restricted access Modern Poetry in Korea: An Introduction
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Modern Poetry in Korea:
An Introduction

In the early 1900s, having been the “The Land of the Morning Calm” for hundreds of years, Korea found itself torn between the great colonial powers: China, Russia, America, and Britain. At the start of the Russo-Japanese War, in 1904, Japan sent troops into Korea and forcibly took control of the country. The international community acquiesced to Japan’s imperialistic demands, and Korea was gradually forced to relinquish its sovereignty as an independent nation. Japanese soldiers had assassinated Queen Min in 1895 and in 1907 King Kojong abdicated under threats to his life. In 1910 Korea was formally annexed as a colony of Japan, despite violent protests and armed rebellion by the Korean people.

Korean scholars such as Dasan Jeong Yak-yong (1762–1836) had foreseen that reform and modernization were needed in Korea, but now change was being imposed by an outside power. And the Occupation was carried out in humiliating ways. Japan’s colonizing plans entailed the systematic stripping away of Korea’s cultural heritage, beliefs, arts, and, in particular, the Korean language.

After the annexation, newspapers and journals published in Korean were banned or heavily censored. Textbooks, historical records, and many other printed materials were destroyed. By the late 1930s to the end of the Pacific War, all education was conducted in Japanese, and schoolteachers were compelled to wear Japanese police uniforms. Koreans were forbidden to write and publish in any language other than Japanese. Moreover, they were forced to adopt Japanese names.

Modern Korean Poetry Begins

Virginia Woolf once declared that “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.” Woolf was alluding to social and political events that transformed England after the death, in 1910, of Edward VII. Modernism, she felt, had arrived, and new forms of writing were necessary to reflect the world’s transformation. From a Korean point-of-view, the decisive year was 1908, when an eighteen-year-old named Choi Nam-seon published his poem “From the Sea to a Boy.” [End Page xiii] Though not a particularly wonderful poem, it was a turning point in Korean poetic expression. Using the country’s vernacular language in a free and idiomatic way, Choi’s poem showed that it was possible to say things that Korean poetry could not have said before.

tcho—l sok, tcho—l sok, tchok, schwa—a Rushing, smashing, crushing, Hills like great mountains, rocks like houses: What are they? What are they? Roaring: Do you know, don’t you know, my great might? Rushing, smashing, crushing, tcho—l sok, tcho—l sok, tchok, schwa—a

Choi attempted to break with the conservative poetic styles of the past, but certain traditional themes remained constant in what became known as the New Poetry. For example, nature remained central—not as landscape, but as the realm in which human life and experience are set. The vastness of ocean and sky, the flow of rivers, and the enduring presence of mountains were understood to be intimately connected through images and metaphors to everyday life, which included people’s attitudes toward government, power, time, and eternity. Flowering plants especially continued to bear complex and subtle meanings for Koreans, as can be seen in many of the poems in The Colors of Dawn.

Resistance and War

Not surprisingly, some Korean poets—such as Park Jong-hwa and Yi Sang-hwa—responded to Japan’s seizure of the country by writing nihilistic poems filled with images of darkness, sorrow, sickness, and death. While these poems might seem mannered and exaggerated to readers today, it should be remembered that writing any poetry at all was dangerous: the slightest expressions of defiance against Japanese rule could result in torture, prison, and even death.

Despite the risks, poets of the 1920s were determined to find ways to speak about forbidden subjects without their true meaning being detected by the authorities. Some wrote in traditional styles that seemed to innocently look back at ancient culture. Kim So-weol, for example, wrote ballads, and Choi Nam-seon wrote classical sijo.

Other authors, such as the Buddhist poet Han Yong-un (pen name Manhae), wrote in free verse about spiritual...