Poet of Wonders

Ko Un
Ko Un; drawing by David Levine

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…

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