The Rise of a Modern Sensibility

  • onOctober 28, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byChong Hyon-jong

One of the driving forces of modern Korean poetry has been the pursuit of modernity. The efforts to attain a sense of the contemporary that went beyond traditional lyricism became active in the Korean literary scene in the 1930s. Korean poetry, however, only began to include the diversity and depth of modernity after liberation and division in the 1960s when a new generation emerged as literary leaders. After liberation, poets Kim Soo-young and Kim Chunsu pursued two aspects of modernity: a “critique of reality” and the “autonomy of language,” both of which had a major influence on the subsequent development of poetry in Korea.

The struggle against the detached and lofty nature of Korean literature and the oppressiveness of Korean society meant that the poetic methodology itself came to signify resistance against reality. The way poetic language responded to the oppressive reality of the times was in itself an aesthetic achievement and a form of resistance. The “April 19 generation” that entered Korean literature after the epochal April 19 Revolution in 1960, was the leading force behind it. The poetry of this generation recognized an oppressive reality as the problem of existence and explored the poetic methodology that could expose it. Such poetry was based on the relationship of tension between the autonomy of literary language and reality. It can be seen as the exploration of modernity in Korean poetry as a response to the industrialization that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The April 19 generation’s literary achievements began to appear as collections of poems from the latter half of the 1970s: Lee Seung-hoon’s Bridge of Fantasy (1977), Hwang Tong-gyu’s When I See a Wheel I Want to Roll It (1978), Mah Chonggi’s The Invisible Land of Love (1980), Chong Hyon-jong’s I Am the Uncle-star (1978), Shin Dae-chul’s For a Desert Island (1977), Oh Gyu-won’s To a Boy Who Is Not a Prince (1978), Kim Kwang-Kyu’s The Last Dream to Affect Us (1979), Kim Hyeong-young’s Mosquitoes Make Noise Alone (1979), Choe Ha-rim’s At a Small Village (1982), Lee Ha-suk’s Transparent Inside (1980), Cho Jeong-kwon’s The Seven Forms of the Mind That Looks at the Rain (1977), and Kim Myung-in’s Dongducheon (1979) are achievements that reflected such trends in poetry after the 1960s. Awareness of a new cultural freedom and independence, and pride in writing in their native language as the “Hangeul generation” became free from the oppression of language during the Japanese colonial period, made such adventures in modernity possible. Hwang Tong-gyu’s “Tension in Methodology,” Oh Gyu-won’s “Irony and Satire,” Chong Hyon-jong’s “Poetics on Life and Freedom,” Mah Chonggi’s “Lyrical Perspective,” and Kim Kwang-Kyu’s “Common Critical Mind” are important examples of such adventures.

Such pursuits of modernity continued in the 1980s. Having experienced the structural violence of Korean society at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s made the new generation reflect fundamentally on the concept of freedom, the literary ideal of the previous generation. With the emergence of another generation, more progressive aesthetic poetry continued and the language of negation and deconstruction came to the fore. In this context, the poets of the 1980s posed more fundamental questions on the custom and the grammar of the poetic genre based on the achievements in poetic modernity attained by the previous generation. The desire to negate the reality they faced unfolded as an adventure to deconstruct and reconstruct the poetic structure itself.

The publication of Lee Seong-Bok’s When Does a Rolling Stone Awaken? (1980) was a symbolic event that was followed by Choi Seung-ja’s The Love of This Age (1981), Kim Hyesoon’s From Another Star (1981), Kim Jeong-hwan’s A Song That Cannot Be Erased (1982), Goh Jung-hee’s Abel of This Age (1983), Choi Seungho’s Heavy Snow Warning (1983), and Song Jae-hak’s Collection of Poems on Ice (1988). These new poets pushed forward with works that revealed an inner, oppressive reality by using an even stronger language of negation. Hwang Ji-woo’s Even Birds Leave the World (1984), and Park Nahm-cheoll’s Human of the Earth (1984) pushed such deconstructive methodology to an extreme. The new sensibility symbolized by Kim Youngseung’s Reflection (1987), Ki Hyung-do’s The Black Leaf in My Mouth (1989), and Bak Ju-taek’s Mobile Architecture of Dreams (1991) was a meeting point for the experimental mind of the 1980s and the emotions of the 1990s.

Modern Korean poetry of the 1990s emerged under a new set of cultural circumstances. Korea’s procedural democracy expanded as a result of the June Uprising in 1987 and the symptoms of a consumer society began to appear on a full scale in the 1990s. With the new information-oriented society and capitalism as a part of daily life, modern Korean poetry reinvestigated its aesthetic identity. The poets of the 1990s reexamined the status of poetry in the age of popular culture. A diversity of themes—the aesthetics of death and extinction, the exploration of urban daily life, connecting with popular culture, the digital environment and cyberspace, the poetics of the body, and feminism and sexuality—brought about a pluralism that had not existed in the previous era. The generation that grew up on popular culture began to express the images of daily life as a consumer society. Various cultural aspects of the consumer society emerged as themes of poetry. Jang Jung-il’s Meditation on a Hamburger (1987) and Yoo Ha’s We Should Go to Apgujeong-dong on a Windy Day (1991) were a starting point. New poems that explored the issue of existence in the reality of the new popular culture included Jang Kyoung-lin’s Lion Is Escaping, Catch the Lion (1993), Yeon Wang-mo’s The Premonition of the Dogs (1997), Sung Kiwan’s Have You Been Shopping? (1998), Seo Jung-hak’s The King of Adventure and the Aristocrats of the Coconut (1998), Kang Jeong’s Execution Theater (1996), and Joo Chang-yun’s Sheep Hanging on a Coat Hanger (1998). They presented the emptiness and the chaos behind the dazzling spectacle of capitalism.

Meanwhile, works that transformed the grammar of lyrical poems to reconstruct the other side of the city with a modern language continued to take place. Kim Ki-taek’s Fatal Sleep (1991) and Lee Yoon-hak’s The House of Dust (1992) are representative works of this trend. Works that used idiosyncratic language to express the gloomy existential reality hidden behind the age of consumer capitalism are: Chae Ho-ki’s Bitter Love (1992), Nam Jin-woo’s A Prayer for the Dead (1996), Haam Seong-ho’s 5 Billion and 670 Million Years of Solitude (1992), Ko Jin-ha’s Francesco’s Birds (1993), Kim Joong-sik’s Golden Corner (1993), Cha Chang-ryong’s Unending Plowing (1994), Park Hyung-jun’s I Will Now Talk about Extinction (1994), Song Chan-ho’s Empty Chair of Ten Years (1994), Park Jeong-dae’s Short Stories (1997), and Kim Tae-dong’s Youth (1999).

The literary development of female poets enriched the poetic space after the 1990s. A new aesthetic revealed previously neglected perspectives and a decentralized discourse style. The female poets who exposed the sense of a feminine existence more minutely formed a strong power that enriched the poetry of the 1990s. Following the works by female poets such as Kang Eun-gyo, Moon Chunghee, Chun Yanghee, and Kim Seung-hee of the 1970s and Choe Seung-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Koh Jung-hee of the 1980s, Hwang In-suk’s The Birds Set the Sky Free (1988), Ra Heeduk’s To the Root (1991), Heo Su-kyung’s Going Alone to the House Faraway (1992), Lee Jin-myung’s At Night the Word Forgive Was Heard (1992), Jeong Keutbyul’s My Life Like a White Birch (1996), Jo Eun’s The Land Does Not Death Easily (1991), Cho Yong-mee’s Fear Eats the Soul (1996), Choi Jeongrye’s A Forest of Bamboos in My Ear (1994), Yi Won’s When They Ruled the Earth (1996), Lee Soo-myong’s New Misreading Filled the Street (1995), and Kim Sun-woo’s If My Tongue Refuses to Stay Locked Inside My Mouth (2000) were published. The progress of these female poets has taken Korean poetry to a new level.

The movement to achieve and reconstruct the “modernity” of Korean poetry is now in progress. In the 2000s, new poets like Lee Jang-wook, Kim Haeng-sook, and Hwang Byeong-seung are leading Korean poetry with a brighter, decentralized language. The efforts to discover a sense of contemporaneity and language is energizing Korean poetry.


1. Heavy Snow Warning
Choi Seung-ho, Minumsa Publishing Group
1983, 163p, ISBN 9788937406188

2. When I See a Wheel I Want to Roll It
Hwang Tong-gyu, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1978, 114p, ISBN 8932000573

3. Even Birds Leave the World
Hwang Ji-woo, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1983, 134p, ISBN 8932001871


The Dream of Things 1
- The Dream of the Tree

by Chong Hyon-jong

Kissing the sunlight flowing down over its leaves
The tree dreams of its strength;
Rubbing its cheeks against the rain falling, the tree
Cries out as it dreams of its blood;
With the green strength of the wind blowing against it, the tree
Hears the voice of its life shaking.

Translated by Edward W. Poitras


That Fall

by Lee Seong-Bok

that fall though I didn’t send anybody a letter I got several from friends
who’d gone off to do the obligatory military service they’d been postponing
all the trees in the world turned yellow at the same time, as usual,
and houses scaled the hillside right up to the sky, overwhelming the color of grass
that fall a five-year-old Jeju island pony bit somebody’s private chauffeur
arguing with its owner, and a well-known writer
serialized some travel pieces about his journey to South America
Dad, I didn’t realize you were going to be here
that fall the children playing house were more tedious even than Korean films,
and the long drawn-out yawns were heavier whenever we raised the flag or lowered it people were driven like posts into the ground, but the sound of a hammer wasn’t heard that fall when a dead young eel floated to the surface of the stream in front of Moraenae, the stream, which had been dredged, also floated, and a worker
fell at the speed of a feather from the elevated expressway that was under construction that fall when dogs changed coats, the mother of the children who’d died the previous summer after eating sautéed silkworm larvae bought from a sidewalk vendor, hung out on dark street corners a senile old man was abandoned at the Seoul train station,
as was a congenital idiot at the Ch’anggyōng Palace
that fall a Buddhist monk returned as a mystic, playing a flute made of human bone,
and when I asked a woman for a date she spit and turned away
my father, who used to leave home in the early morning and come back in my dreams—
how would I have known he was buried here?
that fall I decided to break my habit of talking as though there wasn’t any fun in my life, but even that decision turned out to be no more than a joke
I picked up fallen ginkgo leaves and dead cicadas and kept them in match boxes,
and my sister and I locked our rooms from inside
that fall I realized that there was no fall that belonged to any particular year,
and I taught myself not to debase things so as not to beautify them
Dad, Dad! am I your dad
that fall I lived all the days I’d lived, and those I was going to live
but I met another woman, who was like a drop of water clinging to a wall,
and I realized that not an eye in all the world would close until she splattered,
so I understood why Gregor Samsa’s family prepared to go on an outing after burying him
Dad, Dad... you little fucker, you should be too ashamed to talk
that fall, the face behind the mask was a mask

Translated by Juhn Hye-jin and George Sidney


The Shampoo Fairy

by Jang Jung-il

The young man doesn’t like mysteries,
domestic news, sports, or controversial foreign films.
He doesn’t watch them. He feels nauseous when he sees
other women who appear on air. He watches her only.
He waits for her, the woman of eight thirty. Would you like to watch her?

She advertises for 15 seconds for a shampoo company.
Would you like to watch her?
She greets us nicely. “How are you?”
she whispers with a smile.
Wearing pajamas patterned with blue polka dots,
she appears and has her hair shampooed.
Bubbly foam carrying a rainbow
fills up the TV screen.
Then the shampoo fairy whispers,
“A brand new shampoo, the shampoo you have chosen,
a shampoo with wonderful fragrance,
a shampoo people use all over the world.
Perhaps you will fall in love.”
This is what she whispers.

There is a beauty care corporation.
A preeminent Asian beauty care corporation.
And for us there is the fairy. The only fairy who still exists,
the shampoo fairy who flies to us at eight thirty, breaking
out of the TV screen. For fifteen minutes she chatters away,
then disappears behind the dark screen.
Every night at eight thirty the ad she’s in comes on.
Please wait.

After the ad the young man lazily turns off
the TV. Every night he needs only fifteen seconds.
He looks into the pictures. He collects pictures of her
who he loves with an unrequited love.
He even decorates his room with them.
The pictures of her smiling with bare teeth,
her wearing a swimming suit, her wearing
an equestrian outfit, he collects them all.
And with a razor blade he cuts them off.
With a razor blade, he cuts off the lips of the actor
she was about to kiss in a film she appeared in.

At eleven o’clock at night when the night is swarming with commercial phrases,
Isn’t the shampoo fairy whispering in a low voice?
Isn’t her song echoing in the head?
Use it, use it, feel
the fragrance of love. And doesn’t her promise beat
in the heart? I will visit you tonight,
she promised in the ad. The young man’s head
swarming with desires.

The fairy taking off her clothes. The fairy lying
obliquely on the sofa smudged with cigarette stains.
The fairy who sinks mysteriously, mysteriously,
the fairy who whispers with her hot lips
—“Come over here, pretty baby.”
The midnight swarming with fantasies, and at last
the shampoo fairy pulls his head toward her
and smells it. “You must have used what I recommended.
Of course you did, right?”

Twelve thirty a.m. The young man wants to talk about
something other than shampoo. He desires
to try something else. How fast is she running away,
putting on her slippers? Nicely done.
For shampoo, ours is the best.
Continue to use it.
Dragging her pink pajamas
the shampoo fairy disappears.
Oh, please stay a bit longer! A bit longer!

The young man wakes up from the dream,
and taps on the typewriter,
clink, clink, clink.
There is the preeminent beauty care corporation
and the only fairy who exists
is the shampoo fairy.

Translated by Song Chae-Pyong and Anne M. Rashid list