LEE Dae-heum was born in Jangheung-gun, Jeollanam-do in 1967, and began his creative work through <Creation and Criticism> in 1994. His poetry collections include “You are from Bukcheon(2018)”, “I’m sad to hear(2010)”, “Fire in the water(2007)”, “A wound saves me(2001)”, and “A whale lives in my tears(1997)”. His novel works include “Chung-aeng(2007)”, and “CHOI Dong-rin, the head of the school at age Thirteen(2018)”, and his research books include “The Literary world study of Poetry(2020)”, “Si1-talk 1(2020)”, “Si-talk 2(2020)”, and “Si-talk 3(2020)”. There are also several essay collections of the poet such as “Memories of Tamjin River: 3,000 won/ bowl(2016)”, “Your name is the only thing that goes away(2007)”, and “People you miss come by train(2000)”. He has received the Cho Tae-il Literary Award, the Yuksa Poetry Literary Award-the Young Poet Award, and the Jeonnam Cultural Award.
The first time I realized the difference between spoken words and written letters was in the first grade. It was a shock. It felt miraculous to transcribe spoken words into letters and forever preserve them. However, as I spoke the Jeolla dialect, the gap between the standard language in textbooks and the language I used in daily life was enormous. They were as clearly distinct as the difference between spoken and written languages. Therefore, I understood the standard Korean language used in textbooks as written language and the Jeolla dialect that I used in my life as spoken language.
Then, from learning poems in textbooks, I discovered the beauty of human language. How could it be this beautiful?! I considered it possible only because it was written in a standard language. The everyday language people around me used did not feel worthy in literary metaphors or sweet in rhythm and tune. As a result, I thought the Jeolla dialect could not be used to create poems—that such a coarse language could not have systemic writing principles. That troubled feeling deepened while I was ghost-writing letters for village elders during my upper elementary school years. Although there were textbooks written in standard language, there were no textbooks in Jeolla dialect. There were no examples. Still, I had to write. Although I found out much later, there were in fact many illiterate people in my village. At any rate, transcribing the real-live spoken language into letters was hard. With no knowledge of the prominent phonological characteristics of the Jeolla dialect, such as the umlaut and tensification, it was harder to transcribe it into letters than doing my homework! The poem “Old Letter” was written based on my experience during those times.
Dear Eldest, It’s your mom. How hard it must be to work in such a hot place? It’s so hot here, so how much hotter it must be where you are! But I am embarrassed to say, although I try to save as much as I can, to accumulate some savings for you, all your salary this month has gone after I paid the school fees for your brothers and sisters and a little bit of debt we owe to the National Agricultural Coop. Really, as mother, I am at a loss for words. Thinking of you, shedding bloody sweat in a tropical country, I can barely breathe or speak, but what can I do? I haven’t found any solution. Seeing the Scops owl that began crying when I was seeding rice seeds cry again, it’s quite late at night. The hydrangeas you planted last year grew quite tall. We planted sweet potatoes and beans in the field near the river, and I took your brothers and sisters to weed there during the daytime. It was so hot they played in the water after weeding a little. Looking at them play, I thought how hard it would be for you to work standing under
the blazing sun and I couldn’t help my tears. All is well here; please make sure to take good care of yourself. Although I’m writing a letter to you, I don’t have the face to see you. Your pathetic mom is giving you a hard time. I’m so sorry that I cannot save at all the money you worked so hard to earn. I don’t know if your brothers and sisters will remember to thank you. About then, Mother’s eyes were filled with tears, and I said, I wrote exactly as you dictated, and, at the end of the letter, added a few sentences, Elder brother, it’s Dae-heum, Mother is crying now. She cries whenever she talks about you. Please take good care of yourself, and don’t forget to bring some mechanical pencils when you come home. While writing this poem, I hesitated about a few phrases. When I write in Jeolla dialect, I usually write so that the stems of words are visible in syllables separate from their conjugations, according to the principles of standard written language. However, in this poem, I wrote some words as they are pronounced. In fact, if you write standard language as it is pronounced, some words actually look like dialect. Therefore, to maximize the effect of a dialect, it’s more effective to write as it is pronounced. However, as there should be principles in writing dialects, it is my principle, in general, to follow the rules of standard language. Examples of this difference include: eochike vs. eochit-ge, bogojabda vs. bogogapda, bogoja-peo vs. bogojap-eo, and imureop-ssing-gge vs. imureops-ing-gge. While nurturing an interest in Jeolla dialect, which I had once found so hard to write, I became interested in linguistics, and became a poet writing with two dictionaries, unlike many others. In other words, I came to use more vocabulary than poets who use only standard Korean. If I hadn’t wondered so hard during my childhood how to write in the Jeolla dialect, I might not have learned to deal with language so sensitively. As I became engrossed in the Jeolla dialect, like exploring a jungle, I could approach language in its natural state and the seeds of many words that had not germinated into poetic language. In the forest of dialects, there are so many seeds of language. Some of them have already been discovered by pioneers and enriched our linguistic life, while others have yet to be discovered. That is why I continue to be interested in the Jeolla dialect and try to refine it as a poetic language. This is of course not only true of the Jeolla dialect. There are seeds in Jeju, Hamgyeong, and Gyeongsang dialects, and there seeds in Japanese and Vietnamese. There are more words in this world that I don’t know than that I know. This richness of language deserves our heartfelt gratitude, as much as the diversity of living organisms.