August 6, 1902
Kusŏng, Phyŏnganbukto, Korean Empire
|Died||December 24, 1934
Kwaksan, Phyŏnganbukto, Korean Empire
|Alma mater||Tokyo University|
|Revised Romanization||Kim So-wol|
Kim Sowol (김소월, 1902 ~ 1934) was a Korean poet. He is most famous for his contributions to early modern Korean poetry. Throughout his life he wrote his beautifully poignant poetry in a style reminiscent of traditional Korean folk songs and consequently became known as a 'Folk Song Poet'. The most prized example of this style was "Azaleas (진달래꽃)", the title poem of his sole collection of poetry.
Kim Sowol was born on August 6, 1902 (on lunar calendar date) in Kwaksan, North Pyong'an Province, Korean Empire and died on December 24, 1934. Shortly after he was born his father became insane. This fact although tragic must have affected the poet's early life and eventually led to his own premature death. His grandfather taught him classical Chinese and entered him in the famed Osan Middle School (also the alma mater of Baek Seok and Kim Eok at the age of fifteen. He became a pupil of Kim Eok (김억; 金憶), pen-named Anso, who remained for the rest of his life not only his mentor but one who truly understood the growth and abrupt termination of his poetic genius. Kim Sowol’s real name was Kim Jeong-sik (김정식; 金廷湜).
In 1923, Kim went to Japan, apparently to study, but he returned to Seoul in that same year, where he stayed for the next two years attempting to build a career in literature. However, he returned to his native region, to the town of Namsai, where he worked as the manager of the local office of Dong-A Ilbo. His poems continued to appear in the newspaper, but their quality deteriorated and Kim's life descended to habitual drinking and a reported suicide in 1934.
He wrote most of the poems contained in The Azaleas, his first and only collection of poetry published in his lifetime. It was written in 1925 while he was still a teenager. After graduating from Paejae High School, he taught for a while in his home town and then he went to Japan to study at a college of commerce. While studying there, he published several poems in Kaebyok and other literary journals. He continued to publish his poems after his return in such journals as Yongdae till his sudden death. He died in 1934 of what appears to be suicide.
His teacher Anso published a volume of selected poems of Sowol in 1935. These included his memoir and a critical essay, in which he points out that the poet's true genius lay in composing lines in the rhythm of Korean folk song, thereby making his poems touch directly the hearts of Koreans. The magical charm of Sowol's lines can barely be recaptured fully in English translation, since the spirit of his poetry is conveyed in part through the sound of Korean folk tunes, which imposes an additional challenge on the translation of his literary works to fit on English poetic rhythms, rhymes, and cadences.
Azaleas and its alternative meanings
나 보기가 역겨워
말없이 고이 보내 드리오리다.
아름 따다 가실 길에 뿌리오리다.
가시는 걸음 걸음
놓인 그 꽃을
사뿐히 즈려 밟고 가시옵소서.
나 보기가 역겨워
죽어도 아니 눈물 흘리오리다.
You're sick and tired of me.
When you go
I'll bid you goodbye without saying a word.
I'll gather azaleas on Yak Mountain,
The burning azaleas of Yongbyon,
And strew them in your path.
Tread gently, please,
Step by step, softly,
On the flowers of dedication.
You're sick and tired of me.
When you leave
I'll not weep though I die.
—Translated by Peter H. Lee
In the poem a woman is speaking to a lover who may soon leave her. Cultural difference hinders understanding the context and one translator has provided several alternative versions to suit various moods or stylistic choices by way of example. In particular he cites the difficulty in finding a precise equivalent for the emotion being described, although the theme is a standard one both in the Korean literary and folk traditions.
Another commentator addresses the many possible interpretations of what is in essence a simple situation. It has been asked whether Kim Sowol was not being self-indulgent in writing melancholy ditties in the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea. One answer has been that turning his back on experimenting with foreign literary styles, in order to engage with traditional forms in “the purest Korean", and that at a time when the language was under attack from the Japanese and occasionally banned, was a form of cultural resistance. Moreover, some even see the poem as a coded reference to the Japanese presence and an anticipation of their departure.
On the other hand, David McCann believes that “social history or literary biography are not discovered in Azaleas; rather, the social history is found in what others have written about the poem.” In his opinion, the poem should be allowed to stand as itself; the proper business of commentary is to analyse what lies behind the comments of others.
- Kim, J., 1975, Lost Love: 99 Poems by Sowol Kim, Pan-Korea Book Corporation: Seoul.
- David R McCann, 2007, Azaleas, A book of Poems, by Kim Sowol (Columbia University Publication): New York.
- "Kim Sowol" LTI Korea Datasheet available at LTI Korea Library or online at: http://klti.or.kr/ke_04_03_011.do#
- "김소월". http://people.search.naver.com/search.naver?sm=tab_txc&where=people_profile&ie=utf8&query=%EA%B9%80%EC%86%8C%EC%9B%94&os=166203. Naver. Retrieved 12 November 2013. External link in
- Lee, Kyung-ho (1996). "Kim, So-Wol". Who's Who in Korean Literature. Seoul: Hollym. p. 265. ISBN 1-56591-066-4.
- Translation by Peter H. Lee, Poems From Korea, London 1974, p.166-7
- Brother Anthony:An, Sonjae (1998). "Translating Korean Poetry". Modern Poetry in Translation. 13. Retrieved 2014-07-09.
- David R. McCann, “The Meanings and Significance of So Wŏl's Azaleas”, The Journal of Korean Studies Vol. 6 (1988-89), pp. 211-228