Freedom vs. Deliverance: A Conversation with Poet Hwang Tong-gyu

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byHa Eung-baek


Hwang Tong-gyu is one of Korea’s finest poets. He has been writing poetry for the past fifty-eight years since his debut in 1958. His poetry stands out both for its literary merit and popular appeal. The following is an interview conducted by literary critic and longtime researcher of Hwang’s poetry, Ha Eung-baek.


A Poet’s Sense of Identity

Ha Eung-baek: You have graduated from a department of English and studied abroad in Edinburgh. There are probably many poets in our country that studied English literature at university, but you went on to teach English Literature at Seoul National University and in a way you are someone who has used English all his life. With this background, what would you say are the fundamental differences between English or American poetry and Korean poetry?

Hwang Tong-gyu: The poetry of Western Europe has a much stronger sense of identity and sense of language than Korean poetry. However, our poetry has become very Westernized, so there isn’t much of a difference now. When I say “sense of identity,” I mean something that asks “How should I live?” This differs from individualism in that it revolves around questioning how I, as a human being, should live my life. This mode of thought is more prominent in Europe than in Korea’s poetry tradition. Wordsworth, Eliot, Yeats, and Rilke—they all have this theme.

Ha: You have worked both as a teacher and as a poet. Have you ever felt friction between the two?

Hwang: Art is unforgiving to teaching. You must show. There must be many people who have been taught through showing. Yet, there is a basic difference between showing and teaching. Having said that, there are many American and European poets who are employed in that most time consuming of jobs, being a university professor. They too must struggle. If you don’t, it is hard to make good poetry. I am not a magician, so it is difficult. You cannot say “now I will show you, and now I will teach you.”

Ha: You were born in 1938, which, to speak in a Korean context means you were born under Japanese colonial rule. When you were eight years old, you witnessed liberation in 1945; when you were thirteen, you lived through our people’s greatest tragedy, the Korean War; when you were at university, you experienced both the April 19th Revolution and the May 16th Coup. You have been faced with many important events in our country’s recent history. How does this historical background relate to your poetry?

Hwang: I don’t think my life has been smooth even now. In some ways, it is as if I have lived without knowing the true meaning of peace. Even after those events, our lives have never been peaceful because of the relations between the North and the South. These have all had an effect on my poetry and therefore you will not find the word “happiness” in my poems.

Ha: You say that, but after you reached middle age, words associated with happiness, such as “radiance” often appear in your work.

Hwang: More than to convey happiness, I used the word “radiance” to express the realization of what’s not smooth or the attitude that one can still love things that are not smooth.

Ha: So could “not smooth” be a figure of speech representing a rough, bumpy life?

Hwang: Yes. Young people these days might not understand, but there were many of us who could not live the way we wanted. For example, choosing one’s major (I didn’t always want to choose English Literature). I originally wanted to go to the College of Music and major in composition, but I couldn’t because I was never able to receive proper music education when I was young. At the time, there was no one to teach me, so I couldn’t learn. I had never even been able to touch an instrument, so I had to give up. I ended up picking what seemed to be the closest subject to music, poetry. You couldn’t read world literature then because reading English books meant learning English for six years, which was equivalent to going to England itself. You couldn’t just do as you pleased. After studying, if I had had the freedom to, I would have become a translator, not a professor. But I couldn’t refuse when I was offered a professorship. You couldn’t live as a translator then. There were lots of different mitigating circumstances like that. I don’t know if people would accept it now, but at that time we tended to naturally accept that fundamentally, life was not smooth.


Searching for Humanity’s True Nature

Ha: Am I right in saying that there is a poem from your early works written when you were in your twenties called “A Joyful Letter”? This poem might be a favorite among your readers.

Hwang: That is a bit of a pity to me since it is one of my early works.

Ha: Many critics have looked at this poem and said it told a story of labor. Up until that point, love was often equated with “waiting.” Your position, like “If you leave, I shall wait,” was considered important, and from what I understand, one’s way of waiting is integral to this poem. However you look at it, it seems like this couldn’t possibly be something said by a twenty-year-old. While this theme of waiting was common in traditional poetry, I would have thought that you wouldn’t have been capable of such literary insight at such an age.

Hwang: During the War, I discovered the true nature of extant love could not be resolved through waiting. At that time, no such thing as eternal love could be seen around me. I couldn’t speak of love the same way that the poets who came before me had. And I was also probably influenced by existentialism then. Although I probably didn’t understand existentialism, I must have picked up on its feeling or main elements. The existentialism understood in Korea at that time was more of the end-of-the-century version that had wandered a bit from its origins—possibly closer to end-of-the-century nihilism. Existentialism has an extraordinarily strong will. The basic principle of existentialism is that if humans are made by humans, doesn’t that mean there is no true nature? You are made by your choices. It must have been difficult to write truly existentialist texts in a country like ours that has never fought over the true nature of humanity.

Ha: After that, you published a series of poems called Elegy and another called Wind Burial. Compared with other poets, you have quite a few series. If that is the case, do you pick a particular topic and plan around it? Or is it somehow related to the time period?

Hwang: Of course I plan it all out. I have a desire to completely delve into whatever topic comes to me. Elegy was born from the struggle a person goes through when they lose their religion. I myself was Christian and had been baptized as an infant. In high school, I believed in my religion at the behest of my mother. So, of course there was some automatic resistance to it. For a whole year, the church I was attending said, “Jesus’ Second Coming is getting closer” “it’s going to happen soon.” They usually focused on verses from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Revelations that said, “Jesus will come again. And when he does, 144,000 people will receive his salvation. We are amongst that 144,000.” And then I went to university and while I was reading Nietzsche, I lost my Christianity, my religion.

Ha: When I was reading Elegy I felt something like the solemn darkness of younger days.

Hwang: It’s the darkness that comes when you lose your religion.

Ha: I believe that Wind Burial is about humanity confronting death. Do you agree?

Hwang: Yes, I do. It can be seen as man’s confrontation with death, or it could be seen as becoming more familiar with so-called death. It could be seen as confronting death, or even becoming intimate with death as it is all but inescapable. And when you become friendlier with death, you lose a lot of psychological burden. Even though you try to escape death, you never really can. It is saying, “If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it.” If you enjoy your life, then it greatly brightens and many of the fundamental burdens of life fall to the wayside. Just saying “If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it,” doesn’t mean that getting there is easy. You need a lot of training and go through a lot of trial and error.


Poetic Form and Music

Ha: Around the time when you were completing your Wind Burial series, a peculiar form appeared in your poetry. Could you please explain to us exactly what is “dramatic lyrical poetry?”

Hwang: If I were to explain it, dramatic lyrical poetry has to have something more inside it than most of the emotionally effusive, reporting on the present society, or painting pictures of traditions and customs, which are found in most of our country’s poetry. That is to say, what we call drama has the so-called four steps of composition: introduction, development, turn, and conclusion, and within that sequence one person’s fate changes. If it doesn’t change, there is no drama. And that is not simply emotional effusion or description. I want to write poems that change the poetic self, that experience change. The poem of mine that most represents this is probably “Joy of Living.”

Ha: That poem shows how the main character must change his way of life.

Hwang: Sometimes my concept of life and death changes. And it begins when I immerse myself in Zen Buddhism and read books on the topic. When I read them, I feel my perception shift between a type of Stoic devotion to valor and a sort of Epicureanism. However, Zen Buddhism has the attractive point of encapsulating two different Western concepts of life and death. I am completely captivated. It is wrong to think of Epicureanism as hedonism. To put it simply, Epicureanism has accepted Atomic Theory. We are so-called chance combinations of atoms and when we die, we are nothing. Trying not be disturbed by the thought of death is not hedonism. I mentioned Stoicism as well; you’ve got to have a grasp of both to reach Zen Buddhist Enlightenment. This is how you can explain perception in the Western European way.

Ha: In relation to that, you mentioned “lowering oneself,” but that doesn’t seem to be something written about in Europe.

Hwang: Right, when we talk about poets or writers and say, “That guy hasn’t lowered himself enough,” we use it to mean that something is missing. They don’t say this in Europe. This is something found in Taoism and Buddhism. In America, there is no concept of “lowering oneself,” however there is something similar in their “you need to see the world more broadly.” But “lowering oneself” is a term that includes a certain sensation as well. There are no such words in English, but you could even rephrase it as, “to empty one’s heart.” It has several meanings.

Ha: Didn’t you once say that when you have a drink you like to listen to music? What do you usually listen to?

Hwang: I like music without lyrics. Music with words impedes the writing of poetry. So, I hardly ever listen to opera. I enjoy the later works of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mozart. Schubert’s later works are his greatest masterpieces. His String Quintet and his last three Piano Sonatas are really his best works.

Ha: You gave up on becoming a composer, didn’t you?

Hwang: Yes, the reason I gave up my music studies was that, one day, coming out of a concert with a friend, my friend started whistling very precisely and I found I couldn’t whistle like that. They call it tone-deafness. It is okay for composers to be slightly tone-deaf. Penderecki failed his hearing test, but it isn’t a big problem for modern day musicians. As long as you’re not a vocalist, you’re alright. If I lived my life again under the condition that I had the same body, I might even have been a composer. I also think, perhaps if I were healthier, I would have been a traveler or an explorer.