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The Most Beloved Poet of Korea, Kim So-wolGazing into Kim’s life through his very first and last poem collection, Azaleas
Lee Chae-wan  |  chaewan1212@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2018.10.03  18:54:58
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“WHEN YOU turn away from seeing me and go, gently, without a word, I shall send you away*.” Ask any Korean on the street about the poem “Azaleas,” and they are likely to easily recite the line written above. Or at least, they will be able to hum the melody of “Azaleas,” a song with the same title by Son Suk-woo, which was heavily inspired by the original poem. The very poet of the cherished poem is Kim So-wol. He published only one poem collection in his lifetime, titled Azaleas, but he remains the most beloved poet of Korea, as shown from the results of a reader’s poll conducted by Poet’s World in 2002**. 

   The English translator of the poem collection Azaleas, Professor David R. McCann mentions in his introduction to Kim’s poems that Kim’s works should be read in their entirety, as one complete collection. Likewise, poems in Azaleas represent the turbulent life of Kim as a whole.
O Mother, O Sister, let us live by the river.
Where golden sands glitter in the garden,
And beyond the back gate, the reeds are singing...
O Mother, O Sister, let us live by the river.
- “O Mother, O Sister”
   Born in 1902 in northern Joseon, Kim had a turbulent and confused childhood, one that was marked by the instability of his father who was mentally ill and hence could not financially support his family***. When Kim was two years old, his father was badly beaten up by Japanese construction workers and remained traumatized for the rest of his life****. Just as Kim’s childhood was devoid of a father figure, so too were his poems a representation of such deficiency in his life, as most notably shown in his poem, “O Mother, O Sister.” There is no mention of living with a father, whose absence is emphasized by the repetition of the same line at the beginning and the end. However, Kim does not appear to blame his father or lament his unstable situation. Exploring another poem from the collection, “Mom and Dad,” we may note that Kim wrote: “To live well or not is not the point, just to be alive, not dead...,” a line which seems to point to his father who did not live “well” but did maintain his life as a person with mental illness. It may have been that Kim was confused whether he should despise his father or sympathize with him for his unavoidable plight. 
   The lack of obvious lament towards his father was likely a result of the enormous support Kim had received from his aunt. According to the book I am Literature, his aunt was the very first person to pave Kim’s way to becoming a poet by repeatedly telling him traditional stories and singing folk songs throughout his childhood. Kim grew up to portray the Han sentiment through a female voice in his most well-known poems, including “Azaleas.” 
When you turn away from seeing me
and go,
gently, without a word, I shall send you away. 
From Mount Yak in Yongbyon, 
Azaleas I shall gather an armful and scatter them on your way.  
Step after step away 
On those flowers placed
before you, press deep, step lightly, and go. 
When you turn away from seeing me
and go,
though I die, no, not a single tear shall fall.
- “Azaleas” 
   The sentiment of Han is a unique cultural feeling shared by Koreans throughout generations. The Korean Standard Unabridged Dictionary explains the word Han as mixed feelings of resentment, despair, sympathy and sorrow. It is a tragic sentiment embedded in people’s minds when their original desires and objectives become obsolete due to suppression and interference from the outside*****. Han is especially relevant to most Korean women in the past, who, under a strictly patriarchal society, were expected to be passive figures that merely follow the instructions of males in their family. The women were to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their families, not openly expressing their feelings, desires or thoughts. 
   Kim So-wol effectively portrays Han in his poem “Azaleas” as the poem provokes an image of a woman, who is in absolute despair due to her separation from a lover but who conceals such feelings by spreading azaleas on his way. Spreading flowers is an act of blessing, an act contrary to the despondent situation that the narrator and her lover are facing. However, the azalea flower is not like any other flower. A wildflower found only in the deepest areas of secondary forests that were previously destructed due to wildfires or deforestation, azaleas are known for their endurance and long lifespan, as described in The Plant Book of Korea. These characteristics of azaleas suggest that Kim envisioned the female voice used in his poems to be that of a resilient figure faced with tragedy; determined not to outwardly show her weaknesses and perhaps even indicating that her love will survive its present misfortune and prove to be eternal. 
Ko Doo-hyeon, a poet and critic, notes that an event that greatly influenced many of Kim’s poems was his adultery with, and subsequent separation from, a woman named O-sun. During his era, it was common for youths to be married off to people whom they had never encountered before. Having been in such a marriage, Kim was involved in a love affair with another woman who was later forced to marry someone else and eventually committed suicide at a young age. The sorrow from losing his loved one and the longing for her drove Kim to leave numerous remarkable poems, including “Someday Long After” and “Invocation.”   
Visit me, someday long after,
And I might say I have forgotten.  
 
Blame me, in your heart,
Missing you so, I have forgotten.

Still blame me for all of that, 
Not believing you, I have forgotten. 

Today, yesterday, I did not forget you, 
But someday long after, I have forgotten.
 
- “Someday Long After”
 
O name broken in pieces!  
O name dispersed into the emptiness!
O name I call that no one owns!
O name that I will die calling!  
Even at the last I could not say 
The one word left in my heart.  
O you that I loved!
O you that I loved!
- “Invocation”
The composed articulation of the sorrow of separation in “Someday Long After” gives way to a barely suppressed cry of anguish in “Invocation” as his beloved is deemed to be lost forever. The poem “Someday Long After” has a softer, calmer atmosphere; this is possible because despite the separation, the lover is still alive, leaving some hope for a reunion in the future. Therefore, the poem is written as one long imaginary dialogue between two lovers. However, “Invocation” has a distinctively impassioned voice, emphasized with the repetition of exclamation marks and the sound “O.” The change in tone reflects the fact that in real life, Kim’s loved one committed suicide and thus could not be seen again. Despite the tragic ending of their love story, it contributed to the creation of Kim’s greatest poems. 
   Criticisms on Kim’s poem collection hold that its topics were too personal and avoided addressing the status quothe colonization of Korea under Japan. However, Kim expressed his anger toward the disastrous political situation and his hope for Korea’s independence in his own way.  
 But I have lost my home. 
Only think, if we had our land, our own to plow! 
Instead we wander at evening, and in the morning
Earn newer sighs, new lamentations.
- “Only Think, If We Had Our Land, Our Own to Plow”
The loss of home can be interpreted in two ways: the loss of his physical home since he moved about to different places during his early adulthood, or the loss of his nation due to colonization. That he uses the pronoun “we” and the phrase “our land” suggests that the latter interpretation is more suitable. The Korean people were deprived of their land since it was occupied by Japan: Koreans were barred from doing anything freely on the land inhabited by their ancestors for generations. Kim So-wol may not have been as politically outspoken as other poets in his era. However, with his own methods, he dealt with his hope for the betterment of the nation. 
   The poet spent his final years in deep agony. He could not adjust well to the money-making industry necessary to support his family and suffered deeply from depression. At the age of 32, he supposedly committed suicide by taking an excessive dose of opium******. Inspired by the turbulent life he had, Kim managed to convey various voices—from the voice of a child, a woman in despair, to someone desperately contemplating the future and the meaning of life. His life was short, unlike the azalea flower. However, he managed to leave behind a legacy that will forever be loved and remembered in the hearts of generations to come.  
 
*English translations of Kim So-wol’s poems in this article are from the book Azaleas (2007) written by Kim So-wol, translated by David R. McCann, and published by Columbia University Press; it is the first book to publish the complete English translation of the original Korean version of Azaleas
**David R. McCann, “Introduction / Sowol’s Poetry and Place / In Korean Literature” from Azaleas (2007)
***Doopedia, online encyclopedia operated by Doosan Operations
****I am Literature (2009), published by Tree Story 
*****Pyun Mi-hye, “A Study on the aesthetic of Han in So-wol’s poetry” (2007)
******I am Literature
 
The Yonsei Annals would like to thank Professor David R. McCann for his permission to use the translations from his book Azaleas.

 

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