Princess Bari Speaks: A Thousand Tongues of the Abandoned Daughter

  • onSeptember 1, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byCho Youngbok

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

The 1980s of South Korea was an era of poetry. This statement is not a matter of interpretation or value judgement, but an absolute truth. There is no way to remember South Korea in the 1980s without recalling the poets and the poetry of that time. The nation was awash in the last wave of democratization and literature was called on to record the “here and now.” In response to this urgency, poetry overtook the plodding pace of prose and rose to the forefront of literature. The words of poets burned not only in literary magazines and poetry collections but on the streets as well. In the sense that any direct expression of rage against reality could be considered poetry, it was also an age when everyone was a poet. The dissection of form, the black allegory of language, and highbrow symbolism were all wound up in the reins of “reality.” In the midst of all this, a group of women poets emerged, including Kim Hyesoon, Ko Jung-hee, Kim Seung-hee, and Choi Seung- ja. They sometimes focused on feminist discourse in the binary conflict of “woman versus man” (Ko Jung-hee), or translated those themes into a deeper, symbolic language (Kim Hyesoon, Kim Seung- hee), or manifested a sharp and astute sense of self through the tension of language (Choi Seung-ja). This marked the “birth” of feminist poets.

Kim Hyesoon and other women poets who debuted in the 1980s were recognized as “poets” rather than “female poets.” Being seen as poets instead of as the “Other” or the female counterpart to (male) poets was a truly remarkable shift. Their identity as women only came up in the context of being identified as feminist poets. These poets shone by their own light, rather than being passively lit by someone else’s light. In other words, it was their point of view and their language that was remarkable, not the mere fact that women were writing poems.

The voices of these women poets were certainly different from those of the men and even the women poets of the previous generations. The themes that these poets dealt with were both unfamiliar and extraordinary. Their eyes were opened to the female body, its fertility and vitality. They trained the clarity of their vision not just to the oppression etched onto the female body but also the sensuality and love found there. Most importantly, the momentum of their poems came from the deep, powerful push of the imagination. The label of “female poets” that had been applied to the women who came before them finally lifted. The label “female literature” had indicated that literature, and therefore poetry, belonged to men. The term “female poets” had implied that these poets existed only under the light of men, that they were (biological) females doing something unusual (literature.)

The establishment of women poets in Korea went through at least three stages. Modern Korean poetry began with the writing of Korean poetry in the Korean written language. (Before this, poetry was written in Chinese characters, and the world of writing belonged to elite men. This was even the case for sijo, which was written in Korean.) The first generation of women poets were those who studied abroad in Japan and then made their names known on the Korean literary scene. Among them are poets like Na Hye-seok, Kim Myung- soon, Noh Cheon-myeong, and Moh Youn Sook. In Korea’s male-centric literary world, their existence itself was the focal point of interest. Their biological femaleness made them unique, but at the same time made the undeniable calling to write a tragedy. Park Hwa-seong, a novelist in the 1930s, referred to this double bind when she said that she was “haunted.” The term alludes to both a compulsive drive to write and the inherent tragedy of writing as a woman. After Korea gained independence from Japan and up to the 1970s, a second generation of women poets emerged, including Heo Young Ja, Kim Nam Jo, and Yoo An-jin. They primarily dealt with themes of life and love in a sentimental and lyrical tone. Sensuality and abstraction were also present in their work, but what left an impression on the readers was the quality of beauty, which evoked both grace and absence. Though their social and economic situation was better than the first generation of women poets, they were still unable to proactively bring forth their voices as women in their poetry.

Unlike these first- and second-generation women poets, the poets that emerged in the 1980s recognized their femaleness as a gender. They fiercely carved out a language for women and their feminine identity is manifest in their work. Though women were writing before them, the poets of the 1980s were the ones that were, at last, writing feminist literature. This third generation did not stand in the background of their male contemporaries but stood head to head, or, in fact, stood ahead of them, reaching out to the readers. Kim Hyesoon’s consistent publications following her debut is both a part of and a contribution to a larger phenomenon: poetry collections by women were capturing the interests of readers and leading the publishing market.

Kim Hyesoon’s emergence on the South Korean literary scene will go down in history as an important landmark in feminist poetry. Unlike some of the other women who began writing poems around the same time in the 1980s, Kim Hyesoon is still active in the poetry world today. Her poetry is unique in that it begins in feminism and moves toward a symbolic world that is more fundamental and archetypal. Themes such as feminine space and the prison of the body, the sea of life and the barren land, the sensuality of love and sexual oppression recur in her work as she persistently excavates and explores them. Her poems can also be as difficult as they are persistent, and often leave the impression of being abstruse. This has some relation to her professional achievements as both a poet and a professor. The feminism in her work comes from her poetics and her poetics set the interpretational framework for her work. This simultaneously widens the analysis of her work and adds to the difficulty of the poems. Her readers are those who wrestle with this difficulty and forge through it rather than give up. A certain poetic pleasure and the aura created by the sparseness of language give her poems an addictive quality, beyond the difficulty of their interpretation.

In Kim Hyesoon’s work, her discovery of “The Tale of Princess Bari” is particularly notable. Kim Hyesoon borrows motifs from Korean traditional folklore and mythology to continue an oral tradition and to symbolize the vitality and fertility of the female body steeped in the traditional epic. “The Tale of Princess Bari” is a type of shaman’s song that comes from Korean traditional mythology. “Bari” comes from the word “to abandon” (beorida). The name “Bari” itself resonates with the cry of one who is cast away and torn apart. Bari is born as the seventh daughter to a king who had hoped for a son to succeed the throne. Upon birth, she is promptly thrown out and abandoned, but later she overcomes all kinds of obstacles to find a cure for her ailing father. Bari then becomes a shamanist god. This tale is densely layered with themes that are Korean and universal at the same time: love and death, creation and annihilation, the cry of the abandoned and salvation through a woman’s sacrifice. Kim Hyesoon once described her work as a manifestation of “(spiritual) possession,” reminiscent of Park Hwa-seong’s confession, as a first generation woman writer, that she had to write because she was “haunted.” Both accounts illustrate the existential root of their poems.

If “Bari” is the name of one who speaks of life and love in the language of the abandoned and torn, perhaps we could also call her by the name “Kim Hyesoon.” Bari’s language is the living, spoken language of a possessed shaman, the language of life that travels into the future. In that sense it may be more accurate to say Kim Hyesoon “spoke” her poems rather than “wrote” them. These poems go beyond the territory of feminist poetry. They defy the age-old argument that the delicate, intrinsic context of the source language cannot survive translation into the target language. The International Griffin Poetry Prize awarded to Kim Hyesoon is a testament to the value of her work and the significance of her poetics. Her future work, no doubt, will continue to unfold with symbolic language as diverse and multitudinous as the variations of “The Tale of Princess Bari.”


by Cho Youngbok
Literary Critic
Professor, Kwangwoon University
Translated by Hedgie Choi