Songs of Delight: Surpassing the Bounds of Our Lives
- onOctober 23, 2015
- Vol.29 Autumn 2015
- byHwang Tong-gyu
New creation in the arts is preceded by new perception and new discovery. This tendency is more pronounced in literature, which uses words as a means of expression, and all the more so in poetry, which derives its main force from the condensed use of words. In order for ordinary sentence structure to be sublimated to the level of art, a chemical transformation must take place owing to some new discovery. A poet takes various elements at hand, combines them organically, and lifts them to the province of new creation. In this respect, the process of poetic creation can be likened to the course of religious truth seeking or training. By looking at the sixty-year journey Hwang Tong-gyu has traveled as a poet, we can see that this comparison is no exaggeration.
“A Joyful Letter,” Hwang Tong-gyu’s debut poem that many still love to read and reread, is a work that brought about a paradigm shift in Korean romantic poetry. Until its release, poets had sung only of eternal love. The narrator of the work challenged contemporary assumptions by confessing that even though he felt true love, at some point the feeling would end. We can see from this example that Hwang attempted to break free of existing poetic conventions from the outset.
In his first and second poetry collections, One Clear Day (1961) and Elegy (1965), the quest for truth in the midst of depression and loneliness is a recurring motif. The man in the poems is adrift, having lost his love, but he meets someone else as he is coming out of the break-up, and intends to find peace of mind by traveling along a new path. Throughout his life, Hwang has adopted this attitude of the seeker.
He rose to a more prominent status in literary circles through the publication of his selected works, Snow Falling in Samnam (1975). Included in this volume were forty-nine representative poems from his early period, along with eleven poems that had not yet appeared in books. By gathering together the poems he’d written to date, it was possible to see his distinctive personality at a glance. In particular, the works released in a ten-year period dating from the mid-1960s garnered much attention, as elements could be interpreted as reflecting the participatory action and resistance to existing circumstances that were characteristic of those times. These works show genuine social reflection on the part of an individual who cannot be indifferent to human suffering.
After Hwang’s fifth collection, When I See a Wheel I Want to Roll It (1978), was issued, another important change could be seen in his poetic world: he developed a predilection for geukseojeongsi (dramatic poetry). In geukseojeongsi, some change takes place in someone’s thought or behavior within the span of the poem, just as it would within a dramatic work. For Hwang, adapting this style was a new attempt to break free from the bounds of lyric poetry and comprehend various modes of human existence.