By Andrei Lankov
In 1934 the 32 year-old Kim So-wol committed suicide. He obviously saw himself as a failure. An unsuccessful entrepreneur, a student who never graduated, a failed journalist. He was also widely admired as Korea's best poet, but this was not enough to keep him from ending his own life.
The list of poets who have committed suicide is indeed very long. It has always been tough to be a great poet. Some of them manage to deal with the mundane affairs of the world quite well, but much more frequently they are lost in the face of daily problems. They do things which appear silly or outrageous, they make the life of their families unbearable, they are prone to depression and bouts of all known psychological disorders. And they write poems. Great poems.
Kim So-wol was born in 1902 in what is now North Korea. His childhood was coloured by tragedy: Kim So-wol's father was attacked by Japanese workers who were building a railway near his home. He suffered from a grave mental illness and was treated by the local shamans who resorted to the old ways of ``driving the demons out'': the patient was severely beaten and occasionally forced into icy cold water (one must admit: nowadays psychiatrists' methods are probably not much more efficient, but definitely less violent).
The scenes of "treatment," the desperation of the family about the demise of its would-be provider, and the constant worries about an uncertain future ― all left a deep mark on Kim So-wol who was raised by his grandfather, a minor entrepreneur. His grandfather wanted him to study, on the assumption that he would eventually take over the family mining business. Thus, Kim So-wol was sent to the Baejae School, one of the best then available. It was at Baejae where he began to compose poems and won his first critical acclaim from his teachers.
After graduation Kim went to Japan for further studies. The colonial government restricted the access of the Korean youngsters to a modern education within Korea, but did not mind when they went to study in Japan ― on the assumption that the experience would make the students pro-Japanese (it did not work out that way). However, his studies lasted for merely a few months. In September 1923 a large earthquake hit the Tokyo area. It led to mass attacks on Koreans whom the Japanese mobs believed to be responsible for arson attacks. Several thousand Koreans were killed, and others, including a majority of the students, fled the pogroms and returned to the safety of their home.
It was around this time that Kim So-wol wrote the verses which heralded the birth of modern Korean poetry. He published them in literary journals which began to appear in large numbers after the March 1 Uprising of 1919. The Japanese relaxed their control over the country, and for a while the Korean press and literature were tolerated. In 1925 he published a collection of his poems, Azaleas which was to remain the only book Kim So-wol published in his lifetime.
However, poetry seldom pays well. This is the case even in the developed countries of our days, let alone in the Korea of the 1920s where the market for serious literature was very small. Thus, Korean poets had to earn a living through other means. For a while Kim So-wol tried to support himself through a sequence of jobs and unsuccessful business ventures. He worked in his grandfather's mines as a manager, but soon the business collapsed. Then Kim So-wol tried to run a local branch of Donga Ilbo, the major national newspaper, but this also ended in bankruptcy. Over-sensitive, impractical and naive, Kim So-wol could not adjust himself to the world of money-making.
Kim So-wol's personal life also did not give much ground for happiness. Like all Korean males of the era, in his teens he was married to a local girl selected by his family. Nobody cared that he was in love with another girl: such things did not matter in traditional societies where marriage is seen as a calculated and pre-arranged alliance of two families, and nothing else. The girl whom he loved was also forcibly married and soon died. This sad story became the topic of one of Kim's best poems.
All this led to constant depression. Further disasters made this depression even more pronounced, and his suicide in 1934 was not a complete surprise to the people who knew the poet well.
Kim So-wol will be always remembered as Korea's first modern poet, the master of subtle and delicate verses. His tragic life was typical for many of his peers, the founders of modern Korean literature who lived in the 1920s and 1930s. Few of them were happy and content. But that is another story…
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobyo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times.