Kim Kwang-Kyu at Buffalo, April 17, 2006.
Kim Kwang-Kyu was born in 1941 in Seoul. He grew up amidst the turmoil of the Korean War (1950-3) and its aftermath. He studied German language and literature in Seoul National University and his poetic history is particularly interesting because he first developed his poetic voice by translating German poetry, works by Heinrich Heine and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems in Korean. He has continued to work to bring German and Korean literature closer and has been awarded the prestigious Friedrich-Gundolf Prize this year for his efforts to promote German literature in Korea.
Kim Kwang-Kyu did not begin to publish his own poetry until 1975, already in his mid-30s, when most Korean poets reckon to launch their careers in their early 20s. Owing virtually nothing to previous Korean poetic models, indeed consciously turning its back on them, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model for a new poetics for the new age that began in earnest with the assassination of the dictator-general Park Chung-Hee in 1979 and grew to maturity during the dictatorships of the 1980s. For the first time in Korean literary history, a poetic voice characterized by satirical humor was able to speak out, pointing its dart at the evils of dictatorship and the follies of everyday life in the modern city in subtle, understated ways.
It is significant that Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry has the publication date October 20 1979 on its copyright page. Less than a week later, on October 26, the life of the dictator Park Chung-hee was brought to a sudden, violent end. As a result of that liberating event, his book was more actively restricted and repressed by censorship in the ensuing security clampdown than it might otherwise have been. But at the same time, that only served to give it fuller credentials as a work of major resistance, and in the years that followed some of his earliest poems became great classics in the struggle against dictatorship precisely because the dictatorship was too stupid to realize what they were about. Since then he has published 7 other volumes, received many major literary awards, and influenced the younger generations of Korean poets.
Kim Kwang-Kyu is not much interested in celebrating directly the beauties of nature, in part at least because he is too acutely aware of the way human pollution has ruined the beauties of nature. He is one of the very first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological disaster. The voice of his best poems is often one that inspires a sardonic smile, but it is tempting to recognize in it a deeply “humanistic” voice, for Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in today’s world. In that, he is intensely altruistic. Kim Kwang-Kyu is still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that should make us want to weep in a voice that makes us smile.