The Poet

Yi Mun-yol

translated from the Korean
Harvill Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
When Kim Pyong-yon is four, his grandfather, a government official, is executed for joining a rebellion — and three generations of the family are condemned to death. Pyong-yon and his immediate family survive through subterfuge and eventually obtain a pardon, but as a traitor's descendants they face a bleak future. Pyong-yon is driven to study, struggling to regain his family's position; when the impossibility of that becomes clear, he abandons his family to become a wandering poet, Kim "Sakkat" or "Bamboo Hat".

His life and his poetry go through several phases. At first he spends his time as the guest of provincial scholars or officials, writing poetry appropriate to that audience. His welcome there wears thin, however, and after an encounter with a man who knew his grandfather he comes to question the conventional wisdom about the rebellion — and turns to popular poetry and the breaking of conventions, both poetic and social. Eventually disillusioned with that as well, he finds solace in introspection and nature. Episodes in Kim Sakkat's life involve the inspiration of the Diamond Mountains, meetings with a mysterious "Old Drunkard", and a period spent producing revolutionary propaganda for bandits. Its coda is provided by the filial piety of his own neglected son.

Kim Pyong-yon was a well-known historical figure; the rebellion that shaped his life was that of Hong Kyong-rae, in north-western Korea in 1811. The translators' introduction makes it clear that The Poet (Shiin) is largely fictional, but it has almost the feel of a dramatised biography rather than a historical novel. In places Yi Mun-yol discusses his sources in an almost scholarly fashion, or provides commentary on the historical background.

"He was born and grew up in an age when new ideas, especially the Practical Learning and Catholicism, were being introduced from China. There was no challenge to the monarchy or the system of government as such, but questions were beginning to arise in structural terms about such issues as the possession and distribution of wealth and the nature of human relationships."
Outsiders may find the broader cultural context just as intriguing as the history. They may also find some references confusing, but the translators have usefully added a map of Korea and endnotes explaining potentially unfamiliar concepts.

The Poet is fundamentally a psychological study, of the development of a poet and of the nature of poetic inspiration. Quite a few of Kim's poems are included, and sometimes analysed.

The gruel in the bowl on this little four-legged table
Is so thin it reflects the pale azure clouds.
Please don't be ashamed, master of the house.
Why, I love to see green hills reflected in water.
Though never didactic, The Poet also touches on political and ethical topics, some of them, one suspects, allusions to modern Korea. There's certainly an autobiographical parallel, since Yi Mun-yol lived under a cloud as a result of his father defecting to North Korea in 1951.

Kim Pyong-yon remains distant — we never really identify with him — and the other characters are merely ciphers. Despite this, however, and some untidiness in the construction — Yi Mun-yol originally planned to write "one novella and four or five short stories" about Kim Pyong-yon, and ended up producing a novel in installments — The Poet works effectively as a novel.

October 2003

External links:
- buy from or
- review and links at the Complete Review
Related reviews:
- Yi Mun-yol - Son of Man
- Yi Mun-yol - Our Twisted Hero
- more Korean literature
- more historical fiction
- more poetry
- books published by Harvill Press
%T The Poet
%A Yi Mun-yol
%M Korean
%F Chung, Chong-wha
%F Taizé, Anthony of
%I Harvill Press
%D 1995 [1992]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860468969
%P 207pp