Seo Jeong-ju’s Literary Peers

  • onDecember 22, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • bySeo Jeong-ju

The oeuvre of “Midang” Seo Jeong-ju (1915-2000) constitutes the great mountain range of 20th century Korean literature: towering, vast, stretching powerfully into the distance. And, like many trees and plants living in the area, successive generations of poets grew up within its fold. In this respect, Seo Jeong-ju can be called the father of Korean poetry. His creative period lasted almost seventy years, and during this time, he released fifteen poetry collections and more than 1,000 poems. Now, a twenty-volume complete edition of his collected works will be published in commemoration of the centennial of his birth.

Midang Seo Jeong-ju’s poetry has no antecedents. From the time he started out, Seo’s inimitable style set him apart from poets of previous generations. In his first collection, Hwasajip (1941), written in a rugged, aggressive hand, he brought form to the churning vortex of emotions and human sexual desire. Existential individuality, anxious and agonized, suffering the coexistence of contradictory qualities, can be found throughout these poems. The emergence of such a distinctive artistic voice was also the signal shot indicating that Korean poetry had entered the modern age. Speaking figuratively, one could say that his work represented the birth of the complex system in the field of Korean literature.

Seo appreciated the work of older contemporaries such as Kim Sowol (1902-1934), Joo Yohan (1900- 1979), and Kim Yeongrang (1903-1950), but he did not follow directly in their footsteps. Moreover, he resolved to outdo Chong Chi-yong, a poet at the forefront of Korean modernism who put a premium on technical brilliance. Rather, Seo’s early poetry originates somewhere outside of the bounds of Korean literature. His major influences include the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Baudelaire, Hugo, and Li Po; the philosophy of Nietzsche touching on the world of Greek myths, and Zarathustra, the Overman; and the ideas of Siddhartha.

From the moment he debuted as a poet, he could be called a genius. Establishing his distinctive artistic personality, portraying Eastern and Western values mixed together in anxious turmoil, Seo started to soar high above the contemporary literary horizon. From the time he released his second poetry collection, he strove to be faithful to an aesthetic that could be called Eastern, Korean, and traditional. By taking refuge in the atmosphere and form of traditional lyric poetry, he reached the core of Korean literature, strongly influencing the writers who followed after him.

Among contemporary poets, his ideological and emotional leanings were similar to those of the Green Deer Group (Cheongnokpa), consisting of Pak Mogwol, Pak Tu-jin, and Cho Chi-hun. Far removed from the revolt against social inequality and class struggle, these poets cultivated an environmentally-friendly attitude, a longing and nostalgia for folk communalism, and an appreciation for the aesthetic properties of language itself.

For all intents and purposes, Seo Jeong-ju and the Green Deer Group became the vanguards of Korean modernism. With the outbreak of the Korean War, not only did the country become divided, but many senior literary figures became Communists, and for this reason, the young poets ended up taking on the mantles of the great masters. They also became professors at the top private universities, where they came to exercise powerful leadership and influence.

Seo’s brand value consisted of tradition and lyricism. The theme of tradition, in particular, did not originate with Seo, so using this as a focal point, we can naturally trace his position within a web of like-minded senior and contemporary writers. If we focus on shamanism, which can be considered an indigenous Korean belief system, then Kim Sowol, Kim Tong-ni, and Baek Seok should be mentioned as Seo’s contemporaries. Kim Sowol sought to identify the importance of the spirit with the creative principle in his own poetry. Kim Tong-ni (1913-1995), a close friend of Seo, maintained that shamanism had been practiced continuously from the time of the Silla Kingdom until modern times, identifying characteristics of it in an ancient aesthetic philosophy known as pungryu-do. These two men, the novelist and the poet, informed their works with the belief that the world of legends and myths continues to impact modern life. Meanwhile, Baek Seok (1912-1996) hoped to resuscitate vanishing shamanist traditions through a folk culture revival. For this reason, catalogs with minute details pertaining to cultural practices appear throughout his works.

Looking at another important category of tradition, we can think of Seo as being connected to his peers through a common interest in Buddhism. Han Yong-un, Cho Chi-hun, and Ko Un would be his peers in this kinship web. Han Yong-un (1879-1944) actually held the social title of monk. By communicating profound Buddhist doctrines in the form of smooth, readable letters, Han contributed to raising Korean poetry to a new level of philosophical elegance. During his early period, Cho Chi-hun (1920-1968) produced poems with a Buddhist sensibility, but beginning in his middle period, he became preoccupied with the concepts of “the folk” and “spirit.” Eschewing resignation and passivity, he showed righteousness and a spirit of active resistance in the face of contemporary reality. In addition to being Seo’s student, Ko Un (b. 1933) has discovered tradition anew by writing Buddhist poetry that is distinguished for its concise and hard-hitting literary style, and has worked steadily at translating it and making it known internationally.

Seo Jeong-ju’s emphasis on tradition affected the succeeding generation of poets even at the stage when they first debuted. Because he often served as a judge of new writers’ contests, he naturally applied his standards and taste to the procedure for selecting good poets. He can be regarded in the role of teacher to these writers, even if he didn’t teach them directly. For this reason, we could write a literary lineage showing the pupils Seo mentored. It would be meaningless, however, to list their names: there are too many of them, and not all of them were able to carve out a domain for themselves. Rather, in a strict sense, the category of Seo Jeong-ju’s literary relations consists of those poets who have been inspired by Seo’s literary accomplishments to write poetry in their own style. Representative examples include Pak Jae-sam, Kim Chun-su, and Jeon Bong-geon.

Pak Jae-sam (1933-1997) borrowed characters from folktales and legends to use as subject matter in his poems, and in this regard, he can be compared to Seo. Pak’s portrayals of characters such as Chunhyang or Heungbu, however, are much more realistic and down-to-earth than Seo’s. Kim Chun-su’s (1922-2004) work reflected aspects of Seo’s early period in that he attempted to unite modern Western and traditional Korean styles, but by placing unusual stress on rhythm and imagery, he strove towards his own goal of creating a new form of Korean poetry that “existed for the sake of language alone.” Jeon Bong-geon (1928-1988) can also be counted as an important relation for the way that he embraced tradition. By taking Chunhyang’s life in prison as his subject matter and overlaying it with the image of himself being wounded in the Korean War, he demonstrated the unusual technique of projecting himself onto tradition.

In terms of female poets, Moon Chung-hee is the most closely related to Seo. She made the passion and lunacy that characterized his early period completely hers, while appropriately tempering these tendencies with self-moderation and sound judgment. If Seo has been assessed to be very rational and yet a shamanist poet, at the same time, Moon Chung-hee has also achieved this degree of balance. 


by Yoon Jaewoong
Professor of Korean Language and Literature Education
Dongguk University