Living Inside Life, with Others

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byKim Nam Jo

Poetry is an intimate monologue. When poems are shared with readers, the poet is cut off from her own words and becomes a person who sits calmly in front of a new blank piece of paper. Therein lies the challenge, that only after tearing out the bark of the dark and destitute world, can one find a certain truth and the language of that truth.

I was born during the shameful era of our country when Korea was forcibly occupied by Japan. I grew up a colonial child, and about the time when I graduated high school, I welcomed our independence. Even though we experienced an emotional uplifting from the regained usage of our prohibited Korean language, our prohibited Korean writing system, and our prohibited genuine Korean names—shortly thereafter, Korea was overwhelmed by a war that confronted and divided the South and the North. Due to Korea’s inexperience in politics, economy, and education, when Korea immaturely attempted to become a member of the modern state, many Koreans fell into the depths of poverty. Every household bore casualties and faced hopeless partings without promise of reunion. Korean poets began singing of this sadness; poetics which were most sorrowful—most beautiful— aroused popular sympathy, and it seemed like this agony became their food and water. This, however, was not a direction of despair. It was a massive national march towards hope.

In 1953, during the Korean War, my first book Life was published. Readers empathized with lines like: “That is the life I wanted to have / only to not die / like a pebble I could fall anywhere, any mountain, any field.” Life is a school where everyone’s lives are listed in the school registry. When the time comes for graduation we, the students, will leave this world. In my recent poem “Old Soldier,” I wrote: “I am an old soldier. I enlisted when I was born, and now have become the oldest soldier. . . . My military duty is life.”

The most important affair in life is life itself. Life is a strong and strict parent. We the living people are its feeble children. I believe: “Longings, regrets, and poverty / And sufferings and such / Humans’ daily life / Broken into the water / Until becoming distilled water / As the wedding gift of life, suffer and suffer / Devoted / And life is truly / Worth this much.” Therefore, it is my unchanging belief that people must pay willingly, without discount, the price which life claims.

Human souls often face questions. For these urgent questions that arise from the riding pulse of the heart, we often realize that silence which implies comprehensive truth is a better answer than words. A person becomes complete by firmly believing the simple truth that everyone together constitutes a fated community where each individual marches towards a united mankind and shares a similar destiny.

Recently one of the things I have thought about is that humans possess the means to enjoy pain. For example, Prometheus, who defied zeus by bringing fire to mankind, was punished and tied up on the high Caucasus Mountain peak. Everyday his liver was pecked at and eaten by an eagle. Every night it would heal and he would prepare for the next day’s pain. If one day the eagle did not show up, and if on that long boring day the sun set, and if this kind of day continued for a long time until his daily life coagulated like a fossil, would he be happy? It is worthwhile to think about the people who risk their lives, their one strand of rope to climb the steep dangerous mountain of Earth. What is the reason we humans long for safety yet search for danger at the same time?

Not so long ago, I was asked in a magazine interview, “How do you view the future of your poetry?” I replied, “Let’s say there is one volume of a thick book which everyone will read throughout their life. Since I have lived long, I have both read quite far into the latter part and read profound sentences which brilliant youngsters have yet to read. My writing may progress more because of this.” Although I cannot say whether or not it’s natural, the ability of undying sensitivity and affection toward the diversity and profit of life is obviously a precious asset. Sometimes when I revisit my own writings, I see evidence that my latter works have reduced wasteful vocabulary and achieved more clarity in meaning. I want to believe that along with my introspection and thoughts about responsibility, as I come into old age, a degree of maturity has been added to my work.

Where are the future poems? / Where and when will the future poets come? / The thoughts not yet written in this era / Thunder and lightning which God did not show us yet / Until the last day of Earth / Poets shall come and poetry shall be written / The chains of joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure / Supreme omniscient / Human truth revealed by anatomical knife / Poetry! Oh hopeless Hope!

Today, I sing like this: In this tumultuous era that is in dire need of epoch-marking wisdom in every field I am living with one heart among the gleaners in the vast autumn field after the harvest is over. 


by Kim Nam Jo
* translated by Sunny Jung

Author's Profile

Kim Nam Jo was born in Daegu in 1927 and attended a girls’ school in Kyushu, Japan. She graduated from the College of Education at Seoul National University with a B.A. in Korean education. Kim made her literary debut with the publication of her poem, “Lingering Image,” in Yonhap News in 1950 and launched her career as a poet with her first collection of poems, Life in 1953.

Kim’s poems express a subtle and feminine sensibility that carries on a lineage of female poets such as Moh Youn Sook and Noh Cheonmyeong from before Korean liberation from Japan. She is grounded in the Catholic faith and her writing gravitates toward the realm of love and life, with themes of maternity and peace. Her early works pay tribute to the dignity of life. In Life, she writes affirmatively about human nature and delineates the world of passion derived from the fullness of life’s vitality. In her collections A Flag of Sentiments and The Winter Sea, she refined her poetic world with increasing emotion. Her later works became more contemplative and explored the fundamental dimensions of humanism. The poet has confessed she received a mandate to delve into the depths of “love” and “poetry,” and accordingly, has chosen erotic and agape love as the themes of her recent poetic exploration and expression.

With a voice emanating from deep within, Kim Nam Jo has sung about the ultimately positive aspects of life and achieved a beauty of both form and rhythm through fluid language. She has established herself as an eminent writer in Korean modern literature who has become renowned for her poetry about the inner strength that elevates the human spirit.

Kim is at present a member of the National Academy of Arts of the Republic of Korea. The English translation of her poetry, Selected Poems of Kim Namjo, was published in 1993; the Christening of the Wind in Japanese in 1995; the German translation, Windtaufe, in 1996; and Antologia Poética in Spanish in 2003.