Some Ki Hyeong Do (기형도) poems are about the agony he felt grappling with the world and his direction in life. Advice From A Bus Stop (정거장에서의 충고) is one such work. It is about the struggles going on in his mind over his chosen path in life, the constantly nagging suspicion that he is not good, and that the whole literature and poetry that has been his passion might be futile and meaningless, in a language that is direct and honest. It comes off like an anguish that consumes his whole being, a struggle verging on a pathology, and mysterious as well since we do not know the cause of it.
Advice From A Bus Stop
* The paragraph arrangement is mine. The original work is in single contiguous block of text.
Advice From A Bus Stop (정거장에서의 충고) is an anguished existential outcry. The poet looks back at his life and feels a debilitating doubt about what he thought was his calling, his poems and other writings. It really tugs at the reader’s heart as he puts the doubts and regrets in such blunt and honest terms. The reader may also be dumbfounded since it is not at all clear what exactly is at the heart of all this anguish. After all, Ki was publishing poems through some major literary publications, already gaining a small recognition, which may not have been much but a promising start anyway. His reporter job with the Joongang Daily News, one of the four largest newspapers in Korea, was a respectable professions to say the least. So, looking at it with an object eye, it seems he had little reason to be anguished about himself.
The poem opens with an irony and sarcasm, that he is sorry to sing about hope, as if hope is a preposterous concept for him. He then mentions the water drops, a metaphor for art and literature which is what he has set his mind on for the rest of his life. While the water is dripping, black clouds gather and things get bleak in the second paragraph. The dogs that lay about here and there, symbolizing his own self before he got onto the path of literary work, his mundane self so to speak, is unhappy about his situation. He is overwhelmed with a regret: how did I end up leaving home, which sounds like a regret about having taken on literature as a life’s calling. The dogs, his mundane self, still half drunk of old memories, are about to revolt and bite his hard hand out of their despair.
In the third paragraph, he poses a desperate question. He calls his career as a poet a slow road to death, asking At how slow a pace have people perished, and how many leaves have crammed into that dark and narrow entranceway, which may be interpreted as how many misguided souls have crammed into this meaningless entranceway called literature. He disdains the whole history of literature, that it has endlessly forked off, ending up creating a tongue that is hard like a weapon now. He is calling literature, his passion and profession, a process of slow death that is meaninglessly perpetuating itself to create a weapon-like tongue.
In the final paragraph he tells the water droplets not to listen to a wanderer like himself, as he is not one to bring rain for them, meaning he is the chaff, not wheat. He is declaring himself a failure. Then he makes a sardonic invitation to the boxes of insecurity keeping a watch on his hope, telling them to be his guest and stay in his shabby body all they want. Who, or what are they? I can’t think of anything other than, maybe, fate. He closes saying all the roads come flowing his way, which means he is already old, which to me reads like he is confused and weary of the myriads of meaningless vagaries facing him and he doesn’t have the will to go on.
So he is taking stock of his life and sees a failure and hopelessness. But again, the question begs for an answer: why? What is really behind all this anguish?
We cannot know for sure. But I would venture a guess that it might be a case of a nervous breakdown. We might call it a severe insecurity, a neurosis arising from unfounded fears, or even an extreme case of the grass looking green on the other side of the fence. People might experience a feeling of worthlessness at certain points in their lives to varying degrees. Especially for those not endowed with strong will power or thick skin and simple mind, whatever one is doing may at times look meaningless deep down. One may feel she is stuck with it all her life, swept in its perpetual motion, without any possibility of making a difference to to the world or oneself.
This is probably a much broader philosophical and existential question than first come to your mind, as existence itself is in a sense an endless process of possibilities getting dashed. Before birth, when one doesn’t exist yet, the potential is infinite, at least theoretically. Once you are born, you take on an identity which includes sex, geographic location, family pedigree, and mental as well as physical characteristics, which means the possibilities of being the other sex, in any other location with a different lineage and characteristics are all closed off to you once and for all. As you go to school and choose a career path, it further closes off a whole slew of might-have-beens. We do not think of it in this light of a narrowing process most of the time. In fact we might even feel we get more distinguished and substantial over time since we grow and take greater responsibilities in life, but this continual reduction of possibilities is an unavoidable fate for every being. It might be that Ki Hyeong Do was pathologically sensitive to this plain unchangeable reality. He seems to have been too unhappy about his lot in this world, even though it might have looked to us as far from bad by any worldly standards. It seems to me that he had too inflexible and lofty expectations for himself and the world, so much so that he couldn’t deal with the disappointing realities surrounding himself. Perhaps he needed counseling and moral as well as medical help, but alas, no one including himself thought that way at the time and he ended his short life in agony, which he clearly didn’t have to.