From Questions on the Agony of Life to the Meditations of a Truth-finder.
The Poetic Themes of Kim Jong-Chul

by Prof. Park Ho-Young

Mr. Kim Jong-Chul was born in 1947 in Pusan City, Korea and debuted as a poet on 1968 when his poem "Sound of a Loom" was awarded first prize in the annual poetry contest held by the Hankook Daily Newspaper. Two years later he was again awarded first prize in the Seoul Daily Newspaper poetry contest for his poem "Drowned Dreams". Today Kim Jong-Chul is considered to be one of the most well-known poets in Korea.

"The Last Words of Seoul", his first collection of poetry, was published in Korea 1975. His early poems tend to explore basic questions of human emotion, such as sorrow, parting, illness, grief, disappointment, that anyone naturally encounters during a lifetime. In dealing with these questions, he consistently attempts to overcome not only his own limitations, but to transcend the limited sphere of humanity as well. This, of course, is not necessarily exceptional, since most poets deal with similar themes. His poems are unique, however, in their exceptional capacity to move a reader's heart. This ability does not stem from Kim's talent alone, but is deeply rooted in his own life experience, growing up in war and extreme poverty. Poverty accompanied him throughout his childhood and youth, driving him to voluntarily join the army to serve in the Vietnam War. Personal familiarity with suffering lends a certain truth and sincerity to a poet's work. In this sense, Kim has profited from the hardship experienced in his early days. Because of this personal biography, he is more capable than others of conveying a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.

His poetic world remains constant in his second poetry collection, "The Island of Wise Crows" published in 1984. He continues to show a primary interest in the themes of poverty, desperation and death, which deliver the main motifs for his dark, melancholic imagery. Yet, in this second collection, we can perceive his efforts to escape from the self-defined "enemies of life's agony". He slowly begins to distance himself from life's agony, showing a new lightheartedness in his understanding of things and affairs.

Kim's third book picks up on the same note as the previous collection. Its date of publication in the early '90's is also of some significance. Korea experienced a long period of military dictatorship from early '60's to the late '80's; Kim defines it as "a period of universal tragedy." In contrast, the '90's represent a period of rebirth, in which Korea is able to witness the benefits of democracy. Kim he realizes he can no longer describe his own life as a "tragedy that no man lives in this land." Discarding the inertia brought on by the knowledge of having had no choice but to be simultaneously accomplice, offender and victim, he opens his eyes to the new, changed reality. He develops a new attitude from a more mature perspective, approaching his themes in a lighter tone, but this does not mean that he regards life lightly. Rather, it suggests a new ability to recognize life's truths even in trivial matters, so often neglected. The source of this ability is his Catholic faith. God does not only live in high and holy places. His revelations dwell in the lower places as well, in everything small and mean, we are only incapable of perceiving them. Kim, however, through his sincere faith, is able to perceive and never ceases to search for them. This quality gives greater variety to the themes of his more recent poems. He does not hesitate to choose everyday objects, no matter how ordinary, from a pumpkin or a nail, to a camel or a grain of rice.

He describes this attitude, driving him to search for the deeper meaning behind even such insignificant objects as nails, in the prologue to his fourth collection, "Meditation on Nails", in which he states: "For three years I wandered, trying to find myself and truth through meditation. A bent nail answered my prayers! A rusted, a most insignificant nail, too!" He found an opening to a solution in the nail, and through a series of meditations in search of the higher truth, he was able to confirm his own existence. To him, a nail is not just a trivial piece of metal piece that is driven into a wall to hang or fix something. A nail is an entity, a device of existence, and a mirror that reflects its own past in accordance with its form. A bent nail symbolizes a bent life, and the hole a nail leaves behind after being extracted denotes the vestige of a malignant wound. Kim also perceives lessons from the nails of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The climax of the "Nail" series is reached in the poem "Green Frog". In this familiar fable, a green frog neglects to show his mother sufficient obedience and respect, always doing the opposite of whatever she asks. Wishing to be buried on the mountain, she tells him on in her deathbed to bury her at the seashore, supposing he would do exactly the opposite, as usual. However, the frog repents at last and buries his mother where she had specified. Thereafter, whenever it rains, the green frog cries, worrying his mother's tomb could be washed away. Through a parody on this fable, Kim expresses regret for having shown insufficient respect toward his own mother.

For Kim, the humble nail becomes an object of profound meaning. Actually, it is we who give meaning to objects that convey no special meaning in and of themselves. If all humanity were to disappear from this earth, a diamond would be nothing but a stone, and a rose just another flower. It is we who differentiate, by attributing unequal value to them. Therefore, the value of the things around us projects an image of ourselves. In this context, according to Kim's perception, nails begin to possess, for the first time, a meaning worthy of themselves.

It is only possible to assume such a perspective when one does not rely on existing value systems, but is willing to consider things from a fresh standpoint. This is why Kim chooses "Meditation on Nails" for the title of his book. Meditation is not simple, but deep thought, "seeing" the essence, philosophical thought. He tries to realize truth through meditation in order to expose the contradiction between basic human essence and the human being itself.

His poems on "The Virgin's Sutra" and "Life-size Statue of Buddha" are in effect a variation on the pieces of the "Nail" series. The Virgin's Sutra is an ancient sex manual, written between the second Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era in ancient China. Kim's satire in the series of poems on this theme uses the imagery of the nail's characteristic capacity to offend, by causing holes with its sharp tip in walls or wood, while at the same time becoming a victim, being consumed by wall or wood as soon as it enters.

His poems on the life-size statue of Buddha are related to "Nails" through the image of the statue that was once a living monk whose dead body did not return to elements, but remained as it was, trying to convey a lesson. According to Buddhism, the nature of Buddha is inherent in every man, but it is inaccessible to man as long as he is a captive of false desires. Though our reality is unsatisfactory and full of agony, it is merely a world of illusion caused by our futile attachment, and man is able to achieve the stage of the nature of Buddha, because he is an infinite and self-existent being. However, almost every man mistakes the superficial phenomenon for a true being, and thus cannot see truth itself, the nature of Buddha. To such human beings the life-size statue of Buddha is an incarnation of the nature of Buddha. It is a Buddha, though dead, still living among us. Kim seeks the way toward human deliverance through this Buddha. He sees in this Buddha the solution to human pain and agony.

Kim Jong-Chul is without doubt one of the finest Korean poets to have emerged since the '70s. His poetical stance in his ongoing search for truth has shifted from the sincere questioning of his earlier works to the philosophical reflection of his recent meditations. His ability to approach profound themes with a lightness of tone through satire, wit and parody help to deliver his message more effectively, and lead readers to a greater depth of understanding.

[revised by Cornelia Oefelein]


Jong-Chul KIM; born February 18, 1947 in Pusan, Korea; graduated with a degree in Korean Literature from Sorabol University of Arts in Seoul in 1970; lectured on poetry at Pyungtaek University from 1997-98; is currently publisher of the Literature Pocketbook Publishing Co. Literary activities and awards: 1968 ­ debut as a poet as winner of the Hankook Daily Newspaper poetry contest; 1970 ­ first prize in the Seoul Daily Newspaper poetry contest; 1990 ­ 6th Dong-Joo Yoon Literary Prize; 1992 ­ 4th Nam-Myung Literary Prize; 1993 ­ 2nd Pyun-Woon Literary Prize; member of Korea Poets Association, Korean branch of the P.E.N. Club, Korea Writers Association.


Poetry Collections

The Last Words of Seoul, Korea 1975
The Island of Wise Crows Island, Korea 1984
The Day Has Already Come, Korea 1990
Meditation on Nails, Korea 1992
Poetics of Nails, Korea 1998

Publications in Collaboration with the Hands and Fingers Literary Group

The Sea and the Four Seasons, Korea 1975
In the Sunshine of Grace, Korea 1976
My Wife Went Out to Somewhere, Korea 1979
Looking at a Picture of Birds, Korea 1980
Practice of Meeting in Dewdrops, Korea 1981
The Heavens Are Made, Korea 1982
The Sound of Pine Tree Needles, Korea 1983

Publications in Collaboration with the Poetic Spirits Group

For Beautiful Sensitivity, Korea 1985
Poems from the Place of Sunrise, Korea 1986
For a Camel, Korea 1988
Farewell is Done in Both Ways, Korea 1989
There is No Sparrow, Korea 1990
Every Man Resembles Me, Korea 1991

Special Editions

Life-size Statue of Buddha, in the monthly Modern Literature, 1994
Songs for the Virgin's Sutra, in the quarterly Poetry and Poetics, 1997

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