Kim Kwang-Kyu: A Poet Who Gives Meaning and Value to the Everyday

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byKim Kwang-Kyu

Poet Kim Kwang-Kyu, born in Seoul in 1941, debuted at the age of thirty-four in the journal Literature and Intelligence. In light of the conventions of the time, his literary debut happened at a rather late age. However, Kim proved everyone’s fears groundless through his prodigious poetic output. Kim has published ten books to date, starting in 1979 with his first collection, The Last Dream to Drench Us, which shows just how faithful he has been in carrying out his duties as a poet. He has been diligently transforming everyday language into poetry, in other words giving meaning and value to life. Moreover, he has been pursuing balance and harmony between intellect and emotion by using both in equal measure in his poetry. Through changes in syntax and line breaks, he has ceaselessly experimented with the aesthetics of form, variations in meaning, and the impact of emphasis. Kim Kwang-Kyu has broadened the horizons of Korean poetry by presenting us with a new genre called everyday poetry. Through his poetic experimentation, he has given meaning and value to the domain of the petit bourgeois who had not received attention before by making them the subjects of his poetry.

Kim’s appearance on the Korean literary scene served as a catalyst that breathed new life into the lyric poetry of the 1970s and 80s that was sidelined by a bias toward participatory realism. It would not be an exaggeration to call “Spirit Mountain,” his debut poem from his first collection, an autobiographical account of his wanderings in search of a literary motif that began in his teenage years. His search for the Spirit Mountain not only served as a motivation but also guided him as he wrote. The Spirit Mountain continues to appear throughout his poems, morphing into different forms such as the imaginary K’unaksan. “Spirit Mountain” is Kim’s representative poem about a poet who originally dreamt of becoming a writer and wanders aimlessly without realizing the inevitability of his vocation: to seek out the mysterious world of words and language. This search for the Spirit Mountain has become the central theme of Kim’s life.

The most salient observation about Kim’s poetry is that he uses plain language, which lends itself to the absence of methodical devices of metaphor and metonymy, thus making the poems easy to read and the content deceptively simple. However, a close reading reveals that the elaborate grammar and the systematic structure suggestive of a novel link together organically to center on a single theme. In this way, Kim’s poetry is thematically precise, formally aesthetic, and artistically appealing in terms of technique. This is an important literary methodology that Kim has been pursuing for the past forty years and it is what positions him on a pedestal of Korean poetry.

A notable feature of Kim’s second poetry collection, No, It’s Not So (1983), is his experimentation with prosaic techniques by using formal grammar, objective narrative, and the third person perspective while avoiding contextual leaps and omissions. For example, his poem “The Depths of a Clam” has no leaps or omissions and is composed entirely of orderly sentences. Another distinct feature is the use of the third person “she” or “husband” that leaves no room for subjectivity. This is one of the distinctive characteristics of Kim’s writing style.

Yet another notable feature is the thematic clarity and transparency acquired through a healthy middle class skepticism combined with the harmonization of clear and lucid images. Poems like “Back View” or “The New Door” from his third collection, The Heart of K’unaksan, are prime examples of this. Lines such as, “So that one single person / can go in and out about once a year / they have set up this enormous doorway / slap in the middle / with a dozen men guarding it day and night,” make it obvious at whom the sharp blade of his criticism and keen intellect is aimed.

The tenor poems in Kim’s fourth book, Like Someone Fussing and Fretting (1988), may seem at first indifferent to the everyday affairs of the petit bourgeois and ordinary people; however, on the flip side, the poems hide a twist that lays bare the reality and truth of life. His is a resolute voice that declares his refusal to end up like so much plastic bought in bulk quantities only to be disposed of later.

Starting with his sixth book, Waterways (1994), Kim’s poetry begins to show an increased introspection about aging and death, and a sensitive reaction to social changes. The poem “A Suit with No Pockets” from his seventh book, Nothing of My Own, But Still… (1998), portrays death as a journey one sets off on without any money and subtlely hints at his disapproval of extravagance and vanity, and the futility of idle ambition. He says, “But why are there so many pockets / for a journey where there’s no need to pay a fare?”

Kim’s eighth collection, When First We Met (2003), has the same sharp-edged introspection. He does not let go of his interest in the past and present, in nature and civilization, or in truth and the contradictory nature of a false society. However, a much stronger equanimity and generosity than what was present in his early poems permeate this criticism and reflection. This change stems not only from the fact that he has grown older but also from an ease of life. What is especially notable in this collection is the increased number of prose poems. The descriptive techniques and monologues lend to a feeling of reading a well-knit short story while maintaining poetic tautness. This prosaic proximity has influenced the world of Korean poetry to such an extent that it has been labelled as a “Kim Kwang-Kyu style of poetics.”

Kim’s most recent collections, The Soft Touch of Time (2007) and One Day, Then Another (2011) feature love and compassion for the marginalized, the wounded, and the weak along with contemplations on the passage of time. Cheap cotton gloves warm the poet’s hands on a journey through Europe, but on his return to Korea get mixed in with odds and ends, eventually getting lost.

Kim Kwang-Kyu has made a significant contribution to modern Korean poetry by making poetry more accessible through his prosaic descriptions, monologues, and use of everyday language. 


by Kim Jae-hong
Literary Critic and Endowed Chair
Baekseok University