OWL Magazine Korea

“From Red to Green: Ecological Literature Critique” by Kim Wook-dong

“From Red to Green: Ecological Literature Critique” by Kim Wook-dong is a book that falls under the category of “ecological literature critique.” The reason for encountering this book was quite straightforward. It was because I took Professor Kim Won-joong’s class titled “Understanding Ecological Literature” in the last semester before graduating in my fourth year.

The reason for encountering this book was also partly due to an assignment. I received an assignment in the course I was taking, which was to select one Korean ecological poet and one American ecological poet from the poems we had learned, and submit a paper discussing the ecological reasoning and characteristics evident in their poetry. Although the assignment was only two pages long, I didn’t find it particularly difficult. However, I was curious about how other professional writers approached criticism, so I came across this book.

“From Red to Green: Ecological Literature Critique”

As the title suggests, this book is a collection of ecological literature critiques, so its content extensively discusses “environment” and “ecological literature.”

In the beginning, it adopts a perspective of exploring environmental issues through the lens of the Titanic. It metaphorically compares the Titanic to the Earth and develops the narrative from there. It continues to introduce “ecological poems” and delves into their characteristics, aspects that can be considered ecological poetry, and what thoughts the poets might have had when writing these poems.

“The signifier and signified of language are arbitrary and conventional.”

One particularly memorable aspect was when the author introduced Korean ecological poems while refuting the claim made by a Swiss linguist that “the signifier and signified of language are arbitrary and conventional.”

The author argues that the Korean word “나무” (tree) aligns well with the signifier (sound) and signified (meaning) compared to the English word “tree,” the Japanese word “き(キ),” and the Chinese word “슈무(树木).” Just hearing the word “나무” conjures an image of a straight, green tree reaching towards the sky.

“Poems that stimulate interest in the environment”

It was interesting how poems mentioning environmental issues were seamlessly connected to the current situation, emphasizing that we should all be concerned about the environment. The comparison between well-written ecological poems and slightly disappointing ones, as well as the presentation of which direction we should be heading in, was also intriguing.

The American critic Susan Sontag once said that art is not coercion but seduction. The power of art lies not in coercion but in natural attraction. In this regard, the author argues that the poem “Road” in Oh Gyu-won’s collection “Car in the Tree” effectively demonstrates the direction green literature should take.

  • In the sky
  • There’s
  • A well-traveled
  • Road
  • And in the sky
  • There are
  • Branches of tall trees
  • Extending well

“Henry David Thoreau: Walden”

The last part of the book includes a piece on Henry David Thoreau, famous for his work “Walden.” He is an indispensable figure in ecological literature, and because I had already encountered the work “Walden,” it was even more interesting.

As a critique of ecological literature, this book provides insights into various ecological literature works. Although I came across it while preparing for an assignment, it is a book worth reading even without the assignment.

Thanks to encountering this book, I was able to write my assignment well and submit it. Below is the assignment I submitted.

Assignment: A Comparison of the Ecological Reasoning and Characteristics of Korean Poet Jung Hyun-jong and American Poet Gary Snyder

Recently, slogans like ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘green growth’ are easily encountered, indicating a significant increase in interest in environmental ecology. This interest in environmental and ecological elements has been present in literature, not just in social concerns. These aspects are manifested under various names such as ‘green literature,’ ‘literary ecology,’ and ‘ecopoetics.’ Here, I aim to summarize the ecological reasoning and characteristics of poets as depicted in the poem “Cloud Seed” by Korean poet Jung Hyun-jong and the poem “Ripples on the Surface” by American poet Gary Snyder.

When considering the formal and ideological aspects, as well as the thought process required to interpret the poems of these two poets, many similarities emerge. Firstly, in the introductory sections of the poems by Jung Hyun-jong and Gary Snyder, both the formal and conceptual aspects, as well as the thought process, are well represented. Jung Hyun-jong reflects on nature through the observation of clouds, leading to the contemplation of the core principle of the natural ecosystem, “circulation.” He highlights how all living beings on Earth interact with each other, akin to the Earth functioning as a single living organism, with each individual influencing and being influenced by others, ultimately subject to the principle of “circulation” in the natural ecosystem. This is evident in lines like “When the sea is ruined / and Emily dies / there will be no clouds, no rain.” Similarly, Gary Snyder’s poems reflect similar themes. The poet observes the ripples of the sea, observing the hunting patterns of killer whales, stating in the poem that nature is not just a book but a “performance” in itself. Furthermore, expanding the thought process, both poets do not view the relationship between humans and nature as a binary opposition but as interconnected entities sharing the same space and influencing each other. This notion is evident in lines like “The little house in the wild, / the house in the house.” Therefore, both poems share significant similarities in their formal, thematic, and conceptual aspects.

In terms of ecological ideology, both poets share similar perspectives. As mentioned earlier, both poets reject the dualistic view of humans and nature, portraying them as interconnected beings mutually influencing each other. This contrasts with the Cartesian view that only humans possess souls, deeming other beings inferior. Both poets value all life equally and view humans and non-humans as equal entities. In Jung Hyun-jong’s poem “Self,” he questions anthropocentric thinking deeply, suggesting that nothing in the world is devoid of value, including inanimate objects like trees, fish, birds, and flowing water. This sentiment is further emphasized in lines like “Not knowing I’m a ruler / it’s a good ruler / Not knowing to measure / it’s the ultimate ruler.” Similarly, Gary Snyder’s poem “Song of the Taste” depicts eating as a act of intimacy, likening it to kissing a lover, thus indicating his perspective of considering even inanimate objects like bread as living entities worthy of respect. This contrasts with Descartes’ view that only humans possess souls. Additionally, based on Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, both poets expand the realm of existence from humans to nature and the entire universe.

Both poets are similar in all aspects, including their attitudes toward nature and the sources of inspiration for their poetry. Despite differences in nationality and language usage, there seem to be no significant differences between the two poets. However, considering the discourse of the three major areas of protecting nature and the environment, I would like to explore the subtle differences between the two poets. Firstly, scientific discourse refers to the discourse mainly used by scientists, including ecologists. In this discourse, nature is merely the object of study for scholars using scientific methodologies. Secondly, regulatory discourse refers to the discourse used by institutions to establish and decide environmental policies. Thirdly, literary discourse refers to the discourse used by literary artists to speak about the beauty, value, or emotional power of nature. Literary discourse often regards nature as a spiritual or transcendent entity. In this regard, Jung Hyun-jong’s “Cloud Seed” demonstrates literary discourse well. The poet mentions clouds becoming blood and flesh, which may sound absurd at first, but upon further reflection, it becomes apparent that it is not absurd. If there are no clouds, there will be no rain, and without rain, crops cannot grow, which ultimately affects human survival. Moreover, in lines like “Biologists, meteorologists, / oceanographers, geochemists, / before I know anything,” scientific discourse can be found. In another poem by Jung Hyun-jong, “My Blood Shining in the Night Sky,” the scientific discourse is even more pronounced. After introducing a scientific fact in the beginning of the poem, the poem begins. On the other hand, Gary Snyder shares the literary discourse with Jung Hyun-jong. In the lines “The little house in the wild, / the wild in the house,” the notion that humans and their residences are part of nature, and nature is part of their homes, can be discerned upon deeper reflection. The areas where Gary Snyder differs from Jung Hyun-jong are in the regulatory discourse. In the poem “For All,” the determination of the poet to protect nature is evident in lines like “I pledge allegiance to the soil / of Turtle Island.” In another poem, “Mother Earth: Her Whales,” while criticizing nations engaged in environmental destruction, Gary Snyder indirectly criticizes actions such as deforestation in Brazil, whaling in Japan, desertification in China, and war in the United States. Considering Gary Snyder’s active involvement in environmental activism, as well as the anger expressed in the poem upon witnessing the pursuit of each country’s interests at the Stockholm environmental conference, it can be said that Gary Snyder shines in the realm of regulatory discourse as well.

In summary, I have explored the common ecological reasoning and characteristics found in the poems of both poets, as well as their subtle differences. It can be said that both poets view nature not as separate from humans but as possessing equal value and the soul of nature. Considering Aristotle’s definition of justice as “giving them what they rightly deserve,” when we examine the behavior of humans on Earth, we are prompted to reconsider whether we have the right to harm nature in our processes of utilizing, destroying, and exploiting it.

“From Red to Green: A Critique of Ecological Literature”