‘We all wish to become something’In an interview with a local newspaper two years ago, the poet Kim Chun-su said, “I cannot believe that I’m over 80 now, but I still don’t know what life is about, what poetry is about.”
Readers, however, seemed to understand what the poetry of Mr. Kim, who died Monday at 82, was about. At any rate, it spoke to them ―to critics and average Koreans alike.
A poll of 246 Korean poets last fall found their favorite poem to be Mr. Kim’s “Kkot” (Flower). (A TV network’s survey of Korean celebrities seconded that opinion.) Widely taught in Korean high school literature classes, where students are often required to memorize it, “Flower” ―which ends with the lines, “We all wish to become something. You to me and I to you wish to become an unforgettable vision” ―has become Korea’s favorite love poem.
But the poet himself did not like that interpretation. He said “Flower” was a philosophical poem, pondering the fact that every human being is solitary, and therefore has to seek intimacy.
“Kim Chun-su was the first poet who embodied modernism in Korean style. With him, modernism became truly Korean,” said translator and longtime friend Kim Jong-gil, a professor emeritus of English literature at Korea University, after the poet’s funeral Wednesday.
Professor Kim said he views Kim Chun-su as an embodiment of the philosopher Heidegger’s saying, “Language is a house of being.” Such an analysis may mean little to the general public, who made Mr. Kim that rarity, a poet beloved by both the people and the critics. (His fame was such that a chain of Korean cafes, “Chagall’s Village Where Snow Falls,” took its name from one of his poems.)
Born in 1922 to a wealthy family in the seaside town of Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province, Kim Chun-su was something of a character as a teenager. A few months before his scheduled graduation from his prestigious high school (now Gyeonggi High School), he dropped out, simply because he didn’t like his Japanese teacher.
He went to Tokyo, where he enrolled at Nihon University, majoring in creative writing. Again, however, he failed to finish school ―this time because he was overheard criticizing the emperor and Japan’s rule over Korea. He was jailed for seven months, in Yokohama and in Tokyo, and was expelled from school. On returning to Korea, he went into hiding until Korea’s liberation in 1945.
He began teaching at high schools in his hometown, while starting a cultural group called the Tongyeong Culture Association along with the musician Yoon I-sang and the poet Yu Chi-hwan. He went on to teach literature at Yeungnam University and Kyungpook University. It’s said that his classes were so popular that the professor who taught the next class usually had to wait outside while Mr. Kim’s students lingered.
While earning his living as a teacher, he debuted as a poet in 1948, publishing at his own expense a book of poems titled “The Cloud and the Rose.” His early poetry, according to Professor Kim, was strongly influenced by the modernist German poet Rainer Maria Rilke; “Flower” was written during this period (and during the Korean War), in 1951. He was a prolific poet, earning a number of prizes, including the Asian Free Literature Award (in 1959). He was named to the Korean Academy of Arts.
During the 1960s, when Korea was under the Park Chung Hee military regime, Mr. Kim’s poetry began to change. Pursuing what critics have since dubbed “the poetry of no meaning,” Mr. Kim began to write poems with no apparent logic ―poems that were simply a series of free associations or momentary fantasies. They “combined rhythms of Korean folk ballads with a technique of word play,” Professor Kim says.
This purist approach, with its deliberate disengagement from the larger world, made for a stark contrast with other poets of the time, like Kim Su-yeong, whose poems were vehicles for critcism and political resistance.
“Kim Chun-su used to publicly tell people that he never believed in ideas, let alone ideologies,” said Professor Kim. The poet once said he lost his faith in ideology during his imprisonment in Japan, when a leftist professor refused to share his bread with the other inmates.
Professor Kim calls the poet an “eternal experimentalist,” citing the “poetry of no meaning” as well as a sequence of poems titled “Fragments of Cheoyong,” which Mr. Kim began writing in the 1960s, and which were published in full in the 1990s. The sequence is based on the Korean legend of Cheoyong, son of the Dragon King of the East Sea, whose human wife is seduced by an incarnated evil spirit. Professor Kim considers the sequence “obliquely autobiographical,” with Cheoyong representing the poet himself, victimized by history, which Mr. Kim saw as an evil, malignant will.
“This pessimism brought the poet to realize that despair can breed a technique, which later became the avant-garde ‘poetry of no meaning,’” Professor Kim said.
The poet, however, could not completely isolate himself from history and reality. In 1981, he accepted an offer from the Chun Doo Hwan military regime to join the National Assembly as a member of the ruling Minju Jeongui (Democracy and Justice) Party. This was widely viewed as a bid for respectability on the part of the regime; it became a major stain on the poet’s career. Professor Kim defends him, however: “He was too naive a person to reject the offer when a high-ranking member of the regime, once his student, asked him to take the post.” He spent four years in the assembly.
During the late 1980s, after the government lifted travel restrictions on Korean citizens, Mr. Kim traveled in Europe, as vividly reflected in poems like “Scenes on the Acropolis,” “The Island of Majorca” and “Observations in Toledo.” Mr. Kim used to say that his work was influenced by European painters, including Goya, Miro and Chagall; he once said that he learned some of his methodology from Paul Cezanne and Jackson Pollock. His later poetry tended to blend realism and anti-realism, as in his 1993 anthology, “The Woods That Sleep Standing.”
“He would never stop his pursuit of new things and ideas,” said Professor Kim.
English translations of Kim Chun-su’s poems by Professor Kim were published by Cornell University Press in 1998, in a volume titled “The Snow Falling on Chagall’s Village.” A volume of Spanish translations, “Poseido por Dostoievski,” was published in 2001.
In his lifetime, Mr. Kim published 25 books of poems; a posthumous volume, “Dalgaebikkot” (The Bridal Veil), will be published later this month.
Kim Chun-su had been in a coma since suffering respiratory failure in August. His last poem may have been “To S,” which he faxed to a literary journal in June; it was about his longing for his late wife. He was buried beside her Wednesday in Bundang, Gyeonggi province. They are survived by three sons and two daughters, none of whom have pursued a literary career.
Professor Kim said his friend, who lived his life at his own pace, is sorely missed. “I still picture his shy smile and his thick glasses,” he said after the funeral. “But now a chapter in the book of Korean poetry has closed.”
1922 Born in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang province
1942 Jailed in Japan (and expelled from college) for criticizing the emperor
1948 Published his first book of poems, “The Cloud and the Rose”
1951 Published his most famous poem, “Flower”
1960 Became a professor at Kyungpook University
1981 Became a National Assembly member
2004 “Complete Anthology of Kim Chun-su” was published; died Nov. 29
Until I spoke his name,
he had been
no more than a mere gesture.
When I spoke his name,
he came to me
and became a flower.
Now speak my name,
one fitting this color and odor of mine,
as I spoke his name,
so that I may go to him
and become his flower.
We all wish
to become something.
You to me and I to you
wish to become an unforgettable vision.
Death will be going.
Somewhere out there
past the green fountain,
a golden tree sprinkling light...
Death will be going.
At quiet midnight,
you will hear the pious footsteps
of Death going
Death will be coming back,
coming back again.
One autumn day,
along the leafless avenue where you are walking,
the vivid, decent, anonymous
face of Death coming back...
Death will wave
his unfamiliar hand toward you.
breathe and grow
within you again.
On a Day, I...
My pocket is empty. It is because my last penny has slipped out of it with a tinkle. Nothing to be sorry about. The world is neither heavy nor light. Not is not more than not. It will do only to repeat fainting and waking. It will do, as it were, for a Chinese quince to be a Chinese quince and for me to be generous, generously empty, dark but infinitely luminous - how shall I say - yes, an old nihilist.
by Chun Su-jin