A monument to a poet caps a career that died in the dark

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A monument to a poet caps a career that died in the dark

On Nov. 18, 1986, an episode of “A Diary of Countryside,” a popular TV drama on MBC that dealt with the lives of farmers in rural Korea, was abruptly cancelled. The reason was simple: The government wasn’t happy with the story, which dealt with the soaring price of cabbage in the local market.
The next day, an article was published in JoongAng Ilbo criticizing the incident. “Beastly drunken, Il-yong (who plays a farmer in the show) danced until he cried,” the last paragraph of the article read. “Then he woke up in the morning to a kiss on his cheek. It was his daughter Bok-gil, who had come to find her father. Il-yong headed home carrying his daughter in his arms. After all, this is our land. Our children are the hope of the soil. We can’t leave our homes.”
The story was written 20 years ago, but the point is clear. The journalist had broken one of the basic rules of journalism, to deliver objective reporting. It was as if he had stopped writing an article and started writing a poem.
The man who wrote the article, Ki Hyung-do, was a poet who changed the Korean literary scene and created Korean literary journalism. The controversial article was written two years after Mr. Ki became a journalist. When the paper hit the newsstands, readers went berserk. Even editors, who recognized that it did not meet the standards of journalism, applauded it as great writing.
Mr. Ki’s life ended in 1989, when he was found dead in a shabby movie theater in central Seoul. The cause of his death was said to have been a stroke. His writing, however, is still famous. To commemorate his literary contribution, an event was held on a recent afternoon in Gwangmyeong City, Gyeonggi Province, to erect a memorial stone with a poem written by the late poet.
Even 17 years since his death, Ki is still a bestselling poet across the nation. In a testament to his influence, contemporary Korean poems are explained in the context of Mr. Ki’s style.
The memorial event for Mr. Ki was attended by a small group of people, including the poet’s older sister, Ae-do (49), the novelist Seong Seok-jae, Mr. Ki’s assistants and city officials. The city of Gwanmyeong spent nearly 10 million won ($10,460) on the stone for memorial, a relatively small sum considering the countless memorial stones erected for major poets built throughout the country.
Unlike Korea’s other famous poets, however, Mr. Ki had not released a single poetry book when he died. Only a few people had known that he had spent five years writing poems. It was only after his death that he became one of the widely-read poets in Korea.
Stories about the late poet still abound. One is that when he was found dead in the theater, a black bag he had carried around was next to his seat. In the bag were piles of papers covered with poems and a blue notebook packed with notes.
His first poetry book was put together into a book based on those materials. Kim Hyun, one of the most famous literary critics at the time, wrote a review and chose the title for the book. “A Black Leaf within a Mouth” was released by Moonji Publishing on May 30, 1989 the same year he died.
Seventeen years later, the book has been reprinted 61 times. Nearly 400,000 copies have so far been sold. Even these days, an average of 10,000 copies of the book are sold every year, according to the publisher.
“It’s one of the few poetry books that have stayed at the top of the sales charts for nearly 20 years,” said an employee of Moonji Publishing.
Park Cheol-hwa, a professor of ChungAng University, said, “The vision of contemporary life he depicted is still valid. A majority of the poems written [in Korean] in the 21st century were composed under his influence.”
Lee Gwang-ho, a professor at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, agreed on the poet’s influence. “A person could predict a centennial history of Korean literature through his poems, which pulled personal experiences into the world of poetry.”
At the age of five, Mr. Ki moved to Siheung County, Gyeonggi province, with his family. He lived in the same place until he died, one reason the county was happy to pay for a memorial stone.
His poem on a memorial stone is “One Blue Evening,” a long poem made up of 48 verses. It’s so long that the city ended up having to write it on two separate stones.
Seong Seok-je, a novelist and a college friend of Mr. Ki’s, selected the poem, explaining that it had been Mr. Ki’s favorite.
A phrase from his poem “Fog” ― “A fog is an attraction of the town; Everyone shares a staple of the fog” ― was written on his house, overlooking the Ahnyang Reservoir.

by Sohn Min-ho
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