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  • Early South Korean Modernist Poetry:A Genealogy
  • Jae Won Edward Chung (bio)

In 1948, four months before the Republic of Korea was established, Sinsiron ("new poetics") published their first anthology volume. In it, co-founder Kim Kyŏng-nin (1918–2006) declared that modern poetry began with "the annulment of all promises about language." What did he mean? In the past, language had been but a tool for the explication of concepts and the circulation of ideology. With modern poetry, language became a scientific mode of thought that could produce its own "fusion" of reality.

[I] wish to propose an experimental course for a new trajectory of modern poetry. In order to express a new way of thought (sago), we must adopt reality through a scientific perspective, at the right speed, and this reality must be constituted through a new fusion, with a fresh, pictorial imagination (imijineisyŏn). It is poetic thought that regulates this new fusion, and what adds speed to this new form of thought is art's comprehensive action (aeksyŏn).1 [End Page 245]

According to Kim, reality is both recreated and contemplated through poetry, and the "pictorial imagination" combined with "speed" allows the poet the opportunity to engage in "action." The promise of autonomous poetic agency and its reliance primarily on the power of the image would become attributes most consistently enshrined by modernist poetics in the coming decade. Almost forty years later, in his publication of the collection Seoul, Wild Horse-like (1987), Kim states that while modernism should not be constrained to a "dictionary concept," underlying its multiplicity through history were the principles of surrealism or imagism that allowed poets to draw from their contemporary contexts to "unfold new movements."2

It is not enough, however, to say modernism allows for multiplicity. We must look at how historical developments set the terms for what kind of multiplicity modernism may hold—that is, how they shaped the outer limits of modernism's constitution as a field of organizational, creative, and discursive activities.3 This is especially true for the cultural politics of South Korea's turbulent early years. At the end of Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), Korea was divided (the northern zone administered by the Soviet Union and the southern by the United States). Across the South, there was widespread ideological mobilization across virtually all organizational units. If 1930s modernism solidified its position in the cultural field in the wake of the dissolution of KAPF (Korean Artists Proletarian Federation) by the Japanese colonial authority, then jockeying for position in the post-liberation era by various factions unfolded more or less concurrently after Liberation, in a shorter span of time, overlapping with migrations, strikes, [End Page 246] demonstrations, acts of terror, political and economic uncertainty, and eventually, the outbreak of the Korean War. The legacy of this civil war and its decades-long solidification into a sustainable postwar system involved the entrenchment of Cold War ideology and continual disavowal by state and citizenry. Modernism was implicated in this process.

As we examine the complexity of this implication, a genealogical method allows us to pay attention to moments of diverging possibilities at an early juncture of South Korean literary history.4 It also allows us to engage in ongoing debates about how aesthetic and discursive borders of modernism in Korea have been constituted. Kim Hansung and Choi Junga, for example, have shown how acts of translating or creatively adapting the works of W.B. Yeats yielded varying possibilities for modernism across generations of Korean poetry.5 While Kim and Choi show how Yeats's oeuvre became a fruitful Rorschach test for Korean modernists of their respective eras, Janet Poole's work on "midcentury modernism" seeks to trace the resilience of modernist themes across discursive boundaries shaped by the Cold War.6 By showing how Ch'oe Myŏng-ik's aesthetics of melancholia and negation persist across the 1945 divide, Poole offers a way of understanding modernism less in "specific formal terms" and more as a questioning of unidirectional progress. [End Page 247]

If Kim and Choi privilege variation, and Poole repetition, I attempt to track both in early South Korean modernist poetry. I also...


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