February 17, 2012

Shin Kyong-Nim

Shin Kyong-Nim [Korea]

 Shin Kyong-nim was born in 1935 in Ch'ongju, North Ch'ungch'ong Province, in what is now South Korea. He grew up in the midst of Korea's old rural culture and in later years went travelling about the countryside, collecting the traditional songs of the rural villages. His literary career as a poet officially dates from the publication in 1956 in the review Munhak Yesul of three poems. For years after that he published nothing, immersing himself instead in the world of the laboring classes, the Minjung, and working as a farmer, a miner, and a merchant. The experience of those years underlies much of his finest work as a poet. He only graduated from the English Department of Dongkuk University (Seoul) in 1967, when he was over thirty.

     His fame as a poet dates mainly from the publication of the collection Nong-mu (Farmers' Dance) in 1973, some of the poems from which were first published in the avant-garde review Ch'angjak-kwa Pip'yong in 1970, heralding his return to the literary scene. It would be difficult to exaggerate the historical significance of this volume in the development of modern Korean poetry. In 1974 Nongmu earned Shin the first Manhae Literary Award, bringing his work unexpected publicity and critical attention. Shin thus helped open the way for public acceptance of a poetry rooted in harsh social realities, a militant literature that was to grow into the workers' poetry of the 1980s.

     Many of the poems in this collection are spoken by an undefined plural voice, a "we" encompassing the collective identity of what is sometimes called the Minjung, the poor people, farmers, laborers, miners, among whom the poet had lived. He makes himself their spokesman on the basis of no mere sympathy; he has truly been one of them, sharing their poverty and pains, their simple joys and often disappointed hopes. Shin is one of the first non-intellectual poets in modern Korea and the awareness that he knows the bitterness he is evoking from the inside gives his poems added power.

     Echoing throughout Nong-mu are memories of the political violence that has characterized Korea's history since its Liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. The divisions and conflicts of the first years of independence culminated in the Korean War (1950-3). Later, throughout the 1960s and 70s, the government's policy of industrialization led to a further brutal uprooting of rural populations that had already undergone severe dislocation in the course of the war, and violence continued. In those years, all forms of political opposition or social organization were forbidden and fiercely suppressed under the increasingly severe dictatorship of President Park Chung-Hee. In particular, any advocacy of workers' rights was considered to be an expression of communism, a sign of support for North Korea, and was punished as a crime against national security.

     In a literary culture accustomed to the individualistic "I" speaker of the western romantic tradition, or the fairly unspecified voice of modern Korean lyrics, the collective "we" employed in Nong-mu was felt to be deeply shocking. The leading recognized Korean poets in the 1960s and 1970s were writing in a highly esthetic style inspired by certain aspects of French Symbolism. Poets and critics alike insisted that literature should have no direct concern with political or social issues. This had already been challenged in the earlier 1960s by a number of younger writers and critics including the poet and essayist Kim Su-yong, who was killed in a car crash in 1968. In particular, Kim's advocacy of a poetic style reflecting ordinary, everyday spoken language, with its colloquialisms and pithiness, is reflected in Shin's poems.

     Nong-mu took Kim's rejection of conventionally accepted literary style to new heights and gave rise to an intense critical debate. A major literary scission occurred and the more activist, 'engaged' writers established their own movement, advocating social involvement. Shin Kyong-nim has continued to play a leading role in this movement. He has served as president of the Association of Writers for National Literature, and of the Federated Union of Korean Nationalist Artists. Members of these groups were repeatedly arrested and harassed throughout the 1970s and 80s.

     The poems of Nong-mu often express with intense sensitivity the pain and hurt of Korea's poor, those of remote villages in the earlier sections, but the final poems focus in part on the urban poor, those marginalized in industrial society. The first edition of Nongmu published in 1973 contained just over forty poems, some written years earlier and full of echoes of rural life. A second edition (1975) added two extra sections containing nearly twenty poems written between 1973 and 1975, in a more urban context. Some critics regret this expansion, feeling that these poems are less powerful, but the fuller version represents the poet's final option and I have translated it in its entirety.

     Later volumes of Shin's poetry include Saejae (1979), Talnomse (1985), Kananhan sarangnorae (1988), Kil (1990), and Harmoni wa omoni ui silhouette (1998). Shin uses easily accessible, rhythmic language to compose lyrical narratives that are at times close to shamanistic incantation, or at others recall the popular songs still sung in rural villages if not in Seoul. Much of his work composes a loosely framed epic tale of Korean suffering, as experienced by the farmers living along the shores of the South Han River, the poet's home region, in the late 19th century, during the Japanese colonial period, and during the turmoil of the last fifty years.

     No poet has so well expressed, and so humbly, the characteristic voice of Korea's masses, both rural and urban. Shin never sentimentalizes his subjects but rather takes the reader beyond the physical and cultural exterior to reveal them as intensely sensitive, suffering human beings.

Brother Anthony of Taizé


Nong-mu (Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Chʻangjak kwa Pipʻyŏngsa, 1973); Saejae (1979); Talnŏmse (1985); Kananhan sarangnorae (1988); Kil (1990); Ssŭrŏjin cha ŭi kkum (1993); Harmoni wa omoni ui silhouette (1998)


Farmers' Dance, trans. by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim (Ithaca, New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 1999); Variations: Three Korean Poets: Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim, Lee Si-Young trans. by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim (Ithaca, New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 2001); selections in David R. McCann, ed. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)

For an English-language discussion of Shin's Farmers' Dance, go here:

For a selection of his poems in English, go here:

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