Do Jong-Hwan: Poems of Love, Loss, and Hope
Aug 01, 2016
When we consider the immense popularity enjoyed by Do Jong-Hwan, both as a poet and as a person, it is quite surprising that it has taken so long for a volume of his most popular poems to be published in English. This new publication offers the additional advantage of being bilingual, so that readers also have access to the original texts of the poems.
At times when we feel that
it is a wall, unavoidably a wall,
without a word ivy goes climbing up the wall.
At times when we say that
it is a wall of despair
with no drop of water, where not one seed can survive,
unhurrying, the ivy advances.
Hand in hand, several together, it climbs on, a span’s breadth at a time.
It grasps the despair and will not let go
until the despair is all covered in green.
At times when we shake our heads, saying
that wall cannot be climbed,
one ivy leaf leads thousands of other ivy leaves
and finally climbs over that wall.
“Ivy” is one of Do Jong-Hwan’s most popular poems, reproduced (in Korean) thousands of times on the Internet by his admirers. Like many of his poems, it begins with a familiar scene linked to nature and the traditional countryside (modern apartment blocks rarely have ivy-covered walls) but then takes the scene as an image of a truth about human existence. The patient progress of ivy up a dry, harsh surface ends in victory as it reaches the top of the wall and passes beyond. Despair is overcome; new hope is born.
Born in 1954 in Cheong-ju, North Chungcheong Province, Do Jong-Hwan first became a recognized poet some years after he began to work as a high school teacher. The extreme poverty of his family had meant that the only form of higher studies available to him was the teacher training college. During his student days, seeing him confronted with many difficulties, friends persuaded him to join their literary club and so he first became aware of poetry.
The death by cancer of his wife in 1985, just two years after they married, and a few months after the birth of their second child, inspired him to write a volume of love poems, Hollyhock You, which brought him critical acclaim and instant fame. It has sold over one million copies. However, he was so identified with the mourning voice of those poems that when he remarried six years later, many readers were scandalized. Some have never forgiven him, so strongly they had fixed him in a stereotyped situation of grief and loss. They forgot that grief, too, is at length overcome by new love.
In 1989, his efforts to democratize Korea’s educational system meant that he was forbidden to teach for ten years. Once the ten years were over, he returned to teaching for another five years before spending another ten years living quietly in the countryside. He then returned to a much more socially active life in Seoul. He has been a member of the main opposition party in the Korean National Assembly since 2012, selected on the proportional representation system to represent the world of literature and the arts.
After the great success of Hollyhock You, Do went on to publish other very popular volumes: You Whom I Love (1988), Who Are You (1993), Flowers Wither in People’s Villages (1994), The Smooth Straight Line(1998), The Root of Sorrow (2002), and The Road to Haein (2006). His most recent volume was Between Three and Five O’clock (2011). He has received a number of major literary awards, including the 2009 Chong Chi-Yong Literature Prize, the 2010 Yun Dongju Literature Award, the 2011 Baek Seok Prize for Literature, and the 2012 Gong Cho Literature Award.
This bilingual collection of eighty poems by Do Jong-Hwan with English translations, selected from the whole of his career, offers a much wider access to his work. One overall theme which is repeated in multiple ways in one poem after another is “There is hope even on the brink of a precipice” (from “At Sangseon-am Hermitage”). He often expresses this theme in terms of springtime: “how good if we could brush off dejection and disappointment and wave our hands like the leaves of April, with fresh hearts, the heart of a leaf ever starting anew” (“A Dream of Leaves”), but for many of his readers Do Jong-Hwan is above all the poet of love and loss. He reminds himself, as he writes a “May Letter” to his dead wife, “To love one person among this world’s many and to have loved each other deeply for a long while is beautiful.” He finds a certain comfort in the world of nature: “When I return home at nightfall, the wind fills the emptiness in my aching heart.”
It is only natural that many of his poems remind one of the elegies that figure in world literature from centuries ago; mortality and transience can never fail to be challenges to any over-simplified expectation of human happiness: “It’s sad, but flowers fall. Days once beautiful go floating away on the stream, the wind blows and without a word our flesh cracks.” The final solution is a deeper wisdom, an acceptance: “wounds and pain too form part of a beautiful life.”
In the end, the poems of Do Jong-Hwan do not need much explanation or commentary. They are not difficult to understand. They offer fragments of wisdom, lessons learned from life’s joys and pains. That explains why so many people appreciate them for the courage they give when life is difficult, when joy seems far away. No doubt, there are more “artistic” poets with far more challenging poems and ideas, but Koreans love supremely the poets who encourage them to endure, to preserve a simple dignity in the midst of trials and hardship.
*Article from the List Magazine published by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea
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