One day, the poet Ko Un said to me, as if talking to himself, “Transmigration (samsara) is Emancipation”. What could he possibly mean? Emancipation means to be freed from the wheel of transmigration that continues the round of life and death according to the karma of desires. By his words, Ko Un is rejecting the primary proposition of Buddhist thinking. Is he offering absolute approval of the world we inhabit? It seems so, in that he does not assume anything outside of the world.
However, given that he identifies transmigration with emancipation, his approval is not totally free of reservations: rather, it is close to an inner transcendence which enables both absolute approval and absolute disapproval of each and every moment of life. His poetry keeps being born and dying at a locus where all distinctions between approval and disapproval are obliterated and obliteration itself is lost. I see a monk moving like water, like a cloud, on his serious yet light-hearted journey of discovery. He aspires to reach the greatest freedom by letting go of both transmigration and emancipation. The grave traditions of Korean Buddhism have given birth to a monk-poet.
Ko Un was born into a farming family in 1933 and grew up in Kunsan, North Cholla Province. Kusan, the gateway to the wide plains known as the ‘granary of the Korean Peninsula,’ was sadly enjoying prosperity in those days, since it had become the main port from which rice was exported to Japan during the colonial period. After Independence (1945) Kunsan went to ruin. Ko Un, after witnessing the historico-political turmoil of those years-the division of Korea, its northern half occupied by Russia and the southern half by the United States (1945), the establishment of mutually exclusive gorvernments in the North and the South (1948), and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949)-turned his back on the world to become a Buddhist momk in 1952, in the middle of th Korean War (1950-1953). The Korean War served as a first turning point in the young poet’s life and was the womb for his poetry. The War, which began as a civil war between the North and the South, grew into an international conflict. However, even toward the end of the war, when it began increasingly to revolve around the interests of America and China, the main victims were the Korean soldiers from the North and the South. As the whole population came to be involved, the Korean War was truly a costly history lesson for Koreans. The war revealed the ways in which national history relates to the world history. It finally came to an Armistice, bringing the country close to the pre-war state of division into two halves. the subsequent Cold War affected the rest of the world. Ko Un’s escape from such a hell to Buddhism, a year before the Armistice, was his own way of struggling against the evil of the Korean War, a struggle attempted at a fundamental level. He returned to the world in 1962.
In a sense, his return to secular life had already occurred four years before, when he made his debut as a poet. His poetry can be chronologically divided into three periods. The early period includes the poems written in the 1950′s and 1960′s, when he was experiencing a deep crisis between the “the Golden Tree of Life” and the grey world of a Son (Zen) monk, in a word, the era of Modernism; the middle period includes poems written in the 1970′s when he presented himself as a poet of radical resistance, engaging in the anti-dictatorial democratic movement and rejecting Modernism; the later period includes poems written in the 1980′s, when he tried to reach a state of great freedom through a marriage between the poetic and the political. His poetic pilgrimage, begun in 1958, has continued into the new century, ever marked by a great earnestness and an eagerness to find a new poetic territory; his work has become a mirror of the history of modern Korean poetry.
The Period of Modernism
It is important to look at the general context of modern Korean poetry at the time Ko Un made his debut. The agricultural community that had already been in decline since the 1930s had finally collapsed. The South was flooded by waves of capitalism after the Korean War. In such social chaos, popular poetry receded to an undercurrent and the approach known as Modernism once more became the mainstream. Modernist poetry had been one of the dominant streams in the 1930s, but the colonial modernism which had arisen and the propaganda poetry which had flourished diminished as the Great Depression ended, with the appearance of Japanese imperial fascism. It was this same modernism which returned in the 1950s. However, in the late 1950s, when the dictatorship of the anti-communist President Syngman Rhee was at its height, Modernism began to break down again, in the face of urgent calls for democracy, adumbrating the events of the April Revolution(1960) when the students led a revolt that finally toppled the Rhee regime. As the poetry of Kim Su-yong shows, after that some Modernist poets cautiously began to raise self-critical voices.
Ko Un made his debut at this complicated, transitional point. His version of Modernism was unique, although it was still located within the magnetic field of Modernism as a whole. The uniqueness was primarily shaped by the particular socio-political situation of the moment and by his being a monk-poet. He was in a Buddhist context which basically objected to the westernised ideas dominating modernist poetry in the 1950s. However, he cannot easily be categorised as a member of the “Traditional Group” of poets. In the 1950s, the traditional Group, whose leading poet was Midang So Chong-ju, enjoyed equal importance with the Modernists. While the “Western Group” pursued a westernised form of modernisation, the Traditional Group indulged in romantic transcendence, inclined to err through the forests of the classical like ‘birds of heaven’. However, when we consider that So Chong-ju had been deeply affected by Modernism in the 1930s, the Western Group and the Traditional Group could not be far apart. In some sense, each was a subversive imitation of the other. The earliest poetry of Ko Un might be seen as straddling the border-line division between the Western and the Traditional poetics that were enjoying a happy co-habitation in the 1950s.
One of his poems that clearly show border characteristics is ‘Ode to Shim-chong’
Indangsu sea, shine dark blue,
come rising as a cloudlike drumbeat.
The waters, the sailors who know the waters, may know
the dark fate of the world beyond
that lies past the path that sometimes appears,
the weeping of children born into this world,
and the sailors may know my daughter’s path.
How can the waters exist without the world beyond?
has now become the most yearned-for thing in the world,
and my daughter’s whimpering stillness in the lotus bud will be such;
might love be a bright world and my eyes be plunged in utter darkness?
Daughter, already now the waters’ own mother,
advance over the waters,
advance over the waters
like the mists that come dropping over the waters.
My daughter, advance and travel through every world.
Shine dark blue, Indangsu. Weep dark blue.
Shim-chong is the protagonist of a very famous Korean classical romance. The story was also made into an opera by Yi-sang Yoon for the opening ceremony of the Munich Olympics in 1972. Ko Un’s poem presents the tragic scene where Shim-chong throws herself into the Indang Sea. She had sold herself to merchants from Nanjing to be a sacrificial offering intended to ensure a safe sea journey, in hope of facilitating by the money received the recovery of her blind father’s sight. In the poem, the poet becomes the father and encourages his daughter to throw herself into the water. The poet rejects the traditional interpretation of the story in which Shim-chong’s filial love is highly praised; he chose instead to evoke the tragic lot of the father whose life becomes a punishment for selling his daughter. The unique space where anti-traditional Modernism and anti-western Traditionalism meet is where the potery of Ko Un originates.
The Period of Popular Poetry
Ko Un joined the democratic movement against the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee in 1973. The following year, he came to the forefront of the national literature movement as he organized the Council of Writers for Practice of Freedom with Baek Nak-cheong. The national literature movement took the 1960 April Revolution that brought down the Syngman Rhee regime as the source of its imaginative power and of its protest againt Park Chung-hee’s regime. As an military general, Park Chung-hee had led the 1961 coup that destroyed the newly born republic.
Why did they focus their new literary movement on the construction of national literature? In the 1960s, a literature of Engagement had already been proposed. It was conceived as a challenge to so-called ‘pure’ literature. The “pure literature” theory which was developed soon after Independence and survived the Korean War was actually very political, since it was adopted as the official literary ideology by the Syngman Rhee regime. Its influence seemed to diminish after the 1960 Revolution, but it was revived again after the 1961 coup. The literary theory of Engagement, which emerged from the call for democracy and was aware of the agony of the masses of the Korean people in their severed nation, challenged the pure literature theory, which attempted to deny the significance of the Revolution, and contributed to a speedy recovery of the social consciousness of Korean literature. Engagement developed into national literature movement based on the need for the construction of a new nation transcending the dichotomy of the capitalism of the south and the socialism of the north.
In this socio-political turmoil, a popular poetry of resistance which attempted to deconstruct the marriage between the traditional Group and modernists arose.
The appearance of Kim Ji-ha was highly significant. Ko Un joined the young group without hesitation. Having already returned to secular life, abandoning all he had achieved as a Buddhist monk, he threw himself-like Sim-chung-into the sea of the radical poetry of the 1970s. There the great resistance poem ‘arrows’ was born.
Transformed into arrows
let’s all soar together, body and soul!
Piercing the air
let’s go soaring, body and soul!
With no way of return
but transfixed there
rotting with the pain of striking home,
never to return.
One last breath! Now, let’s quit the string,
throwing away like useless rags
all we have had over the years
all we have enjoyed over the years
all we have piled up over the years
and whatever else.
Transformed into arrows
let’s all soar together, body and soul!
The air is shouting! Piercing the air
let’s go soaring, body and soul!
In dark daylight the target is rushing towards us.
Finally, as the target topples
in a shower of blood,
let’s all just once as arrows
Never to return!
Never to return!
Hail, brave arrows, our nation’s arrows!
Hail, Warriors! Spirits of the fallen!
In this poem with its breathless tension, there is the lonely music of the death of revolutionary democrats who fought against the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. I fear a resonance of ‘Ode to Sim-chong’. The speaker of the poem, who makes a lonely decision to confront death without hope of resurrection, without self-consciousness of sacrifice, but embracing fear, resembles Sim-chong about to throw herself into the sea. In this poem, the poet is not Shim-chong’s father anymore; he becomes Shim-chong giving herself in sacrifice. The poem is no simple propaganda. The “let’s” which dominates the whole poem is in fact directed to ‘myself, not ‘us’.
Beyond the Borders
The dictator-president Park Chung-hee was assassinated by one of his loyal followers on 26 October, 1979. Ko Un was in prison at that time and was released at the end of the year. He was imprisoned again as the new military regime took power after supressing the Kwangju Uprising and was only released in 1982. The following year he got married, and went to live in Ansong, two hours south of Seoul. His return to the world was now complete.
Two years after being released from prison, he published a book of poetry entitled Homeland Stars . Unexpectedly, the book was full of liveliness and lacked the solemn odor of death which had prevailed in the poetry of his middle period. What was the secret? “I know / that the noise of playing children / is more important than the shouts of struggle / I, who have been shouting for ten years, know that” (from ‘March’). The realization that the shouts of struggle and the noise of playing children are two different sounds and yet the same shows that he can criticize his own poems which used to only consider the former. He criticises the poems of the middle period, poems which themselves were critical of the early period. This is where the new territory of the late period is shaped: it transcends the boundaries of the political and the poetic. “The world is meaningless/the world is true”–he transcends this dichotomy and approaches the Buddhist principle that “the meaningless is true and the true is meaningless”. It is ironic that his Buddhist idea only became complete when his return to secular life was complete.
Korean poetry of the 1980s was marked with the sadness of the survivors and full of requiems for the dead, overloaded with guilt concerning the Kwangju Uprising. The young generation who had witnessed the Kwangju Uprising quickly engaged in the radical popular poetry movement. In June, 1987, protests against the military regime exploded. The poetry of the 1990′s was distanced from the excessive social consciousness of the 1980s, faced with the new international and domestic political situation: the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the birth of democratic civilian government in Korea (1993). ‘Little poems’ were prevalent, accompanied by the collapse of ‘the grand story’. There was also a tendency to pursue simultaneously ‘a big poem’ and ‘a little poem,’ repudiating the poems of the 1980s and the 1990s.
In such a poem as ‘Tomorrow’ (1992), Ko Un finds a way leading to life at the hiatus where the old is dead and the new is yet to come.
Through the tough days of pain
tomorrow was my only verdant honor,
sole source of any strength I had left,
as I waved
a final farewell
at each waning day.
Was that real?
If love and hate,
and the land of my father,
were only things of today
beneath the starlight fireworks
of countless nights past, then
let glasses stay empty,
offer no more toasts.
Isn’t it a magnificent name!
Oh, ragged destiny -
though dazzling flesh
may now be one,
see beyond affairs of today,
if such is today,
to where is already streaming
in the wind, without fanfare, like a lone child:
The first stanza is about the past. It begins with retrospection. The past in this poem most probably refers to the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s. In “the tough days of pain” when we had to grope for starlight, “tomorrow was my only verdant honor”. In other words, in the absoluteness of a tomorrow which is yet to come-and the poet may die before it comes-the present is completely denied. However, there is a subtle change in the absoluteness of tomorrow in the second stanza. Tomorrow is here again praised as “a magnificent name” compared wiht the poor today where “dazzling flesh and dictatorship may now be one”. However, paying attention to the resonance of “if” in “if such is today”, it can be noticed that the consciousness of the poet has attained the dialectics of present and future. He embraces the dark “ragged destiny” and sumons a tomorrow that will come as a child mothered by today.
In the first stanza, time originates only from the future, whereas in the second stanza the present is brooding over the future like a hen over her eggs. Therefore, the poem is not the song of a prophet who appears in a wilderness in rags and urges people to sacrifice today for tomorrow. This is a kind of Son (Zen) poem where a paradoxical wisdom is present: the present, fully embraced, becomes tomorrow.
With such a sophisticated consciousness of time, Ko Un continuously crosses boundaries. He has crossed the boundary of the South by visiting the North. He wanders the world. He goes beyond the closed nationalism of many modern-day Koreans. Crossing all boundaries, he communicates with his own nation and the world, and he walks in the state of that Great Freedom where Transmigration becomes Emancipation. The poetic journey of Ko Un, who has accompanied the modern Korean history of suffering and hardship, has finally reached the state where he is heard by the whole world.
trans by Chung Soh-Young