Song for Five Friends
- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byKim Kwang-Kyu
- A Journey to Seoul
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé 2006243pp.
Rocks and trees formed a screen.
When we first shared love, we were concealed,
not by closed steel doors or drawn curtains
but by scattered stones and bamboo leaves.
When we lay holding our breath in the pine forest,
what sheltered us from those tenacious pursuers
was not grenades or machine guns
but the deafening sound of a waterfall pouring down.
When we hastened southward with starving steps,
all the time looking back at the seven stars of the Great Bear,
what guided us through the darkness
was not some iron-hard ideology but the faint moonlight.
This poem is inspired by a famous lyric by the scholarpoet Yun Seon-do (1587–1671) that many generations of Korean schoolchildren have memorized. The old poem is a celebration of the beauty of nature in six four-line stanzas, showing the poet withdrawing from society. The present poem echoes the images of nature found in Yun’s poem but from a very different perspective, evoking the horrors of the Korean War.
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.