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  • Explorations of Contemporary Korean Poetry
  • Cho Kang-sŏk (bio)
    Translated by Benoit Berthelier (bio) and Jae Won Edward Chung (bio)

Poetry's Dual Drives

In the latter half of the 2000s, the Korean poetic world underwent an unprecedented shock, brought about by contradicting forces of two different vectors—two different "poetic drives." The first one was a drive overflowing with an experimental spirit that set out to explore all the places that modern Korean poetry had hitherto left unexplored. The second vector, pointing in the opposite direction, manifested itself through a passionate and extensive exploration of all forms of grammar and enunciation that had hitherto been deemed non-poetic (pisijŏk, 非詩的) by the discursive field we call "poetry." If we had to chronologically distinguish the two clearly, we could say that the latter came first and prompted a process of selfexamination that necessarily led to the former.

Drawing an analogy with the twentieth-century history of art, we could say that the appearance of the so-called futurist group (miraep'a),1 which rose to fame as the new avant-garde of [End Page 351] Korean poetry around 2005, was akin to the introduction of the readymade and an expansion of poetic planarity.2 It is no secret that there were many debates around the question of which poets should be considered as part of this futurist group, or if it even constituted an actual movement with a characteristic school of thought. But there does not seem to be much value in focusing solely on a name and inferring socioaesthetic theories that the authors themselves did not put forward. What is clear is that the term, "futurist," became widely used to denote a specific poetic current that emerged after the mid-aughts and thus demonstrated its practical value.

A more direct explanation would be that the "poetic drive" of these futurist poets was not just an attempt at distinguishing their work from the existing ideals of lyrical poetry but rather that each of them sought the syntactic structures and ways of uttering that could be enunciated most adroitly within these ideals. By bringing those under the umbrella of "poetry" as a discursive field, they aimed at producing original works that expressed the world in their own idiosyncratic way. The positive effect of this process was that it widened the scope of what falls under the umbrella of "poetry." Indeed the "poetic drive" they pursued sought to speak through ways of enunciating that were not limited to static definitions like Northrop Frye's "poetic speaker" or to structures in which internal wanderings and external contradictions are always eventually resolved through the same monotonous return to nature. As such, they first and foremost brought under the umbrella of poetry minor genres and elements of so-called lowbrow culture that had usually remained outside of it. [End Page 352]

This is not to say there were no attempts to reform lyricism in the Korean poetic scene of the 1930s and 1950s but that, since these attempts arose along manifestos and theses on the "theory" of poetry that had to be followed, they can be considered as by-products of typical modernism. More than anything, given that these efforts either saw theory as superior to concrete practice or (despite departing from other fixed forms then in vogue) standardized poetic practice to match theory, they are entirely different from the context of the changes that we are currently discussing here. The poets who have been actively publishing during the past decade have not put forth any manifestos or "theory," and even if they might have, they have been mostly ideas mentioned a posteriori, based on the observation of their poetic practice. They are poets who, through their works, have managed to naturally bring grammatical and enunciative transformations under the umbrella of poetry by importing the syntactic structures and lexicon of peripheral genres that were thought to lie on the outskirts of the traditional realm of poetry as it had hitherto been produced and statically formalized. To borrow the words of one commentator, we can say that this was "the democratization of the ready-made,"3 and using this observation to speak metaphorically, we might...


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