Re-Examining the Poet - Park In-hwan

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Re-Examining the Poet - Park In-hwan

"We drink as we speak
Of Virginia Woolf, and
A skirt fluttering
Away on a wooden horse."

The opening verse to the poem "A Wooden Horse and A Lady," in vogue during the 1950s, is well-known. However, the poet who penned these words, Park In-hwan (1926-1956), is not well-known and has been largely ignored by literary critics and the general public. When his work did receive attention, it was often criticized as a 'reproduction' of Western Modernism producing 'meaningless sentimentalism'. High praise, indeed.

On June 3, the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, Col.Kim Jong-yoon, professor of Korean Literature at the Military Academy, presenting his latest paper on the long-neglected poet. In an attempt to place him within the Korean literary canon, Prof.Kim stated that Park's poems epitomize the sorrow and anguish of Korean society during the War, and "it is precisely for this reason that his work must be re-examined."

Prof.Kim continued that "a close-reading of Park's poems reveals a style and manner that changes drastically before and after the Korean War." He explained that although Park's language continued to echo images of Western poetic traditions as well as a certain infatuation with the urbane, this pre-war 'optimism' cannot be seen in his post-war period work.

The following is an excerpt from his work "Train:"

"My eyes burn against the greenest of plains
For therein lies our land of ecstatic eternity
The bright light of pain and labor shines
Against nightfall arriving with the train
Brighter than a comet
Out shining the dawning of a new day."

This work, like most of Park's poems written before the war, portrays a re-curring theme of hope; however, this becomes a rarity in his post-war work, a period in which Park was a war correspondent.

Prof.Kim said that "amid the ruins of war, it is only human to fall into fear and anxiety. In its delineation of desperation and futility, Park's poetry renders an honest portrayal of the Korean War." In this sense, Park's work cannot be simply described as 'low sentimentalism' nor 'copycat Modernism', but must be noted for its historically significant illustration of national spirit at that time. Prof.Kim underlines what he refers to as images of "escape" and an amorphous style as the most arresting features of Park's post-war body of work.

Images of the 'void' are also re-current themese in Park's post-war period pointing to additional themes of escape, of death. In the case of "A Wooden Horse and A Lady", the reference to Virginia Woolf point to themes of death that would later dominates Park's work. Verses such as "the wooden horse leaves its owner and rings its own bells," "it runs away into the arms of autumn and stars fall from bottles above," and "the lonely star breaks softly against my heart, literature dies and so life dies," evoke images not only of death and separation, but also of emptiness. Although the subject of the poem is ambiguous, the image of escape always remains a constant throughout his post-war work.

Prof.Kim stated that Park cannot be underestimated, explaining that "people must realize that his poems do not stem from mere sentimentality. War leaves an indelible mark and is traumatic for an individual as sensitive as a poet. Park In-hwan is the embodiment of his time, and in this sense, cannot be separated from the Korean War. We must look at the War and the poet as one and the same, both of great significance."

by Oh Byung-sang

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