tag Ko Un
- [An Sonjae] Ko Un in the English-Speaking World
- The following article was presented in the anniversary of Maninbo’s publication 16th April, 2010 at Press Center, Seoul, Korea. Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) is Ko Un’s magnum opus, who is truly the people’s poet of Korea, in which he is putting into poems the faces & lives of all the people he has ever known or known of. Conceived when he was imprisoned in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s for rebellion against the military dictatorships then controlling Korea, Maninbo has been completed in 30 volumes over the last quarter century, published by Changbi, Korea. Ko Un in the English-Speaking World by Brother Anthony of Taize (An Sonjae) In order to indicate how well-known Ko Un has become outside of Korea, I will begin with a list of the translations of works by Ko Un so far published in English or soon to be published. 1. The Sound of My Waves (Selected poems 1960 ~ 1990) (Ithaca: Cornell University East Asia Series, 1992), tr. Brother Anthony of Taize & Kim Young-Moo. (Selected poems) 2. Beyond Self, (Berkeley: Parallax, USA, 1997), tr. Brother Anthony of Taize & Kim Young-Moo. (Short ‘Seon’ poems, a translation of the collection Muonya etc.) 3. Travelers’ Maps (Boston: Tamal Vista Publication, 2004), tr. David McCann. (Selected poems) 4. Little Pilgrim, (Berkeley: Parallax, 2005), tr. Brother Anthony of Taize and Kim Young-Moo. (The novel Hwaeomgyeong) 5. Ten Thousand Lives (LA: Green Integer Press, 2005), tr. Brother Anthony at Taize, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach. (Selected poems from Maninbo volumes 1-10) 6. The Three Way Tavern (LA: UC Press, 2006), tr. Clare You & Richard Silberg (Selected poems) 7. Flowers of a Moment (New York: BOA, 2006), tr. Brother Anthony of Taize, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach (Translation of the poems in the collection Sunganui kkot) 8. Abiding Places: Korea South and North (Vermont: Tupelo, 2006), tr. Sunny Jung & Hillel Schwartz (Selected poems from the collection Namgwa buk) 9. What? (Berkeley: Parallax, 2008) tr. Brother Anthony at Taize & Kim Young-Moo. (Short ‘Seon’ poems, a translation of the collection Muonya etc, a new edition of Beyond Self) 10 Songs for Tomorrow: Poems 1960-2002, (LA: Green Integer, 2008), tr. Brother Anthony of Taize, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach (Selected poems) In addition, there are several translations that have not yet been published but are announced as being more or less complete: 1. Sŏn: Boddhi Dharma and His Disciples, tr. Clare You (The first volume of the novel Seon) 2. Himalaya Poems, tr. Brother Anthony of Taize & Lee Sang-Wha (The poems of the collection Himalaya) 3. Nubbins , tr. Clare You & Richard Silberg (Selected poems) 4. Poetry from the Ruins, tr. Brother Anthony of Taize & Lee Sang-Wha (Selected prose writings) 5. Poetry Left Behind, tr. Choi Jong-Yol (Selected poems from the collection Dugo on si) 6. More poems from Maninbo, tr. Brother Anthony of Taize and Lee Sang-Wha The 10 English translations already published are among the 36 volumes of work by Ko Un so far published in 10 languages, while 25 other volumes are in preparation, including translations into 5 additional languages. It is also very important to note that over the last few years, thanks to our American co-translator Gary Gach, poems by Ko Un have appeared in perhaps 50 or more different literary journals and reviews in the United States and elsewhere, including the highly regarded NewYorker. That is the best way to make a poet known in the US. A Google search for “Ko Un” registers over 720,000 hits. It is of course a personal source of great pride that the English translations of a selection of Ko Un’s poems 1960-1990 made by myself and Kim Young-Moo and published in 1991 as The Sound of my Waves (from the Korean selection) was the first publication of his work in any western language (there had been a volume published in Japanese in 1989). Two more volumes in English had been published by the time translations in other languages began to appear (in German in 1996, in Spanish in 1998). Ko Un’s first visit to the United States dates from 1987, and in 1988 he visited Japan, each time with a single-exit passport. Similar short visits to Australia, the US and India etc were possible in 1992 but it was only in 1993, with the inauguration of a civilian government, that he received an official pardon and was able to receive a regular passport. From that time on, he began to travel widely, giving readings in every continent. One important moment in the outside world’s meeting with Ko Un came during a reading he gave in Seoul one evening in 1990. It was in support of the Rev. Mun Ik-Hwan, who was then in prison for visiting North Korea, and it was scheduled at a time when a government-sponsored international poetry festival was being held. One of the guests there, Allen Ginsberg, the famed Beat poet, was brought to hear Ko Un reading and joined him on the stage. A few years later, when our translation of Ko Un’s Seon poems was to be published by Parallax Press in Berkeley, Allen Ginsberg wrote a moving preface which is one of the earliest in-depth responses to Ko Un written by a non-Korean, western poet: Familiar with some of his earlier poems in translation, especially some of the later trickster-like naturalistic life sketches of Ten Thousand Lives — tender portraits, humane, paradoxical, “ordinary” stories with hilarious twists & endings, a little parallel to the “Characters” of W. C. Williams and Charles Reznikoff, I was stopped short by the present volume. What?’s the right title. 108 thought-stopping Koan-like mental firecrakers. (. . .) Ko Un backtracks from earlier “Crazy Wisdom” narratives and here presents what I take to be pure Zen mini-poems. I can’t account for them, only half understand their implications and am attracted by the nubbin of poetry they represent. Hard nuts to crack — yet many seem immediately nutty & empty at the same time. (. . .) Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscenti, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian. This little book of Seon poems gives a glimpse of the severe humorous discipline beneath the prolific variety of his forms & subjects. These excellent translations are models useful to inspire American Contemplative poets. From 1995 Ko Un began to travel regularly and in 1997 we find him giving readings with Gary Snyder and with the American Poet Laureate Robert Hass in Berkeley. The following year, in 1998, Robert Hass devoted a short article in the Washington Post newspaper to Ko Un. After a summary of Ko Un’s life in the context of modern Korean history he turns at once to Maninbo, the work that had struck him most deeply: Only a handful of the poems have appeared in English translation, but they are remarkably rich. Anecdotal, demotic, full of the details of people’s lives, they’re not like anything else I’ve come across in Korean poetry. It’s to be hoped that a fuller translation of them will appear. When we published our translations from the first 10 volumes of Maninbo in 2005, Robert Hass wrote the foreword, and then published an article in the New York Review of Books, a splendid tribute. He recalls first seeing and hearing Ko Un during a visit to Seoul in 1988 and, of course, that is one of the most important elements in Ko Un’s worldwide reputation–the impact of hearing him perform his poetry at readings: no other Korean poet has such powerful charisma. As Michael McClure once wrote: In the world of poetry his reading is unique. There is no one who reads like this. Ko Un delivers his language with the intensity of one who was forbidden to learn his native Korean language as a child, but learned it anyway…… Ko Un’s poetry has the old-fashionedness of a muddy rut on a country road after rain, and yet it is also as state-of-the-art as a DNA micro-chip. Beneath his art I feel the mysterious traditional animal and bird spirits, as well as age-old ceremonies of a nation close to its history. Hass describes the development of modern Korean poetry through the 20th century before quoting 2 very early poems by Ko Un from The Sound of My Waves. Of the first, “Sleep” he writes: This is an inward poem, quietly beautiful. As English readers, we’re deprived of any sense of what it reads like or sounds like in Korean. It seems like mid-century American free verse, put to the use of plainness or clarity. The sensation of the sleeper, having opened his eyes and closed them with a feeling that he was still holding the moonlight, is exquisite. The turn in the poem—the shadow cast by the hunger for an entire purity—seems Rilkean. Of the second, “Destruction of Life” he writes: This has, to my ear, the toughmindedness of Korean Buddhism and the kind of raggedness and anger I associate with American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, the young Allen Ginsberg or Leroi Jones. I’ve read that Korean poetry is not so aesthetically minded as Japanese poetry partly because it has stayed closer to oral traditions rather than traditions of learning, which may be what gives this poem its quality. It’s more demotic than “Sleep,” more spontaneous and tougher, less satisfied to rest in beauty. Then he turns to Maninbo: Maninbo seems to flow from a fusion of these traditions. For anyone who has spent even a little time in Korea, the world that springs to life in these poems is instantly recognizable, and for anyone who has tried to imagine the war years and the desperate poverty that came after, these poems will seem to attend to a whole people’s experience and to speak from it. Not surprisingly, hunger is at the center of the early volumes. Their point of view is the point of view of the village, their way of speaking about the shapes of lives the stuff of village gossip. They are even, at moments, the street seen with a child’s eyes so that characters come on stage bearing a ten-year-old’s sense of a neighborhood’s Homeric epithets: the boy with two cowlicks, the fat, mean lady in the corner house. The poems have that intimacy. Most of them are as lean as the village dogs they describe; in hard times people’s characters seem to stand out like their bones and the stories in the poems have therefore a bony and synoptic clarity. It’s hard to think of analogs for this work. The sensibility, alert, instinctively democratic, comic, unsentimental, is a little like William Carlos Williams; it is a little like Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology or the more political and encyclopedic ambitions of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. The point of view and the overheard quality remind me of the Norwegian poet Paal-Helge Haugen’s Stone Fences, a delicious book that calls up the whole social world of the cold war and the 1950s from the point of view of a child in a farming village. For the dark places the poems are willing to go, they can seem in individual poems a little like the narratives of Robert Frost, but neither Masters’s work nor Frost’s has Ko Un’s combination of pungent village gossip and epic reach. The characters, village wives, storekeepers, snake catchers, beggars, farm workers, call up a whole world. Most striking for a Korean reader will perhaps be the way in which Hass links Ko Un’s work to poetry by a variety of poets from various countries, seeking to situate him by similarities and differences in a universal poetic context. Yet his comments also show a strong awareness of the importance of context in understanding Ko Un’s work, for he keeps referring to the concrete events of Korean history and to its culture. Ko Un has written that no poem can be “universal” because every poem arises within a particular poet in a particular place at a particular moment and in a particular language. Hass understands this, and he concludes; perhaps it is enough to notice the fertility of Ko Un’s poetic resources. One would think that the poems would begin to seem formulaic, that the ways of calling up a life would begin to be repetitive, and they never are. In that way it is a book of wonders in its mix of the lives of ordinary people, people from stories and legends, and historical figures. They all take their place inside this extraordinarily rich reach of a single consciousness. Ko Un is a remarkable poet and one of the heroes of human freedom in this half-century. American readers have often been drawn to poetry in translation because of the dramatic political circumstances that produced it rather than by the qualities of the work itself. But no one who begins to read Ko Un’s work will doubt that what matters here is the work itself. I have quoted Hass at length because he has written with deep understanding of so many aspects of Ko Un’s work. One constant disappointment is the lack of extended book-reviews of our translations. I do not know how it is in other language-areas, but the English-speaking literary press is notoriously reluctant to review translations. We all know that very few translations are published in English, compared with other languages, perhaps because so much is written in English. “Foreign” writers are, with rare exceptions, little known to the American or British publics and as a result publishers and booksellers proclaim, ‘Translations do not sell.’ The number of published volumes of work by Ko Un listed at the start of this presentation is impressive, but it also has a negative effect, in that many publishers, asked if they would consider a volume of Ko Un, react by saying that the market is already saturated, that very few people buy poetry, let alone Korean poetry, and that with so much already available they cannot take the risk. One other informative response to Maninbo comes in a long article on modern Korean literature by John Feffer published in The Nation (August 31, 2006): This commemoration of Korean history and countryside, freed from strictures of form and diction imposed from the outside, follows in the tradition of minjung, or “people’s” culture. Ko Un has “gone to the people” for his inspiration, much like the narodniks, the Russian radicals of the nineteenth century, and the South Korean student movement activists of the 1980s who emulated them. But Ko Un has not summoned up some ethereal concept of the People. Maninbo, his masterpiece, is the People made flesh. Thanks to Ko Un, they continue to walk among us. One very important question arises regarding what I would almost call the “Theory of Maninbo”. How can it best be read? In an article about Ko Un and Maninbo published in the most recent issue of World Literature Today, I wrote: Each individual poem in Maninbo reaches out to all the other poems, just as each individual person only finds a meaningful life in meetings with other people, and Maninbo only finds its full meaning when read in that way. A process of anthologizing, selecting just a few of the “best” poems (as we have been forced to do) destroys that totality. The original title of Ko Un’s Buddhist novel that we translated as Little Pilgrim is Hwaŏmgyŏng (Avatamsaka Sutra) and the method of seeing all the poems (in Maninbo) as being contained in each one is an application of that Buddhist sutra’s fundamental teaching of the interconnectedness of all things, embodied in what is known as Indra’s Net. Indra’s net symbolizes a universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist between all members of the universe. This idea is communicated in the image of the net of the Vedic god Indra. Indra’s net is suspended with a multifaceted jewel at each of its infinite number of intersections, and in each jewel all the other jewels are perfectly reflected. One is all and all is one. One way of interpreting that is to conclude that every poem in every volume should be translated so that non-Korean readers may have access to the full Maninbo experience. Another, equally valid, is to say that it is enough to have read just one of the 3,960 poems with real understanding; and that is not to deny the uniqueness of each one of them. At least, such a perspective is probably more interesting, since it applies also to the approach Korean readers should adopt to the work, than one that stresses the very obvious difference between Korean readers and non-Korean readers. That difference derives from the essential Korean-ness of the history which Maninbo reflects. For Korean readers, especially those of an older generation, who experienced the war and the dictatorships, Maninbo represents the work of memory applied to “our history.” But for non-Korean readers, that history is “your history, their history,” essentially unfamiliar and “foreign,” it can only be approached by the compassionate imagination, as Hass does, or the sympathetic ideology, as Feffer does. A traditional, esthetic approach to Maninbo, one that seeks elegance of form and style in isolated poems, would not take us very far, because it would not recognize the totality of the gigantic enterprise, which has no parallel in the world. What is certain is that it is now urgent to ensure that a fuller, more truly representative selection of poems from the whole range of Maninbo be made available in English as soon as possible. We have begun to work on it. © (주)창비 2010
- [PAIK Nak-chung] Remarks on the World of Ko Un’s Poetry
- It is a privilege to speak at this conference, but I must confess that I have undertaken an impossible task. I have been asked to give, within twenty minutes, my sense of the world of Ko Un’s poetry with specific reference to the Zen poems and the Maninbo (or Ten Thousand Lives ) series. Ko Un is a phenomenally prolific writer covering many literary genres. Publications of shorter verse works alone number some thirty volumes, that is, not counting long narrative poems like the seven-volume Paektu Mountain or the 15-volume Ten Thousand Lives series, or anthology selections or the verse portions of ‘complete’ works. It would take full twenty minutes or more just to enumerate them and give the basic bibliographical data. Naturally I won’t make the attempt. As for Zen poems, Ko Un has published one collection explicitly so named,  but not only has he produced other volumes (including the recent Flowers of the Instant  ) entirely devoted to poems of similar nature, but nearly all collections of his verse contain some samples. In fact, the poet himself once remarked, “My lyric poems were tinted by some elements of Zen, however awkwardly. Then again, that might not be anything extraordinary if you consider that all poems have some inherently Zen-like quality.” That is to say, an adequate attention to his Zen poems should involve our coming to terms with his entire poetic oeuvre! But again naturally, I shall not take that course. I will instead take up a few specific poems available in English translation, comparing them where necessary to the original Korean, and attempt to read them in the light of a theme I took up ten years ago when I contributed an essay called “Zen Poetry and Realism” to a Festschrift volume in honor of Ko Un’s sixtieth birthday.  By linking together Zen and realism I meant to reveal the peculiar tension and the resultant distinction of Ko Un’s poetry, and at the same time engage in some reflections on the nature of poetic quest. Here I will only offer my conclusion in that exercise (without reproducing all the arguments leading to it), a conclusion to which I still adhere: “[O]ur glimpse of the successful reconciliation between Zen poetry and realism in Ko Un’s recent collections signifies more than a convenient coexistence; it points to the possibility of Zen poetry and realism meeting each other on the ground of a certain fundamental affinity.”  But it is time to read a few specific poems. The first piece in the Zen poetry collection Mwonya is titled “Echo.” I shall quote the full text; it has only three lines: To mountains at dusk: What are you? What are you are you… ( Beyond Self , 3) Is this good poetry, or are we just being mystified (or intimidated) into accepting it as such? I don’t have a clear answer. But I suggest approaching it like any other poem and attend to its specific use of language. The title tells us that the third line represents the mountain echoes of the preceding question. It also foregrounds these echoes as the main feature to attend to. The echoes obviously will continue and gradually die away. But why mountains ‘at dusk’? At dusk they are not clearly visible to begin with; they are there mainly to produce the echoes, and perhaps will have disappeared from the mind’s eye by the time the echoes have died down, leaving only traces of the question. And what is the question? Here the translationㅡhardly by the translators’ fault, for they have to respect the grammar and the usage of the target languageㅡdoes some injustice to the original. For those of you who know Korean, the original reads: 메아리 저문 산더러 너는 뭐냐 너 뭐냐 뭐냐…… You will notice, for one thing, that it’s much terser. But more important, the echoed question is mwonya (what?)ㅡthe quintessential ‘critical phrase’ of Zen. (Ellision of the auxiliary particle n?n in the echo of n? n?n tends further to downplay ‘you’ and privilege the crucial word ‘what?’ㅡexactly the opposite effect of the English version.  ) I think you will agree that, whether great poetry or not, the piece is a quite skillfully organized artifact. “Mountain Is Mountain” is another poem that incorporates a typical Zen phrase, but I cite it as an example of a certain realistic impulse working in Ko Un’s Zen poems. “Mountain is mountain water is water,” Tai Neung chanted. “Mountain is not mountain water is not water,” Tai Neung chanted. Eat your food. Once you’ve eaten, go shit. ( Beyond Self , 18) The words, “Mountain is mountain, water is water,” are familiar to most Korean readers as a pronouncement offered the public during the 1980s by Songch’ol, the famous Zen monk and then figurehead of Korea’s largest Buddhist sect. The poem obviously carries a satirical intent at such an Olympian stance taken during some of South Korea’s darkest and most turbulent days, but its demotic thrust is in accordance with Ko Un’s conviction that from its historical beginning Zen “contributed to the legitimization of the role of the ordinary common people and even of the slaves, by rejecting the religious system centered on monastic life.”  From this angle it would not be difficult to move on to poems with a more discernible social content like “South and North” and “Asking the Way” in the same volume,  then to others not designated as Zen poetry but successfully combining Zen-ness and realism. But what about the much longer and often more overtly realistic Ten Thousand Lives ? The word maninbo in Korean means ‘biographies of ten thousand people’ but manin can also mean ‘all the people’. The proclaimed intent of the work is to record in poetry every person that the poet has ever known, and when Ko Un announced at the outset that, accepting his wife’s restraining advice, he had agreed to limit his goal to three thousand pieces rather than actual ten thousand, it still sounded fantastic enough. But the series now numbers fifteen volumes (published between 1986 and 1997) with some seventeen hundred individual poemsㅡto which the author promises to add within this year about five hundred and fifty more poems in five volumes. Ko Un has been performing the task with such ease and amplitude that one tends to overlook the extraordinary nature of the project. Indeed, the very conception was a stroke of genius, involving a rare capacity for dedication and hope that only genius can supply. For it was in the days following the Kwangju Massacre of 1980 when Ko Un had been once again arrested and put in solitary confinement in a military prison that he conceived the idea and pledged himself (if he were ever to see light and freedom) to that task. (“The project itself, just the idea of it,” observed Robert Haas, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, “should be enough to put him on the short list for the Nobel Prize.”  ) But in Ten Thousand Lives the poet also has hit upon a genre and form most congenial to his particular talents. For while Ko Un has large ambitions, even preoccupations, for the epic genres and written a number of long narrative poems and full-length novels, I personally believe his greatest strength lies in the shorter verse form. The extended cycle of short poetic sketches that constitutes Ten Thousand Lives thus seems to provide a happy field for that particular strength to combine with his epic impulses. The result already represents a rich and variegated gallery of numerous individuals the poet has known since childhood, an achievement certainly unique in Korean literature and probably in other literatures as well. But the point I wish to make is that the series manages to become such because time and again we encounter poems that convey the same flash of insight as in the Zen poems, and the same sympathy with common people and no-nonsense realism that the poet’s demotic conception of Zen entails. Eighteen of these poems are available in English in the selection The Sound of My Waves .  Far from a representative selection, to be sure; but here (almost at random) is one of them, titled “Pyongok”: If you’re born a yokel out in the backwoods, once you’ve reached five or six there’s no time left for play, you’re forced to become a drudge following your father, with work piling up like the hills. When autumn comes, If mother tells you to bring home mud-snails you go rushing out to the rice-paddy: foraging for snails half a day in the wide open spaces out there is great, really great. Being away from his rotten jobs is great. Pyongok, expert snail-catcher Pyongok, drank lye by mistake and died. None of the neighborhood kids knew where he was buried. If a kid dies there’s no tomb, no offerings, there’ll be another one born by-and-by. ( The Sound of My Waves , 90) In a way we have here a tragic story with a background of much hardship and misery, but the poem moves us by its combination of dispassionate report and muted celebrationㅡcelebration of joys even in that apparently wasted life, and of a greater life going on. And without disparaging the translators’ generally admirable work, I wish to add that the original ends with a much greater impact. 아이들 죽어야 무덤도 없다 제사도 없다 또 낳는다 A single line, rather than the two of the English version; and the final two words “또 낳는다” constitute a full sentence on its own, indicating that they (meaning these people, but Korean does without either the noun or pronoun) will bear (children) againㅡthat is, using an active verb (rather than the extended passive form “there’ll be another one born” plus the redundant “by-and-by”) and making utmost use of the language’s resources for ellipsis and compression to produce the hard-boiled, matter-of-fact tone.  I have brought with me both The Sound of My Waves volume and new translations in typescript of twenty-six more poems from Ten Thousand Lives , which the translators of a newly projected volume of Ko Un’s selected poetry (Brother Anthony, the late Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach) have kindly made available to me. But since even to read them all would give only a small indication of that stupendous work, I will stop here and come back to some of them if called for during general discussion. I have also included some additional remarks in the appendixes, to bring in as the time limit allows. APENDIX II Haas goes on to admire and read in full “The Women from Sonjae”: In darkest night, near midnight, the dogs in the middle of Saeto start to bark raucously. One dog barks so the next one barks until the dogs at Kalmoi across the fields follow suit and start to bark as well. Between the sounds the barking dogs produce echo scraps of voices: eh ah oh… Not unrelated to the sound the night’s wild geese let fall to the bitter cold ground as they fly past high above, not unrelated to that backwards and forwards echoing splendid sound. It’s the women from Sonjae one their way home from the old-style market over at Kunsan where they went with garlic bulbs by the hundred borne in baskets on their heads, since there’s a lack of kimchi cabbages from the bean-fields; now they’re on their way home, after getting rid of what couldn’t be sold at the knock-down auction at closing time; several miles gone several left to go in deepest night! The empty baskets may be light enough but empty-stomached with nothing to eat, I wonder just how light they feel? Still, they don’t each one suffer on her own. It’s a pain they share, these plain simple people these plain simple women. What a good homely life! Perhaps the dogs have got used to their voices, for the barking starts to die away. Night seems eager to declare: I myself am night! And the darkness blinks its vacant eyes. ( The Sound of My Waves , 89) I fully would agree that we have here an admirable English poem in its own right. And it hardly merits the charge of verbosity. (The only real problem I have with the translation is with the lines “these plain simple people / these plain simple women,” which smacks of sentimentalism and patronage. ‘못난 백성’, the original for ‘these plain simple people’ means ‘foolish [or benighted, insignificant] people [or subjects in the sense of not being citizens]‘ but used with a certain gentle irony implying that their very lack of any qualities to show leads them to share the hardship and go through the life in neighborly fellowship.) Yetㅡagain I say this not to disparage the English version but to enhance appreciation of the Koreanㅡwhen we go back to the original, we realize how much has been lost in terseness and sheer speed of movement. Of course, difficulty of translating poetry is a universal problem?further aggravated when the languages in question are as far apart both in structure and vocabulary as Korean and English. But the point I want to emphasize is that a sense of untrammelled speed, a distinguishing feature of much of Ko Un’s verse, plays a particularly important role in the Zen poems and in many of the realistic yet ‘Zen-like’ portraitures of Ten Thousand Lives . And as Korean has very different resources for condensation and compression from an Indo-European language, a translator faces a particularly difficult challenge. Below I quote the full original text. Those who do not know Korean can at least note that it has only twenty-three lines (as compared to the thirty-five read by Robert Haas.) 선제리 아낙네들 먹밤중 한밤중 새터 중뜸 개들이 시끌쩍하게 짖어댄다 이 개 짖으니 저 개도 짖어 들 건너 갈뫼 개까지 덩달아 짖어댄다 이런 개 짖는 사이로 언뜻언뜻 까 여 다 여 따위 말끝이 들린다 밤 기러기 드높게 날며 추운 땅으로 떨어뜨리는 소리하고 남이 아니다 콩밭 김치거리 아쉬울 때 마늘 한 접 이고 가서 군산 묵은 장 가서 팔고 오는 선제리 아낙네들 팔다 못해 파장떨이로 넘기고 오는 아낙네들 시오릿길 한밤중이니 십리길 더 가야지 빈 광주리야 가볍지만 빈 배 요기도 못하고 오죽이나 가벼울까 그래도 이 고생 혼자 하는 게 아니라 못난 백성 못난 아낙네 끼리끼리 나누는 고생이라 얼마나 의좋은 한세상이더냐 그들의 말소리에 익숙한지 어느새 개 짖는 소리 뜸해지고 밤은 내가 밤이다 하고 말하려는 듯 어둠이 눈을 멀뚱거린다 (<萬人譜> 1권 148-9) —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–  <高銀禪詩: 뭐냐> [What?: Ko Un's Zen Poems], Seoul: 청하, 1991. Translated into English by Young-Moo Kim and Brother Anthony as Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems by Ko Un , Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1997.  고은, <순간의 꽃>, Seoul: 문학동네, 2001  Subsequently revised and translated into English as: Paik Nakchung, “Zen Poetry and Realism: Reflections on Ko Un’s Verse,” positions: east asia cultural critiques volume 8 number 2 (fall 2000, published by Duke University Press) 559-78. I am in part drawing on this material in the present paper.  Ibid. 575.  And the French version as well: see Ko Un, Qu’est-ce ? traduits par NO Mi-Sug et Alain GENETIOT, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2000, p. 12. The same problem, I understand, is reproduced in the Swedish edition. Would it be too jarring in the target language if the translation read, “You are what? / You’re what what …”?  Poet’s Preface, Beyond Self , p. xxv.  See Appendix I.  Robert Haas, “On Korean Poetry and Ko Un” (introductory speech at Ko Un’s poetry reading on November 24, 1997, at University of California, Berkeley), Korean Culture Vol. 20 No. 1, Spring 1999 (Korean Cultural Center of the Korean Consulate General in Los Angeles, USA), p. 13. Also see Appendix II.  The Sound of My Waves: Selected Poems by Ko Un , translated by Brother Anthony of Taize and Young-Moo Kim, Cornell East Asia Series, Cornell University, Ithaca NY, 1993.  All in all the original has fifteen lines to the twenty in English, and its last two lines are rendered by four lines in the translation. See “병옥이” in 고은 <만인보> vol. 3, p. 20 (Seoul: Changbi Publishers, 1986).
- [Choi Won-shik] Ko Un’s Place in Modern Korean Poetry
- 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? Full-bodied fear 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 happiness 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 bleed. 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. Tomorrow 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? This? That? That again? 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. Tomorrow. Isn’t it a magnificent name! Oh, ragged destiny - though dazzling flesh and dictatorship 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: tomorrow! 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
- Poems I Left Behind
- This collection of verses shows the maturity of Ko Un who still has the passion of a young man despite his old age. The first part, “Poems of a Minstrel,” is notable for the meditation and reflection on his own life and his identity as a poet, in and outside of his country. The unique short and simple poems in part 2, which is titled “Little Songs”, contemplate the principle and truth of all things in the universe in a somewhat different way from a Western aphorism or Japanese haiku. Ko Un’s reserve, which deepens almost to silence, confirms his poetical maturity. Even in the early 20th century when fierce commercialism degraded literature as a mere entertainment commodity, the poet tells us that poetry still encourages us to face reality and look to the future.