Poet Kim Soo-young, Still Controversial: The Complete Works of Kim Soo-young, Vol.1 (Poems)

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byHong Jung-sun
The Complete Works of Kim Su-young, Vol.1 (Poems)

Countless poets began writing poetry after the liberation of Korea from Japan. But it is difficult to find another poet who aroused as much interest and stirred as much controversy as Kim Soo-young. He died at the relatively young age of 48 in 1968, but his poetry has become a symbol of freedom and revolution during the democratization of Korea, embodying literature that represents social concerns while being an example of modern, avant-garde poetry. Moreover, his life and work have elicited praise and criticism as well as a debate on imitation versus reflection by liberals, socialists, anti-Communists, and diverse types of intellectuals.

The Complete Works of Kim Soo-youngVol.1 published posthumously by Minumsa Publishing Company in 1981, is a compilation of The Big Root (1974); a selection of essays Spit, Poetry (1975); and the popular Even If the Moon's Path Is Trodden, (1976). This collection of poems can be viewed as an outcome of the heightened interest in his work since the 1970s. As the first edition of the book has undergone 27 printings and the second edition, 19 printings, it goes to show that the great interest in Kim’s poetry is not temporary.

The underlying basis of how the Minumsa Publishing Group’s version of The Complete Works of Kim Soo-young, Vol.1 became a steady seller is the undying appeal of his poetry and the passionate debate it still triggers from readers. What continues to inspire young readers are the issues of freedom, revolution, conscience, and love, as well as the fiery spirit with which the poet engaged in his poetry.

Kim Soo-young was born, lived, and died in Seoul. He was an urbanite who lived in the capital, a place that rapidly metamorphosed into a modern city and was therefore free from the traditionalism and conventions of rural life. The reason why Kim actively pursued the themes of change and revolution, new forms, and abstruse styles of expression is not unrelated to the changes he experienced in his everyday life in Seoul.

Born in 1921, he died in 1968. The 48 years during which he lived was a period of great turbulence for the Korean people who experienced Japanese colonialism, national independence on August 15, 1945, the division of the Korean peninsula and the Korean War, the dictatorship of Rhee Syngman, and the student revolution on April 19, 1961.

It was not simply Kim himself but the historical time period in which he lived that made him leave to study in Japan during the colonial era, become mesmerized by the proletariat poet Lim Wha after the liberation of Korea, be incarcerated in the Geojedo Prisoners’ Camp during the Korean War, and become actively involved in the socio-political movement after the April 19 Student Revolution. In other words, his direct confrontation with the critical events and issues of his time, led Kim to actively reflect on the meaning of the individual, family, and society in a poetic context.

When Kim's collected works of poetry was first published, it was around the time when the literary establishment in Korea was distinctively split into what the hegemonic literary sect called the establishment group and the critical group. The latter group founded quarterlies like Changbi Quarterly and Literature and Intelligence, as well as organizations like The Council of Writers for Freedom and Practice, which fought against the authoritarian government.

Consequently, the meaning and the value of Kim’s poetry also showed a great range of differing opinions, depending on the viewpoint of the literary figures and their political beliefs. On one hand, the nature of civilianism, proletarianism, realism, and honesty inherent in his poems were viewed in a positive light, whereas on the other hand, some criticized them for being esoteric, bourgeois in nature, and self-contradictory. For example, the populist grass roots movement interpreted the phrases from Kim’s most well-known poem, “Grass,” such as “lying down faster than the wind” and “rising faster than the wind,” as signifying the tenacious vitality of the masses. Those who were critical about populism claimed such a reading renders the masses as being opportunists who give into conditions of the present state, thereby igniting a debate about its meaning.

After democracy was achieved in Korea in the 1990s, many of the works by countless anti-government literary figures have lost their meaning. The Complete Works of Kim Soo-young, which has stirred debate on the excesses and deficiencies of modernity, has continued to survive the times. 


Author's Profile

Kim Soo-young (1921~1968) is undisputedly one of the best poets in the history of modern Korean poetry. The Moon’s Mischief is the only collection of his poems published while he was alive. His other works posthumously published include the poetry collections The Big Root and Even If the Moon’s Path Is Trodden; the essay collections Spit, Poetry and A Portrait of the Puritan, and The Complete Works of Kim Soo-young (Poems, Vol. 1 and Essays, Vol. 2).