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 Things; I Am the Uncle-Star; Like the Ball that Bounces; So Little Time to Love; Blossom; Trees of the World; Like a Thirst, Like a Spring; Unbearable; and Whispers of Splendor. And his critical essay collections include Soar Up, Gloomy 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?”