tag Zen poems
- [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).
- A Certain Wind
- This volume, a collection of about a hundred and fifty poems, was published to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Ko Un, an internationally renowned poet, who is a wonder in the history of Korean verse. Since he began his literary career in 1958, Ko Un has been writing poetry with passion and vigor for 44 years. As a prolific writer, he presents general readers with a challenge to ponder his abundant poems. A Certain Wind features 150 poems that were carefully chosen by five co-editors to help mere beginners gain easy access to Ko Un’s literary world. Consequently, his long, epic poems have been excluded from this selection. Four poets of the younger generation, namely Kim Seung-hee, Ahn Do-hyeon, Ko Hyeong-ryeol, and Lee Si-young, helped select his poems chronologically. The critic Paik Nak-chung then singled out the choicest poems. Without revising his poems, this volume reveals the trajectory of his verses. This selection retains an active commitment to history and social reality, which is one of the most important sustaining characteristics of Ko Un’s texts. It also demonstrates the growth and maturity of his work as it passes through short poems based on the Zen Buddhist tradition and culminates in What: Ko Un’s Zen Poems, which caught the attention of the world republic of letters. One hundred and fifty poems were selected from the first collection Sensibility of Paramita and from Poems I Left Behind.
- Into the Wind
- This anthology prunes plebian sentiment with a modern sense and an elaborate technique. The poems are prominent for giving a poetic touch to today’s pain and sorrow with expressions that seem commonplace at first glimpse. The experimental short verses, which remind readers of Zen poems, show outstanding sensibility and refined figurative power. The realization of common people is superb, not only as a suffering being in history but also as the one compelling us to experience sorrow and renunciation.