"I have a letter that is not yet sent to my lover; it is just too long to deliver. I am still writing the letter." These poignant lines are from the poem "River" by Instructor Park Nam Hee (Korean Language and Literature) of Korea University (KU). Such a lovely poem could possibly be seen in an anthology with hundreds of poetical works or be heard on the mid-night radio. However, this poem is surprisingly not extracted from either of them. It is from the subway Platform Screen Door (PSD) of the line two Sindang station. Including "River", there are currently over 4000 poems posted on screen door walls all over Seoul.
It was in year 2003 when Korea began to install PSDs in subway stations. From then, seeing people standing in lines in front of the huge screen doors became one of the daily life routines. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, people stand still with their sleepy eyes blinking, just waiting for the next subway to arrive. Some tap on their phones to check their Social Network Service (SNS) and some even close their eyes with earphones only plugged in one ear. It is doubtlessly a boring moment without vitality and without any impression. Everything is dead and dry in the grey cement hall of subway station.
Then, early in 2008, Seoul City Hall proposed a project called "Seoul, City of Poems" that could breathe life into these drowsy people in line. It decided to post poems on glass screen doors that majorly serve as a protecting shield. As people pass by long hallways of the station and wait for arriving subways, they can read poems affixed to the screen doors beside the exit. The idea simply gave away the chances for people to stand still doing nothing, wasting their time. On July 27 of that year, Seoul City Hall began their renovation, and most of the subway stations in Seoul revived as a new home for poems and sentiments.
Subway Culture Taking a Leap
There are presently as many as 4686 poems displayed in a total of 288 subway stations. It is noteworthy because there were only with 208 pieces selected in the year 2011, including "Mother's Eraser", "Heaven", and "Age-old Flower". Nevertheless, they exponentially increased into thousands of units within a couple of years. They are dispersed in all nine subway lines, with lines two, three, and four especially concentrated. These poems are not maintained forever, but are replaced every three years. Poems which had been posted for a long period of time, inappropriate poems which received civil complaint, and poems with some damage are removed from the screen doors and new poems substitute in that place.
The most recent alteration was on October 27, which received much attention from the public. Until the end of this December and beginning of next January, about 1200 new poems will be posted on the screen doors. Moreover, seven stations from the Bundang line and seven stations from line three will be additionally included in the range. The Culture Promotion team of the Culture and Arts Department, Seoul City Hall, selected a total of 478 poems from both the professional poets and ordinary citizens by holding a contest which would also be included in those 1200 new poems to be exhibited. This team takes charge of the "Seoul, City of Poems" project with the poem school management and 2014 Seoul Photo Festival as their additional task.
▲ poem posted on subway. Photographed by Kim Jae Hyun
"We hope to give citizens the opportunity to enhance their poetic turn of mind," stated Lee Hoon Young, the main operator of the "Seoul, City of Poems" project, as the main purpose of their renovation. To achieve such goals, the team opened the chances of participation to all citizens without any requirements for poetical career or qualification. The City Hall recruits applicants for the contest through an announcement on its homepage and citizens are free to join. In the latest contest which was held this summer, over 650 people took part, which is a considerable amount, and 203 pieces were chosen as winning poems. The winners are given the glory to display their artworks on subway stations and a small amount of cash.
Of course, the Culture Promotion team partially gave rooms to professional poets by asking six poet institutes, including The Association of Writers for National Literature (AWNL) and the Society of Korean Poets, for well-written literary works. It was also how Instructor Park, who is also a poet, successfully registered two poems, "River" and "Mountain". "I did not send out my poems in the contest. The Society of Korean Poets asked for one, and later told me that it was selected," said Instructor Park. As many as 275 pieces had been selected from the poets, along with 203 pieces from the citizen contest, which makes a total of 478 poems to be implemented in the new alteration plan.
Poem as a Burning Stove for Human Hearts
"People may cure their pains, rejuvenate their souls, and soothe their fatigued minds by reading those poems," said Lee. Like his words, the poems are emitting warmth to the cold cement halls of the subway station. People can at least instantly forget their busy tasks and relieve their stress through beautiful lines, touching words, and sentimental messages the poems bring.
By reading poems such as "Seed" by Jang Seung Jae which goes "The reason why we plant seeds in the ground is that we all know there is life within", and "The Day Magnolia Withered Away" by Park Soo Ho which goes "This spring, magnolia bloomed for a while; soon withered away", passengers can soak themselves with sensitivity and emotion. Kang Ji Su ('13, School of Media and Communication), who rides line six every day, said, "These poems wake me up in the morning and relieve my stress at night." The color grey of the station diverges into a spectrum of colors, and the cold atmosphere that once filled the subway is now heated up with culture.
The "Seoul, City of Poems" project will be continued until every station in Seoul is decorated with poems on glass screen doors and people constantly urge for the warmth that literature provides. It has been progressed by less than a decade, but is still successfully arranged by the effort of the Culture Promotion team and, most importantly, the citizens. As long as people continuously are interested in the project and also take part in it themselves, the subway will stay as a cozy home for poems and sentiments.