Authentic Chon poetry reflects timelessness

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Authentic Chon poetry reflects timelessness

When Chon Sang-pyong died in 1993, his family received large condolence fees from his friends and acquaintances.
To keep the money in a safe place, Chon’s mother in-law, who lived with the poet and her daughter, hid the money under a kitchen furnace. The next day, the poet’s wife, Mok Sun-ok, not knowing the money was kept inside the kiln, built a fire.
The episode is both sad and comical, because it somehow reflects the poet’s artless innocence, which often acted against his fate.
Curious coincidences added drama to Chon’s lifelong career as a poet, including a famous incident in which the poet was brutally tortured and shut in prison after he was mistaken for a North Korean spy.
Fifteen years after the poet’s death, seminars and poetry readings commemorate Chon’s work in Uijeongbu, where the veteran poet died and he was put to rest. The Chon Sang-pyong Art Festival runs April 26 to May 5.
“It is significant that we are seeing more young people who are interested in his poems,” says Kim Byeong-ho, a theater producer and festival organizer who transformed the poet’s life into a play. “It’s a promising sign that his poems reflect such timelessness.”
The Art Festival brings together seminars on contemporary Korean poetry, a book reading and a drawing exhibition, in which the poet collaborated with Lee Oui-soo, an artist-poet and a Buddhist monk.
Chon’s childlike persona and witty poems resonate as a powerful irony, because they are seen as an expression of hope, which was born out of the poet’s lifelong adversity.
Shortly after he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, he writes in his poem “Liver’s Revolt” that he resents his liver for provoking a “coup d’état” on his body. In July 1967, he was taken by the Korean CIA and underwent electric torture for violating the National Security Law. The event came shortly after Chon borrowed money from a friend who got entangled in a government’s conspiracy involving North Korean spies. Chon’s trauma from the investigation is hinted at in his haunting poem “That Day.” Chon describes his terrifying memories in the poem through visceral metaphors like “a shirt under an iron,” “a summer insect by the window” and “a dreadful house.”
“This is one of Chon’s rare works where he uses direct metaphors of his trauma,” Kim says. “His poems never had hopelessness. So you could guess how painful it was for him to overcome his past nightmare.”
In “Back to Heaven,” one of Chon’s best-known poems, which was written shortly after he got out of prison, he describes his life as “an outing.” Perhaps Christianity, which influenced the poet’s later life, had something to do with his transcendence and the sense of renewal in his poems. On April 28, 1993, Chon died. He was 63.
“There are many poets in Korea, but he was obviously a very special person, fragile, sometimes irritating, but intensely warm-hearted,” says Brother Anthony, who translated Chon’s poems and “My Husband and the Poet,” a memoir about Chon written by his widow, into English.
“Young Koreans keep him high on their list of favorite poets because they often say he was so authentic and free of pomposity. When I show foreign visitors his “Back to Heaven” they often find it very beautiful. But if I explain how it was written in 1970, they are amazed and moved that he could want to call such a world beautiful. They agree that he was a poem. A beautiful poem.”


By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter[myfeast@joongang.co.kr]

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