A Poet of Gwangju, Yeosu, and the Korean Peninsula

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byMoon Chung-hee

“Place” in poetry is that fundamental space where a poet’s poetic discourse plays out.

Seo Hyoin writes of Korea, where signs of the most acute conflict and danger on the planet manifest themselves, and speaks of Gwangju, the city of freedom and of wounds, and sings of love at the seaside of Yeosu. The Korean peninsula spent nearly half of the twentieth century under Japanese colonial rule, and since the Korean War, which began in 1950, exists to this very day in a state of division, with north and south in a constant standoff. Well into the twenty-first century, Korea seems fated to be at the fierce focal point of world news.

Seo Hyoin was born in Gwangju in 1981, after the tragic events of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, which opposed the military dictatorship in May 1980, and his poetic world is premised on this historical and spatial background. His poems writhe with a sense of place and with the humming rage of a troublesome youth whose formative years were passed in the violence of the military dictatorship and colored by the worship of development capitalism. In the midst of the conditions of late capitalism, where anxiety and competition endlessly mount, he is a poet who expresses depression and the confusion of any sense of value with the power of narrative.

In doing this, Seo is one of the poets who best represents the characteristics and personality of his generation. Historical wounds, a resistant rhythm, and a rebellious use of prose nestle naturally within his poetic awareness.

In his first poetry collection, Behavior Guidelines for the Boy Partisan, he crafted a real sense of poetic presence that vividly expresses the emotions of those who are suffering.

His own personal coming of age, shown in poems like “Fun and Friendly Course,” is portrayed with cynicism and humor, while in “Stinking Person” the sentiment of sadness particular to the southern provinces is conveyed in a way that is true to life, with the lilt and expressions of a warm yet slightly strange stammerer. In this collection Seo gradually opens himself to the suffering of others, divulging the first steps toward a natural sensibility while still commanding a chaotic power of enunciation.

In his second poetry collection, World War of One Hundred Years, we see Seo striving to penetrate through the social and political essence of Korean society. He begins to look head-on at the individual, stripped bare before the vast political apparatus and structures of capital. In living language, towards the internal ghetto which is poetry, he spits out the diverse situations of the boy partisan who is endlessly segmented.

Finally, in his third poetry collection, Yeosu, although it is with gasping breaths, he incorporates shared history and memories of love that run deep and brings them to the surface with literature. Here, he creates a new poetic space, holding close the places that were the epicenter of rage and calamity, while furtively restoring humor.

The poet takes us to “Yeosu,” which is special because the woman he loves is there; “Seoul,” the root of chaos, where rich and poor and every kind of uprooted person live as parasites; “Gwangju,” the space where the experiences of his adolescence are engraved intact; and “Mokpo,” which holds the fingerprints of a sad history. Then in poems like “In Search of Auntie,” Seo painfully depicts the image of the fickle Other, wandering with nowhere to turn.

Seo Hyoin is not a poet with a command of smooth language, nor does his work hold a delicate poetic rhythm. Instead, the coarse breathing of his poetry means that its tragic beauty is buried deep within, and this gives it a purity that radiates out of its own accord.

Considering the place names that his sensations and passions have called out, it would be unfair to speak of only the historical sense of space or political poetic awareness in Seo’s work. The way that the “poetic space,” called into being with his experiences and memories, is conveyed safely as unique lyric poetry is also very pleasing to behold, primarily because this is the distinction and individuality that the young poets of this era in South Korea possess.


Translated by Sophie Bowman


Author's Profile

Moon Chung-hee is a poet and Endowed Chair Professor at Dongguk University. She has won prestigious awards such as the Sowol Poetry Award, the Chong Chi-Yong Literature Prize, the Mogwol Literature Prize, and Sweden’s Cikada Prize. She has participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. English editions of her books include WindflowerWoman on the Terrace, and I Must Be the Wind.