Book Review: The Poet by Yi Mun-yol

A young boy’s grandfather is posted as a governor in a northern province in 18th century Korea. A rebellion breaks out and in order to save his life, the grandfather betrays the state and joins their cause. The uprising is soon routed, the grandfather executed, and the family he leaves behind is condemned to death. After years of hiding, the sentence is commuted, but their land remains confiscated and the mark of shame follows them everywhere.

From this guilt-ridden background, the young boy’s poetic developments begin, and, despite winning a rural poetry competition at age 19, this Künstlerroman is far from over.

This boy is a real figure in Korean literature, a famous poet named Kim Sakkat. Unfortunately, little of his work has made the translation jump into English (I can find only one collection of his poems available on Amazon). Still, readers need not know the poet’s life story to enjoy this.

The artist’s journey has been done before, but the focus of this one prevents it from getting stale. Lots of moments in the poet’s life are mentioned in passing: fleeting moments with his family, his marriage—even his death barely gets a mention. The important thing here is his poetic maturation and how his grandfather’s crime affects him. The emphasis isn’t coincidental: soon after the Korean war, Yi Mun-yol’s father defected to the North and his family experienced similar treatment at the hands of others. Not too much biographical information on the writer is available in English, but it seems he dropped out of college and for the most part educated himself, also like Kim Sakkat.

In terms of action, it is a bit light. Much of the conflict resides in either the family struggling to hide their scandalous past or in Kim’s development as a writer. That said, anyone who likes to read books about books or poems or appreciates stories of self-discovery like Hermann Hesse will find more than enough here to keep reading. The short length also helps keep the story from dragging.

The language is at times distant and academic, but there are points where the prose soars to heights just as poetic as Kim’s work. Sprinkled throughout are poems that I believe Kim Sakkat actually wrote. Reading them translated was a whole different experience than what they’re like in Korean, but they are still enjoyable and reminiscent of some Chinese poets, like Du Fu.

Though I’m posting this now, I actually read THE POET last year. And what a book. Though not for everyone, it was definitely one of the best I read in 2015 and convinced me to dive into Korean literature. I highly recommend it.

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