After a Lifetime of Epic Struggle, Poet Confronts His Personal Pain

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After a Lifetime of Epic Struggle, Poet Confronts His Personal Pain

It has been a month since Suh Jhung-joo, the 85-year-old Korean master poet, lost his wife, Bang Ok-sook.

While she was alive, the couple could occasionally be seen drinking beer or exercising in their backyard at Seoul's Nam-hyun-dong Artist's Village. Mr. Suh told close friends that he and his wife would go on a world tour to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. That was then.

Now a grieving Mr. Suh eats little and is under a doctor's care, according to Yun Jae-woong, a pupil and literary critic, who is looking after him.

Mr. Suh was too weak to attend his wife's funeral. He lay in bed, checking with Mr. Yun every half-hour on the progress of his wife's hearse.

When Mr. Yun told him the hearse had reached Gochang, where her funeral was to be held, Mr. Suh said bitterly, "That poor thing is being buried. I've done some bad things to her. I messed with so many women in my heyday." Mr. Suh once made a similar confession in his poem "My Wife."

Despite his distress, Mr. Suh still holds strong views about poetry. In a recent interview he said, "Poets should not repeat the same thing over and over. You should always venture into the new world. Keep wandering around. That's the sprit of a poet.

"Leave from where you are and search for the absolute self. Life is full of pleasure and disappointments, only because it's imperfect. That's the kind of poet I would like to be re-membered as - the wanderer, like water or wind."

In the same interview, he also said,"There is no such thing as the 'last poem' to the poets. I may not publish them, but my heart writes new poems everyday. That's why the poets never die. Their poems are constantly being rewritten in the reader's heart, even after they are dead."

Ironically, the writer of poems that speak of "home" and "longing" plans to leave Korea to live with his son and grandchildren in North Carolina in the eastern United States.

"There are great forests in North Carolina, where the owls cry at night," he said. "It's a paradise on earth. Of course, I don't want to leave this place, either. I've lived here for so long. But it seems only natural to live with my son's family, now that my wife has gone," Mr. Suh said.

His many admirers in Korean literary circles say they will deeply miss the legendary poet. "It's hard to imagine the world of Korean poetry without him," said Lee Nam-ho, a professor of literature at Korea University.

Also known by his pen name "Midang," Suh Jhung-joo is a living history of Korean poetry. His poems have been translated into English, French, Spanish and German, and they are used in high school textbooks throughout Korea.

Some of his masterpieces, such as "Azure Day" and "The Journey Home," use fierce lyrics and vivid metaphors to grapple with human emotions such as longing and solitude.

Mr. Suh said once told the English literary critic Anthony Taize that the philosophers Nietzsche and Baudelaire had greatly influenced him, and their revolutionary spirit is also present in Mr. Suh's poems.

Born in Gochang county, Cholla province, in 1915, in the 1930s Mr. Suh attended Seoul Central Middle-High School, where he was involved in a socialist movement.

In 1936, he won the prestigious Shin-chun Literary Award with his poem "The Wall," and his fame spread. During the Japanese colonial period, Mr. Suh's poems dealt ironically with the notions of paradise and eternity.

Reflecting his inner struggle against colonial oppression, the poems still remain the hallmark of his style.

In later years, he taught at Dongguk University and inspired some of the established writers and critics currently working in Korea. In 1994, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature.

"Stay at Home" by Suh Jhung-joo

Little girl, little girl,

Stay at home.

Stay at home

Where the dandelions bloom.

Picking ribwort,

Plaiting sandals,

Gazing at faraway mountains

Pale beyond yellow bamboo grooves,

No matter how sad, how sad,

Stay at home.

by lee kyeung-chul

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