The Muse

(An International Journal of Poetry)

ISSN 2249 –2178


Volume-3                                                      June -2013                                              Number-1



My Poems: I just jotted down what Nature dictates to me*

By Kim Yong-taek

(*This essay was the basis of Poet Kim’s speech at the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. in the evening of July 7, 2012. Translated by Dr. Yearn Hong Choi from Korean to English.)


I was born and raised in a small village on the Somjin River, bordering Cholla Province and Kyungsang Province.  My parents were farmers.  From a young age, I helped with my parents’ farm work until my mother could no longer do farming due to her old age.  During the most prosperous years, my village had 35 families.  Now, only thirteen or fourteen families live in the village.  Rice paddies and fields are not tilled any more.  Simply there are no farmers who want to live in the farming village, working in the rice paddies, fields, and cultivating the low hill area.  There are no fishermen on the river - the river is so polluted.  I cannot enter the water; no one desires to enter the river to swim and to fish.  Sometimes, I notice dark things moving in the water.  I am afraid of seeing the darkened river.


Small village life made my life easy: all worked together, ate together, played together.  Life was playing.  Farming was playing and fishing was also play-time by all villagers.  Hard labor was acceptable, because the villagers shared the work together.  It was a beautiful life I was accustomed to.  It was a truly beautiful community culture.  They created different plays in spring, summer, autumn and winter.  So life was never boring.  Nature offered different work in four seasons.  We waited for different seasons with different work with different play.  Nature offered the life, and the villagers accepted nature’s generosity.  One supreme thing was Farmers’ Music.  Farmers took off their sweated clothes and were dressed in clean musical uniforms for a performance.  They wore black and white dresses with colorful hats decorated with feathers.  They were masters of different Korean musical instruments -- drums, big and small; gongs, big and small; and flutes.  The best performance by the group was Daedong Nori which meant Great Play Together.  Such a performance united all village people after hard farm work.  It was a great harmony by man and nature.  Daedong meant unity not only man to another man, but also man to nature.


Farmers learned from nature. What kind of seeding was  necessary in the winter,  spring, summer, and fall?  What kind of harvest in the four seasons was possible?  Knowledge was acquired from nature. Cutting wood, grass, removing weeds, working with Jigae-Y-shaped carrier on your back, tilling with hoe and shoveling dirt before seeding in the furrows and rice paddies were all seasonal in nature.  Farmers did not learn the seasonal work.  They just acquired the farm work from their parents.  They did not memorize changing seasons. They acquired seasons by nature.  The sun rises in the morning in the East, and sets in the evening.  Then, the moon appears in the night sky with stars.  Their knowledge was acquired as time is passing by day, week, month and year.  They become farmers based on nature. 

Fishermen knew what kind of fish was there in the spring river.  They knew what kind of fish was caught in the summer, fall and winter.  They acquired knowledge from the cyclical change of the seasons. The flowing of time was the same as the flowing of the river, wind, sun, moon, day and night.


I lived in the village.  I lived in nature.  Cicadas were making noise in the summer morning.  My mother interpreted the shrill chirrup of the cicadas in the early morning, “Mem mem mem mem maem ….  You now get up and start to work in rice paddies or in the field, whatever you are supposed to do."

The cicadas made different sounds in the day time. “Il choo ge, il choo ge, il choo ge,……..”  My mother interpreted it,  “Choose your work now, choose your work now, choose your work now.”  After the sunset, the cicadas made different sounds, “ Dul nam, dul nam, dul nam,…”  My mother interpreted the sound, “You now get out of the field work and go home!”


In my village, the village people interpreted the sound of the nightingale, “Mr. Cho of Dukchi-myon,  you pay me what you owe in my bar, you drank, but did not pay last three years!”  There was a legendary story: Mr. Cho in Dukchi-myon did not pay the barmaid.  She died.  She became the nightingale and sang, “Dukchi Cho Suhbang, Sulgap nae noa!” She flew over the sky of Dukchi-myon and sang that way.

In my village, the village people listened to the sound of Sojuksae, the Korean scops owl, “Sol tung, sol tung, sol tang tang” in the bad harvesting year and “Sol kwak  sol kwak, sol kwak kwak” in the good harvesting year.


The birds forecasted the future harvest.  I wrote one  poem:


Rain shower comes

Cow is running

Water is overflowing the big jar

Diarrhea starts

Waist belt cannot be tightened

Many people hurry in the field.


Above is my mother’s expression of the peak season on the farm.  My mother explained the hectic summer day on the farm.  I quickly picked up those words from my mother and jotted them down in my notebook.  One summer day, my mother and I took a break under the persimmon tree after work in the soybean field under our front hill.  She then uttered words like the following while watching the white clouds flowing: “Clouds are carrying the rain soongsil, wind is going out to pick up flowers salrang.” Immediately after we returned home, I again jotted down my mother’s poem so rhythmic under the persimmon tree.  I used my mother’s poem as my own.  My mother was the inspiration of my poetry.   One summer day, I cut a tree in my front yard, because it bothered my sight.  My mother was angry when she saw the tree gone, and asked me to produce a straw rope of a couple of meters.  Then, she tied the trunk of the fallen tree with that straw rope to another tree close to the trunk.  I was stunned and asked, “Mother, what are you doing?” She answered, “I connected the fallen tree’s spirit to the living tree’s spirit.”  It was her way of eulogizing and comforting the fallen tree.


Korean farmers considered the life of the tree as the life of human being.


One day, I told my mother, “Nightingale was singing.”  Mother responded to me: “When nightingale sings, the sesame seeds are ripe.  When the barley is harvested and threshed, the taro is born.”  Every sound in the farm village is connected with some sort of harvest.  Sesame seeds are uncountably many, but the taro is singularly produced.  My mother’s comments under such a circumstance were reflected in the crop harvest and bird’s song.


Born in that kind of the farm village, I started to write my poems.


Sumjin River 3


You must be attached to this.
Watching the sun set,
the glittering ripples rush in continuously
and seep deeply into you and the water’s edge across the river.
Beloved, without your knowing,
you must be attached to the place where the water is deep.
Flowers bloom–they wither in no time;
even flower seeds wither.
Leaning your heart against the plant leaf
on which white snow fell,
you came this far to stand.
When you arrived, the sun set,
thirsting for water, and you stood in front of the water,
feeling sorrowful, joyful, and happy,
and cried, your two shoulders shaking out of love.
You must have planted your longing deep under the water.
Though you didn’t have anybody you waited for,
you returned from the water’s edge and treaded up the night path.
Because your eyes were familiar with
each stone and each blade of grass on this path,
you must have been attached to this land.
The village where the light becomes alive little by little,
longs for the love that it must cultivate.
Your thin back that I watch quietly from afar
without your knowing
must have borne a pretty love.


Why  People don’t know?


Separation is at your fingertips, and the sorrow comes from afar. 

The grass on the riverside hill is growing, and

The morning sun rises in the blood vessels.

Dry grass breathes more deeply.

Cherry blossom this morning in the mountain shadow is white.

Who knows that every person has the solitude others cannot reach?

The mountains sitting back are lonely, and

The mountains facing each other have white foreheads.

All flowers are blooming with their painful place.

Sorrow can reach the fingertips, but the pain is slowly blooming as flowers.

To the man standing lonely under the sun-setting mountain,

The woman coming from his back is lovelier.

All the beautiful things are behind the mountain.

Why don’t people know this simple truth?

They don’t know that Spring flowers are blossoming with the things

Our hands cannot reach.


After 30 some years, I  returned to my old farming village.


The Last Photo Shot at the Place where My Old House was


Soybean harvest near the rice paddies was good.

My mother’s underwear had many holes, and her flesh was burned as the beans.

Soybeans are harvested by hoe, not by sickle. Some soybean plants are taken out with their roots, so my mother shakes the dirt from soybean plants.

There she receives my call with her cellular phone:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m fine. How about you? This year soybean harvest is great.

Yes, one month is great. Then next month is not so great.

When you climb up the mountain, you come down.

That is my mother’s words, but it's an old saying no longer true even to wild persimmon trees.

I become smaller every month, facing steep higher mountains to climb up.

Farmers have next year always. That is why they believe in such an old saying.

On the way home from work, I picked wild iris and walked the river road.

My wife picked the wild herbs on the side of the river.

Children were playing with white butterflies from the other side of the river

where their grandmother was working on the barley field.

My wife was quiet in lowering her head when she had a lot to say to me.

She knew that my forehead was hot from the sun reflected on the water

when I crossed the river by taking steps on a series of stones

from one side to the other at the sunset. My dry lips.

When my wife was shaking the beans from the dry stems with white towel on her head, dry persimmon leaves were fallen to the corner of the front yard. Children were picking up fleeing beans,

and my mother brought more beans from the other side of the river.

Pods twisted, dry pods at the end of the fireworks exploded, and

beans burned to dark one face fell into the kitchen floor bounced.

Red berries of wild rosebush on the river bank were ripe.

Wow, abundant beans on the stems.

This year, several empty houses like the empty bean stems collapsed

and disappeared from the village with dust.

When the houses disappeared, the country road suddenly appeared and empty.

Empty and vain. 

The sunlight comes through holes of the soybean leaves the worm ate.

My mother’s worn-out underwear has many holes, and my mother’s skin was burned in red.

My aunt’s house just behind my house is now gone forever.


That Year,  Summer


Many years have gone since sparrows disappear from the sky.

During that summer, cicada’s life was empty.

One day bug that could not fly was empty.

The woods breathless receive the rain water and spend melancholy days.

Wild berries lost sweetness fell on the earth face.

Ants with their wet legs could not repair the house of a long journey.

The cricket lost their poetry, and let the moonlight stay outside my room,

because the rain wetted the rice paper of the door.

The door was heavy.

My poetry confined to my room near the river

taking hands of a young green locust

became the heavy passengers of the willow tree leaf

ferry half sinking into the water.

Swollen snail’s eyes and rage.

Raindrops in the umbrella lying on the ground under the gutter

kicked out by the drunken people.

My mother returned to the house

after she ran away from the flooded river reached the house pillars

in the dark night and squeezed the wet clothes in the clothing line

after the flood was subdued.

That summer, the strange and abnormal Earth’s behavior.

Rain, rain soaking house.

The swollen river carrying all of these went to the front door

and living room of my friend’s house and took his shoes.

I went to pick up the pepper wet by barefoot.

Farmers’ feet were buried in the ground like slugs.

That summer, inside the dark ground,

cicadas waited for seven years and lived one week.

Cicada wings were wet and their lives were empty.


One day, my mother was threshing the beans.  I was picking up the beans coming out of the stems that were trying to run away from her. We were watching the beans jumping out of the stems and rolling over the floor.  Then, one bean rolled into the mouse hole.  My mother then told me, “Son, you see that bean is dead.” I ran into my room and jotted down my mother’s words, “That bean is now dead!” My poem titled, “Bean, you are now dead,” was:


Bean threshing was going on:

All beans coming out of the stems ran into the front yard, rolling toeruru, toeruru. Arrest that bean, Arrest that bean. Arrest that bean rolling. Uh, uh, look at that bean. That bean is crawling into the hole. Bean, you are dead.


I was born and raised in the same village.  I went to school by walking for 40 minutes on the river road. The river road was beautiful.  The road was made by people’s walk.  On the way to school, there was a lake, rice paddies and fields.  Peasants also walked with their plowing cows.  They together planted young rice plants in the spring and harvested in the fall.  I walked the same river road in all four seasons.  The river road was the grass road and the narrow path.  In between the grass road and the narrow path, spring has come, then summer, then autumn and then winter.  In the spring, all flowers bloomed and butterflies played with the flowers.  All schools of fish were enjoying their lives in the lake.  In the winter, snow covered the road.


I walked the same river road even after I became a school teacher.  The river road was my teacher of   nature.  I wrote poems dictated by the flowers along the road and the flower garden.  Winds flowing dictated my poems.  Birds flying dictated my poems on white papers.  Sunshine, wind, sounds of water, iris, wild rosebush, and cherry blossoms resided in my mind and heart.  I came to know the wonderfully shining love.  I passed the road amazing and mystic in between the grass meadow and the narrow path. And I played with innocent children.  I lived so long among the children who were honest and truthful. School children understood my mind and heart.  They were so radiant to my eyes.  Children ran to me when I entered the school yard.  Oh, they were my sunshine.  All the things in this world were all new, mysterious and wonderful to them.  So every day was new excitement.  Life was a continuation of new excitement.  They were my teachers.


They showed everyday different things to me.  I taught about trees to them.  I asked them to look at the birds, the rainfall, and the snowfall, and to draw mountains.  They learned nature by their hearts, mountains, trees, sky, sunshine, rain, snow and winds are parts of nature, completing nature.  However, nature is not the same, differing from yesterday to today, and will be different tomorrow.  The mountains accept changing seasons, changing colors, rain changing to snow.  That is the way nature is complete, renewing lives daily.  That is why nature is lovely, amazingly lovely and beautiful.  I  wrote my poems with the school children.


One day, one child wrote a poem titled, “What should be my poem’s title?”

Write a poem!/What should I write?/Write a poem!/ What should I write?/What should be the title of the poem?/Up to you!/Don’t repeat!/If you do, then you are dead.


I taught their parents, too.  They were poor.  They are poor.  Their parents left for Seoul for a better life, but they were forced to move to the provincial low-income community.  Their families were broke.  They sent their children to their hometown, my village.  The poverty was inherited from one generation to another.  One child returned from Seoul wrote the following poem in two months in my class.


“What is that sound, rustling?”

Rustling is basrak sound in Korean expression. It is the sound of a fallen leaf landing on the earth in the autumn.

He started to pay attention to nature. He came to know the flowers of the paulownia tree and colors of the flowers later.  He came to know when his grandpa returned home from the farming work even inside his room.  He could listen to the sound of his grandpa’s taking-off from his Y-shape carrier, Jigae, in the front yard.  He listened to Nightingale’s song.  He noticed the chestnut tree and its flowering fragrance. He visited his neighboring old woman’s house.  He held his friend’s hand.  He watched the parade of ants and worms on the ground for a long time.  They were all surprises to him.  Nature was great to open someone’s heart from isolation to attraction.


All my life, I lived in the farm town and learned their lives. I learned with them of nature.  I came to know edible vegetables.  I came to know what kind of grass my cow likes to eat.  I came to know what kind of grass would be good as fertilizer for farming from neighboring farmers.  They learned of nature and considered nature part of their lives.  Nature was my great school.  All my poems are dictated by nature. I also lived beside the children as their school teacher.  I was fortunate to teach them.  My teaching career was all blessing.  They were my great teachers.


I have lived my whole life as a lover of art and literature.  Art and literature taught us to observe carefully the world surrounding us.  They made us write the world as an art and literary work.  Expressing the world as an art work is great.


Art and literature touch human lives in all ranks.  Touching someone’s heart is feeling and permeating. Touching and permeating are not explainable by science and technology.  I cannot control them.  I have lived my life as a lover of poetry, literature and films.  I have never seen an art work more beautiful than the rice planting scene.  I have never read a poem more beautiful than my mother’s sesame field. Farmers are philosophers, poets, artists, and the comprehensive body of all—philosophers, poets, artists.  Farmers are comprehensive artists.  Children playing, jumping and running are touching the Earth. While watching them, I have written my poems:  what they have been speaking to me.  They are the school of poetry to me.  I have never been bored with that poetry school, and will never be in the future.