Kim Ok (1896–unknown), born in Jeongju, North P’yŏng’an (present-day North Korea), was an early modernist poet, a prolific translator, and a literary editor. He was also distinguished as a secondary school teacher, freelance lecturer, and broadcasting administrator. A precocious linguist, Kim introduced to the Korean language an eclectic selection of Western poetry with the publication of his 1921 anthology Dance in Agony. The first of its kind in Korean, it featured translations of poems by Paul Verlaine, Remy de Gourmont, Charles Baudelaire, W. B. Yeats, and more. This volume, along with Kim’s own foreign-inspired verse and his essays on Western literary theory, helped catalyze the modernist movement in Korean poetry, which was defined as much by the absorption of Western techniques such as vers libre and the broadening of subject matter beyond Chinese-inflected folk themes as it was by a reckoning with the ascendancy of Japan. Having replaced China as the main gateway to the outer world, Japan served as both model and foe for Korea—on the one hand, a colonial and deculturalizing power (Japan ruled Korea from 1910 to 1945), but, on the other, a country that modernized successfully while safeguarding its cultural sovereignty.
Kim is considered a modernist for his adoption of Western aesthetics and literary theory, but this classification applies only to the early years of his career. Around 1925, against the backdrop of an increasingly treacherous political scene, Kim retreated to the realms of Chinese poetry and Korean folk song, shifting from the modernist rhythms of his early work to songlike meters and traditional themes. Also influential on Kim’s transformation was a relationship he formed as a high-school teacher with his student Kim Sowol (1902–34). The younger Kim became one of the most acclaimed Korean poets of the century, famous for his only book, Azaleas (1925), which is still taught today as a paragon of modern (contra modernist) Korean verse—prized for its simplicity and purity of style, widely seen as a lineal descendant of Old Korea. The elder Kim was instrumental in the book’s publication, but he never shared his student’s high reputation. Later on, Kim all but doomed his name by his participation in a writers’ organization that sided with Japan, penning pro-Japanese labor songs and promoting Japanese culture and literature at a time of heightened Korean nationalism.
The circumstances of Kim Ok’s death remain mysterious: kidnapped by agents of the Kim (Il-Sung) regime in 1950, he was last seen in 1958 at a farm collective in North Korea. Kim’s poetry continues to be blacklisted today in the North, and, although it is available in the South, it is no more popular there. For all his contributions to Korean poetry, Kim Ok is known first and foremost as a traitor, if he is known at all. In 2009, South Korea’s Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities gave him an entry in its Dictionary of Pro-Japanese Collaborators, and he also made the list of 705 traitors released by the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism.
The poems presented below are from the poet’s 1923 collection Songs of the Jellyfish.
Let us let
time flow as
as it is.
Such is the
task of the
cycle of man—
to let time
around the foot
of the mountain
To let all
pass, in the
as it is.
All illness enters the body through the mouth,
All good and evil enters the world through the mouth.
Therefore, the songs produced by the mouth
are the bitterest of
All laments, sicknesses born at an era’s end—
Strange is the breath that buries
The corpses of our beloved.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 49
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com