Searching for the Pinnacle of Love: Poet Hwang Tong-gyu

  • onOctober 18, 2014
  • Vol.4 Summer 2009
  • byLee Soong-won

Poet Hwang Tong-gyu recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his debut with “A Joyful Letter” in 1958. He has opened up a world of rich, unbridled poetry in 14 volumes, the latest being A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours. Hwang discusses his poetry, which combines the East and West and the modern and traditional, with literary critic Lee Soong-won.


April 1st – as the nippy remnants of winter overpowered the faint warmth of early spring, I met up with poet Hwang Tong-gyu at the Professor Emeritus’ office at Seoul National University. Author of 14 volumes of poetry including his latest, A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours, Hwang greeted his guest with an enthusiasm rarely found in a seventy-one-year-old.

Lee Soong-won: You have been publishing a book of poems every three years, give or take, and your latest came out about three years since your last volume. The poems in A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours are divided into four sections. Could you tell us about the characteristics of the sections?

Hwang Tong-gyu: I did not divide the poems into four categories following a strict criteria, but grouped them roughly according to the mood of the poems and which seasons they convey. Revisiting the poems after the book came out, I noticed that poems in section one mostly have to do with human responses to mankind’s pains and joys, those in section two are meditations on the directions life takes, section three has to do with journeying away from routine to face the tangible in life, and section four deals with the surprising revelation that a meaningful encounter with life makes the body ache and become numb. This is just a rough grouping; different readers may perceive them differently.

LS: One poet said in a review that this book made Hwang’s gi (energy, spirit, and life force) younger. I also felt the tension that must have gone into your careful avoidance of any expressions that could be considered cliché and your endeavor to reconfigure every line and word. Where do you find the energy to maintain this level of poetic tension at your age?

HT: On my sixtieth birthday, the professors in my department at Seoul National University held a banquet in my honor. During the speech I gave, I said I consider aging a disease. If aging is a disease, I must try to be cured. I must maintain tension in order not to succumb to the disease. If I made up my mind to write the poetry of an old man now that I’ve grown old, I would not agonize as much, but it would be at the expense of losing poetic tension. Perhaps the disease that is aging makes life feel more real.


The poet Hwang Tong-gyu and literary critic Lee Soong-won


LS: It has been noted that the accessible yet meditative pieces from your early years have linked you to modernism and a western literary atmosphere. However, you are also a fan of Tang Dynasty poets such as Li Bai or Du Fu, and your interest in traditional Korean philosophies run deep. In that sense, one could say that your works reflect both the Eastern and Western, and the modern and traditional.

HT: I was likely influenced by western literature since I entered university as a student of English literature in 1957 and taught English literature for 35 years as a professor. Also, the majority of western literary works I read have their roots in modernism, so I was likely influenced by modernism as well. In high school, however, I enjoyed Du Fu’s poems and Korean poems. I had committed 200 sijo (a form of Korean poetry of typically three lines) to memory. One could say I’ve been writing poetry on the border between Eastern and Western literature. I’m thankful that I was able to exist in that space between East and West because had I been more partial to one side or the other, the strength of my works may have been lost. I tried to absorb the best of the East and the West, steering clear of their limits. This may have helped maintain my gi for this long.

LS: Your deep interest in Buddhism is reflected in your works, despite your Christian upbringing. You’ve written several poems on conversations between Jesus and Buddha. How do Christianity and Buddhism coexist in your poems?

HT: Growing up in a Christian home, I was very much influenced by Christianity until I went to university. My deep interest in Buddhism began when I was in college because Buddhism forms the foundation of Korean culture. I am still very much interested in Buddhism although I do not subscribe to any one religion at the moment. I do believe, however, that religion is very important because it enables a person to encounter beings larger than themselves. Even in terms of religion, I stand on the border between Christianity and Buddhism. My impartiality to both religions also may be one of my strengths as a writer.

LS: Music has been a part of your life since your youth. Your poetry reveals your interest in paintings, sculpture, and architecture as well. What would you say is the relationship between poetry and artistic interests?

HT: When I was in high school, I wanted to be a composer. I’ve loved music all my life, and I believe all art is a device that allows us to live like human beings. Whereas religion and philosophy provide us with metaphysical guidelines, art gives us more detailed ones. It is only natural that poetry becomes rich and more encompassing of other worlds when in conversation with other forms of art.

LS: So far you have written numerous love poems that were not just about love between a man and a woman but love that exists between humans and objects. The poems in A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours, reveal your endeavor to observe and contain in your heart everything from some woman on the street, an old stranger, to the subtlest natural phenomenon. I want to call this the “pinnacle of love.” How does one reach that state of mind?

HT: Only a few of the poems in this volume were written with a specific purpose or significant theme in mind. I sought to lower my ego in order to find a world that includes strangers and nature. In the poem, “A Winter Night at 00:05 Hours” the narrator is able to reach a place where he is able to understand the poor woman because he has lowered his ego. In order to lower oneself, one must maintain a certain level of ego. Lowering and building one’s ego at the same time and then lowering it again proved arduous, but in the process I learned that lowering one’s ego in order to get in touch with the world and others is what you call the “pinnacle of love.”

By Lee Soong-won