- Sŏ Chŏngju and Modern Korean Poetry
It is the fate of many poets to pass into obscurity when they die. Korea’s Sŏ Chŏngju is no exception. There have been the usual graveside commemorations, the annual Midang Literature Prize, the Midang Cultural Festival, the Chilmajae Cultural Festival, and the seasonal pictures of Chilmajae chrysanthemums. In 2005 Semunsa published a large tome of Sŏ Chŏngju studies. The project was planned by Kim Haktong and a group of professors, lecturers, and graduate students, mostly Sogang University staff and students. The focus of the project was Sŏ Chŏngju’s various collections with a special emphasis on biographical and bibliographical materials. In 2011, Saemunsa published Kim Haktong’s Sŏ Chŏngju: A Critical Biography. This is a useful reference book but not a Western-style critical biography with a wealth of authenticated sources, letters, and references. Kim Haktong readily admits that a lot of work remains to be done before we have a definitive work on the biographical and bibliographical material. There have also been a number of studies of the pro-Japanese charge. In his autobiography (vol. 2, 153 ff) Sŏ Chŏngju admits his great shame over this phase of his literary life. He explains it in terms of an enormous naiveté and ignorance about who was winning the war and what the future had in store for Korea. The explanation is inadequate, but ultimately, whether people like it or not, Sŏ Chŏngju’s Japanese stance does [End Page 105] not determine his stature as a poet. For fifty years Sŏ Chŏngju was the ultimate challenge to any aspiring translator. Modern Korean literature, inspired by the golden carrot of the Nobel Prize, has always been about living authors. When the poet died, the sponsoring agencies left the arena and the games were abandoned; translators no longer take up the challenge. During the fifteen years since Sŏ Chŏngju’s death, substantive studies have been few and far between. On January 2, 2015, the Chungang ilbo announced a Sŏ Chŏngju centenary series based on a number of the poet’s working notebooks, which contain some 100 previously unpublished poems. So far the series has been less than exciting.
There is a large body of scholarly work on Sŏ Chŏngju, much of it written in a critical idiom imported from Meiji Japan, that is abstruse and not very reader friendly. The all-pervasive chŏk, sŏng, and hwa characters generate an enormous abstract vocabulary, which is the basis of the formal idiom today. Newspapers, TV, and all critical writing use this idiom. It is so endemic in the culture that one wonders what if anything can be done about it. Kuch’ehwa, ponjiljŏk, tongjilsŏng—innumerable hwa, chŏk, and sŏng coinages dot the discourse. It is a formal idiom, inimical to imaginative literature. That this idiom came from the West is undoubtedly true, but it is equally true that it has turned Korean literature into a domain where abstraction is all-pervasive.
This paper is an attempt to place Sŏ Chŏngju in the broad canvas of modern Korean poetry. The point of view is Western, firstly, because Sŏ Chŏngju’s poems grew out of a poetry culture that was imitative and Western rooted, and secondly, because my early studies examined the influence of English poetry on the fledgling modern Korean tradition. I hope to distance myself from the myths that were a feature of the literary scene in Korea in the first half of the twentieth century and I also hope to distance myself from the abstract language of Korean academic discourse.
Myth played a dominant role in Korean literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Ŏnmun, the new language movement, [End Page 106] sinsosŏl, sinshi, the sijo revival, Korean identity markers—han, chŏng, hŭng, and mŏt—and the introduction and influence of Western sources are areas where myth reared its head. When William Aston came to Seoul as British consul-general in 1883, he found only two bookshops in the city; both sold books in hanmun only. To find...