The Happiness and Peace of which a Poet in a Barren World Dreams

– On the Poetry World of Lee Dong-Jin –

by Prof. Lee Soong-Won, literary critic

Mr. Lee Dong-Jin is a career diplomat, at present Ambassador in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and also a writer (poet /novelist/playwright/essayist). In his youth, he dreamed of becoming a Catholic priest, studying philosophy and theology at the Catholic University (Seminary) in Seoul, Korea, but later changed his course to enter the College of Law at Seoul National University. In June 1969 he passed the Higher Diplomatic Service Examination and soon started his diplomatic career. Within eight months he graduated from college, while at the same time receiving national recognition as a poet through a literary monthly called Hyundae Moon-hak (Modern Literature), the oldest and most influential magazine in Korea, together with a recommendation from Prof. Park Doo-Jin, one of Korea’s leading senior poets.
Soon after his debut, Lee began writing in almost every literary genre, resulting in a total of 18 volumes of poetry, three novels, one volume of short stories, four books of plays and one collection of essays. He also translated many foreign novels into Korean, among others “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco and “The Hobbitt” by J.R.R. Tolkien. This prolific writing career becomes all the more remarkable when taking into account that Lee was simultaneously fulfilling his duties as a diplomat during this 30-year period.
In June 1970, at the age of 25, he started publishing the monthly magazine “Ivory”, launching it under the motto: “a monthly magazine for the youth in their twenties, made by hands in their twenties.” Korea, at the time, was suffering under military rule. There were no magazines for young people of this age group, dedicated to addressing young tastes and ideals, and the oppressive press policy of the military government, just at the peak of its power, made it nearly impossible to get government permission to publish a new magazine. Starting with empty hands and many difficulties, Lee succeeded in bringing the monthly to life with the help of his friends.
Edited by Lee, “Ivory”, with its fresh and fearless articles, became so popular that its issues sold out instantly among university students. Lee wrote a long poem for the magazine, entitled “To Your Eminence Cardinal”, with the intention of inducing the Korean Catholic Church to speak out for justice and to participate in social reforms, rather than keeping silent on such issues. Instead, this poem provoked heated reactions from Catholic authorities and, as a result, the monthly was shut down six months later. Even so, it succeeded in reminding young Catholic priests in particular of their duty to preach against injustice and oppression.
Just three months after the “Ivory’s” closing, Lee and several young actors got together to found the first independant theatre group in Korea, called “The Permanent Stage”. The name “The Permanent Stage” derived from the idea that the group would perform a new play written by a Korean every month. The group actually performed nine new plays in a one-year period, including three of Lee’s own, among them “Jesus of Gold Crown”, which received acclaim not only from literary circles or the churches, but from common people throughout the country as well. During February and March of 1972, starting from Seoul, “The Permanent Stage” toured the main cities of Korea with their production of “Jesus of Gold Crown”. The central message of the play was established religion’s sin of hiding behind its own church walls. Religious leaders should recognize their duty to speak out on behalf of justice for the people suffering under the corruption of a totalitarian regime; those religious leaders neglecting this duty should be condemned. The fact that this play was performed throughout Korea just six months before the declaration of the so-called Restoration Constitution, which aimed to legalize the life-long dictatorship of a single military ruler, gave the piece added meaning. It provoked some discussion between conservative and liberal factions in the Korean Catholic Church, and the young liberal priests, who had founded the Catholic Priests Group for Justice, felt encouraged to continue and expand their activities.
Lee’s play “Jesus of Gold Crown” has been performed in Korea repeatedly, and its main theme song was used as a chant by student-groups demonstrating against the military dictatorship. However, confusion arose while Lee was abroad for 10 years on diplomatic service, regarding the play’s authorship. In Korea and abroad, the play was mistakenly accredited to Kim Ji-Ha, a prominent dissident writer. Several writers, both foreign and Korean, had quoted from the play in their articles on Liberation Theology and on Korean Minjoong (People’s) Theology, mistakenly citing the name of Kim Ji-Ha as its author. The Korean Association of Playwrights included the play as a piece written by Lee Dong-Jin in its annual play collection of 1989. In August 1991, the leading newspapers of Korea (Donga-ilbo, Kookmin-ilbo, the weekly Catholic Newspaper, and others) confirmed that the play’s author was not Mr. Kim but Mr. Lee, thereby settling the dispute.
Mr. Lee’s novel “The Sinner We Love”, published in 1989, is unique in modern Korean fiction. Historically, the Korean people have been exposed to war repeatedly, but among those, the Korean War (1950-53) between the South and the North was the most destructive and arduous. Defining this war as “a sin of incest” he approached it from a fresh perspective, through one family’s tragedy. In August 1990, Korea’s largest broadcasting company KBS-TV, produced a mini-series based on this novel. The film was broadcast over a period of two months in 12 installments lasting one hour each, and re-broadcast the following spring.
From his early works to his more recent ones, not only in his poetry but also in his novels and plays, Mr. Lee consistently presents us with two particular perspectives: a satirical view of the realities of our society, on the one hand, and an affectionate view of human life itself, on the other. While undergoing much variation, these view-points have maintained their central positions in the whole of his literary work. Mr. Lee believes that literature may give readers some pleasure, but that it should also deliver a message, reflect society and contribute to its development; literature should fulfill all these functions, he says. His work, written with a clear consciousness of theme, reveals universal relevance.
In his early poems, his satirical voice manifests itself mainly in the form of suppressed anger over and compassion for Korean society, in patriotic appeals and expressions of agony. But in more recent poems it expands to include a more universal, critical view of the human struggle. In one of his early poems, “Divided Forest That Grows Darker”, for example, he examines Korea’s past and present situation, posing the question of how we are to endure, to the end, the extreme misery of our reality as we swim over the wild waves of history, that continues its course relentlessly. In another early poem, “Arrested, One by One”, he treats the young people’s resistance to the political situation of the period, igniting the pent-up anger of a young, suffering poet confronting the contradictions of his time. Quite clearly contrasting with the above pieces, his recent poem “Paradise of Mine Fields”, criticizes the cruelty and savagery of field-mines. This comparison reveals that his consciousness has developed from a regional perspective concerning the realities of Korea, to a broader viewpoint encompassing all mankind.
Though he criticizes and satirizes reality, he ceases to emphasize his affection for mankind. It is his firm conviction that only love has the power to heal a sick society and to bestow salvation. His attitude most certainly derives from the Christian spirit of universal love, but his poems are not necessarily overly religious, nor are they purely speculative. The consciousness of yearning for future love displayed in Mr. Lee’s poems is primarily based his Catholic and biblical faith in future salvation, but it also corresponds to a trend particular to modern Korean poetry. This is confirmed by his attempts to attain a deep understanding of Korean reality and in his profound affection for his people. His poems often contain angry statements against the contradictory situations of Korean society. Regarding that reality of disorder and absurdity, he speaks for the ordinary people when he cries out his frustration over the unethical elements of society, characterized by corruption and collapse, but never succumbs to despair. With a lively spirit of criticism and healthy optimism, accompanied by humor, he elevates his despair to the level of satire. Furthermore, he tries to confirm the eternity existing in human finiteness.
Mr. Lee’s poems display a characteristic three-tiered structure. He begins by setting the scene with a purely descriptive introductory portion. Then, in the middle section, he reverses the narration, beginning a new story on a different level. He concludes with some personal thoughts in the final section, re-connecting the main theme with reality. This structural style is best described as a dialectical development of the poetic image, and plays a leading role in most of his poems.
Having become familiar with the special characteristics of Mr. Lee’s poetry, what can be said about his world-vision? In the preface to his latest collection of poems “Happiness With One Dollar”, published in Korea in April 1998, he states that a poet’s life can be more valuable and meaningful if he tries to find a true path in the simple and ordinary routines of life, while maintaining a sensibility towards serving others. It would be useless or meaningless, he says, for a poet to either try to command the whole world or to cry out his grand design. In refusing to write meaningless, superficial notes about his personal life, by writing poems with the intention of making us see into our own lives more deeply, he exposes his own literary stance. This perspective on life and literature is mirrored well in his poems, for example in “Happiness With One Dollar”.
One dollar indicates the smallest unit of currency in this poem. What can be bought with one dollar? We can buy eight eggs or two loaves of bread, maybe a pack of cigarettes or three candles. Each item in itself contains no meaning of happiness or human value: an egg is just an egg and bread is nothing but bread. To a wealthy man they are negligible. To him it does not matter at all whether he holds them in his hand or not. To a hungry man, however, they become precious daily necessities. From this perspective, they possess a value recognized by human society.
It is “the virtue of sharing together” to which Poet Lee turns his special attention in this poem: the virtue of sharing eight eggs among eight people, one egg each, instead of them being eaten all by one man, the virtue of dividing two loaves of bread among four people, half a loaf each, the virtue of distributing three candles among three houses, one each, to light these very virtues, to share and give happiness to the world and encourage hope. Smoking a pack of cigarettes alone is contrary to such virtue, and is expressed allegorically as life vanishing into thin air. In a word, this poem makes it clear that the happiness and hope everyone pursues are not realized by a large-scale project, that their fulfillment begins with the warm and open attitude of sharing small things together. The joy of a man possessing one million dollars is nothing compared to the happiness of sharing eggs or bread.
From this perspective, Mr. Lee shows special esteem for “the warm heart of a daily worker who buys some candies for his youngest sister”, and sees the strength and spirit of love, with which the world’s sufferings may be overcome, in “a tired elder sister’s touch of sacrifice, who prepares for herself the last dish of hot noodles, but willingly gives it to her younger brother” (from his poem “At Least Someone is Happy”). This is inspired by his own biography: at the age of five, after his father died, he personally had to experience acute poverty. This poverty of his early childhood has also found its expression in such poems as “Cotton Field”, in which he vividly describes the poverty stricken lives of the inhabitants of Bongchon village in the outskirts of Seoul, who were driven away after their illegal dwellings were demolished. Poverty can either be a painful burden or a source of happiness, depending on how it is accepted. If a man is blinded by greed, put under the yoke of a ruler-and-ruled relationship, and turned into a prisoner of money and power, poverty becomes a terribly painful burden to him. But Poet Lee does not believe that heaven bestowed poverty to man from above, but that “man becomes really poor, only when he believes by himself that he is really poor” (from his poem “Continental Poverty”). He therefore believes that, when following nature’s order obediently, when living our lives sharing those little things given to us, we can be rid of the painful yoke of poverty and start walking on the path of true happiness.
In another example, a family of five sits on the floor around a tiny, low table, staring with their mouths watering at a roasted corbina fish lying before them on the table. They have no cause to envy a king’s banquet. When the father divides it fairly and each one is content with his share – no matter whether receiving the head or tail – there at that tiny table, the poet says, “overflows a peace larger than the whole universe”. The source of this sharing spirit is to be found in Lee’s Catholic faith: the way of life of the early Christians, of sharing in common all food and possessions, that was passed down from Jesus to his disciples and is still upheld as a basic principle of the Catholic church today. But if we look at real life today, we can hardly find anyone willing to share. Imprisoned in greed, so many people wander about in their own earthly hell. Poet Lee bitterly satirizes and sharply criticizes this social condition in a number of poems, along with sending warning-signals regarding the inhuman social condition of modern civilization in which everything is reduced to numbers and measures.
The only rope of hope that Lee offers to deliver us from such a barren world is warm-hearted kindness and the spirit of love. In the poem “Love (2)”, the attributes of love are humorously portrayed by ordinary things with which we come into contact daily. When he says love has no eye, no nose, no mouth, no body, no age, no shape he expresses love’s capacity of being unbiased, infinite and immutable. His consciousness of Catholic ethics is revealed once again, when he says that, as human beings, situated between two extremities – i.e. God and beast –, we should choose which kind of love we wish to practice.
In his most recent poems on love, Lee’s sense of humor and wit come to full expression, combined with a playful sense of imagination. But he also wishes to stress the importance of harmony. This can mean the harmony between beautiful and ugly women, or between haves and have-nots, or between the starting line of some written work and the finished product. When a daily worker, though crushed by hardship, buys candy for his youngest sister, when an elder sister, though tired, boils her last handful of noodles to give to her younger brother, when the love of youth continues through old age, such is the harmony Lee is referring to. Perhaps no other scene reflects Lee’s concept of harmony more eloquently than the one of the family of five sharing a fish in mutual love, each one taking his share happily and without dispute or complaint. When we keep the simplicity given us at birth, share with each other the things given to us, and leave this world with a small morsel of peace, this is the beautiful scene of life beginning and ending in harmony.
Lee’s parable “Pond” shows how such peace and happiness come to be destroyed, thus leading us to the realization of how such peace and happiness may be maintained in this barren world: through harmony between upper and lower, between beginning and end, in other words, through a harmony established jointly by all members of a society, each one making a few concessions. When we are patient and try to understand each other, we achieve true peace, true happiness. If not, our world becomes entangled in dispute and, finally, grows barren. Human life in today’s world and Korea’s present reality can hardly be described as being happy and pleasant. Disputes still follow one after another and the world still is not free of poverty and famine. In this ugly and poor world, how should we pursue peace and happiness – and maintain them? This is surely a matter that is of universal concern to all human beings. From the beginning, Poet Lee took this very universal – and important – problem as the main focus of his meditation and has continued to write poems to this day, without seeming to have any intention of stopping.
Refuting the beauty of concentration and the technique of abbreviation, which short lyricism employs, Lee utilizes the narrative in order to convey his consciousness of a universal theme. As a result, his poems stand out from the mainstream of modern Korean poetry. His narrative, however, is not a method to explain a story in a simple way, nor a method to deliver his ideas directly. In his poetry, he raises the narrative to a higher level of poetic technique, as we have seen in the poems introduced here. With his particular compositional structure and his use of the parable-like narrative, Lee has constructed his own expressive method, apart from the general trend. The poet’s intellect erupting in poetic wit opens our eyes to a fresh perspective on reality, while at the same time providing us with the great pleasure reading poems brings.
[revised by Cornelia Oefelein]


Dong-Jin LEE; born Jan. 1, 1945 in Whanghae Province, Rep. of Korea; studies in Philosophy, English Literature, and Law; entered diplomatic service in 1969 and was appointed ambassador in 1995.

Literary activities: 1970 – debut as a poet in “Modern Literature” (Korea’s primary literary monthly, editor-in-chief of the Monthly “Ivory”, Seoul; 1971-72 – managing director of the theatre group “Permanent Stage”; 1981 – delegate at the International Conference of I.T.I.(International Theatre Institute), Madrid, Spain, participation in a poetry exhibition at the Galleria Astrolabio, Rome, Italy; 1992 – Korean representative at the World Poets Conference, Liege, Belgium; member of Korea Poets Association, Korean branch of the P.E.N. Club, Korean branch of I.T.I. (International Theatre Institute), Korea Humanists Society.


Collections of Poetry:

1. Forest of Korea, Seoul 1969, in Korean
2. Culture of Rice, Seoul 1971, in Korean
3. Our Way of Winter, Seoul 1978, in Korean
4. The Soul Unwearable Inside Out, Seoul 1979, in Korean
5. Between Dream and Hope, Seoul 1980, in Korean
6. Sunshines on Peninsula, Los Angeles 1981, in English
7. Enchanted Times, Seoul 1983, in Korean
8. Agony with Pride, Cyprus 1981, in English
9. Selected Poems of Dong-Jin Lee, Seoul 1986, in Korean
10. Our Mind is a River Stream, Seoul 1986, in Korean
11. Dream in a Strange Land, Seoul 1988, in Korean
12. Prayers of Cigarettes, Seoul 1988, in Korean
13. Grace in a Windy Day, Seoul 1990, in Korean
14. The Peace So Beautiful, Seoul 1990, in Korean
15. The Man We Should Find Out, Seoul 1993, in Korean
16. The Happiness Greets Me Just for a While Today, Seoul 1995, in Korean
17. The Earth is One Teardrop, Seoul 1998, in Korean
18. Happiness with One Dollar, Seoul 1998, in Korean


1. A Landscape Only with Shadows, Seoul 1976, in Korean
2. A Small Balloon from Rome, (collection of short stories) Seoul 1985, in Korean
3. The Sinner We Love, Seoul 1989, in Korean.
KBS-TV produced a mini-series based on this novel, a 12-hour film, broadcasted 1990.
4. Crusade for Democratization, Seoul 1990, in Korean

Collections of Plays:

1. Bachelors’ Apartment, Seoul 1977, in Korean
2. You Are not an Angel, Seoul 1979, in Korean
3. Very Queer Patient, Seoul 1979, in Korean
4. Jesus in Rags, Seoul 1991, in Korean
Plays performed on stage or published in Korean monthlies, etc.:
1. Little Bird Chirping in the Morning, Jan., 1979, in the monthly Simsang (Inner Image)
2. Jesus of Gold Crown, first performed from Feb. to March 1972 in Seoul and all major cities in Korea by the theatre group Permanent Stage included in Annual Collection of Plays for 1989 by Korea Playwrights Association
3. Veracruz, first performed in June 1971 in Seoul by Permanent Stage included in Annual Collection of Plays for 1990 Korea Playwrights Association published in Jan., 1991 in the monthly Nation and Intellectuals
4. Summer School, first performed in Nov., 1971 in Seoul by Permanent Stage
5. The Bread of Cain, first performed in July 1977 in Taejon city, Korea, by Large Field Theatre Group
6. Bachelors’ Apartment, first performed in Dec., 1977 in Kangnung city, Korea, by Youngry 26 Group of Kangwon University
7. Naked Lieutenant Mr. Bae, first performed in March to April 1979 in Seoul by Minye(Traditional Arts) Theatre Group performed in Dec., 1984 in Seoul by Nora Theatre Group

Collection of Essays:

1. Into Paradise with Angels, (on Italy) Seoul 1981, in Korean

Translations into Korean:

1. Selected Poems by Jeno Platthy
2. Mass Appeal (a play) by Bill C. Davies
3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
4. Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
5. The Other Bible ed. by Willis Barnstone
6. Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
7. Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
8. The Shoes of Fisherman by Morris West
9. The Devilís Advocate by Morris West
10. The Clown of God by Morris West
11. North of Hope by Jon Hessler
12. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago
and others

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