||The beginning is like utter darkness. I never
realized that treading the path of a writer for 44 years would bring
so much agony.
One day a middle-school student, who used to walk 4 km to and
from school every day, picked up a poetry book lying by the
wayside on the way home when the sun was about to set. He stayed
up all night reading it and first had the dream of becoming
a poet. He was a moth trapped in a web.
His dream began to come true after the war had devastated so
many things. More than half the mountains and fields were reduced
to ashes and cities lay in ruins in the 1950s. For those who
survived, there was no future. Everyone started from scratch
and makeshifts huts sprung up everywhere. A cold wind seemed
to be blowing at all times. I was a 25 year-old poet.
What I had back then was poor sensitivity with no real command
of the language. Inspiration was a vague idea. I was nothing
but a lost child, or an orphan, who had never entered the world
of poetry or the realm of the writer.
That gray-hued world was a place that I found impossible to
turn my back on as a boy with only one wish - the dream of becoming
My experience as a child had been bleak, for I spent my young
days in a country that was colonized by another country.
When I entered elementary school after quitting the private
school where I studied Chinese classics, the Korean language
class had been abolished and replaced with Japanese. It was
not only in school but also at home that we were forced to use
Japanese not Korean.
Prior to entering elementary school, I learned how to read Korean
from one of the servants at my home, in addition to the Chinese
that I learned at the private school. I read Korean novels forbidden
to children, such as Youth that Finds no Place to Turn To
and I still remember the last train station at Donamjeong depicted
in that novel, and the gray gloves that the main character of
the novel bought at Hwasin Department Store in Seoul.
During the early days of imperialism, Japan implemented a policy
of depriving Joseon of its sovereignty and physical resources,
leaving the language as a matter of self-regulation. However,
it must have been later realized that once a country loses its
sovereignty, a narrative fills the gap and this narrative and
culture may become the force behind the recovery of the lost
When defining a people, one naturally asks whether they have
a language of their own. So the Korean language and writing-system
were identified as heritages that the cruel Japanese colonial
rule found necessary to purge.
Implemented along with the policy of abolishing the Korean language
was one transforming Korean names into Japanese ones. At the
core of the Japanese colonial policy for Korea was this changing
of Korean names into Japanese ones. My name when I was a first
grader at elementary school was Dakkabayai Doraske.
In the history of Korean literature, Chinese has long been used
along with Korean. Until Joseon lost its sovereignty to Japan,
it was the tradition of Korean literature to write poems in
Chinese and songs in Korean. So Korea’s native songs and folk
songs from the middle ages onward were not poetry in the literary
sense but poetry in the form of music.
That tradition was lost once Korea was put under colonial rule.
The literature written during the colonial period and in the
wake of liberation in 1945 came to feel old-fashioned after
all that Korea endured through the Korean War. The modernism
of the 1930s sounded very domineering, whereas the rhythms of
modern poetry reminded one of a native literature that was naturally
born in Korea. The modernism of the 1950s represented the emotions
and solitary feelings of urban dwellers but failed to attain
mature literary perfection.
The formulation of an independent response to modern times,
when a people finds itself oppressed by another in a colonial
situation, depends on a consistent representation of oneself
and a discovery on one’s own identity. Another tragic consequence
of the Korean War was the division of the country.
After the war, literature needed a new start, as had been the
case for the people who first started to live as cave dwellers.
What seemed most attractive in those days was the concept of
zero. However, literature cannot be divided by time. No matter
how new a start may be, it is likely to have its roots in the
past and to be destined to flow into the future. That is why
we say that the poetry of today is not totally isolated from
the folk songs of the Yellow River Valley before the birth of
Christ or the epic poems of Homer.
However there was no special opportunity for me to fully experience
the world of literature. After Korea was liberated from the
Japanese rule, our Korean language and literature found their
rightful place back in my happiness. Other than that, I knew
nothing about the ancient song called Jeongeupsa, or about Yi
Je-Hyeon, Kim So-wol, or Yi Sang.
In a nutshell, I never belonged to any group of people who studied
the poetry of ancient times or the middle ages in universities.
When I realized that poets are people who enjoy unbridled freedom,
being liberated from all the shackles and yokes of academic
tradition, I found that I was not a student learning Korean
literature but a poet.
Awakening comes through the hardships that one goes through
while writing poetry. It never comes previous to writing poetry
based on experience that was really mine. I hope that the experience
that I mention here is synonymous with imagination.
I am a poet, as I have exploited part of our language all through
my life. This fact brings not only hope but also often despair.
Language can be the desperation of language itself.
My poetry is a flow. That flow may dash against the shore or
create rhythms with the help of darkness or light. So my poems
are echoes. In an interview with the New York Times in the late
1980s, I said that poetry was the “music of history”. When I
said that, I put more emphasis on the music than the history.
We may be able to understand the inner sense of literature better
if we study it on the basis of not what we read but what we
hear. So it should be emphasized that a poem as a text is just
a code that can be brought to life when it is represented in
sound or voice. Perhaps reverberation is what vibrates in the
history of poetry.
Notwithstanding what I believe, my echoes sometimes rely on
the automatic technique of laissez faire or supernaturalism
or some accident like the blurring touch of a Chinese ink painting.
I once wrote some verses in a fixed form in Chinese characters.
They were Chinese quatrains with seven character lines.
I have never written fixed-form odes other than these. And I
have never applied the principle of order to the outer form
of a poem. If a poem is a way of thinking represented in imagery,
it must be a system in itself. However, my poetry even shuns
certain rules of inner rhythms and rather my poems dash towards
I am a rebellious child, hostile to all the fixed poetic forms
found in old Chinese poetry, which tended to have all kinds
of rules and regulations regarding the writing of poems, like
the governing system of a ruler. A poet exists all alone in
the life system of a poem.
Now I can no longer trust such paths as my poems have taken.
Free verses demand even more freedom. Now that verses have been
freed of all form, what was previously not regarded as a poem
in the traditional sense can be now called a poem.
This turns a poem into a living creature that cannot be defined
by anybody and can be defined by anyone. For instance, who today
would contradict someone who insists that the death of codes
brings life to a poem, as in the case of the different numbers
on freight trains waiting in line at Daejeon Station, whose
numbers are no longer a code but a poem.
It is in this context that I reject the recent trend of interpreting
a poem as text. There is no such thing as a poem that can simply
be seen as a text. No poem can stay on a desk or an Internet
screen. Poems do not exist in material anthologies.
The universe and space, the imensities of time are the stage
for poems. Even a very short love song or elegy is a poem of
the universe. That explains why poems should faithfully fulfill
their public obligations to the world.
Empathy goes beyond the one-dimensional space between humans.
This is why I sometimes feel contempt for the expression of
personal emotions, which has been quite a popular trend found
in Korean poems since ancients days. A narrator in a poem should
not be the poet himself who grumbles for the sake of it. Rather
the poet should be a shaman who can build a bridge between the
spirits of different people.
That is why I say that poets are adventurers who depict the
maximum of the universe with the minimum of words. However,
that does not mean that we can ask a poet to derive the material
for a poem from empty space. A poet should be able to draw material
from experiences in the circumstances surrounding himself and
project it according to the requirements of the situations of
The narrator in a poem can sometimes be a group of people or
a representative narrator but personal matters cannot be fully
separated from public ones and public matters should not stand
in the way of personal affairs. A poem can truly be a poem when
personal matters overlap with public ones.
I still have memories of those days before I entered the world
of literature. If I had not taken the path of becoming a writer,
those memories would have remained nothing but fragmented moments
of the past.
I saw a fire when I was about five years old. In the strong
wind at midnight, the farmhouse where I was born and the bamboo
forest behind it were all ablaze. The efforts made by the village
folks to extinguish the fire by carrying water in baskets were
in vain. I saw my parents’ house reduced to ashes. This fire
and the resulting ruins created a remarkable space in my consciousness.
Quite often in my mind, the ruins found in every corner across
the Korean peninsula after the Korean War, that I witnessed
as a teenager, overlapped with the ruins of my house. A person’s
memory does not stay merely within the person. Rather it is
organically linked with disasters in history and the childhood
experience is combined with the mental traumas that come later
and then it is internalized in the mental world of a poet.
There is another memory that I have. It was also when I was
about five years old. I was being carried on the back of my
aunt. It was at night. Even though most of the villagers were
farmers, they continued to suffer from hunger after supplying
the rice they harvested to the landowners and the government
offices. It was the same when they reaped the barley in summer.
Corn grown in Manchuria was rationed and most of it was rotten.
People were busy gathering seaweed on the tidal flats to add
to the porridge they made from ground corn. My mother went to
the shores of the Man-gyeonng River early in the morning in
order to gather the seaweed. It took almost the entire day to
fill half a bamboo basket, as there were so many women gathering
the plant. I waited for my mother in the darkness at night when
she came back late. I was hungry, tied on the back of my aunt.
It was then that I saw the stars for the first time. The vista
of space came into the eyes of a child. To me those stars looked
like fruit hung in the sky. I threw a tantrum and begged my
aunt to pick them for me. That first error, mistaking the stars
for something to eat, was the starting point when I became a
poet who would later sing to the stars.
I have long hidden that memory deep inside myself. It was a
kind of shameful memory that I did not want to share with anyone.
There were some changes introduced to the world of my literature
in the 1970s. Before then, no political or social issues found
space inside the poetic nihilism in which I was trapped. But
I finally realized that literature could never be separated
from reality. I glimpsed a sorrowful portrait of myself as someone
who was proving loyal to the established regime by totally isolating
myself from it and making my escape from reality. I found myself
asking questions like what literature could do for hungry children
and the existence of any meaning for literature when it is faced
with dictatorship. I was confident that the bitter experience
of mistaking stars for fruits was something that I needed to
sing in a poem. I was also confident that I would experience
an enchanted sublimation when food and dreams are united by
Without those days in the 1970s, my world of literature would
have been a dark night with an owl hooting blood-thirsty cries
in one corner of a valley, but with no trace of blood. The illusion
of purity and the doctrine of participation are two important
paradoxical indices that demonstrate their power of new life
only when they go beyond themselves.
So my literary world is a symphony of two worlds-that of reality
and another place lying beyond it. Participation became another
wilderness for me.
I have a poor memory of my family. It is so poor that I had
no choice but to reshape the world of my family and hometown
in my imagination. The series of mishaps that Maxim Gorki had
in his childhood is something more than imagination, but my
childhood was so poor that it desperately needed imagination.
Fiction reconstructs facts.
I had none of the older or younger sisters that almost all the
people in my generation had. The sorrow that I felt from not
having a sister led me to create an imaginary older sister in
my late teenage years. Facades are created by strong desires
and wishes and there should be some chemical reaction that can
generate a truth, one which is more than just a simple truth.
Facades evolve. An abnormal or pathological state of mind with
a strong envy for people sick in bed transformed me into a sick
boy in a faked world even when in reality I maintained at least
the minimal state of health despite the fragile physique that
I had. To me, patients looked like people who were suffering
the illness of the world on behalf of the others.
Pulmonary tuberculosis was the disease that could meet the expectations
that I had as a young man with literary interests. I was interested
in diseases like pulmonary tuberculosis, and not the stomach
problems that people living in out-of-the-way mountain villages
commonly suffer from. I imagined the coughing sound coming from
the wards in a sanatorium at night.
This gave rise to a fable, which formed the basis of my literary
world. In the fable, I had a beautiful older sister. She took
care of me when I suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. When
I was cured of the disease, she was infected and died of it.
With bitter and painful feelings of guilt and yearning for her,
I carried the box containing her ashes away with me and buried
it in the western sea at night, and then went up into mountain
This imaginary scenario evolved into something more than a hypothesis;
it become a theorem not only to other people but even to me.
Nobody thought it was fake.
Since I informed the world of this fact, there have arisen some
theories interpreting the poetry in my early days in terms of
a “sister complex.”
Later, in the early 1990s, when I had my first medical check-up,
I found that one of my lungs was fossilized due to developments
related to pulmonary tuberculosis. Until then I had had no symptom
of the disease that I felt myself. There was neither coughing
nor expectoration of blood. Despite heavy drinking and the habit
of smoking more than two packs a day, I was relatively healthy
and sound except for some stomach problems.
I experienced literary identification when it was revealed that
I really had suffered from the pulmonary tuberculosis that I
As I realized that images and imaginations are not faces reflected
in a mirror but a way to explore reality, I was fascinated that
facts and reality could be born as new facts in life through
imagery. Perhaps in the consciousness and awareness of every
human, there lies a power of imagination that could fill all
the underworld and heaven
I do not mean to say that every partof my work started from
such a make-believe. But I should admit that it was the power
of such faking that enabled me to endure romantic nihilism,
non-existence, denial of reality, anti-reality and other forms
of ersatz sentiment in the early days of my literary career.
Literature does not impose monotonous values on a writer. I
should rather say that any literature complacent in its own
place, with no worries about fire or no possibility of change
is not literature. The path of my literary world is not in only
one direction. An encounter with an event at the outset of 1970
led me to a path totally different from the one that I had been
taking up to that time. The path was very perilous.
It was a milestone marking another start for me. For a full
ten years until then, I was mired in severe insomnia that I
found it impossible to escape from. Those poems that I wrote
while drunken at night tended to be overly exaggerated and I
would be greatly disillusioned when I read them the following
day. I was able to fall asleep after consuming three to four
bottles of Soju in the early days of my insomnia but
even that did not help as time went by.
After I managed to fall asleep around five o’clock in the morning,
I was soon overwhelmed by tempestuous dreams and then I found
my soul engaged in the turbid streams of life before eight in
Mugyo-dong was my favorite place. The strong liquor and spicy
red octopus dishes that I had before the midnight curfew numbed
But I failed to find a shelter in the liquor houses or inns
in the allies of the city. I used to mock the empty green fields
depicted in the Old Testament. I was much more comfortable when
I was among the crowd of drunken men who gathered at the fluorescent-lit
saloons filled with cigarette smoke. They seemed to consume
and abuse their life for no purpose.
In not a few of those days, I found myself stuck overnight in
a bar due to the curfew. Then I would spend the entire night
lying on a table in the saloon, despite signs of strong displeasure
from the owner of the saloon.
I used to find dirty waste-paper under the table. One day there
were pages of a newspaper among the waste scattered on the cement
floor, with some ballpoint pens. One of the articles caught
my straying eyes. It was a short article about a worker who
had committed suicide by setting fire to himself.
I had by then tried to commit suicide on four occasions, all
in vain. I made very thorough preparations for my fourth attempt.
I had 100 sleeping pills that somebody had gathered by buying
some every day at different pharmacies after presenting an ID
card. I took all the pills at once and then laid down deep in
a valley in Bukhan Mountain, which happened to be designated
as a security area where spies were often found. So in that
area of the mountain civil defense drills were conducted regularly.
I was discovered, covered in snow, by a Civil Defense Corpsman
and came under investigation as a suspected spy dispatched from
North Korea. I was in a coma since I had taken the 100 sleeping
pills with soju. Right before they were about to classify
me as an unidentified person who had died by the roadside, the
chief of the investigation team ordered that I be transferred
to an emergency center at a hospital in Jeongreung. After stomach
pumping and other treatment, I awoke 30 hours later. When friends
of mine stopped by to see me, I joked that my hands were the
hands of a messenger from the land of the dead.
Such an experience led me to have an interest in the suicides
that worker had committed. The interest led me to see the reality
in which laborers were forced to live in, the poor working environment
in the 1970s and beyond that to the contradictions of society
in a divided country.
I came one step closer to a world, which was very different
from the one that I had lived in until then. Or I would rather
say that for the first time in my life I started to exist in
the real world after living away from it for so many years.
I shyly joined other writers who were actively participating
in protests against the regime of the military dictator, firmly
standing up against those who tried to remain in power for an
unlimited term by amending the Constitution. Once entered into
this landscape, I dedicated everything that I had to it like
a horse set free from a rein.
With this change in my “class status”, came a great happiness
and the insomnia that put me in hell every night for the past
10 years disappeared.
However, my poems did not change overnight. The poet was running
faster than his poetry. The poetry ran behind the poet, always
short of breath. This is the period called “after nihilism”.
Not only in the literary circles but also inside and outside
of Korea, I was a man who required special monitoring. I was
on a list of people involved in the democratic movement in opposition
to the ruling government in Korea and regarded as a dissident
overseas. I sometime felt that I had nothing to do with the
literary world. Actually the literary world back then was government-controlled
and agreed to the amendment of the Constitution that would allow
the then dictator to stay in power forever. In a word, it was
part of the established system and it had no critical view of
society as it was. I got closer to the group who resisted the
government and they consisted of pastors, priests, professors
kicked out of school, dismissed journalists, political leaders
of the opposition, university students expelled from school
or banned from returning to school after serving sentences in
prison. They became like family members.
Twenty years of such movements led to the uprising in June 1987.
During the uprising, I was in the frontline of the street demonstrations
and agitated the public as co-representative of the People’s
It was in the early 1990s, once a civilian government had replaced
the military governments controlled by three successive army
generals, that I first received a passport allowing me to go
abroad. Right before that, I received a pardon as a prisoner
Literature seems to be in tension with reality or history and
reality requires literature to live up to certain conditions
at all times. I wandered around too much in my literature, overwhelmed
with an excess of emotions until I was given the mission to
control them and divert them for the benefit of the people,
public and society in the pursuit of freedom and equality. In
other words, I was born with romanticism, which is missed when
realism is acquired later and I tried to overcome both.
In that interactive process, the demand to overcome the division
of the country and social contradictions passes through the
long pathway of confrontation to finally reach the point of
dreaming mutual supplementation and becoming one. There we can
see the spirit of a high-level liberation of the spirit, that
known in Buddhism as Hwa-yen.
However, when it comes to literature I did not seek an answer.
If literature dreams of some fruit or result in the form of
some perfect wisdom and other similar things, it may mean that
it is already dead.
Meanwhile, the life within myself rejects any reconciliation
or unclear compromise. The solemn gesture of looking back to
past days is the most ridiculous thing that I can imagine. I
have some regrets but I do not want to surround myself with
the compassion of others. Rather I believe that the power of
the contradiction given to me seems to support my life and destiny.
That is why I have always been both this and that.
Literature starts there and ends there. Metaphor makes me historic
and artistic. And then the corpse of the metaphor soon disappears.
If my literature by any chance serves a certain political reality
or ideology as a supporting infrastructure, I should fight against
it. That is why I am truly free only when I am in literature,
often ignoring so many potholes outside literature. Society
provides the stage on which I live my life but at the same time
it is an association that consumes my existence as its cells.
Freedom is expressed in a variety of different forms. My pen
has moved to cover not only poetry, fiction, criticism, prose.
I once wrote seven different serial stories in daily, weekly
and monthly publications.
What speed I made! How dazzling the deserted, quiet life was
that came after such speed!
Since the 1970s I was in desperate need of history. It was perhaps
because I had never been actually involved in the world of history
consciously ever since Korea was liberated from colonial rule
but at the same time I was in need of feeling the history that
would help me to overcome reality when it reigned over me with
violence and force.
This is why literature and history were one body, not two different
and separate concepts. From the fundamental perspective, the
description of history is nothing but literature itself. The
scope of literature covers almost everything. It cannot be confined
within a single unique definition.
Standing in the corner of our history, I cannot reject imagination.
It is sometimes very esthetic or is represented as an exclusive
sentiment against reality. Perhaps literature is allegorical
of the shape created by such sentiment. In this regard, I am
occasionally drawn to Homer more than Maha Kassapa.
In an attempt to achieve the best form of literature through
epics and lyrical echoes, I walked like one of the crabs on
a tidal flat at the ebb tide.
My passion is non-Confucian or rather anti-Joseon Dynasty. In
this respect, the face of Heo Gyun, author of the story of Hong
Gil-dong, seems to overlap with mine. For the sake of the literature
and life that I long for, the past is beautiful material but
never stained by absolutism. The fallacy that Aristotle left,
by saying that there is no ancestor for the living creature,
I recognize the start of a myth but cannot claim any knowledge
of the start of history or the ancestor system. I love the world
of gods but I think an Absolute Being make humans too subordinate.
The fact that Emerson was isolated when he insisted on the way
god was created by humans makes me feel some sympathy with him.
I have nothing to do with the founder of a Buddhist sect or
Confucian government officials. I do not need a teacher. I sometimes
think of the solitary enlightenment attained by a pratyeka
buddha. I am on the path of being a monk with no teacher.
I cannot help choosing to become an orphan moving away from
the past surrounded by doctrines, revivalists, authority and
mystery. In other words, I would like to destroy the apprenticeship
that makes me subordinate to the past.
The literature of a new era is not one that has simply descended
from the past but is one that is currently newly born rooted
in the soil of the past. Truth held by a friend is much closer
to the real truth than the truth held by a teacher. A poem just
born out of nowhere, not a poem suppressed with the yoke of
tradition, whispers with another poem just born. This literature,
a chorus creatively maintaining the horizontal relationship
is what I dream of.
I hope my literature will wander around and not stay in one
place. The Nirvana that I dream of is a Nirvana without any
permanency. It is a dream with no leftovers.
The present is a flash, a moment moving from the unlimited past
to the indefinite future.
I sometimes see my former lives. In so many former lives of
mine, I could not resist becoming a poet as in my present life.
There were days that I was less tattered than I am today. There
was someone weeping amidst the glow of the setting sun. Was
it I? At midnight when snow falls silently unnoticed by anyone,
he was enduring the reverberation of the heart not being able
to fall asleep. Was it I?
It is midday. There is a man who has fallen on the ground and
he has told so many lies. Somewhere in the corner under the
sun, there is a motherless boy growing taller day by day. There
is a woman with no homeland, her hair blowing in the wind.
The darkness of the mama bear who gave birth to a baby while
sleeping in winter and the brightness of the old ascetic who
was blinded by the light from the white snow of the Himalayas
were all a game of pain.
I helped the stars shine far away as a wild animal, ameba or
a ghost. The stars lessened my pain shining above in the sky.
My lives persisted in relation with so many things.
I wanted to become a poet. And I became a poet.
I cling to my name as a poet because I committed so many sins
by wasting time in my present life and former ones. Being a
poet is a punishment of life imprisonment rather than a choice
that I made.
Both when I was 18 years old and now, poetry is my Polaris.
When someone says that I was destined to be a poet, I long not
to finish my life as a poet. In other words, I wish I could
be a poem at the end of the poet. A poem. not a poet!