- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byKim Kwang-Kyu
- A Journey to Seoul
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé 2006243pp.
When the valley in K’unaksan Mountain was all
buoyant with pale green,
when the trees were thick with fresh leaves, I mean,
I had no idea at all
as I passed by.
When the road to the temple beyond was
all ablaze with orange maples and leaves
were falling in mounds in the breeze
when the dead leaves were falling, I mean,
I did not feel anything at all
as I strolled by.
One day when the year was virtually over
and occasional snowflakes fluttered down,
dangling at the tip of a branch of a gaunt jujube tree
suddenly fell, all alone.
Each of them had sprouted separately,
lived through the summer clustered together
then finally each had fallen separately
and as they did so, each of those leaves
was showing what it is to vanish.
Kim Kwang-Kyu grew up amidst the turmoil of the Korean War and its aftermath. He was born in 1941 in Seoul, and was a student at the time of the 4.19 Revolution in 1960. Kim studied German at Seoul National University as well as in Germany. He first developed his poetic voice by translating German poetry into Korean, including satirical works by Heinrich Heine, Bertolt Brecht, and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems. He only began to publish poetry in 1975, when he was already in his mid-30s. Owing nothing to standard Korean poetic models, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model of new poetics for the new age that began in earnest with the assassination of the dictator Park Chung-hee in 1979.
Less than a week after Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry, The Last Dream to Drench Us, was published, the life of Park Chung-hee was brought to a violent end. Following this, Kim’s book was actively censored in the subsequent security clampdown, which only served to give it legitimacy as a work of resistance. For almost the first time in Korean literary history, a poetic voice characterized by satirical humor was speaking out, pointing its arrows at the evils of dictatorship and the wretchedness of modern city life in subtle, understated ways. Kim’s other early collections, written during the ensuing military dictatorships, include poems that refer indirectly to the brutality of the regimes, which delighted young readers capable of grasping their hidden meaning.
In his work, Kim Kwang-Kyu is not interested in celebrating directly the beauties of nature, in part at least because he is very aware of the way human pollution has ruined them. He is one of the first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological disaster. The voice of his poems often inspires a sardonic smile, but it is important to recognize in his work as a whole a deeply humanistic viewpoint. Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in today’s world. Kim Kwang-Kyu is still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that should make us want to weep in a way that often makes us smile.
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