- The Politics of Separation:The Beloved in 1920s Korean Poetry
Kim So-wŏl's (1902–1934) landmark poem, "Azaleas" (Chindallaekkot), opens with a departure. "I shall send you away in silence," intones the speaker upon being abandoned by an unnamed figure. Their resolve is evident not only in this rejection of a verbal farewell but also in their vow, expressed in the poem's final line, to withhold even a single tear.1 In the "Silence of Love" (Nim ŭi ch'immuk), another celebrated poem from the mid-1920s, Han Yong-un (1879–1944) writes similarly about separation. His speaker, too, is determined not to treat the absence of the beloved as the basis of tragedy. "I took the unruly power of sadness and poured it into the summit of a new hope," they explain, their optimism premised on the belief that the future will bring about a jubilant reunion. In both poems, an unassuming individual is beset by immovable circumstances, their fortitude all the more striking given their inability to alter their situation.
Kim and Han employed separation as a central theme in their poetic oeuvres to evoke a sense of irrevocable loss. They were writing in the wake of the March First Movement, a 1919 series of demonstrations for independence from Japanese colonial rule. For [End Page 221] Koreans as a community, there was arguably no greater absence than that of the nation at the time. Scholars have hailed Kim and Han as representative voices of the era for their ability to capture this collective sentiment in verse.
The thematic correlations between Kim's and Han's poetry have not gone unnoticed. Academics and readers alike have recognized the two poets' preoccupation with the figure of the beloved (nim) in their verse.2 This shared theme has been traced back to Kim Ŏk (1896–?), Kim So-wŏl's mentor and a pioneer in free-verse translations of foreign poetry.3 Each in his own way, Kim So-wŏl and Han both drew upon Kim Ŏk's translations as models for their own poems.
But separation as a subject of poetry is, of course, not unique to either Korea or the 1920s. The theme has a long history in Korean poetry that goes back to at least fourteenth-century Chosŏn, when poems called hansi were composed in classical Chinese by the yangban elites. Over time, it became common practice for male poets to co-opt a woman's voice to express the vicissitudes of separation.4 Hundreds of years later, Kim, Han, and others would continue this tradition, cementing it as a central trope in modern Korean poetry. [End Page 222]
Kim's and Han's project in the 1920s was not to reinvent the subject matter of poetry but to adapt it to suit vernacular composition, which was still in its infancy. In this sense, many of their innovations were formal, identifiable in their proficient use of Korean, not Chinese, as the chosen medium of their art, and in their deployment of this language to generate mellifluous lines in free verse—a new mode of rhythm that many young intellectuals, cognizant of international literary trends, deemed befitting of the modern age.
In the following pages, I briefly trace the use of separation as a poetic trope during the 1920s and survey how critics have since identified the figure of the beloved in these poems as a symbol of political significance. Whereas many have celebrated Kim's and Han's poetry as potent national allegories, I argue that this mode of interpretation is neither encouraged by the texts themselves, nor does it reveal much about either the poems or the era in which they were written. Rather, as I demonstrate, Han advocated for the exact opposite approach, in which readers were to embrace the indeterminacy of metaphor, recognizing poetry as a literary medium that addressed, but did not necessarily represent, reality. With their writing, Kim and Han carved out a space for poetry in the 1920s that attempted to express collective emotion in a personal voice, positing the loss engendered by separation as the reigning sentiment of their time.