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The Meanings and Significance of So WoTs "Azaleas" David R. McCann INTRODUCTION: POETRY AND HISTORY i^/ne critic has observed that the poet Kim So WoI (1902-34) seems aware of the "barred possibilities" in the period of the Japanese occupation , but that his poetry "seems to be merely a gesture of desperation ; it never becomes an energetic pursuit of an answer."1 This surely is criticism at its most severe, taking the poet to task for failing to pursue in poetry what the Korean nation, despite the determination expressed in the independence demonstrations in 1919, could not itself sustain. Literature as sympton, cause, or cure: it is excessive indeed to read Korean social history in terms of its poets, but no more so than to read the literary text as a document—in So Wöl's case—of failed individual or national nerve. Granted, thejustification seems near at hand, especially with such subjects available for study as the philosopher-historian-litterateur Ch'oe Namsön (1890-1957), or the patriot, monk, and poet Han Yongun (1879-1944). These and other figures took active and direct parts in the significant political and social events of their day. They also created works known today for their literary and/or historical 1 . U Chang Kim (Kim Uch'ang), "Sorrow and Stillness: A View of Modern Korean Poetry," Literature East and West 13, nos. 1 & 2: 147. 277 272Journal ofKorean Studies significance. The rich complexity of their lives invites biographical and historical readings of their works. In the case of the Japanese occupation, there is a heavy onus upon the social, political, or literary historian to reach some accounting for the desertion of a significant number of the Korean intellectual and political leaders—including, eventually, Ch'oe Namsön—to the cause of cooperation with the Japanese. The interest in description or narrative becomes subverted by a concern to explain, to produce ledger books in which political and intellectual leaders are entered in one of two columns: those who did, and those who did not strive for Korean independence. Writers too are drawn into the vortex of guilt, to be praised or blamed, tossed back and forth between those who profess to see some signs of nationalist intent, and those who profess not to, in the poetry, fiction, essay, or play. Why is So WoI an interesting poet? What can explain the popularity of his best-known poem "Azaleas"? This paper proposes to undertake two readings of So Wöl's poem: one for its meanings, especially the meaning of its popularity; and one, a second reading, for its significance, to explore what else there may be to the poem than its popularity. SO WÖL'S "AZALEAS": EMBLEM OF KOREA Azaleas Weary of seeing me, when you go away, without a word, gently, I shall let you g°From Mount Yak in Yöngbyön, armfuls of azaleas I shall gather and scatter on your way. As you go, step by step on the flowers placed before you tread lightly, softly as you go. McCann: So Wöl's "Azaleas"213 Weary of seeing me, when you go away, though I die I shall not let one tear fall.* For those with an interest in learning about modern Korean poetry —and by extension, Korean history—So WoI (his pen name) Kim Chöngsik is the favorite subject. Born on September 7, 1902, in Kwaksan, North P'yöngan Province, northwest of P'yöngyang, Kim came to Seoul to attend Paejae High School, graduating in 1923. Through the aid of his junior high school teacher and mentor, Kim Ök, So Wöl's poems were introduced to the literary world in 1922, in the pages of Kaebyk (Creation) Magazine. In 1923 he went to Japan to enter Tokyo Commercial College but failed to pass the entrance examination . After lingering for a few months in Tokyo, he returned to Seoul in the latter part of that year. He remained in Seoul during 1924 and 1925, trying, with Kim Ök's help, to make a career for himself in literature. Despite the publication of his poetry collection Azaleas in 1925, So WoI decided to...


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