- onFebruary 16, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byYi Mun-yol
- The Poet
Tr. Chong-Wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé 1995207pp.
This novel portrays a nineteenth-century Korean poet’s life. Yi Mun-yol traces the course of his hero’s destiny, filled with pain and marked by numerous deviations, from early childhood, through the various stages of his poetic career, until he finally walks out into the night leaving his son gazing after him. […]
-Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé
Not all nonconformists are poets. But all poets are nonconformists. Some poets have absolutely none of the usual characteristics of a nonconformist. They are faithful to the normal order of life, laughing at its joys, weeping at its sorrows. Yet they too are nonconformists. For if a person is a poet at all, he is bound to deviate from the norm at least in the use of language. Language can rise to the heavenly realms of high poetry only when it transcends the muddy ground of practicality.
If such acts of deviation are the universal fate and true characteristic of all poets, then he was at every moment a poet, from the time he left home at the age of twenty-four. Whatever the Old Drunkard meant for him, and no matter how great the attraction of the safe normality of daily life, in the end he did not return to his wife and children, and to the routine life of his time.
There is a moving story told by an eyewitness of the moment when his act of deviation was finally decided on. According to this story, on returning from his first visit to the Diamond Mountains he actually came as close to his home as its hedge. It was an early winter evening and the first snowflakes were beginning to fall, the light shining through the paper windows seemed exceptionally bright and warm. From inside he could hear three-year-old Hak-kyun muttering in his sleep, while Ik-kyun was crying, he had just been beginning to smile when he left, and he heard the occasional sighs of his young wife. Standing there, he had a vision of becoming a nameless farmer and he was actually about to push open the brushwood gate to go in, when he hugged himself and emitted a long moan. Then he shuddered, as if struck by some thought, shook his head violently, and turned away.
Just as he was leaving the outskirts of the village, he spat a clot of blood on to the snow, which was already beginning to pile up white on the ground; the villagers never knew what sad, lonely creature had left that blood behind. There is no telling which was the more decisive factor, his failure of nerve before the bleak daily routine of life which had unfolded before his eyes, or the Old Drunkard’s suggestions which had begun to affect him; whichever it was, in the end he did not return home.
He wandered from place to place, never settling. In cold weather and hot, come rain come snow, he went about in thin clothing, with a bamboo hat on his head and a bamboo cane in his hand. From the time he first left home until the day he died, his dress never varied. No one knows from what moment he became known as a wandering poet, he was all the time writing poems. That too never varied from the time he first left home until the day he died. Likewise his begging. For most of the time, from the moment he left home at twenty-four until the day he died in some small village down in the southwestern region of Honam, at the age of fifty-six, he begged clothing to wear and food to eat from unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places.