Ae Hee Lee introduces a selection of modern and contemporary Korean women poets
I have often heard people ask, “Why not just call them ‘poets’ without emphasizing the ‘women’ part?” I confess that I have struggled with this question as well. Is ‘woman poet’ not often used as a reductive label — asking the reader to focus on the poet’s gender and not on their literary skills? Is it not putting female poets into a very cramped jar rather than functioning as an informative identifier? While reading more and more literature about Korean women poets, the historical context they breathed in and wrote in, and the works they penned, it became apparent to me that this was precisely the very reason we should refer to them as “women” poets and not just “poets.” Though it is true the word was, and sometimes is still, unfortunately used as a sort of tag that separates, marginalizes, and diminishes a female poet and her work, it is also one indicative of their socio-historical identity — their unique, creative capacity for perspective and expression. We cannot truly talk about modern and contemporary Korean women poets solely in terms of their skill. To not call them as they are would mean to partially neglect the past and present that are unique to them, their struggles against the disadvantages of working against a patriarchal culture. It would mean to overlook their future — the future their poetry envisions.
Poetry in Korea is a highly esteemed art form, strongly linked to the politics of the country even before the country was separated into North and South. However, Korea has a patriarchal culture, and its ever-blooming field of poetry mainly promotes and values male aesthetics. As a consequence of that culture, Korean women poets remain relatively unknown and infrequently studied, both within and outside their own land.
Don Mee Choi, in her 2006 essay ‘An Overview of Contemporary Korean Women’s Poetry’ (in Acta Koreana), provides a comprehensive summary of the history of Korean women’s poetry—she writes about past women poets and socio-historical factors that influenced and opened doors for contemporary women poets. These women include poets from as far back as the Old Chosŏn period (or Kojosŏn period; traditionally 2333-194 BCE) all the way through to the present. There were women who participated in the oral tradition of making kodae kayo (ancient songs), hyangga (poem songs), muga (shamanic religious songs), and more. There were kisaeng, female entertainers seen as outcasts by those upper class men they served with their literary and musical skills. There were also self-educated women in the upper class who, despite the Neo-Confucian ideals that dictated their silence, wrote instructional letters and poem songs called kyubang kasa. They wrote in han’gŭl, a writing system created in 1446 by King Sejong for women and commoners — King Sejong deemed classical Chinese, the more respected writing system of the time, difficult and unfit for the Korean language. Women thus became one of the first groups of people to adopt what would become the official script of Korea. And thus they wrote about love, family, and spirituality, but moreover, about the sorrows and suffering of women.
And then a new kind of literature emerged around the 1970s, what some scholars refer as the “post-yŏryu literature” (yŏryu referring to a certain kind of “gentle” and “beautiful” writing expected from women writers). Contemporary Korean women’s poetry grew raw, sharp in its representation and expression of women’s reality, Korean neocolonialism, philosophy, education, and more.
Though Korean women poets have often been set aside in the margins of society and literature merely because of their social and gender identification as women, throughout history they have refused to stay marginalized. When they could not write, they sang. When they were not allowed access to education, they learned on their own. When they were silenced, they adopted poetry as their voice. By the act of writing, they were practicing a revolution, challenging Korea’s male-dominated field of poetry by constantly publishing their work, asserting their existence and talent through their poems.
And they still are. They are resisting the norm by invoking the literary traditions practiced by past women while at the same time creating new, exciting literary conventions of their own — poetry that is deconstructive, relevant, heart-wrenching, biting, ironical, and multi-faced.
Ae Hee Lee is South Korean by birth but lived in Peru for 14 years and studied in the U.S. for seven. She has recently graduated with her MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is now a PhD candidate in the English and Poetry program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming at the Denver Quarterly, Cha, Cobalt, Ruminate, and Duende, among others.
Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Southern Humanities Review, The Collagist, Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, and elsewhere. She is the 2015 winner of AWP’s WC&C Scholarship Competition, Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Fellowship to The Home School in Miami. She is the Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.