The key to poetic popularity? Spam

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The key to poetic popularity? Spam

The idea started out as a friendly gesture by a former presidential speech advisor, who e-mailed poems with a “Thought for the day” message to his friends and acquaintances every morning.
Five years later, the “Morning Letters of Go Do-won” are some of the most widely read unsolicited e-mail messages in Korea. According to Lee Ha-lim, a marketing chief at Morning Letter Culture Foundation, an average 1.65 million Koreans read Mr. Go’s letters every morning. The figure is based on the number of people who actually open the e-mail, not the number of letters that were sent, she said.
The foundation is a publishing company that arose alongside the popularity of Mr. Go’s letters. The company’s domain controller receives up to 1,000 inquiries a day, most of it feedback and requests from readers to deliver the poems to their personal e-mail addresses while they are away from the office on business trips or vacations.
As odd as it might be for spam mail to be so popular, the daily poems are in so much demand, the company recently started a service for cellular phones. For 3,000 won ($3) a month, the service wakes you up every morning with a daily poem, be it a Shakespeare sonnet or an aphorism by a Buddhist monk.
Last year, Mr. Go was on the verge of giving up on the domain, mainly citing its cost. Up to 14,000 readers, calling themselves “dream supporters,” mobilized to help to pay for the server fees.
Owing to their popularity, the letters were published on the front page of a local newspaper from 2003 to 2005, and later compiled into a book.
“We call it a ‘healthy virus,’” Ms. Lee said of the foundation. “Some people might consider it spam, but for most readers, it’s like a vitamin they take every morning. It’s something that couldn’t have started if it hadn’t been for the Internet. We’ve created a trend for using the Internet in a different way than it hass been used commercially in the past.”
There seems to be something irrestible about the combination of sentimental poems with digital media, especially in Korea, where nostalgia and poetic sentimentality are common forms of communication. Online, “personalized” language is quickly becoming an artful tool for self-promotion, adopted by companies, celebrities or celeb-wannabes.
An educational site run by the economist Jo Young-tak sends similar weekly e-mail messages to subscribers, including poems and stories by various authors. In a recent edition that focused on ways to cope with clients’ complaints, Mr. Jo quoted an essay by a local hospital director in which he compared the clients’ complaints to the physical symptoms of cancer. “In a way, it’s a thankful present, because often their complaints are like certain symptoms in our body,” the letter said. “Complaints help companies diagnose themselves.”
Kang Geum-sil, the Uri Party candidate for Seoul mayor, has been sending regular messages, titled “A Letter of Hope,” to her aides, writing about her campaign pledges and including stories about her visits to working-class neighborhoods in Seoul in a consistently moving, soft tone.
Every Thursday, Kyobo Bookstore sends its newsletter, titled “Weekend Letters,” to the members of its book club. The letters are given poetic titles, such as “A Ball is Round for Everyone,” the title of a May special edition newsletter about books on soccer.
The literary scene has been rushing to catch up with the trend.
The Arts Council Korea recently started a service in which it sends a poem selected by Do Jong-hwan, a popular writer of sentimental poetry, every Monday morning to members of major literary clubs and culture reporters at vernacular newspapers.
The e-mail message comes complete with flash animation that features elaborate illustrations matching the content of the text. As the text scrolls up the screen, viewers hear the sound of the poet reading his poem to background music.
Most of the poems deal with general subjects, such as family or growing pains.
The poem for the first week of May described a son clipping the toenails of his old mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The next was a prayer from a teacher. Last week’s was “Five Minutes,” by Na Hee-deok, about a mother waiting for her 6-year-old son in a playground. This week, Mr. Do sent a poem by Gwak Jae-gu about watching his lover washing her hair on Dano, a Korean holiday.
Inspired readers left nearly 50 comments on the council’s Web site, most asking for copies of the group’s newsletter.
“The idea came to us after we realized that it isn’t easy for a regular person to go to a bookstore and pick up a poetry book,” said Cha Chang-yong, a representative of the Arts Council Korea. “Yet we figured that people always crave poetic sensibility in their daily lives. After all, poems are meant to provide pleasure and comfort.”
The letters, though, have not been a hit with every reader. One wrote on the Web site of Go Do-won’s Morning Letter, “It does nothing more than recycle catchy phrases by famous people. I’ve blocked it as spam mail. The text was so general, so vague that its pointless to read.”

by Park Soo-mee
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