Pak Mogwol, the Epitome of Pure Lyricism

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byPak Mogwol

Born in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province in 1915, Pak Mogwol first became well known for writing children’s poetry. In 1933, his poem “Tong-ttak-ttak Tong-ttak-ttak” was selected for a prize by the magazine Child, and in the same year another poem, “Welcoming the Swallows,” was awarded a prize by New Family magazine. Then in 1939 his work was recommended by Jeong Ji-yong and published in the September edition of Sentence, thus launching his career as a poet in earnest. From then onwards, Pak Mogwol made a place for himself in the history of modern Korean poetry as the consummate creator of concise, simply constructed lyric poetry.

As a nature poet, drawing on and embodying the sensual realities humming in nature and metaphysical meaning, he is best remembered as part of the Cheongnokpa (Green Deer Group) which was born out of the three-poet anthology published in 1946 and entitled Cheongnokjip (Green Deer Collection), which was also Pak’s first published collection of poetry. In this work there is a strong undercurrent of a specific form of purely lyrical methodology running throughout.

The subject matter of Pak Mogwol’s early poetry is nature. However, rather than being a physical kind of nature where the principle of survival of the fittest rules, or an agricultural, bucolic kind of nature, it is nature transformed, so to speak, in the imagination of the poet, reflecting his attitude and outlook on life. An examination of poems such as “Blue Deer” or “April” which are typical of his early works, shows that such a hypothesis is highly convincing. The settings of these poems such as “Cheongun Temple on a faraway Mountain,” “Jahasan,” and “a remote peak/the wind laced with pine pollen” are not so much realistic descriptions of locations in Korea. Rather, they are nature imagined, projected with archetypal ideals to accompany characters such as a “blue deer” and a “blind young woman,” who are the real focus of the poems.

This perfectly intact, imagined world of nature is continually transformed and reproduced in lines such as: “Every wine-mellowing village/ afire in the evening light,” from “The Wayfarer,” and “The mountain/ Gugangsan/ a rocky violet-tinged mountain,” from “Wild Peach Blossoms 1.” This nature, then, becomes something which, shaking off the dust of the everyday world, people can seek without constraint, and be held within its warm embrace. In this way, the nature that appears throughout Mogwol’s early poetry is not inherently the real nature of the agricultural world, but an image of ‘Eden’ conceived of by the poet’s own longing for the divine, the source of all things. Therefore, when the blind young woman in “April,” “puts her ear to the lattice door/ and listens,” it alludes both to the sound of nature and at the same time to the “sound of silence” as an imagined model of divinity.

Towards the middle of his career, Mogwol turned his focus to the sphere of everyday life and, in particular, the communal unit that is the “family.” At the same time, through the substantiality of life and death, his poems sang of earthly love. Consider “Lowering of the Coffin,” which, through the narrator’s eulogizing his own flesh-and-blood younger sibling, allows the soul of the deceased to depart—a masterpiece that expresses devoted love and compassion. The dark heavy image of descent in lines such as: “The coffin was lowered by ropes/ as if into the deep well of the heart,” “world where snow and rain comes down,” and “when fruits fall” acts both to evoke the death of the younger sibling as it happened and to allow us to feel the depth of the narrator’s inner sorrow. In particular, the onomatopoeia of “jwa-reu-reu” and “tuk” appear as vehicular language making the distance between life and death tangible. Here the ropes serve the purpose of lowering the coffin, but they also act as a sort of link between the impassable boundary that divides life and death, and thus the ropes become a means of transmitting the love felt by the living. Therefore, the ropes lower into “the deep well of the heart.”

Another masterpiece, “Family,” expresses the exhaustion of life and a boundless sense of pity for one’s family and oneself. In a home on this Earth live “nine pairs of shoes, different sizes.” Here the walls built of “snow and ice” by the head of a household, who has walked back home along a path of snow and ice, are tangible. However, the reaction to this life of pity appears as “the smile on my face.” Even though it is a life of “treading a way of humiliation and hunger and cold”—this is melted away by the warmth of ardent love.

In “Song of Farewell,” on the other hand, Mogwol reacts to the physical event of death, bringing in the impossibility of communication between the space that separates “you” on the far banks of the river and “me” at the prow of a boat. The “river” separates the two, with one in this world and one in the next world. The narrator on this side of the river can hear a voice coming from the other side, but with the wind blowing it is impossible to make out the meaning of what is being said, and “my” voice asking of the meaning is blown asunder by the gale. A rope that is eroding and weakening is the tie which once bound “you” and “I” in this life. Even if the connection between the two in this life is over, their ties in the next world are something that cannot be known and so we hear the following lines: “Let’s not depart, let’s not depart/ the tie is the wind that crosses the reed bed.” “Let’s not depart” is both “your” words that “I” cannot hear, and a parting greeting from deep down in the narrator’s heart. This is why the narrator responds, “Alright. Alright. Alright./ If not in this world at least in the next...” In the end, through the event of death, this poem actually serves to create affirmation and a philosophical view of life, while also displaying the adaptive quality of the poet’s imagination.

In Mogwol’s later poetry, while still addressing the concreteness of everyday life, he also leans towards ontology and a broader outlook upon life. In his later work, traces of the discipline of his early poems, characterized by linguistic craftsmanship and implication, become difficult to detect, and through an increasingly prose-like form of poetry, Mogwol’s spiritual position is clearly marked out. For example, in “Empty Glass” the poet shows us a self that longs for the emptiness that in fact represents a state of being full to the brim. The “empty glass,” therefore, represents a pure and ordered life. However, the narrator says, “But there cannot be in this world/ things that are empty and void.” This is because “you” do not leave it to be empty. No matter what, “If not filled/ with cool resignation/ it is filled with the water of faith.” Here “cool resignation” represents a self-awareness of human limitations, and it is only then that resigned affirmation of the providence of a higher being can begin. If it is not with coolness, then the empty glass is filled with something soft and warm like the absolute “water of faith.” In this way, God’s providence is not something the narrator has any say in, but is rather a form of grace that he must accommodate unconditionally. Of course such self-awareness is not based on rational principle but on religious experience. 

In “Epiphany” for instance, the poet alludes to the experience of a miracle which took place beside the Pool of Siloam as recounted in the New Testament, where eyes that see things “just as they are” refers to the importance of being able to sense the ethereal. This is both a form of self-discipline for a worldly being enraptured by empty desire and a record of introspection regarding the futility of myopic ardor. In the end, in the poetry of his later years, Mogwol shows the stance of accepting a “you” which is completely other, singing of unlimited affirmation for the “absolute being” which pre-exists one’s own life and consciousness. 


by Yoo Sungho
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Hanyang University