Kim So-wol (김소월) and Yun Dong-ju (윤동주)
What better subject would there be than the best loved poets for the first entry of a blog on Korean poems? So here goes a page on Kim So-wol and Yun Dong-ju , two poets who usually rank as number one and two in most surveys of best loved Korean poets. Korean people encounter their works in school, through various songs in Kim's case, and in books, films, and other media. You could say Koreans' inner sentiments are enriched and cultural horizons are broadened by these poets.
Kim and Yun have both similarities and differences in their background and literary style. Born fifteen years apart in the early 20th century and having lived most of their productive years in Korea under the Japaneses rule, their lives were cut short tragically, Kim by (suspected) suicide and Yun at the hands of the Japanese authorities. The subject matter and poetry style were quite different, other than that they both wrote in simple, easily accessible language. Kim is loved for his earthy, rhythmic verses depicting relationships and deep yearnings of the heart. Yun appeals particularly to young minds that are coming of age, as he wrote his poems from the perspective of a young student, most often on the subject of being true to oneself and not losing sight of the right path in life. In the end, they each left a legacy immeasurable in any terms we are accustomed to.
Kim So-wol's tragic life
Kim was born in Kusong (구성), a rural area in the northwest of Korean peninsula (now part of North Korea), to a family which was reasonably well-to-do until they fell on a hard time hard time later in his life. He went to good schools in the region, where he showed interest in poetry from the early years.
Kim was wedded by his family at age fourteen, to a girl he probably didn't even know very well, in the traditional custom of pre-arranged marriage. It seems, though, his married life wasn't much to speak of in the way of romance and love, considering that he was later attracted to a girl in his school in senior years. Although not much detail is known, he seems to have developed a mental rapport with her as a fledgling young man, being able to relate to her and finding common interests in many subject. As Kim was already married, the girl also married someone else a short while later, but the marriage didn't work out and she died after only a couple of years. This has left a deep scar in Kim's soul, a glimpse of which he revealed in the dirge-like outcry Evocation (초혼).
Kim continued his education in Seoul and later went to Japan to continue his studies. Things didn't go all that well, however, and he was forced to give it up in 1923, because he faced hostile sentiments against Koreans following the Great Kanto Earthquake that shook the area that year. He came back to Seoul and tried his hand on a few things but didn't have much success other than in writing poetry. He then went back to his family hometown but didn't see much success there either. Later accounts by his wife described this period as a dire struggle to survive, right down to worrying about where the next meal will come from. All of this made him drink heavily and this further pushed the downward spiral, until he finally took his own life by overdosing on heroin in 1934.
He was a tender soul, judging from what I can gather, given to poetry and the softer side of life, but not astute or tough enough for the more worldly things like amassing wealth. There doesn't even exist a good photo or portrait painting of this great poet, which is a testament to the hard life he had. And it is such a pity for us the readers of his works.
The earthy language of heart in Kim So-wol's works
Kim So-wol used the traditional meter of seven-five (7·5 조) and its variants throughout his works. 7·5 (meaning seven syllable followed by five), 8·4 and 6·4 are all common patterns which have been in use for several centuries in sijo (시조), the traditional form of poetry as well as vocal music. This meter is innately tied to the phrase structures of Korean, and it thus appears in all sorts of poetry and folk music.
The very commonplaceness, however, probably made it not particularly attractive to many poets in Kim So-wol's time. Given the new Modernist trends that were in full swing at the time grabbing most aspiring poets' attention, Kim So-wol's poetry might have looked rather mundane in comparison at the time, lacking a cutting edge flare. In hindsight, though, it seems it is Kim who really stands out, as the poet who gave new life to the old familiar verse forms by infusing modern sensitivity to it.
Kim used his rhythmic verses as a vehicle to carry the language of heart. His works are about yearning and remembering someone dear to the heart. Needless to say, love is the single most common thing that songs and poems have been written about throughout history. So the very familiarity of the subject matter might have made it harder to create compelling works, simply because it had been done so many time before. Yet Kim So-wol had such an uncanny sense of finding new angles and freshly personal takes on human emotions to create truly heart-tugging gems of poems. Most of his works brim with the kind of yearnings and hankerings all of us ordinary folks might harbor in our hearts one time or another, and that is probably why he is so popular.
Here's Golden Grass (금잔디), for instance, which is a deceptively simple yet very effective work. It showcases his succinct rhythmic style as he sings of nature and the perpetual yearning in his heart - a poignant imagery in which the life-giving springtime is juxtaposed with the grave of a loved one.
|심심 산천에 붙은 불은||A wildfire burning all over the land,|
|가신 임 무덤 가에 금잔디||golden grass by my beloved's grave.|
|봄이 왔네, 봄빛이 왔네,||Spring is here, her verdure is here|
|버드나무 끝에도 실가지에||on willow tops, on drooping branches.|
|봄빛이 왔네, 봄날이 왔네.||Her shine is here, spring day is here|
|심심 산천에도 금잔디에.||on hills and streams, on golden grass.|
Yun Dong-ju - the young man who agonized
Yun Dong-ju was born in 1917, in Yongjeong (용정, or Lingjong in Chinese pronunciation) which is in the Yanbian province of present day China. It was an area which was not in any country's jurisdiction at the time, but Yun was Korean racially, and after his death, his whole family moved back to South Korea.
Raised by a well established family in Yongjeong, he came to Korea and studied at what is now Yonsei University (연세대학교) in Seoul, where he was mentored by Jeong Ji-yong (정지용) , a prominent poet. He was deeply conscious of the unfair situation he found himself in, namely the subjugation of Korea under Japanese rule. His works depict a brooding young man always searching for answers to the injustice perpetrated to himself and his people by Imperial Japan. The best of them, such as Foreword (서시) and A Night of Counting the Stars (별 헤는 밤) are full of such soul searching and resolving to be a good man.
The imagery is of an innocent and idealistic student who wants to take the high road in an unjust world. His constant self-prodding and self-vowing to keep himself on the right path makes a great model for young students to follow, and this is probably what underlies his popularity. It is also what brought a tragic end to this upright young poet, as the Japanese authorities imprisoned him on charges of subversive activities. Not very much is known about what he was involved with, beyond the fact that he was critical of Japan in his work and participated in a clandestine student network working against Japanese imperialism. Even though the charges were not well-proven, the prison life was so brutal that he got progressively weaker and finally died of an unconfirmed brain aneurysm in February of 1944, just six months before Japan's unconditional surrender that brought liberation of Korea. The exact cause of his death remains unknown, but there is a suspicion of poisoning by the Japanese military as part of a biological experiment, especially since he had been such a healthy man no one would have expected to die so young.
The uncompromising, principled way he lived his short life is what his legacy is all about, and it still moves people even seventy-five years after his death.