Part Ⅲ. Extreme Lyricism Movement

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byYoo Sungho

Principles and Potential of Extreme Lyricism in Korean Poetry

In the Korean literary scene lately there has been enthusiastic debate about what is known as “lyricism.” Such debate begins from critical reflection upon the way that the prominent concept of the lyric relies too heavily upon European aesthetics, which in turn, stems from the custom of a system of classification separating lyric, narrative, and drama. Indeed, theories of poetics throughout Korean literary circles all explain the principles of lyricism in similar ways: internalizing the external, lasting ephemerality, self-identity, or the abundant present tense. Therefore, while narrative explores the disconnect in the relationship between the self and the world, lyric in contrast removes any distance between the self and the world. However, such an explanation is merely an aesthetic custom. It does not itself express the unchanging concept of lyricism. In this regard, it is worth noting the efforts to reconsider the explanation of lyric principle according to European aesthetics as the self-expression of the ego.

Of course, until now the overriding view on the principles of lyricism in the Korean literary scene has been to define it as that which interprets and comes to grips with the world, then transforms it by means of the self-expression of the subject. This led to the lyric being understood as the expression of a kind of identity that does not come into conflict with the world; this notion was held up as a principle that takes the first person subject of “I” as the origin and expresses experience in “the abundant present tense.” In the end we can refer back to Hegel, who explained that “what is properly lyric is not objective fact and its plastic portrayal, but the echo of the external in the mind, the mood aroused by it, and the feelings of the heart in such surroundings.” *

Accordingly, the urge to maintain and protect such principles of lyricism remains strong in literature to this day. This accompanies the belief that the aesthetic completeness of modern Korean poetry is realized through the dansi, or “short poem,” tradition. In excluding unnecessary language as much as possible and paring back to the minimum required for reason and feeling, the strength of short poetry comes from opening the possibility for readers to interpret a poem using their imaginations. Of course it is true that there is also an inherent danger that such practice can give rise to the over-frequent use of adage or aphorism, or of a poem ending with the abrupt transcendence of a subject, or even poems being written as little more than a memo of an idea without any linguistic artistry. The recent shift in Korean poetry towards narrative, as well as how poets are composing increasingly longer works, arise from a strategy to overcome such limitations. However, the movement towards short poetry that uses transcendence and implication as a foundation to realize an aesthetics of omission, is gaining strength on the value of the lyric as an invaluable method of creativity. This way of writing, which is vigilant not to allow over-signification by leaving things unsaid, calls for a high level of craftsmanship from its practitioners. It is the concept of “extreme lyric poetry” that has naturally come to the fore at the very apex of such an artisan spirit.

The poet and critic Choi Dong-Ho sustains an enthusiastic engagement with extreme lyricism. While pointing out the various negative aspects he encounters in the poetry of younger poets, such as gratuitous difficulty, hybridity, fantasy, and redundancy, Choi uses the term extreme lyric poetry to denote an alternative path. Inherent in his usage of this term is the emphasis on the need for restraint and the blank space intrinsic to lyric poetry; a call to revive the condensed charm of lyric poetry eliminates any onerous rhetoric. He suggests extreme lyric poetry as a principle to give rise to a high level of poetic tension. According to Choi, short extreme lyric poetry denotes poetry that is formed as simply as possible—something that might be called the “minimal unit of the poem.” In this way, Choi Dong-Ho has designated the fruits of integration with the spirit of the twentyfirst century digital age as extreme lyric poetry, within which lies a reflection upon an important artistic alternative for Korean poetry in the future.

We can think about this in the following way. It seems unnecessary to say that the criteria for extreme lyric poetry is not limited to the short length of the poems. However, the methodology of omission and condensation, which naturally leads to a relatively short poem, can also quite naturally be seen as the defining principle. In addition, gripping the hearts of readers with a singular message or image makes for a far more effective work. Accordingly, rather than signifying a physical minimum, the word “extreme” in the term serves to reflect the extremity of concentration and condensation. All of these precedents are achievements garnered in the “blank space and lyricism at the minimal point of language,” as described by Choi Dong-Ho himself in the poet’s preface of his 2011 anthology Ice Face.

Of course, for Korean poetry to maintain its abundance, we absolutely need a form of a certain length that can hold within it complex awareness, or the passing of time over a long duration. The key point is to what extent such work creates a new stir in aesthetic experience through impact and frisson. In that regard, the length of a poem is not of fundamental importance. To put it another way, something can be short and overdone, or long and still lacking. Therefore, it may be seen that the aesthetic potential of extreme lyric poetry lies in giving life to the condensed charm of a poem with the moderation and blank space intrinsic to the lyric and the removal of any unnecessary rhetoric. Of course, the term “extreme lyric poetry” has not yet gained universal acceptance in academia. Quite simply, it denotes the methodology of poems that are being written to hold together an aggregation of language and reason that stands in contrast to the overwhelming strand of overly long and difficult poetry being written in Korea today.

From the standpoint of extreme lyricism, the poem cannot exist without being condensed to a minimum. In an age where literature is overtly distributed and consumed as an artfully packaged product—an age where writers rightly consider themselves an important part of the culture industry—this kind of approach will remain fundamental to unlocking the identity of poetry itself, since it is at once both a key significance of poetry and an uncompromising indicator which will defend the essence of poetry in an age of great uncertainty. For this reason, extreme lyricism will continue to slowly emerge as a powerful means by which to maintain the diversity and balance of Korean poetry. 


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


* G.W.F Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. 2. Translated by T. M. Knox, Clarendon Press, 1975