Ko Un (고은) speaks at Haechi Hall: Q+A Summary

Ko Un speakingLast Saturday Ko Un spoke at the Barry’s Seoul ABC Book Club (also here on Facebook) at Haechi Hall in Myeongdong, Seoul.

Ko began by wishing everyone a happy New Year and looked forward to the Lunar New Year, which is upcoming and mentioned TS Eliot about endings being beginning. January links our past with our future “now is the moment that is stuck between yesterday and tomorrow” then welcomed in the New Year with a toast of a glass of red wine with Brother Anthony.

Ko was dapper, trim, and animated, seeming much younger than his actual age of 80. He often stood up in response, and moved with the gestures and expressions of a dancer, rather than a poet.

Ko read three poems in Korean, his voice dropping at least half a register and taking on dramatic overtones. The poems included his “First Person Sorrowful” a well-written (judging by the translation) meditation on “we” and the loss of identity in literature, politics, and life. This left relatively little time for an interview. What you will find below the quick clip demonstrating how animated Ko was, are my notes on Brother Anthony and Ko Un’s interview.

1) You grew up under Japanese rule, how did you develop your sense of “Koreanness?”

The pain of colonization has occurred across history. Mentioned Europe, Greece and Rome, noting that Rome didn’t do away with native languages, and neither does China in Tibet (though he noted the language is slowly fading). Japan was perhaps the only country that tried to demolish the linguistic heritage of its colony. Ko was not allowed to study or read Korean when he began school and he had to adopt a Japanese name. He noted a saying in Korean, a promise that “if the person does not do what they say, or fails, they will change their surname.” Also, he noted that surnames are not as important in Japan. As a student he was forced to bow to the direction of the Japanese emperor’s residence. Noted that, however, at home he still spoke Korean. Tied the surnames to Jesa and ancestor worship. He also learned, secretly, with other farmers, to learn to read Korean, so when liberation came he could proudly raise his hand when the question came up, who could read and speak Korean. He thinks that capital and market forces actually represent a larger threat to Korean than the Japanese did. He also thinks that the language of the Internet is a bit of a threat and said that it is time to turn attention to the future of the Korean language, and not worry about its past. The languages he thinks will survive are Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, and English. But when that time comes he plans to continue writing in Korean, even if in the grave. That last remark got a healthy dose of laughter as a response.

2) The Korean War and “ruins” – Myeondong, where we sit, was once ruins.

Yes, it was ruins, with only bars, where people stood around drinking in the ruins. Even if it rained, people would stand, drinking still. These were the survivors of the War, half of his generation lost its lives and the land was destroyed; pieces of brick here and there, grass, you could go to the bathroom anywhere you wanted. Myeongdong Cathedral remained intact. The UN troops tried to avoid bombing churches, but many Buddhist Temples were destroyed – it was a miracle the printing blocks in Haeinsa survived. So there were ruins everywhere, not just in Seoul. MacArthur bombed much on Gangwon as a decoy before he landed in Incheon. Korea’s situation was worse than even that of Dresden in Germany. The whole of Korea was in ruins. When you are surrounded by such ruins there are no beginnings or endings. Some today say we only have despair, but at that time we didn’t even have despair, all we had was our bodies. And even inside our minds there were ruins.

I witnessed a family’s death when I was in the countryside. It was overwhelming for a teenager. After, the idea of death and ruins marked the beginning of my life.

I think we have in ourselves something that makes us turn away from ruins. Humanity has its roots in ruins. Our first home was built from things we found in ruins – a cave we dug, and that’s why so many tourists travel to ruins in Egypt and Greece. Athens would not be as interesting if it were kept intact, what fun would it be if the ruins in Egypt were not in ruins? Empty space, a place where you can’t find any life, is a beginning, if you like, and that is where my poetry has its beginning.

3) So, you become a monk, then a poet, and then you had to choose. What remains of the monk?

I never made that conscious choice to be there as a shaven-headed monk. Not to mention that I didn’t have the agenda to find enlightenment in Buddhism. Monks weren’t in the temples in the hills in those days, they were actually on the street. One day I saw a monk going by and I just followed him. Like a piece of metal attracted to a magnet. It was not about finding truth or a new religion. I just kept following him without saying a word and we ended up traveling together. And then I met a great monk, the venerable Sabong (Editor’s Note: This is not the correct name). He was strict and scary, but also caring. So I stayed with the monks and there I very much healed the pain of the Korean war. And the lifestyle of the monks very much denied the function of language or text. That was the practice of Zen Buddhism. One day I discovered there was conflict between monks who had contact with women and those who didn’t. The monks acquainted with women were following the tradition of Japanese Buddhism. The non-contact monks eventually took control. On the instructions of my superior I came off the mountain and went to Seoul. On that road, I became a poet. I never consciously tried to become a poet, it was actually the effort of my friends submitting my works here and there that lead to my debut. So it was not a conscious choice. These days, it is my choice, of course.

3) You went to Jeju-do and came back, a time of nihilism, drinking, then you became a voice of resistance – a big change.

I get told off by my wife because I am rarely a man of few words. I think this is my misfortune. It is in my blood. In central Asia there a many countries that end in “stan.” And there are many stories behind those lands. In ancient lands time ran in long scale while in the present we have to count every hour. People’s eyesight was good, they could see what animals were doing on the horizon. These days our view is blocked by the apartment across the road and we wear glasses from a young age. In the past there was no need for glasses.

4) May 1980 – by then the dictatorship became afraid of you and you were locked up for 20 years (Editor’s Note: Ko was arrested 4 earlier times, and his sentence was ended after 2 years as part of a general pardon). That experience of solitary confinement changed your life again that the idea of the Maninbo project came to you. How important was that time in prison?

I’m going to have to go back to Jeju and I have a long story. I mentioned Central Asia where epic poems are so long that it takes several men and several days to read one poem. In Mongolia I listened to a poem recited from evening to sunrise. So it’s in my blood to tell long stories. Brother Anthony is good at summarizing, which helps a lot.

Let me explain what my influences are. Not from the West, but from the ruins. They provided the beginning of my life and my poetry. There is only one truth that I have been holding on to – it is that every truth changes. My life has gone through several changes and my nihilism has done the same. I parted with it in the 70’s at the death of Jeon Tae-il a worker who sacrificed his life for others. This is when I discovered the idea of reality. If I may use a metaphor – If Jesus was not crucified and there were no bloodstains on his body, where would Paul and Peter have come from? Those people would not exist.

Each time you went to prison you got a star on your shoulder – I have four stars. If I go back I will have 5 and they will salute me as I walk down the corridors of the prison. I wasn’t the only person awakened by the death of Jeon Tae-il, I met many others in prison who were as well. Waves in the sea, I have noticed, always work in unity – Korean society in the 80’s was experiencing that same wave. Many believed we were getting closer to democracy, even by going in and out of prison. The 90’s saw the rise of another dictatorship. And I was arrested on charges of conspiring against the government and put in a windowless cell in a military prison. I was left in complete darkness whenever the light in my rooms was put out. And the room was tiny – I felt like a dead body in a coffin. In a place like this your present is taken away from you. My past actually took the place of my stolen present. In that ‘present’ there were people from my past, my grandmother, my friends, who visited me. I realized memories were not ones’ luxury. The past was actually what kept me being. We knew that we were going to die and we thought about how we were going to be killed and we tried to prepare ourselves. Am I going to laugh at the moment of my death, or find a poem and throw it back at them? But we got help from other countries, the US and Germany, trying to help us. I later found out that President George Bush actually played a vital part in saving our lives. A former Prime Minister of Germany also did a great deal to help us, as did many Christian leaders around the world. There was also a campaign within Korea. So I survived and made it out.

In prison I decided to write about every person who came back to me from the past. I thought that if I survived I thought this was something I could devote the rest of my life to. And of course I didn’t have pen and paper in jail. Pablo Nehru wrote a book of history when he was in prison of the British. Another Korean writer wrote a novel, but under Park and Chun Doo-Hwan, that was not possible. So after I was released from prison I met my wife, and started the project Maninbo.

4) From then to now how many “Ko Un’s” have there been, and how many will there be?

I’m going to go back to the image of waves. In the 24 hours of a day there are many waves (I missed the actual number). We humans use many words in a day, 25,000 for men, 30,000 for women. If you turned those utterances in books 130 volumes of 400 pages. But for me, in 55 years I’ve only written 160 or so books. Victor Hugo found time for dating a lot but was also very prolific. He wrote plays, fiction, and poems. We have a vast selection of letters from Goethe, poetry and fiction as well. But this is not the case in traditional Korean literature. Many poets wrote only 30 poems in their lifetime. Kim So-wol, before committing suicide at the age of 32. Yi Sang died young as did another poet died in his early 20’s. They left behind only a little poetry.

So maybe I’m trying to make up for that lack of volume in Korean literature. My poetry is private and public. The fundamental purpose of my literature lies in the idea of consolation. I’ve witnessed so many deaths and survived so much suffering. Everywhere in Korea someone has died before. The whole world is a graveyard for those who came before us. So I can never really break free from the deaths I have witnessed, I try to bring them back. A poet once said you have to move on from the dead and live your own life. But another poet says we need to remember the dead for the rest of our lives. So even these days, when I meet a person I see the dead people who linger behind them. The moon in Asia represents your inner psyche. So the moon gives us what we have in our hearts. Even when I see the moon I see what lies behind it, a darkness and death lie behind it. So, poets are given what I call “blessed misfortune” so we can see the brightness of the moon and the darkness behind it. So it so only through acts of consolation that we can build the future. Without infinite sympathy for the dead ones, how can we have sympathy for the living ones. Death is everywhere and it is the seed for new life, if you like.

QUESTIONS: There was not much time for questions, and Ko turned in an epic performance on the first one, stomping the stage, gesturing, and chanting like a shaman (See movie, above^^).

1) I’m intrigued by your idea that language is weak and fragile and should be cherished, and I wonder what you focus on when your poetry is translated?

I haven’t got exact count, but I think my poetry has been translated into 25 languages including one in Africa. When I pick up a book of poetry in translation, what strikes me it has two names, poet and translator. I realize I too can be a translator – I take the language of the world and translate it into something my readers can understand. The ‘I’ in my poetry is not “I”, it is the reader. I sing the moments of sadness my readers go through. The distinction between the poet and the translator becomes very insignificant.

When I am first with a class of students the first thing I say to them is that I have no regard for the theory of poetics of Aristotle and we have to create new poetry, a new tradition of poetry ourselves. And Hesiod is the Greek poet who used to be an uneducated shepherd who once met nine muses from the heaven who declared that he from that day on should be a poet and sing the truth of the world. He began to write poetry from the next day. There is also another tradition in the Arab world, where the prophet himself was a wonderful poet and he was fond of poetry and his second wife would read him poetry to keep him happy. The theory or the rules of writing poetry only came later and it is not something that I really regard as important. Someone once said to me that poetry is the muse of the heart, which is something that I have repeated in other places.  I think it’s very true when it comes to the idea of poetry, it is really your heart that pumps and stimulates poetry and that is really my theory when it comes to writing poetry.

In the old days land used to be regarded as a divine entity. So farmers in the old days in Korea would revere the land god and sometimes pour alcohol into the land and that would generate so much excitement and the land would get drunk and get really excited and there would also be energy coming from above. And the two energies would meet and really generate what I think is wonderful poetry.


There is a story I would like to share with you, it goes back 16 years ago, almost two decades ago I got my first passport and coincidentally as soon as I got my first passport I started getting invites. So I traveled to Holland where I met the professor who just got up to say hello (applause), to participate in the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival. I remember walking down the streets with the professor and we sampled some sardines and there’s a very famous Dutch saying, “where there are sardines there are not doctors” because it is a very healthy food, so I hope you have a chance to sample sardines some day in Holland.

Then it was time for one last poem (the really good “First Person Sorrowful”) and an awesome event drew to its close.

After the event, Ko stayed to sign books, and was amused at my Korean nickname (On posters advertising classes during the breaks my students refer to me as 창몽) and when I tried to stay a respectable distance for the photo (below) he took a surprisingly strong arm and raked me into him. I also got a hearty slap on the back when I left, again, surprisingly strong.

All in all a great event.


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