The Poet

  • onFebruary 16, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byYi Mun-yol
The Poet
Tr. Chong-Wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé

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.

Does that mean, then, that those remaining thirty-two years were a mere accumulation of units of time, always with exactly the same colour and meaning? No. Not at all. Although his attire did not change until the day he died, the soul they wrapped was not always exactly the same. Likewise, he invariably wrote poems, but their meanings varied according to the time they were written, and though in his deviation he moved endlessly through the world’s peripheries, the eyes with which he viewed the world varied with time. In other words, his life can be divided into several distinct stages.

Certainly, there are many possible ways of dividing his life into different stages, and as many possible disputes as to which is right or wrong. Some may try to divide his life according to the different geographical areas he visited, others may draw lines at thirty and forty and divide his life according to the decades, while yet others may attempt to make a classification by reference to the various social events of the time. But he was undeniably a poet. Seeing that poetry-writing was the most vital activity for him, it may well be that a division of his life according to the kinds of poetry he wrote will prove to be not too far wrong.



If the different stages of his life are divided according to the characteristics of his poetry, the first stage will cover the seven or eight years between the age of about twenty-five, when his wandering really began, and the visit he made to Dabok Village when he was thirty-two. During this period he chiefly moved around such places as Tongchon, Hamhung, Hongwon and Tanchon in Hamkyong Province as well as neighbouring parts of Pyongan Province; regional characteristics seem, however, to have exercised no great influence on his poetry.

The main formal characteristic of his poetry at this time is the classical new form based on the solid rhetoric of the poems written for the government service examinations. Some say that the main pleasure obtained in reading his poems comes from the skill with which he deviated from the norms of classical style, but that is more a hallmark of the poems written later.

He showed no special preference regarding subject matter. He liked to display vigorous, intense emotions and avoided writing on topics that were easily prone to sentimentality or frivolous malice.

The techniques he enjoyed using at this time give prime place to pomp and opulence, not unrelated to the rhetoric of the government service examination style, on which his poetic craft was based. Wit and humour may also be characteristics of his poetry at this time, but what distinguishes this from later periods is the effort he still makes to maintain his dignity as a high-class intellectual.

In the background to these features is his nomadic life in those years. He had become a wanderer but he had not been on the road very long, so naturally for a while he had mainly to rely on the patronage of a few old acquaintances. When he went to visit them, nine times out of ten they turned out to be heads of local government sent down from Seoul, or the sons of local landed gentry he had got to know during his time in the capital.

Cho Un-kyong, the magistrate of Anbyon County who took such good care of him, is a good example. He had come to know Cho vaguely when he was once staying as a guest of Shin Sok-wu; now he made him welcome when he came to visit him. Thanks to the kindness of such people he did not suffer from poverty in the early stages of his nomadic life, and he was able to maintain his former sentiments more or less unscathed.

A second thing that may underlie the characteristics of the poems of this period is the class of the consumers for whom the poems were destined. As we saw above in considering the shape taken by his wandering, he chiefly frequented the rural upper classes or people close to this class, such as kisaeng girls*, and these formed the main consumers of his poems. Invariably what they liked was the culture of the capital city with its formal clichées; the popular style of poetry that he produced later could not have found congenial ground among them.

The process by which he mastered the poetic craft and also his youth offer other background factors that underlie the characteristics of the poems of this first period. These were precisely the kinds of poetry that he had previously mastered, while his aesthetic sense, which had not yet fully developed, to some extent made him readily content with merely conventional forms of expression and techniques. At the same time in his youthful pride he tried to conceal his true state of beggardom under a cloak of bluff and bluster, which was also not unrelated to the characteristics of his poetry at the time.

Above all, one feature that cannot be omitted from this list of background factors is the weakness of his social consciousness. The bitter frustrations that he had tasted had made him so politically indifferent that he almost intentionally turned his eyes away from the political reality and social situations of his time, and clung instead to his own inner world. As a result, his poems naturally sought their themes in Nature and in subjective emotions, for which the most effective form of expression was bound to be magnificently opulent ornamentation and exaggerated emotion.

It would perhaps be meaningful at this point to look at two poems that exemplify relatively well the main characteristics of this period.

Hermits’ ways are distant as clouds;
At nightfall a traveller’s thoughts grow darker.
Changed to a crane, the hermit flies off, no knowing where.
News from Pongnae Mountain is faint in my dreams.

A kisaeng in my young embrace, a fortune seems like straw;
With a jar of wine in daylight, everything’s like clouds.
Wild geese flying on high follow a river’s course;
Butterflies passing green hills cannot shun the flowers.

Both poems are written in seven-character lines, the first is entitled “Pyoyon Pavilion in Anbyon” and the second “On shunning flowers”. The first was written for Cho Un-kyong, who was the magistrate for Anbyon County; the second was composed together with a kisaeng girl in Tanchon, the two of them composing alternate lines. Both feel like poems written by some vigorous man of taste, betraying no trace of a vagabond’s weariness.

The success he scored with this kind of poetry in the first few years was a surprise even to himself. In the reception rooms of the landed gentry, local magistrates and dignitaries, or very occasionally in the room of a culturally vain kisaeng, his youth was consumed in a final blaze of poetry and wine.

Sometimes he assuaged their sense of inferiority with regard to the culture of the capital, sometimes he frankly prostituted his talents to their low cultural tastes, while he spent those few years intoxicated by the cheap admiration and applause he received from such great luminaries, forgetting for a time his own resentment and bitterness. 


pp. 124-130


*The kisaeng were young women who entertained men of higher class as they drank and relaxed either in special kisaeng houses or during excursions. They had skills in music, dance, and poetry, and might also grant the men sexual favors. A few exceptional women achieved an enduring reputation as poets.

Author's Profile

Yi Mun-yol was born in 1948. He made his debut as a writer in 1977. Yi’s works were enriched by the classics of East Asia that he had naturally become familiar with during his childhood and the Western literature that he had voraciously devoured in his young adulthood. In The Son of Man, Yi questioned the relationship between man and god; in A Portrait of Youthful Days, he portrayed the struggle and anguish of his youth. The Golden Phoenix was an exploration of the ontological meaning of art using calligraphy, a traditional art form in Korea. Yi also has consistently published works that are critical to the nature of political power. Our Twisted Hero is an allegorical depiction of the mechanism of how political power operates. Homo Executants portrays the process through which political ideology suffocates humanity. Aside from these, his works include Hail to the EmperorThe Age of HeroesChoice and Immortality. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes, Yi has been published in over 20 countries including the U.S., France, Great Britain and Germany; over 60 titles of his translated works are available.