Ko Un, born Ko Untae in 1933, was the first child of a peasant family living in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province in Korea. During a time when the national culture was being suppressed under the Japanese occupation, his grandfather taught him to read and write in Korean. When he was 12, he found by chance a book of poems by Han Ha-un, a nomadic Korean poet with leprosy, and he was so impressed that he began writing himself. He was a witness to the devastation of the Korean War. He volunteered for the People’s Army, but was rejected because he was underweight. Many of his relatives and friends died and, during the war, he was forced to work as a grave digger. He became so traumatized that he poured acid into his ear to shut out the war’s noise, leaving him deaf in one ear.
He became a Zen Buddhist monk in the 1950s, and returned to secular life sometime in the 1960s. During that period he published his first collection of poems, Otherworld Sensibility, and his first novel, Cherry Tree in Another World. From 1963 to 1966 he lived on the remote island of Jeju-do, where he set up a charity school, and then moved back to Seoul. However, dependent on alcohol and not at peace, he attempted to poison himself in 1970. After the South Korean government attempted to curb democracy by putting forward the Yusin Constitution in late 1972, he became very active in the democracy movement and led efforts to improve the political situation. Ko Un became an activist opposing the harsh and arbitrary rule of South Korea’s president, President Park Chung-hee. His dissident activities led to several terms of imprisonment and torture. One of those beatings in 1979 impaired his hearing even further. In May 1980, during the coup d’état led by Chun Doo-hwan, Ko was accused of treason and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, although he was released in August 1982 as part of a general pardon.
Life now became quieter and in 1983 Ko Un married Sang-Wha Lee, a professor of English Literature, who was eventually to become co-translator of several of his books. The democratization of South Korea in the late 1980s finally gave Ko Un the freedom to travel to other countries. After being granted a passport in the 1990s, Ko visited North Korea, India, Tibet, and the United States. In 2000, he shared his poetry at the Korean unification summit in Pyongyang and spoke at the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit. From 2007, he served as a visiting scholar in Seoul National University, where he gave lectures on poetry and literature. Since 2010, he was associated with the International Center for Creative Writing at Dankook University.
THE POETRY OF KO UN
Ko Un has published more than 100 books, including translations of his poetry into more than a dozen languages. English translations of his poetry include First Person Sorrowful (2013, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha), This Side of Time (2012, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg), What?: 108 Zen Poems (2008, translated by Allen Ginsberg), and The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems (2006, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg). His 30-volume Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives (2005, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha), based on a project he began while in prison, was born of an effort to write a poem for every person he has met.
His poems range from the epigrammatic (see below) to the epic, often using the rhythms of informal speech. In a 2012 interview for the Guardian, he discussed how surviving the Korean War affects his work, stating, “I‘m inhabited by a lament for the dead. I have this calling to bring back to life all those who have died. Freud says the dead have to be left dead. Derrida said the dead are and should be always with us, not abandoned. I’m on Derrida’s side. I bear the dead within me still, and they write through me.” Presenting the Griffin Poetry Award, poet Robert Hass described Ko as “one of the heroes of human freedom in this half century, a religious poet who got tangled by accident in the terrible accidents of modern history. But he is somebody who has been equal to the task, a feat rare among human beings.”
Many of the poems below are taken from his book, Flowers of a Moment, a collection of 185 brief poems. The translations are by his regular translator, Brother Anthony of Taizé, this time with the assistance of Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.
BROTHER ANTHONY OF TAIZÉ
Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) was born in Truro (Cornwall, UK) in 1942. He studied Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford. In 1969 he joined the Taizé Community in France, a monastic order composed of men from the Protestant, Anglican and Catholic traditions dedicated to spreading the message of trust and reconciliation. After three years’ service in the Philippines, in May 1980 Brother Anthony joined other brothers in Korea, invited by the late Archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan. Brother Anthony began to translate modern Korean literature in 1988, and since then has published a wide variety of works from classic Korean authors. He is one of the foremost living translators of contemporary Korean poetry, with over 26 titles to his credit. Besides Ko Un, he has translated books of poetry by Ku Sang, Kim Kwang-kyu, Midang, Ch’on Sang-pyong, Shin Kyong-nim, Kim Su-young, Lee Si-young, Chonggi Mah and fiction by Yi Mun-yol and Lee Oyoung, and nonfiction by Mok Sun-ok. In 1994, Brother Anthony became a naturalized Korean citizen, taking on the Korean name An Sonjae, Sonjae being the Korean form of Sudhana, the ‘little pilgrim’ of the Buddhist scripture The Gandavyuha Sutra. He received the Korean government’s Award of Merit, Jade Crown class, in October 2008 for his work in promoting knowledge of Korean literature in the world. He currently lives in Seoul where he is Emeritus Professor, Department of English Language and Literature at Sogang Univesity, Seoul, where he has taught since 1980. Has written numerous books and articles about English literature.
Brief Poems by Ko Un
TRANSLATED BY BROTHER ANTHONY OF TAIZÉ
(with Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach)
One rainy spring day
I looked out once or twice
wondering if someone would be coming by.
Wings on one side torn off
a fly crawls awkwardly away
Todays come to an end
The first snake of spring emerged
I have lived too long!
Rowing with just one oar
I lost that oar
For the first time I looked round at the wide stretch of water
We went to Auschwitz
saw the mounds of glasses
saw the piles of shoes
On the way back
we each stared out of a different window
A baby dragonfly perches on a bullrush tip
The entire world surrounds it, watching
Outside the cave the howling wind and rain
the silence speech of bats filling the ceiling
A photo studio’s shop window
A woman who cannot bear children
gazes smilingly at a photo of a one-year-old child
In the very middle of the road
two dogs are coupling
I take another route
A Shooting Star
Wow! You recognized me.
At the foot of a hill where children are playing
a dainty stream babbles
It does not realize that very soon
it will be the sea
“I’ve come, dear,
the harsh winter’s over now”
His wife’s tomb laughs quietly
sharing a meal of the food they’ve been given
The new moon shines intensely
Some say they can recall a thousand years
Some say they have already visited the next thousand years
On a windy day
I am waiting for a bus
A Single Word
The world had already heard
before I spoke it.
The worm had heard.
The worm dribbled a cry.
The sun is setting
to become a wolf beneath a fat full moon
I have spent the whole day talking about other people again
and the trees are watching me
as I go home
the mother has fallen asleep
so her baby is listening all alone
to the sound of the night train