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After Liberation: Notes on Contemporary Korean Poetry.

Since the 1990s, Korean poetry has embraced a wide range of different voices. While poetry of the 1980s may have appealed to a wide audience by bearing the ethical burden for political interventions in various ways, (1) cultural and political transformations during the past few decades in Korea have, to some extent, freed poetry from its social and political roles. Poetry, rather than finding its place in grand epics or popular lyrics imbued with political issues, has returned to more personal, common, and humble places where individual voices express ordinary experiences in variously experimental forms. As poets become more deeply and freely engaged in exploring the relation between words and reality, between different forms and perception modes, any snapshot of contemporary Korean poetry must be viewed through diverse lenses. Reflecting "poetry after liberation," therefore, requires broadening our understandings of the ideal, virtual, and real "space" of poetry, in its modern and postmodern--as well as national and transnational--contexts.

Still engaged in the quintessential questions of the earlier eras such as the tension between poetry and reality, form and content, political values and poetic idioms, postliberation Korean poetry has opened the poetic space to accommodate more ordinary aspects of Korean society, sometimes touching taboo subjects that had long been silenced. While the big names of Korean poetry like Yi Sang, Kim Soo-young, Ko Un, Hwang Ji-woo, Hwang Dong-yu, and Lee Seongbok still occupied large spaces in bookstores and remained beloved by many readers, new voices arose from younger poets who enjoyed greater political freedom and attended college in the 1990s. Among the younger generation, two poets--Moon Tae-jun and Shim Bo-seon--are exceptional in constructing the space of new lyricism, breathing the current spirit of the times. Reading the poems of this generation is at once to revisit the Korean poetic tradition and to see how poetry responds to changed cultural codes and constructs its space.

Moon Tae-jun's deceptively simple poetic language shows how the frail, vulnerable lives in this world keep on struggling, surviving, and being sublimated as valuable beings. Born in 1970 in the rural area of Gimcheon, he made his literary debut in 1994. Since then, he has become one of the most popular lyric poets of the young generation with the publication of Bare Foot (2004), Flatfish (2006), and Shadow's Development (2008). As we see in his poem "Bare Foot," the landscape is simple and the poetic voice low, focused on trivial beings in the world. His sensitive eyes seize the slow movements of the bare foot of "a butter clam at a fish store," which endures all the sufferings of being alive. Here the poet is not just lingering on the bare foot of a clam. When the slow steps are sublimated into an act of almsgiving, the calm landscape connects all living beings in this world, including birds and human beings, and completes a touching circle of sympathy.

Shim Bo-seon's "Rubber Soul," which borrows the Beatles' album title, shows his sensitivity toward a young generation who are inhaling the air of winter morning, not of a bright summer day. His vitality and popularity come from evoking the barren mindscape of a young generation, with no exit in this life, shadowed "like an overcoat once worn and abandoned." The poem itself becomes the portrait of contemporary youth, their memoirs like "crushed beer cans." What remains in the place where lovers of men had departed? Perhaps a melody by the Beatles, an everlasting symbol of youth.

In "Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow," Shim Bo-seon's poetic space is the quotidian cityscape. Though not shouting loud rebukes against today's world, he sharply discerns the logic that makes us move and makes the current capitalistic system run. His poetic world captures how our everydayness is formed by that logic and at the same time forms us. The world we live in "perished long ago" in terms of "disgrace." The interconnected images of paths, silence, and shadows seem to echo the poetic world of Moon, but unlike Moon, Shim seems to question how to respond to the sorrows of this world. In that sense, his poetry constructs the language of encountering, enduring, and then of healing. As a reader, I wonder what his next step will be in these endless paths of poetry, and I believe it will not be "a disappearing path" in the end.

Besides these young poets, such poetry groups as the "New Wave Movement" and "Futurism" have also made the recent field of Korean poetry abundant. The poets associated with Futurism, however, remain largely cut off from most readers; having not built a bridge between experimentation and lyricism they have been criticized for "experimentation for its own sake." (2) Yet these two poets, though not labeled as a movement in contemporary Korean poetry, are said to have constructed a new lyricism for our age, awakening people's languid sensitivity to reality, carving each moment of awakening in the body of language, and guiding us toward a poetic escape from the banality of the everyday.

In spite of its long-held vitality and popularity, Korean poetry on the whole has continued to occupy a relatively marginalized space in the publishing market when compared to more popular forms of literature like novels. (3) But some critics say that now is in fact the time for poetry: the poetic spectrum has been widened, and poets do not need to take on the burden of the era as poets in the past did. But I would say that, in fact, a poet can never be liberated from his or her own era and cultural codes. That is why discourses on poetry and politics stir up much attention in the field of criticism, even in this post-liberation era, and why the very meaning of "liberation" is worth questioning. Whether it is political freedom or linguistic experimentation, liberation of the poetry genre cannot escape from a looming anxiety. Furthermore, in a society where democracy is still very unstable and restless and freedom of speech is still very suspicious, it is an urgent task for poets to go on wrestling with the notion of "liberation," maintaining tension between reality and language without succumbing to the temptation to shout political propaganda or falling into aesthetic autism.

Since peaking in the 1980s, the traditional poetry book market in Korea has been described as gradually shrinking. But Changbi and Moonji, the two most representative poetry book publishers, have succeeded in publishing poetry books and appealing to readers. In April 2009 Changbi commemorated its 300th poetry book publication with the compilation A Star Shines at Every Step (2009), and Moonji published its 367th poetry book in 2009. Moreover, new spaces opening up on the Internet are providing free, convenient access to poetry and have begun to form their own independent cultural power. For example, a famous Internet portal called "daum" provided a space for love poems by various poets by November 2008 to May 2009, and the result was published in a book titled Poetry, Fell in Love (2009). And various cultural webzines including "nabeeya" have tried to whet the common reader's sensitivity and construct an alternative space for communication through literature. This phenomenon, on the one hand, reflects the changing condition of writing and publication and, on the other hand, could be cited to show how future generations may come to enjoy and partake in poetic thinking, writing, and production beyond the printed page. Thus, new forms of poetic vitality are being born right here, inside Korea, in the midst of poetry's seeming marginality.
Bare Foot
 Moon Tae-jun
A butter clam at a fish store is showing its bare foot protruding
 from a mud hut-like body. The bare foot juts out like the dead
Buddha momentarily showing his
 foot outside the coffin for his weeping disciple. Blistered from
being underwater with a pearl for too long, when I touch that bare foot
as if giving condolence, the butter
 clam slowly gathers it in as if that were its first deliberation,
 longest deliberation. It is likely time and paths also flowed at
that speed, went to meet someone and then parted, and slowly returned
 that. It was likely always barefoot. As a bird endures the night
with its beak buried in its breast
 after losing love, it would have endured sorrow with its
 bare foot buried in its own breasts. When the house cried
"ah--" it would have come out to the streets with its
blistered foot to
 ask for alms. After wandering the streets barefoot all day, the mud
hut-like dwelling reeked with the smell of poverty upon
 their return, and those that cried "ah--" would have
tilled their stomachs, and crying would also have ceased in that
Rubber Soul
 Shim Bo-seon
Bobbing its head the sun has come to this place. Men dust off the long
hairs of lovers and step out the door. Rubbing sunshine all over their
bodies like glue, they go to some place they could--
cling to. It's a winter morning. Their shadows are like an overcoat
worn once and abandoned.
When they walk, one side of their heart makes a crushing sound. On their
lips the last festival's froth still remains. The lovers' kiss
is sweet even now because of it. Their memories are like crushed beer
In the place they left, numerous strands of hair clump together and
tumble in the wind. The screen window of the lovers' room is
"brrr" shivering. It's a winter morning.
The lovers of the men who left are at the lowest register, changing
their underwear.
Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow
 Shim Bo-seon
Above a distant high-rise apartment the sun is tearing at its heart, not
knowing what to do beside the daytime moon. The world linked with
disgrace perished long ago. Sometimes about fifteen seconds pass without
sorrow. Giving all possible excuses, the paths are bending everywhere.
Silence gathers on a sidewalk darkened with shadows; there I wish to
grow old quietly, counting seconds. Rain drizzles on all beings that
grow old. All rain-dripping old beings dream of love as if putting on a
new roof. Everyone knows: this happened because it could only happen
this way. In the afternoon the sun is squeezing out rays with all its
might; the past, taking backward steps, goes over the apartment railing
and falls. The future soon follows from behind. The present is merely
the days of flowers. These days are sad because they are a time of
blooming and fading. A cat is happily nibbling flower petals. A woman is
sipping chamomile tea. They seem quiet and peaceful. I stand aimlessly
in the middle of the street. A man is crying while passing by on a
bicycle. He is destined to fall in the end. Dizziness blossoms in the
dream garden of our mind. Now about fifteen seconds have passed without
sorrow. I should move my feet and go somewhere, but no matter where, the
end is a disappearing path. 

Translations from the Korean

By Peter Lee

For a biographical profile of Eun-Gwi Chung, see page 42.

Mun Tae-jun (b. 1970) is well known for deceptively simple, still poems dealing with nature, childhood, and frail lives on the boundary between life and death. Since his literary debut, he has published three major volumes of poetry, including Flatfish (2006).

Shim Bo-seon (b. 1970) studied sociology at Seoul National University and received his PhD from Columbia University. In his first poetry collection, Fifteen Seconds without Sorrow, he challenges readers to encounter the "inevitableness" of beings in this capitalistic system. He is currently a professor of culture and art management at Kyung Hee Cyber University.

Peter Lee was born in Korea but grew up in Toronto. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he won the 2008 Korea Times Literature Translation Contest Commendation Prize for Poetry. He is Director of the A4 Translation Center at Korea University and also translates poetry for the Korea Literature Translation Institute. He currently lives in Seoul with his wife and daughter.

Inha University

(1) On 1980s Korean poetry, see Kim Young-Moo's article "Pablo Neruda and Today's Korean Poetry," in Korean Literature: Its Classical Heritage and Modern Breakthroughs, ed. Korean National Commission for UNESCO (Hollym, 2003), 403-20.

(2) At a keynote speech at the International Conference for Urban Humanities recently held in Incheon, Korea, Choi Won-shik, a prominent critic of Korean literature, said that literature in Korea has become much more alienated from readers and, as a result, current Korean literature seems to "take after the Tower of Babel of the new humans or the code system of aliens." His shrewd comment is provoking interesting debates on contemporary Korean literature rather than serving as a pessimistic diagnosis of it.

(3) The marginality of poetry is not an exclusively Korean condition, and in a sense, it is the basic condition poetry encounters against current high-capitalized cultural values. Charles Bernstein once told me in an email that "poetry is beleaguered everywhere" and that "this is both its charm and its bane."
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION
Author:Eun-Gwi Chung
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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