[KS] KSR 2002-13: _Variations: Three Korean Poets_ by Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim and Lee Si-Young

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Sep 12 06:08:10 EDT 2002

_Variations: Three Korean Poets_ by Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim and Lee
Si-Young, translated by Brother Anthony of TaizŽ and Kim Young-Moo.
Cornell East Asia Series, 110.  Ithaca:  East Asia Program, Cornell
University, 2001 (bilingual edition),  328 pp.  (ISBN 1-885445-10-5, paper,

Reviewed by Sehjae Chun
SUNY / Buffalo

[The reviewer wishes to express his warmest tribute to the memory of Kim
Young-Moo who passed away on Novemember 26, 2001]

_Variations: Three Korean Poets_ is a welcome and intriguing bilingual
collection of poems by Kim Su-Young (1921-1968), Shin Kyong-Nim (1935- )
and Lee Si-Young (1949- ). It consists of an introduction by Yoon Ji-Kwan,
a helpful "Historical Note" providing an outline of key events in
twentieth-century Korea, and the original text of a number of poems by Kim,
Shin and Lee together with a facing translation.  At first glance, readers
may be surprised by the combination of three poets who were born fourteen
years apart and who have formed their peculiar poetic spheres individually.
Moreover, the choice of Lee Si-Young, a relatively less-well known figure,
rather than, say, Kim Chi-Ha or Ko Un may also raise eyebrows.

To waylay uneasiness about this combination, Yoon Ji-Kwan in his
introduction points out "a common voice" among these poets arising "in the
form of a strong moral echo" (xi). Similarly, Brother Anthony, who
co-translated the three poets' works with Kim Young-Moo, notes that "the
idea of bringing their work together in a single volume originated with my
co-translator, Professor Kim Young-Moo" who understands that "they share a
common concern -- the need for poetry to speak with the vividness of a
living voice. Their poems reflect in varying ways the lives of ordinary
people at critical moments in modern Korean history." [1] As early as 1982,
Kim Young-Moo had already mapped out the genealogy of the steady and
distinctive voices and currents in modern Korean poetry that were initiated
by Han Yong-Woon and Lee Yook-Sa, propelled by Kim Su-Young and Shin
Dong-Yeop and given further momentum by Shin Kyong-Nim, Chong Hee-Sung and
Ha Jong-Ho. [2]  Lee Si-Young, though not included in the tradition Kim
charted earlier, has actively published poems that display the natural
environment and the commonplace routines of human experience with
vividness, beginning with his second poetry collection Into the Wind
(1986).  According to Kim Young-Moo, Lee Si-Young echoes the common voice
of Kim Su-Young and Shin Kyong-Nim and, in this light, we can regard him as
a contemporary deserving literary inheritor.

The title of this volume, _Variations_, comes from Kim Su-Young's
"Variations on the Theme of Love" and suggests how "the vividness of a
living voice" varies in each poet's works.  The first variation on the
theme played by Kim Su-Young is best understood historically. Amidst the
literary environment of the 50s and 60s, which was often alienating in its
brittle displays of languishing sentiment, its extreme privacy, and its use
of rhetoric to avoid self-absorption as well as irony, Kim Su-Young's poems
stood out. His poems reveal many different faces to readers and they reveal
the mutually interlocking relationship among avant-garde experiment,
freedom, love and conscience.

Although Kim Su-Young could be considered a traditionalist in his concern
for scrupulous attention to artistic craft, he does not organize his poems
according to pre-established conventions of rhyme, meter and stanzaic
patterns, which would limit the reader's experience of the poem to a small
set of received meanings. On the contrary, he writes in a highly
aestheticizing vein and often compels his readers to discover distinct and
particular meanings as they work through the unpredictable poetic tensions
found in "Games in the Land of the Moon" and "A Gladiolus."

His later poems, however, are more accessible and have much to share with
readers in their efforts to bridge the gap between art and life.  In this
vein he privileges the idea of the artist who is doomed to struggle against
those who oppose freedom, intelligence and humanism, as articulated in his
essays "Poetry, Spit It Out" (1968) and "Theory of Anti-Poetics" (1968).
Rejecting the artistically crafted and lofty image of the artist celebrated
in the poetry of So Chong-Ju (1915-2000), Kim Su-Young believes, on the
contrary, that the artist must immerse himself in history and the
ordinariness of life. Kim respects no boundaries between art and life and,
furthermore, makes the transgression of boundaries a centerpiece of his
poetry by embracing the undisguised encounter with ordinary life and
freedom from the aristocratic use of language, as exemplified in "First
Tear Down His Photo," "A Prayer," and "Colossal Roots" among others.

More importantly, Kim Su-Young's poems capture the changes in people's
sensibility before and after the 4.19 Revolution and extend beyond the
self-reflective internalized sense of reality of the complacent bourgeois
to offer a strong sense of social responsibility. For example, Kim
discovers grass as a poetic theme in "Grass," and observes that "The grass
is lying flat. / It lies flat more quickly than the wind. / It weeps more
quickly than the wind. / It rises more quickly than the wind" (121).
Similar to Kim So-Wol's adoption of the azalea in his poetry, Kim Su-Young
selects grass, an ordinary and even worthless object that is not deemed
appropriate in poetry, and reads the undying spirit of the people within

Unlike Kim Su-Young, who experienced revolutionary changes in poetic vision
after the 4.19 Revolution and the 5.16 Military Coup, Shin Kyong-Nim, as a
people's poet, has maintained and deepened his earlier enthusiasm for the
minjung and the locality of the present.  While Kim Su-Young counts on his
individual experience to expose the fallacy of the society around him, Shin
Kyong-Nim attempts to minimize his private emotional response and to evoke
a collective response by immersing his personal voice in the loud and
bitter suffering of the minjung.  However, readers discover in his poems
the conviction that the private meditation of the poet and the life of the
minjung resonate within each other, each clarifying, defining, challenging
and enriching the other to give birth to the communal "we" voice Brother
Anthony aptly noted. [3]

Shin's role as gadfly to politically neutral intellectuals in situations of
political upheavals is important in modern Korean poetry, as is his role as
an important activist-writer whose response in words and actions to the
urgent needs of our society is vital.  Considering that the
industrialization precipitated by the 5. 16 Military Coup expanded at the
steady sacrifice of rural communities, the poems "I Felt Ashamed, Little
Sisters" and "A Dog-rose" reflect his deeply rooted sense of the reality of
the minjung.

In the face of widespread industrialization, Shin's frequent recourse to
residual rural communities is not that of a defeatist or of an escapist.
Rather, beyond the perspective of the sentimental spectator, he turns
himself into an active participant in the daily lives of the minjung, and
his poems are an effort to comprehend and represent the political disorders
that threaten to overwhelm human potential.  He discovers and realizes that
the voice of the powerless, the lonely and the poor is his own and he
expresses historically defined emotion, will, resistance and hope on behalf
both of the dispossessed and himself. In "May's Lessons" he affirms that
"in the month of May, I learned the joys of revenge, / I learned the joy of
stabbing as stabbed, of trampling as trampled, / then the month of May
showed me the way to go" (179).

Unlike mere prosaic political protest disguised in poetic vocabulary,
however, Shin's poems evince considerable aesthetic appeal as well.  In
order to offer powerful social observations and commentary without reducing
experience to shrill propaganda, Shin actively appropriates indigenous
vocabulary, colloquialisms, folk rhythm and image to best reflect the
sentiments of the people. For instance, a series of poems about "Kut," a
popular shaman ritual in Korea, best exemplifies Shin's tour de force in
this volume. In "Ssitkim Kut," "The Voice," "Yollim Kut Song," and "For a
Hojaebi Kut," Shin succeeds in finding the appropriate indigenous poetic
form to poetically capture the spirit of the people in the chanting of the
shaman who vocalizes the honest wish of the minjung. A wandering spirit of
the minjung in "Ssitkim Kut" pronounces: "I cannot go with my broken neck
and severed limb, / I cannot quietly close my blood-blinded eyes, / cannot
seize hold, cannot seize with this severed hand, I cannot seize your
blood-covered hands. / I have come back, blood-blinded eyes glaring, I have
returned / with my broken neck, hugging severed limbs; / I grind my teeth
and wish bitter frost may drop from heaven" (151).

These are stupendous poems that not only show the suffering of the minjung
under the military dictatorship but reflect its uncompromising spirit and
its refusal to reconcile with the oppressors.  As such they offer solace to
the spirits of those massacred in the Kwangju Uprising and other tragic

A vivid living voice, planted by Kim Su-Young and nurtured by Shin
Kyong-Nim comes to fruition in the form of Lee Si-yong's new lyricism.  In
the bleakest times of political turmoil and unrest, which culminated in the
military dictatorship and the Kwangju Uprising, lyricism seemed not only
impossible, but even blasphemy.  As in Shin Kyong-Nim's poems, seemingly
ordinary country landscapes turn into historically charged moral backdrops
in Lee Si-Young's poems. In "Chong-im," "A Letter," "About History," and
"Birds," Lee adopts an analysis of natural landscape reminiscent of Raymond
Williams, which suggests the dismantling of the agricultural community and
the subsequent alienation of people from nature.

Lee's more recent and fairly short nature poems collected in this volume,
however, show a change in approach.  While in his earlier work the
consciousness in nature might take purely self-referential forms, here
nature, as observed by the poet, is seen from a holistic perspective quite
rare in modern Korean poetry. Consider particularly "At Dawn" in which he
exclaims that "Why, the insects rose early / and set about coloring one
portion of the universe blue!" (299) or "Perilous Dwelling" in which he
describes how "A few sparrows perch on an insignificant branch, / at which
the tree bends, then rightens the cosmic balance again" (299)

Lee's turn to a holistic view of nature reflects not a desire to escape
from awkward political and personal responsibilities but a renewed
affirmation of the intrinsic wholeness of the natural world. In other
words, his increasing interest in marginal animals, extending to insects
and worms becomes the logical extension of his earlier interests in the
victimization of the powerless, and resonates with the variations on the
theme of love played by Kim Su-Young and Shin Kyong-Nim.

Lee's location of the agency of his own thoughts outside of himself shows
his realization that humans are but one humble part of nature.  In other
words, Lee, both impassioned and scrupulously controlled, neither simply
exploring nor eschewing the self, but uncovering and making known the
relationship of the self to nature, offers a biocentric model of experience
that goes beyond the anthropocentric one.

Precisely by using his eyes, ears and shaping imagination to achieve an
authentic perception of the immediate experience, he, "with big dangling
ears," listens to "the crash of a rock being smashed" ("A New Dawn" 281)
and suggests the interdependence between humans and nature. In other words
he seems to "think like mountains," in the phrase of Aldo Leopold, one of
the forerunners of modern environmental movements. Therefore in "On a Cape"
he confirms that "for that one star to shine like a flower, / the blood of
a host of little stars was shed. / For that one grain of sand to come to
land in enormous silence, a host of other waves lay gasping becalmed"

_Variations_ is a delightful challenge to our understanding of modern
Korean poetry. Indeed, _Variations_, a unique collection of poems by Kim
Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim and Lee Si-Young, takes us on a winding journey
among variations on the themes of love in modern Korean poetry--love of the
ordinary in Kim Su-Young, love of the minjung in Shin Kyong-Nim and love of
nature in its unity in Lee Si-Young. Some will no doubt find the
challenging combination of these three poets very welcoming. Others may
require more scholarly attention for an understanding of the complexity
unveiled here. Nonetheless, by listening carefully to the variations played
by these poets, all may come to hear the different protean modes in which
they compose.

[1] Brother Anthony of TaizŽ. "Words That Span Generations" Korea Times.
(http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/kt_culture/200111/t2001110417395546110.htm )
[2] Kim Young-Moo. "Two Layered Perspectives in Poetry" in _World
Literature_(Seagye-eu-Moonhak) 1982, Spring.
[3] Brother Anthony of TaizŽ. "The Poetry of Shin Kyong-Nim"

Chun, Sehjae 2002
Review of _Variations: Three Korean Poets_ by Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim
and Lee Si-Young, translated by Brother Anthony of TaizŽ and Kim Young-Moo.
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 13
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-13.htm

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