Rebounding from torture, poet found beauty in life

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Rebounding from torture, poet found beauty in life

Not just anyone can make a living writing poems. Cheon Sang-byeong (1930-1993) was one of the few with this unusual but irresistible destiny. A memorial event for the poet takes place today, organized by the poet's widow and his friends in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, where he is buried.

Fate found Mr. Cheon early in 1949 when Kim Chun-su, a notable lyric poet and Mr. Cheon's Korean teacher, discovered a talented 18-year-old. Recommended by Mr. Kim, the young Mr. Cheon successfully made his mark on the poetry world, with his maiden work "River," which was published in an esteemed literary periodical. By 1952, Mr. Cheon was only his early 20s but already on a par with other established poets. Despite his promising literary beginnings, he entered Seoul National University as an economics major.

Everything looked like it was going smoothly until the National Intelligence Agency targeted him in 1967. A friend of his from college was charged with spying on behalf of North Korea, and he had Mr. Cheon's name written in his notebook.

The intelligence agency tortured Mr. Cheon, but later decided that he had nothing to do with North Korea and released him. But by this point, Mr. Cheon was already ruined, left unable to have children.

He turned to alcohol and in 1971 he disappeared. His family and friends decided that he was dead and even published a posthumous anthology, "Bird," but soon after he was found in a mental hospital. He was suffering from serious autistic-like symptoms, but those lessened after a woman named Mok Sun-ok began visiting him. The following year, they married.

Soon after his wedding, he grew interested in writing lyrical poems, using a terse but suggestive style, deeply influenced by his wife and nature. In one of his most famous poems, "Gwicheon" (Going Back to Heaven), he described his life to be a "picnic in this beautiful world." He later gave that same name to a small teahouse that his wife still runs in a hidden corner of Insa-dong, central Seoul.

At age 60, he said, "There is nothing in this world that I don't like." He died of liver failure a few years later.

For more information on the event, call (02) 794-0632.

by Chun Su-jin

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