Chong Hyon-jong, A Poet Who Steals the Air

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byCho Kang-sok


On a toasty, sunlit afternoon, could there be anything more perfect than interviewing a poet? This is just wishful thinking, but if I could capture the poet Chong Hyon-jong’s departing laugh on this page, I would just stop writing. He has a fierce gaze but a wholesome laughter.


Chong was born in Seoul in 1939. Since his literary debut through the journal Hyundae Munhak in 1965, he has published poetry collections including The Dream of ThingsI Am the Uncle-StarLike the Ball that BouncesSo Little Time to LoveBlossomTrees of the WorldLike a Thirst, Like a SpringUnbearable; and Whispers of Splendor. And his critical essay collections include Soar UpGloomy Soul, and Breath and Dream. His poetic world attracted unusual attention from critics and readers early on, and as a result he has been the recipient of Korea's leading literary prizes including the Isan Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, and Midang Literary Award. Moreover, he took the lead in introducing poets like Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca to Korea by translating their poetry. For his translations of Neruda, he was one of the hundred writers and other literary contributors around the world who were awarded the Pablo Neruda Medal by the Chilean government on the centennial of the poet's birth. Chong 's poetry has been translated into many languages abroad.

Even though his work is now widely read by critics and readers alike, it has in fact always been quite unique—and in certain aspects, even considered unprecedented in Korean poetry. Whereas much of Korean poetry tends to be heavy, burdened by a sense of debt to history, society, reality, and ontology, Chong’s poetry is truly like air. In the language of Gaston Bachelard’s “material imagination,” one can immediately name several Korean poets who exhibit the imagination of water, fire, or earth, but one is hard-pressed to think of one that exhibits the imagination of air. In some sense, Chong is the only one who meets that criterion. One can but pronounce Chong a born poet of the air, if one considers his poems like “Soar Up, Bus,” “In Praise of Thunder,” and “Trees of the World;” or if one recalls the lightness, elasticity, and verticality of his poems that capture a soaring bird or a dynamic dance in poetic images. On the scarcity of poets of his kind and his own poetic orientation, Chong commented, “Think about how heavy our history and political situation used to be. Perhaps even the poets have been oppressed by them—I mean, by the weight of history. Poetry should not be weighed down by things like history. But that’s not to say that history should be excluded. That’s not possible, I mean, language itself is historical…But in some sense, Korean poetry has been too oppressed by ideology, both political and religious. Ideology is not even a necessary evil for poets in some ways, since poets communicate through objects and images.”


Critic Cho Kang-sok and poet Chong Hyon-jong


Chong mused that if a poetic image is “a meaning in the nascent stage” as according to Bachelard, it should not reflect or reenact but give birth to something new. He added that it is almost always the relatively unburdened soul that carries out this work in the end. What followed next in our conversation is even more interesting. “You know the authenticity we talk about in both poetry and fiction? This can be considered a kind of certificate of purity. Like the certificate of carat weight which measures the amount of gold in the gold itself. Under this kind of scrutiny, there are those who stand out as utterly authentic. Kafka is one such writer. Rilke is of course another example, along with my favorites Neruda and Lorca.” According to Chong, these artists were “the real deal” because they were “souls who did not vaunt themselves.” He explained, “For me, souls that do not vaunt themselves, souls that talk about how small they are and how big others are, let alone vaunt themselves, they’re the real deal. If asked to explain how artists are different from other professions, if asked to name just one thing, I’d probably name just that.”

A Nietzschean passage—which, Chong said had engrossed him—came to mind. The passage in which Nietsche wrote that he felt insignificant when he listened to later Wagner, as he felt Wagner grow infinitely big; by contrast, when he listened to Bizet’s Carmen, he felt as though he was the greatest philosopher in the world. Remarking on the large volume of contemporary poetry that is merely self-vaunting, he commented, “The poet can’t weigh anything if he’s heavy, you know? I mean, how can he weigh anything heavy if he himself is too heavy?”


1. Day-Shine

Chong Hyon-jong, Cornell University, 1998

2. Так мало времени для любви

Chong Hyon-jong, BLITS, 2002

3. Unter den Menschen ist eine Insel

Chong Hyon-jong, Verlag Am Hockgraben, 1997

4. The dream of things

Chong Hyon-jong , Homa & Sekey Books, 2008



That those souls who inflate themselves cannot build up others and that those souls who are too heavy themselves cannot bear the weight of others—these are the main points of the “poetics of air.” But a light soul is certainly not an empty soul. Chong argues the opposite to make this point. A soul packed with the weight of not the self but others, he says, is a truly light soul. “A soul that vaunts itself does so because the self is too strong, and really, what artist isn’t narcissistic? But in Water and Dreams, Bachelard wrote about individual narcissism versus cosmic narcissism. Surely, the narcissism of poets should be the cosmic kind. Individual narcissism just won’t do. Why do you think Whitman, Rilke, and Neruda were so great? All great poets have that in common. Instead of vaunting himself, shouldn’t a poet be able to distinguish between the self that is in union with the things that have entered it from the outside—whether they be objects, space or others—and the self that is not? Even critics can’t really tell them apart...”

Out of cosmic—not individual—narcissism, on an authentic—not cerebral—level, the poet acquires the right to speak about the suffering of the world. Chong explained this point by telling me how much he liked the term incarnation: “Poetry is in essence a chemical reaction to another body, that is, donning the body of another. Otherwise, good poetry cannot be produced. And that very process can be described using my favorite expression, incarnation. In that sense, the misfortune or violence that hits a community, a country or the world nowadays—war, for example—all these problems can be understood in the same context. It breaks my heart. When I get this kind of feeling, I start writing poetry again. “Intercepting Poem” is one such poem.” Chong has written two poems under that title. “Intercepting Poem 1” begins, “I have no other weapons / so I launch my heart.” Then it continues: “I shoot up cranes against all missiles / I shoot up wild geese against all bombs.” Chong explained that he wrote this poem at the time of the Gulf War. Although writing poems like this cannot possibly stop people from building missiles or starting wars, the poet nevertheless has no choice but to sing. And this is the very power of poetic images. Just as people in power fire artillery and politicians hurl their opinions, images are the weapon of poets. 

1. Collected Poems of Chong Hyon-jong, Vols. 1, 2

Chong Hyon-jong, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.

1999, 350p, ISBN 8932011338 (Vol. 1)

1999, 284p, ISBN 8932011346 (Vol. 2) 


Chong spoke in a similar vein about the image that came to him after he saw a photo of the DMZ in a newspaper. “I recently saw this newspaper series about the DMZ and felt a number of things. One day they published a large photo that showed a reservoir in the DMZ—it’s called the “golden reservoir.” In the photo, the water was glistening in the bright light, and there were soldiers training nearby. And a field of reeds next to them. As soon as I saw that photo, I thought of that body of water as the amniotic fluid for the rebirth of our country, and this image made me write again.” Where the pain of a community gives birth to heartache, not headache, the poet launches his poetic images.

As I mentioned in my introductory paragraph, Chong has also devoted himself to translation, introducing poets like Neruda and Lorca to Korean readers, who enjoyed the literary fruits from abroad. Moreover, his own work has been translated and published in English speaking countries. In response to my question about problems of translation, he shared a related anecdote. Apparently, back when novelist Kim Hoon was working as a journalist, he read Chong’s translation of Neruda’s poetry and commented, “This isn’t Neruda, it’s Chong Hyon-jong’s poetry.” I told him that I’d noticed a number of young poets who came of age around that time that write in a style à la “Neruda as translated by Chong Hyon-jong.” He laughed politely and then smiled, as he said, “Why do you think translation is called a recreation of the original?” After acknowledging the many errors and problems in the translation process, he emphasized nonetheless the importance of translating more works of foreign poets into Korean and introducing more Korean poetry abroad as well. But he laughingly added a saving clause, “no adverse trade balance though.”

As the afternoon sunlight began to fade, I asked him a final, rather conventional question that reflected my own professional anxiety as a poetry critic: “Is there work to be done by poetry in today’s speed-driven world?” “Like the Ball that Bounces,” Chong energetically answered, “Of course. You can call it the work done by poetry or the poetic—what’s needed is the poetic. It overlaps a little with the religious and the philosophical. In a time when the materialistic or relationships of calculation and interest run rampant, where does the minimum human dignity spring from? You see, we need something like the woods or lungs.” Then he began to talk about a passage from Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers. “There’s a part in that book where he quotes Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam apparently described the poet as someone who ‘steals the air.’ Heaney then makes a comparison to the holes in lace and donuts, that a poet doesn’t make the useful parts himself but makes them possible by creating the holes. How great is that! It’s probably the same for people today. Giving the breath of life, enabling others to breathe—that’s what’s needed now, that’s what we call the poetic.” Thus the interview ended, with a welcome suggestion from the poet that was in fact a breath of fresh air for me: “Why don’t we go grab a beer?”


By Cho Kang-sok


1. Like the Ball that Bounces
Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1984, 108p, ISBN 8932002169

Trees of the World
Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1995, 119p, ISBN 8932007535

I Am the Uncle-Star
Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1978, 115p, ISBN 8932000581

Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1992, 112p, ISBN 8932005516

Like a Thirst, Like a Spring
Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1999, 110p, ISBN 8932010900

2. Whispers of Splendor
Chong Hyon-jong
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2008, 104p, ISBN 9788932018874

3. So Little Time to Love
Chong Hyon-jong
SEGYESA Publishing Co., Ltd.
1989, 100p, ISBN 8933810013

4. The Dream of Things
Chong Hyon-jong
Minumsa Publishing Group, 1972

5. Unbearable
Chong Hyon-jong, Poet & Poetry Co.
2003, 131p, ISBN 8982121765