- Chido / Map, and: Kohyang / Hometown, and: Pirobong 1 / Vairocana’s Peak 1, and: Paengnoktam / White Deer Lake, and: Changsusan 1 / Long Life Mountain 1, and: Changsusan 2 / Long Life Mountain 2, and: Kusŏngdong / Nine Forts Valley, and: Pi / Rain, and: Indongch’a / Honeysuckle Tea, and: Ch’un-sŏl / Spring Snow, and: Sapsari
Chŏng Chiyong is known today as one of the greatest modernist poets in Korean history, but scholarship on his poetry began to flourish only after 1988, when South Korea lifted the ban on literature by writers who defected to North Korea. Chŏng was born in Okch’ŏn, North Ch’ungch’ŏng Province, in 1902. He attended Hwimun High School in Seoul (1918-1922), where he started his literary activities by publishing the literary magazine Yoram and composing his first fiction and poetry. He studied English literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto (1923-1929); while at Doshisha, in 1926, he made his debut as a poet with nine poems including “K’ap’e P’ŭransŭ” [Cafe France] in the inaugural issue of Hakcho. After graduating from Doshisha, he returned to Hwimun High School to teach English, where he taught until Korea’s independence from the Japanese occupation in 1945. Then he taught English and Latin at Ewha Women’s University and assumed the role of chief editor for the Kyŏnghyang newspaper. With the onslaught of the Korean War and the confusion that followed, Chŏng became a member of the leftist National Guidance Alliance (or Bodo League; Kungmin bodo yŏnmaeng) against his will along with other writers from Chŏson Writers Alliance (Chŏson munhakka tongmaeng). He was abducted to North Korea [End Page 65] in 1950 and is rumored to have died in 1953. Until 1988 his name nonetheless had the bad reputation of a writer who voluntarily went to the North. Even though his life after 1950 remains mysterious, thankfully one can now glimpse Chŏng’s and colonial-era Korea’s histories through the poetry he left behind.
1920s Korea was a time of turmoil and change. After Japan occupied Korea in 1910, poetry explicitly criticizing the state became scarcer; the 1920s saw poets writing works concerning despair and destruction, expressing poets’ social responsibility to transcribe the people’s struggles, and asking for the revival of sijo. Modernist poets in the mid-1930s focused on visual imagery, exploration of the psyche, and illustration of urban life. Chŏng is often referred to as a modernist poet, largely due to his imagistic poems. His affinity for novel imagery and diction does seem to stray from the poetic traditions of the previous decade. Still, he does not strictly adhere to Western modernist ideals. He also retains traditional elements of Korean poetry; many of his poems illustrate the speaker’s solitude, quest for spiritual awakening, and reverence for nature. Also, Chŏng’s poems in his second collection Paengnokdam [White Deer Lake] (1941) mostly portray landscape, suggesting the symbolic significance of the land to a colonial subject. Therefore, to call Chŏng a modernist poet is not quite accurate.
Chŏng’s poetry seems deceptively easy to read. His language is not cryptic and the sceneries he paints are exquisite and familiar. His lines seep into the mind effortlessly, and one feels nostalgic for a place and time one has not experienced, due to his ability to capture the landscape and sense of longing ingrained in Korea’s collective memory. For instance, Korea is a mountainous country, and it is difficult to picture a Korean landscape devoid of mountains or hills, which inhabit many of Chŏng’s poems; he yearns for home and childhood with images of his hometown, thereby presenting a universal sentiment coupled with specifically [End Page 66] Korean scenes. Although many of his best-known poems involve nostalgia and/or the natural world, it is an oversimplification to limit Chŏng’s poetry to the themes of nature and longing; some poems specifically illustrate human interaction and urbanity, and many reflect his contemplation of spirituality, religious faith, endurance, civilization, and more.
Further complicating one’s...