Ko Un for listeners of 1013 Main Street on TBS eFM

1013 MainstreetLast week I talked about poet Kim Hye-soon in comparison to poet Ko Un. They couldn’t be more different, really but in one important way they are both quite the same. I noted the differences last week – Kim is female, Ko male. Ko is economical, Kim writes in an outpouring of words. Kim is avant-garde, Ko is colloquial.  Kim writes in physical, visceral, grotesque, often savage images, while Ko’s work is usually restrained. Kim is feminist, Ko is Buddhist.

But both, it is fair to say, are activists –both strongly political, and both, at one time or another, were well outside of the literary canon in Korea, and it is worth noting that being outside of the literary canon can be a kiss of death here. Despite that one-time outsider status, both have been invited “inside” the canon and are now respected and published in both Korean and English.

Here is an example of Ko Un’s poetry from THE SOUND OF MY WAVES : Poems by Ko Un (Translated by Brother Anthony of Taize and Young-Moo Kim).

It’s the story of a young Korean boy, and the trouble he gets into when his “dreams” exceed what is expected.

Headmaster Abe

Headmaster Abe Sudomu, from Japan:
a fearsome man, with his round glasses,
fiery-hot like hottest pimentos.
When he came walking clip-clop down the hallway
with the clacking sound of his slippers
cut out of a pair of old boots,
he cast a deathly hush over every class.
In my second year during ethics class
he asked us what we hoped to become in the future.
Kids replied:
I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!
I want to become an admiral!
I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!
I want to become a nursing orderly!
I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory
and make planes
to defeat the American and British devils!
Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.
I leaped to my feet:
I want to become the Emperor!
Those words were no sooner spoken
than a thunderbolt fell from the blue above:
You have formally blasphemed the venerable name
of his Imperial Majesty: you are expelled this instant!
On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.
But the form-master pleaded,
my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,
and by the skin of my teeth, instead of expulsion,
I was punished by being sent to spend a few months
sorting through a stack of rotten barley
that stood in the school grounds,
separating out the still useable grains.
I was imprisoned every day in a stench of decay
and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain,
I realized I was all alone in the world.
Soon after those three months of punishment were over,
during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:
We’re winning, we’re winning, we’re winning!
Once the great Japanese army has won the war, in the future
you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,
and take important positions in government offices!
That’s what he said.
Then a B-29 appeared,
and as the silver 4-engined plane passed overhead
our Headmaster cried out in a big voice:
They’re devils! That’s the enemy! he cried fearlessly.
But his shoulders drooped.
His shout died away into a solitary mutter.
August 15 came. Liberation.
He left for Japan in tears.

Readers can see that this is very colloquial, almost reported speech. The translation is very spare, also colloquial, and the topic is very brave. Here Ko pretty directly addresses the issues of the takeover of the Korean school system by the Japanese and the matter-of-fact form of collaboration that it engendered. The boy automatically wants to become Japanese – wants to support the Greater Asia Co-prosperity sphere.  This work also touches on the glass ceiling that this social system set up – The boy can dream, but only so far. When he attempts to really become Japanese, to dream the full Japanese dream, he is immediately punished. He can only have the dreams of a second hand citizen.

This is theme that stretches across Korean fiction, from colonial stories like Yi Sang’s Nalgae, or Wings, to Chae Man-shik’s A Ready Made Life which is available online here, and up into the post war period, 오발탄 Obaltan, aimless bullet in 1960, into the 80s with Cho Se Hui’s The Dwarf 난장이가 쏘아 올린 작은 공 and on to today. It’s kind of a timeless theme.^^

Ko is perhaps best known for Maninbo, or 10,000 lives. This was a monstrous undertaking – a 30 volume epic poem series, consisting of 4,001 poems about some 5,600 people who were part of, or witness to, Korean history. Ko began this project in 1980, when he was falsely imprisoned for treason. At that time, he began a project to write a poem describing every person he had ever met. Ko was freed from prison in 1982, and immediately began writing the poems, publishing the first volume in 1986.

The Korea Herald says:

His poems are an intensive historical narrative conjuring up a biographical mosaic of modern times in Korea chronologically. The poems begin with his childhood, and later explore various regional, social, historical and political scenarios seen through the eyes of individual Koreans.

The series is chronological with the first six volumes focusing on his hometown as a child. Volumes seven to nine turn their attention to the Korean war, while volumes ten to fifteen, published after a six year gap, focus on subjects from the 1970s including lacerating portrayals of political figures and more sympathetic portrayals of members of the democratic movement. Volumes sixteen to twenty go back in time revolving around survivors of colonialism, liberation, and then the Korean War. Volumes twenty-one to twenty three zero in on actors in the April 19th movement, while volumes twenty-four to twenty-six, examine Korean Buddhists and their faith. In keeping with his progressive/rebel sympathy, the final four volumes examine the Gwangju Democracy movement of 1980, and its horrible oppression by the Chun Doo-hwan military dictatorship. These volumes also include some portrayals of modern politicians, literateurs, and other cultural figures.

For more on this work, there is an excellent article here in the Korea Times.
And a review here:
Ko’s personal history is interesting. Here is a very short version, taken from Brother Anthony, An Sonjae’s excellent Korean literature website:

Ko Un’s life history is equally remarkable. As a child he very quickly mastered the Chinese classics. In his late teens, marked by his experiences during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk and was quickly given a series of important positions. After ten years he quit the monastic life and returned to the world, with a deeply nihilistic attitude that culminated in an attempted suicide in 1970. Restored to life, he became a leading spokesmen for the artists and students opposed to the so-called Yushin Reforms of 1972. He was among the many people arrested when Chon Doo Hwan staged his coup d’etat in May 1980. He continued to be identified with the writers opposed to dictatorship throughout the 1980s and was arrested many times. In 1982 he married and went to live in Ansong, away from Seoul. In recent years he has begun to gain an international reputation, invited to talk and give readings in the United States, Australia, France, Holland, and Germany. Translations of his work have been published in several languages. 

Since 2007, Ko is a visiting scholar at Seoul National University, where he teaches poetry and literature. A slightly different history can be found on the Wikipedia.

His style is also described by Brother Anthony:

Identified with the socially active school of literature, Ko Un’s name was for long anathema to those whose literary criteria were aesthetic and conformist, as well as to the government. His intense longing for the reunification of Korea is expressed in many places and his main concern has always been to express the historic identity of the Korean people as a whole. A man of intense emotions, his poetry is often characterized by the rhetorical features of public speech: rhetorical questions, exclamations, exhortatory imperatives. His poetic language is vivid and colloquial, marked by popular speech rhythms rather than by literary conventions. Controversy as to the evaluation of his work continues; he has many fervent admirers, while others criticize the spontaneity, the lack of polish and refinement that at times characterize his work.

Here is another example of that work:


Down with Buddha!
Down with handsome, well-fed Buddha!
What’s he doing up there with that oh so casually
elegant wispy beard?
Next, break down that painted whore of a crossbeam!
A dragon’s head? What use is that, a dragon’s head?
Tear down that temple, drive out the monks,
turn it all into dust and maggots!

Buddha with nothing, that’s real Buddha!
Our foul-mouthed Seoul street-market mother,
she’s real Buddha!
We’re all of us Buddhabuddhabuddha real!
Living Buddha? One single cigarette, now
there’s real cool Holy buddha!

Again, you have the vernacular language, although that Buddhabuddhabuddha bit might well come from Kim Hye-Soon, and again you have a fairly activist point of view about Buddhism.

Ko is frequently spoken about as a possibility for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and has already won quite a few prizes:

His translated works in English include:

The Sound of My Waves (Selected Poems 1960-1990, Cornell EAS, 1991)
 Morning Dew (Selected Poems, Sidney: Paper Bark Press, Australia, 1996)
Beyond Self (Parallax Press, 1996, now out of print, to be republished by Parallax in 2007 as Zen Poems)
Little Pilgrim (Parallax Press, 2005, a novel)
Ten Thousand Lives with an introduction by Robert Hass (Green Integer, 2005)
The Three Way Tavern (Selected Poems, UC Press, 2006)
Flowers of a Moment, 185 brief poems (BOA Editions, 2006)
Abiding Places, Korea North & South (Tupelo, 2006)
Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1961-2001 (Green Integer, 2009); Himalaya (Green Integer, 2010Himalaya Poems (Green Integer) by Ko Un, Brother Anthony and Sang-Wha Lee