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Midang Literary House and Events for the 100th Anniversary of Seo Jeong-ju’s Birth

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Midang is the penname of the poet Seo Jeong-ju. It carries the meaning of “not yet fully grown” or a “wish to forever be a boy.” The Midang Literary House is located in the poet’s hometown of Jeollabuk-do Province, Gochang-gun, Buan-myeon, Seonun-ri. The positioning of the Literary House is quite special. There is a large mountain (Mt. Soyo) behind, the ocean (Byeonsan Beach) in front, the poet’s house of birth to the left, and his grave to the right. Even throughout the rest of the world, it is rare to find a poet’s life, death, and memorial all gathered in one place, in the midst of beautiful, natural scenery.

     The Midang Literary House was originally a school, a branch of Bongam Elementary. When the school was scheduled to be closed due to the dwindling number of students in the remote village, cultural administrators had the idea to repurpose the building as a memorial hall for Seo Jeong-ju. With 5,000 of the poet’s personal effects on display, visitors can see the majority of Seo’s writings as well as various everyday items he used. There are more personal effects preserved at the Midang Literary House than at any other author’s memorial hall in all of Korea.

     One of the Literary House’s peculiarities is the five-story exhibition tower designed by the architect Kim Won. Many of the exhibits are on display on the ground floor of the school building, but the tower holds the most precious items. If the single-story school building is said to resemble the ocean, then the tower represents the mountains that surround the village. It is a man-made construction combining the horizontal and vertical to create the ocean and the mountains, but it succeeds in replicating the harmony of nature found in the poet’s hometown.

     This building doesn’t try to stand out from the landscape. Instead of trying to overwhelm or resist its surroundings, it is comfortably nestled in nature’s embrace. One could say that this was the architect’s philosophy. The Midang Literary House is in the center of the village, but it doesn’t give off that sort of feeling. It seems to have kept alive the land’s original “school”- like personality quite well.

     When climbing the stairs to the fifth floor of the tower, it feels as if you are climbing a mountain. Pictures of the world’s most famous mountains are hung on the walls to see as you ascend the stairs. These pictures are from a collection of 1,628 mountains that Seo memorized as he got older. As he reached his mid-seventies, he challenged himself to memorize these mountains as a way to prevent memory-loss. The Midang Literary House purposefully displayed these photos as a testament to the poet’s tireless efforts even as he aged.

     The Midang Literary House was opened one year after Seo passed away, on November 3rd, 2001. Every year around this time, the village hosts a literary festival to commemorate the opening. The highlight of the festival to present that year’s best poet with the Midang Literary Prize. This award, which is sponsored by the Korean newspaper Joongang Daily, has the interesting tradition of holding the awards ceremony in the poet’s hometown.

 

     Around the time of the festival, the entire village, including the mountain that is the site of the poet’s grave, is covered with beautiful, fragrant chrysanthemums. This makes it a special event commemorating Seo’s most famous poem, “Beside a Chrysanthemum.” Many people can come and be moved by the sight of thousands of yellow chrysanthemums against a background of sky blue.

     From the beginning of this year, events planned for the 100th Anniversary of Seo Jeong-ju’s birth have attracted much interest in the literary world. In particular, there was an explosion of interest when previously unpublished poems were found in the over fifty years of notes that were lovingly kept by the poet and made public. The response to these poems was mostly positive and many agreed that they were of no lesser quality than his previously published ones.

     Starting in the spring, the Midang Memorial Society held the first of the 100th Anniversary performances. Around 500 people gathered at the 300- seat Dongguk University theater and were completely immersed in the program, which included listening to poetry recitations and reminiscences about the poet, watching videos recorded of the poet when he was alive, and a performance by one of Korea’s most renowned singers, Jang Sa-ik. The program lasted over two and a half hours, but the audience’s attention never wavered.

     With the arrival of summer, five volumes of poetry from the scheduled twenty-volume collected works of Seo Jeong-ju were published. A publication party and poetry recital was held at his alma mater, Dongguk University, to an audience of almost 600. World-renowned pianist Paik Kun-Woo and film actress Yoon Jeong-hee performed in the opening act, and the performance closed with a passionate musical performance of Seo’s beloved poem, “Blue Day” by the singer Song Chang-sik. A showcase of all the arts combined, Korea’s best theatrical performers, award-winning and veteran poets, singers, poetry performers, dancers, and invited foreign poets took part showing the elegance of Korean culture.

     The poet’s son, Seo Yoon, and his family came from America to take part and give thanks to the audience. Harvard professor David R. McCann was invited as a foreign poet to take part. When he took the stage, he explained his connection to Seo and showed a mechanical pencil he had received from him. He then recited a poem of his own that was about the pencil.

     In autumn, as the chrysanthemums bloomed, a large scale 100th Anniversary Festival opened in Seo’s hometown. A variety of events such as literary seminars, an essay writing contest, a poetry recitation contest, a play, and the unveiling ceremony for a carved memorial stone were held from October 30th until the anniversary of the opening of the Midang Literary House on November 3rd.

     The next event after the autumn festival will be a memorial ceremony held in Seo Jeong-ju’s hometown to honor the day of his passing, December 23rd, two days before Christmas. This will include the publication of his collected works and a publication party, the publication of his previously unpublished poems, and the fourth and final seasonal performance.

 

by Yoon Jaewoong

Professor of Korean Language and Literature Education

Dongguk University