Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1988, Friday 


“Irish of Asia”
South Koreans Just Love to Wax Lyrical

A fire broke out in the spring hills,
igniting all the unbloomed buds;
Still there was water enough to extinguish it;
But where can I get water to put out
the fire within me?
-- Kim Duk Ryung (1567-1596)

By KARL SCHOENBERGER, Times Staff Writer                               

SEOUL -- A radio talk show host took to the streets one cold November evening and zeroed in on a topic that seemingly was on the minds of all South Koreans: "Fifth Republic corruption," a catch phrase referring to the wrongdoings of former President Chun Doo Hwan.

But the announcer did not ask the people their opinions -- instead, he challenged pedestrians to compose a poem about it, on the spot.

And not just any poem. It had to have four lines, and the first word of each line had to begin with one of the syllables from the vernacular for Fifth Republic corruption -- O-Kong-Pi-Ri -- in that order.
Almost All Pass Test

These were no ordinary pedestrians, either. They were Koreans, for whom poetry can be a test of competency. Only one person choked among the first half dozen or so who passed by. A young woman achieved instant critical acclaim with a bit of doggerel comparing Chun's balding pate to a moon shining over the neighborhood where he lives.

The people of South Korea might best be remembered in the outside world for recent violent news events -- students pelting riot police with rocks and kerosene bombs, or spectators lobbing chairs at an Olympic boxing referee.

But a sensitive, lyrical dimension also lurks within the fiery pathos of the so-called "Irish of Asia." The proof is in the poetry, which in this country is a thriving mass medium.
Poems Found Everywhere

It's not all for laughs, as was the radio talk show, aired on the state-owned Korean Broadcasting System. Serious poems are printed on chewing gum wrappers, scrawled on graffiti-covered walls, mounted in frames in the subway, published in newspapers and recited with much aspiration in coffee shops and theaters. Anyone needing a quick poetry fix can call a dial-a-poem telephone number.

Poets are heroes. They may not get rich at it, but the vocation does not carry any of the stigma of eccentricity it might in the West. Korean history is populated by scholar-statesmen for whom proficiency in Chinese verse was a decisive subject in civil service examinations. Today, nearly everyone will confess to having written a poem at one time, usually in student days, to express private feelings.

"There's no sissiness attached to poetry here," said Father Kevin O'Rourke, a real Irishman who teaches literature at Seoul's Kyunghee University and translates Korean poetry on the side. "There's nothing flaky about it either."

Indeed, a macho, proletarian genre called minjung poetry was on the cutting edge of the long struggle against authoritarian rule in South Korea.

Kim Chi Ha, one of the country's greatest living literati, was sentenced to death for subversion in 1974 because he wrote "Five Bandits," a poem criticizing government malefaction under dictator Park Chung Hee.

Kim's sentence was commuted, and he was later freed under international pressure; Park, who is known to have written love poems to his wife, was assassinated by his own intelligence chief.

Celebrated dissident Moon Ik Hwan is also a poet. And celebrated poet Yang Sung Woo is also a dissident -- or he was, until his election to the National Assembly in April helped him metamorphose into an oppositionist.

Yang, 44, a former high school teacher who spent time in prison because of his seditious muse, could be described as one of the major copywriters of the radical protest movement that forced recent democratic reforms. His verses were set to music for protest songs and used as slogans on banners and signs. But Yang said he didn't start out with politics in mind.
'Very Romantic'

"Koreans are very romantic, and I wanted to become a poet in that tradition," said Yang, whose poem "Birds" won a first prize at a local "outdoor poetry contest" when he was 10. His father was a farmer-poet in Chollanam province.

"But I quickly realized I had to do something to awaken the people," Yang said. "Poetry is a weapon. You can see the changes in their eyes when you read -- the message goes right to the heart."

An impromptu translation of part of Yang's underground classic, "Slaves Notebook" -- the one that landed him in jail in 1977 after its publication in Japan -- goes like this:

Curse, curse, you mountains,
rivers, trees and grass!
Cry, beating your breast;
Because you will be able to live billions of years;
To curse the offspring of the offspring of those who bear swords. . . .

The poem ventilates a cardinal force in the emotional landscape of the nation -- han, something akin to martyred, unresolved bitterness. South Koreans are the first to admit that they love a good grudge, whether it be against an unscrupulous business associate or an abusive military dictatorship.

But times are changing. The angry poetry of Yang and the whole stable of dissident bards has been taken off the banned list under the administration of President Roh Tae Woo, who also appointed a conservative poet as his first minister of culture and information. (Roh sacked the poet in a recent Cabinet shake-up, however.)

Even the work of the late Chong Ji Young, among several poets the Communists allegedly kidnaped and took to North Korea as a strategic resource during the Korean War, is now free from censorship in the south. Kim Chi Ha survived to become a social recluse, but his poetry enjoys brisk sales and high praise from critics as pure literature.
A Very Successful Poet

For a measure of how popular a poet can become in this society, consider the sudden success of So Chang Yan, 31, who sold 1.3 million volumes of poetry in little over a year. Readers apparently respond to the brooding melancholy reflected in his poem "Standing Alone," also the title of his debut collection.

Waiting need not be for meeting;
If my heart hurts, let it ache;
If the wind blows, let it carry away
my faint smile, as I hold my head high. . . .

Uncomfortable with the fact that one in every 33 South Koreans owns his book, So spends his days fishing and meditating in provincial Taegu.

"I'm aware of criticism among literary circles. . . . I've never thought of my poetry as the best," So said in a telephone interview. "I can only say I must have reached a vast feeling of commonality among people."

Scholars say Korea's traditional three-line shijo and some of its modern poetry ranks among the finest in the world, although it is little known outside the peninsula.

But literary merit aside, Korean poetry is remarkable just for the way it permeates popular culture.

Weirdly philosophical stanzas show up on university walls, amid slogans espousing such causes as executing Chun, the disgraced autocrat. At Yonsei University, a caldron of radical protest, someone scrawled the following poem, entitled "Time," on a wall:

Once I understood the words of flowers;
I offered condolences to flowers;
I fired tear gas at cockroaches whoresisted;
I was moved by the endless advance of the ants;

I sympathized with falling snowflakes;
Once I understood the words of flowers;
Why have I forgotten?

The colored foil wrappers inside each pack of Etranger chewing gum have a selection of poems on them. The works of anonymous and amateur Korean poets are sandwiched between translations of immortals like Wordsworth, Tagore and Apollinaire.

In March, a group of poetry lovers in Seoul called the "Ground to Share Warm Feelings" started what they said was Asia's first dial-a-poem service. Their aim is to "realize a society in which we can hear a poem a day, anywhere, any time." The service gets 10,000 calls on a peak day.

Of course, reading poetry is an art form in its own right, pursued with deadly seriousness by numerous poetry appreciation societies. One such group met at a tiny theater on a recent Saturday afternoon and explored the theme "homesickness" by reciting the work of several contemporary poets with the aid of colored lights and a sound track of violin music.

Behind the fascination with poetry is a veneration for learning that runs deep in Korea's traditional Confucian culture. There is also a preoccupation with the Korean language, which has symbolized nationalistic pride ever since Japanese colonizers tried to abolish it.
Poetry of Anger

Indeed, it was under 35 years of Japanese occupation that the poetry of anger was born. And when an entire generation of Koreans was denied formal study of their own literature, poetry served as an underground currency of resistance.

Sung Rae Woon, a distinguished literature professor at Yonsei University, recalled how he clandestinely visited bookstores in his youth to read poetry, availing himself of the only Korean-language books on the shelves. To avoid detection by Japanese thought police, he would start a book in one store, reading a few pages before moving to another store to continue where he left off.

"Korea has not had a very happy history," said Peter Hyun, a writer and translator. "There have been more downs than ups, and anger in many instances has replaced the melancholy meditation and the traditional songs of sorrow and disillusionment."
Not All Downbeat

But some of the best contemporary Korean poetry has a decidedly upbeat tone, as in the piece "Wings of Morning" by Park Tu Jin, which seems to anticipate a brighter new era of democracy:

The waters rise up and become the wind;
Dazzling weave of unsullied unlight;
Dream and freedom of imperishability;
Promise of ecstatic morning, fluttering;
On the banner of passionate love and victory;
The seas rise up and become the wind;
And you, weave of that dazzling light;
Ideology and grace;
Thought's wings of morning;
Reaching to the limitless sky;
God to come;
Fire-bird of fire;
Filling my heart;
My arms.