Ruth Williams, University of Cincinnati
Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2010), 395-415
In South Korea male poets are simply referred to as siin (poet), while women poets are called yo˘ryu siin (female poet). As yo˘ryu siin, women poets are expected to write sentimental, “pretty” poetry that conforms to Korean poetic traditions as well as gender norms of femininity. In a radical transgression of these norms, the poems of contemporary South Korean poets Ch’oe Su˘ng-ja, Kim Hyesoon, and Yi Yo˘n-ju function like the body of a female grotesque as they seep from the page, protruding with images of violence, vomit, trash, bodily decay, and death. The poems’ “ugly” images weep an excess which transgresses not only Korean gender norms but the strictures of the yo˘ryu siin literary tradition. By writing poems which are neither gentle nor pretty, Ch’oe, Kim, and Yi employ what this article terms the “poetics of the grotesque” to challenge Korean patriarchal gender constructions and to contest the rosy visions fostered by Korean nationalism. By embracing the seepage of the abject, these poets subvert the restrictive façades of beauty and social acceptability in favor of a grotesque permeability that creates openings within their works through which a new language of Korean womanhood can be voiced. Reading these poets’ works within the framework of Mikhail Bhaktin’s theory of the grotesque and Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject illuminates how their works create the problematic body of a female grotesque: a body which claims the unsettling power of ugliness to challenge and transform culture.