aural motifs, images that are inspired by sound. Perhaps this unusual aspect of Hwang’s poetic world hints at his desire not only to be free from the prison house of language but also from the tyranny of eyes, and reach the state of music—in other words, pure sound. Neologisms such as hol-lo-um (whose meaning is roughly equivalent to “radiant solitude”) are an especially striking part of Hwang’s oeuvre, and their presence might also relate to this desire.
A poem from his recent collection that is especially notable when viewed in this context is “Wind Burial 27.” The speaker in the poem says that he’ll take everything with him when he leaves the world, but he’d “rather leave [his] ears.” What does this line mean? Although many interpretations are possible, it would suggest, among other things, that hearing will be the sole remaining pathway between the “I” of the present world and the “I” after death. If our souls are allowed consciousness and/ or unconsciousness after death, when perception of the present world becomes impossible, wouldn’t this dimension approximate that of music? Possibly it did for the survivor in Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw,” who lived his life in a state of unconsciousness, but nevertheless became lucid for the seconds when the chorus was singing. That is to say, perhaps Hwang has here stated his impression that the conscious and/or unconscious world after death corresponds to the dimension of music as pure art that transcends form, content, language, and reality. Also, the line, “When I leave this world... I’d rather leave my ears,” might indicate the following prolepsis: even if he loses the function in his sensory organs at the moment of death, he hopes that his hearing remains to form a bridge between “him” and the living world. Indeed, it would be impossible to find music as beautiful as “the sound of late night rain” that the poet might hear when he leaves this world. And, to rephrase a rhetorical question Hwang poses in another poem, how on earth can music exist in music only?
His original question was, “How on earth can literature exist in literature only?” In the poem “Canzone Napoletana,” it is music itself that leads Hwang to this awakening. “The Canzone Napoletana sung by the old Tenor Stefano” becomes the motif of poetic enlightenment. This song reminds the poet of “The azure-blue waves lapping against the Napoli seashore” thirty years ago. The memory of these waves, electrifies his body and “Slowly my eyes are closed and black-out.” In a state of such ecstasy, it is no wonder that he asks, “where am I?” The poet recognizes that he is somewhere other than the Neapolitan coast, and this leads him on to a great epiphany: “How can Napoli exist only in Napoli?” Just as the Neapolitan coast is everywhere, literature can be everywhere as well. Music allows the poet to overcome space and time, and it also leads him to a realization that transcends space and time: literature may exist anywhere, even outside of literature.