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Poet of Wonders

I first became aware of Ko Un in 1988, when I was in Seoul, Korea. Writers from all over the world had gathered to discuss issues of censorship and freedom of speech. One night I was taken to a local university campus, where there was an evening of poetry and music. These were the last years of the succession of military dictatorships which had ruled the Republic of Korea since the end of the Korean War. The reading was sponsored by a student democracy movement which also supported the reunification of Korea, though it was a crime in those years to mention the possibility in public. That night the air was charged with the energy that precedes a political breakthrough: it felt more like a political rally than a poetry reading. As the students sang and read their poems, my attention was drawn to a wiry, vigorous man on the back of the stage, gray-haired, barefoot, dressed like a peasant farmer, who was pounding a traditional Korean drum. There was something enormously graceful and droll in his movements, and my eyes kept drifting back to him. He seemed to be having a wonderful time. Finally I turned to my guide, a Korean novelist. “Who is that guy whacking the drum?” “That,” he said, “is the best poet in the Korean language.” My first sighting of Ko Un.

The first volume of Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives, must have just been published the previous year. The story of its genesis has the quality of legend. Ko Un was born in 1933 and attended school under a Japanese colonial administration that outlawed the teaching of the Korean language in Korean schools. He studied Chinese classics at school and learned to read and write Korean surreptitiously from a neighbor’s servant. Rejected for the draft because he was so thin, he escaped combat in the Korean War, but the good luck of his early malnourishment did not save him from witnessing its extraordinary violence. At seventeen he had a dockside job with the US Army keeping track of the munitions that were doing the killing, after which he was given a job transporting corpses to their burial places. At nineteen he entered a Son (Zen) Buddhist monastery and threw himself into the rigors of Son training.

He published his first book of poems in 1960. In 1963 he wrote an essay disavowing monastic life and denouncing its laxness and corruption. He lived in Seoul for a while, taught school on a remote island where he established a public high school, and by his own account was as drunk as possible as much as possible. He also read existentialist philosophy and tormented himself with the nothingness of existence while he wrote essays and poems that expressed his restlessness and torment.

Sometime in the early 1970s something in him changed and he became, within a few years, one of the leading figures in the resistance movement against the Republic’s military dictatorships. He was imprisoned four times, tortured, as a result of which he lost the hearing in one ear, and during his third imprisonment in 1980, when he had been sentenced to life in prison, while in solitary confinement in a cell so pitch dark he could not see the glint of the coffee can that served as a latrine, he began to make a mental inventory of the faces of everyone he had ever known and conceived a long poem, or series of poems, that would begin in his childhood village and expand to include everyone he had ever met, including figures vivid to him from history and literature. The project, still ongoing, has reached twenty volumes. Ten Thousand Lives is the first full sampling of that work to appear in English translation.1

Ko Un was released from prison on the occasion of a general pardon in 1982. In 1983 he was married for the first time, at the age of forty-nine, to Lee Sang-wha, a professor of English literature. They settled in the country two hours outside Seoul and they had a daughter in 1985. Ko Un, always prolific, set to work on the Maninbo poems. He also produced a narrative poem in several volumes on the Korean independence movement against Japanese rule, Paektu Mountain, a best-selling novel, The Garland Sutra, in 1991, and several books of small, aphoristic Son poems, which return his poetry to its youthful roots in Buddhist practice. In the midst of this immense productivity he had plunged into the movement for the reunification of the Korean peninsula, becoming chairman of the Association of Korean Artists from 1989 to 1990 and president of the Association of Writers for National Literature from 1992 to 1994. In 1989, as a symbolic act, he attempted to visit North Korea without government permission and was jailed, briefly, for a fourth time. In his foreword to the translation of Ko Un’s Buddhist poems, Beyond Self, Allen Ginsberg describes him as a “jailbird,” a title he has earned, and also as “a demon-driven Bodhisattva of Korean poetry, exuberant, demotic, abundant, obsessed with poetic creation.”

There was not much of Ko Un to be read in English in 1988, or of any other contemporary Korean poet. Since 1988 two volumes of his work have appeared: The Sound of My Waves: Selected Poems of Ko Un, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-moo Kim and published in the Cornell East Asia Series in 1996, and Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems, also translated by Brother Anthony and Mr. Kim, and published by Parallax Press in 1997. It became possible for one to get a sense of him and the extraordinary arc of his career.

American readers, for the most part, know almost nothing about Korean culture and still less about Korean poetry. Though the lives and fates of the Korean and American peoples have been intertwined for some time, the one study of classical Korean poetry in English, The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo, by Richard Rutt, an Anglican bishop living in Korea, published in 1971, provides a way in. Sijo is the classical Korean song form; it consists of three fourteen-syllable lines—long lines, that tend to break in half, so that the translations seem to turn naturally enough into five- and six-line poems in English. Here, in Rutt’s translation, is a poem from the sixteenth century that has some of the qualities of Chinese Buddhist work. It comes from a group of poems called The Nine Songs of Ko San:

Where shall we find the ninth song!

Winter has come to Munsan;

The fantastic rocks are buried under snow.

Nobody comes here for pleasure now.

They think there is nothing to see.

And this poem from the eighteenth century has one of Ko Un’s themes and something of his colloquial pungency:

A boy comes by my window

shouting that it’s New Year’s.

I open the eastern lattice—

the usual sun has risen again

See here, boy! It’s the same old sun.

Come tell me when a new one dawns!

Let me juxtapose this to a passage from the preface Ko Un wrote in 1993 to Beyond Self:

The whole world renewed! I want to offer water to all who thirst for a new world. I want to light a fire so they can warm themselves on a cold evening.

I long to give them bars of iron to hold on to, to prevent them from being swept away by raging storms. But people made of mud cannot cross streams, people made of wood cannot go near a fire. And people made of iron will rust away in less than a century.

Here stands a good-for-nothing who let himself get soaked until the mud dissolved, set fire to himself so the wood disappeared, and whose iron finally rusted away in the wind and the rain. Go now. The new world is found wherever new life comes to birth.

The hopefulness in this, and the bardic sense of responsibility, and the irony and absence of irony seem to belong to a particular kind of historical moment. They put me in mind, because of my long experience of translating Polish poetry, of something Czesl/aw Milosz said: “Woe to the poet born to an interesting piece of geography in a violent time.”

The parallels between the geographic and cultural situations of Poland and Korea are very striking. Given their long histories as the playgrounds of imperial powers and the kind of suffering that has come from it and the impact it’s had on poetry, I don’t think it’s an accident that important work in poetry in this last half-century has come from Poland and Korea. Such suffering is not a fate anyone wishes on anyone and it doesn’t mean that every time there is a catastrophe, poetry rises to the occasion. But in the case of Korea, it seems to have done so in interesting ways. The reason is not, I think, that it is dramatic to live inside violence or terrible injustice, but that it is numbing and that numbing incites a spirit of resistance. Not only were limitations placed on the Korean literary tradition by the immense human suffering of the war years, there was also an active pressure by the Japanese colonizers between 1910 and 1945 to eradicate Korean culture.

Milosz has said that the difficulty with writing in Polish was that, for historical reasons, the blossom of every tree in a Polish poem was a Polish blossom. My sense is that something quite similar happened to Korean poetry. Because the Japanese spent almost fifty years trying to extinguish Korean culture, the pressure to preserve a national tradition must have been enormous and likewise the pressure to preserve traditional literary forms. On the other hand, Korean poetry had opened itself to the influence of the West, particularly to French poetry, just as Japanese poetry had, and a sort of symbolist lyric entered Korean literature. The mix of a modernizing idiom with colonialism must have been complicated for poets to negotiate. My impression is that the best early-twentieth-century Korean poets tried to solve the problem by fusing the symbolist lyric formally with the folk tradition. But that lyric itself was transformed by the historical situation, so that a certain delicacy and intense melancholy, which were not particularly political in late-nineteenth- century French poems, were quite political in Korean.

The vagueness of French symbolist poetry, its desire to detach word from thing, to give the mind a little room to float and make up new values, was in only that broad sense political in French poetry. In Korean, however, especially in early modern Korean poetry, suggestiveness became a kind of code which could both acknowledge and subvert a severe censorship. This was apparently intensified by the use of rhythms that echoed a folk tradition. In the last few years, as more Korean poetry has become available in translation, notably The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David R. McCann,2 and Three Poets of Modern Korea, translated by Yu Jung-yul and James Kimbrell,3 it has been possible to get a sense of these tendencies. According to McCann, the central figure in Korean poetry in the early years of the century was Kim Sowol, who was born in 1902, published a single volume of poems, Azaleas, in 1925, and worked as a journalist in Seoul until his death from an opium overdose in 1934. The title poem from that book, “Azaleas,” is among the best-loved of all Korean poems. McCann describes it this way:

  1. 1

    Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Kim, and Gary G. Gach, will be published in October by Green Integer, with this essay, in somewhat different form, as the introduction.

  2. 2

    Columbia University Press, 2004.

  3. 3

    Sarabande Books, 2002.

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