For Ku Sang’s Birth Centenary 2019


I arrived in Korea in May 1980, invited by Cardinal Kim Soo-hwan as a Brother of Taizé, with other brothers. I began to learn Korean at Yonsei University and in 1985 unexpectedly became a professor of English literature at Sogang University. Late in 1988, I was talking with a colleague, professor Kim Tae-ok, and said that since I was teaching Korean students about English poetry, I would like to get to know some modern Korean poetry. She at once spoke of Ku Sang, with whom she had been staying at the East-West Center in the University of Hawai’i some years earlier. There she had tried to translate a few of his poems, which she could show me. There was also a French translation of his work. She felt that with his Catholic faith and his interest in Eastern religions, I would find him interesting, while his style was extremely simple and human, not too hard to translate.
           I began to translate, by hand, then using a typewriter, it was before we had computers. I began with the selected poems titled “From Dreyfus Bench.” Indeed, the poems were simple, poignant, about nature, faith, and some about the Korean War. Then, quite by chance, I saw a notice about a publisher in England, Forest Books, who published poetry in translation, run by Brenda Walker. I wrote to her and so my first collection of translations was published in London in 1990, “Wastelands of Fire,” by Ku Sang.

Professor Kim also gave me a copy of his 그리스도 풀의 and 일기 and I went on to translate them. I loved their evocations of the river and of nature and that became my second volume, “A Korean Century” with 100 poems from those two collections. From time to time I used to go with Professor Kim to meet Ku Sang for lunch, sometimes Professor Pi Cheon-deuk who, although he was older, was Ku Sang’s godson, would join us. I was amazed by the way Ku Sang was always so happy, smiling especially when he saw children.

In 1989, Samseong Publishing had published an illustrated collection, Yuchi Challan 유치 찬란, poems by Ku Sang, paintings by JungGwang, a beautiful book that I at once set about translating. Luckily, the publisher, Kim Jong-gyu, still had 1,000 pages printed with the paintings without the Korean texts. Seeing my translations, he decided to publish an English edition, “Infant Splendor.” The poems were short and snappy “Zen poems” in style. I especially loved a poem where a child he met said she had told her class that she knew him, and when asked what he looked like, replied: “That you're just an ordinary old man, but that you look like a little boy playing by himself!” Some of these poems I think are Ku Sang’s finest, so light and joyful.

             The years passed, Ku Sang grew older, his wife died. It was already past 2000 when one day he mentioned how much he longed for me to translate the 100 poems he had written as a poetic autobiography, poems about every major event in his life. I felt that I had to do that for him, he was already fragile. When I had finished, a friend in Seoul who had published several of my translations, Jang So-nim of Dapge Publishing agreed to publish the poems. The book was published, we had the first copies, ready to show to the poet. But it was early May 2004, he was in intensive care, tubed, unable to speak. I could only show him the book, press it into his hand. It was my last glimpse of Ku Sang, smiling as ever. He died on May 11.

             It was a grace for me to have known Ku Sang and to have translated most of his poems. I only wish I had met him more often, heard more of his thoughts about faith and life. But his poems teach us so much. Perhaps the key to his vision is found in one line of the poem “시심” “There is nothing in the world, to be sure, that is not a poem. Discovering that, and then like a child savoring and enjoying it, is to be a poet.”

Ku Sang's Life


In 1946, Ku Sang took leave of his widowed mother, who was living near Wonsan, on the east coast of what is now North Korea. As she watched from the road in front of the gateway, he walked away, heading for the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Neither could imagine that they would never meet again. After returning from studies of comparative religion in Tokyo a few years earlier, he had found work as a journalist and had already written a number of poems. With other local poets, he had recently been working on a collective volume of their poems, to be entitled Eunghyang ‘Congealed fragrance.’ Before any book could be published, it had to be approved by the authorities, already dominated by the Communist party, and in this case the censors had detected seven separate serious ideological failings. To avoid a trial and a potentially lethal outcome, Ku Sang fled, leaving behind not only his mother and his elder brother, a Catholic priest, but also his recently married wife. His wife was later able to join him in the South, but the other members of his family remained in the North until their deaths.
         That man, the most highly respected, senior Korean poet Ku Sang, died in Seoul on Tuesday May 11 at the age of 85. He was born in Seoul on September 16, 1919, but when he was only a small child his family moved to the north-eastern city of Wonsan, where he grew up. Ku Sang underwent a crisis of faith during his student years in Japan, where he studied the philosophy of religion, especially Buddhism; later he slowly found his own understanding of Catholicism, thanks in part to the works of French Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and Gabriel Marcel. He frequently insisted that without a clearly-thought metaphysical system, there could be no truth and no true poetry. It was this that inspired Cardinal Kim Su-hwan, the retired Archbishop of Seoul, to say of Ku Sang during his sermon at the funeral Mass on May 13, ‘He was truly a Catholic poet, not just in the sense that he belonged to the Catholic Church and respected its doctrines, but in the sense that his heart was universal, that his poems had a vision that was cosmic, touching people in every corner of the world.’

Once he safely reached South Korea in 1946, he soon found work writing for newspapers, then served in a military intelligence unit during the Korean War (1950-3). After that, he returned to journalism and wrote articles and opinion columns, then editorial columns, for various newspapers. Soon after the Korean War ended, in 1953, when the president Syngman Rhee was clearly abusing his powers, Ku Sang wrote a series of articles ‘Democratic Accusations,’ attacking the corruption of his regime. He was immediately imprisoned on trumped-up charges for several months. He lived for many years in Waegwan, not far from Daegu, where his wife ran a children’s hospital while Ku Sang worked as a journalist especially connected with the Gyeonghyang Shinmun, then run by the Catholic church. After the 1961 coup by Park Chung-hee, whom Ku Sang had come to know several years before, he was pressured to accept a ministerial position and finally, to avoid this, he arranged to spend several years in charge of the newspaper’s Tokyo bureau. Later he lectured on literature in a number of universities, including Chungang University in Anseong, and made two lengthy visits as a visiting professor to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. 

In the course of his life, Ku Sang published a number of volumes of poetry, as well as essays on social, literary, and spiritual topics; he also wrote plays and scenarios, and edited some popular anthologies. His first volume, ‘Ku Sang,’ was published in 1951. A volume of the poems he wrote on the sufferings of the Korean people during the war and its aftermath, Chotoeui shi ‘Wastelands of Fire,’ was published in 1956 and attracted considerable attention. He then turned toward nature and began the first of his great cycles, Bat ilgi ‘Diary of the Fields’ which was first published in 1967. This was later joined by a second cycle, Christophereui gang ‘Christopher’s River,’ inspired by his daily walks along the banks of the Han River in Seoul and both express the spiritual, social and ecological values he discovered in Nature.

Later, he published essays on specifically Catholic themes in such volumes as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (1979) and religious poems in Malsseumeui shilsang ‘The True Appearance of the Word’ (1980). In 1981, his work took on a more overtly satiric tone with his denunciations of the materialism and emptiness of modern life in the poems of Ggamagui ‘The Crow.’ The volume Mogwa ongduriedo sayeoni itta ‘Even the knots on quince trees tell tales’ first published in 1984 and subsequently extended contains 100 poems evoking his life's often uncertain and sometimes amusingly stumbling progress through the agonies of modern Korean history. He always refused to take himself seriously, and many of his poems reflect his conviction that, as Saint Paul wrote: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.’ (Rom. 5:20) He therefore liked to admit his own human weaknesses in order to stress his trust in God’s mercy. At the same time, he was often heard to stress that ‘without metaphysics there can be no poetry.’ By metaphysics, he meant an understanding of life and the world informed by a religious dimension and at least in his own case that meant by faith in a redeeming, merciful God.

His poetry was from early on marked by a rejection of the refined symbolism and artificial rhetoric that characterized the often more highly esteemed work of senior Korean poets. Instead, Ku Sang often begins his poems with the spontaneous, artless evocation of a sudden moment of perception, in the midst of the city or of nature, and moves from there to more general considerations, frequently turning into a meditation on the presence of Eternity in the midst of very ordinary experiences. Many poems are hymns celebrating the wonder of being alive. His finest work has a Zen-style lightness and freedom and the volume Yuchichallan ‘Infant Splendor’ of 1991 combined delightfully spontaneous poems by Ku Sang with paintings by the Buddhist ‘Mad Monk’ Junggwang. One of the main translators of his work once wrote: ‘No other Korean poet has so perfectly brought together the Christian belief that all is redeemed in God’s eternity with the Buddhist conviction that all that exists is united in an unending cosmic process.’ The Korean PEN Center several times proposed him for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He was remarkable for his laughing responses to life, even in its most serious moments. He notoriously laughed while he was speaking at his wife’s funeral Mass, and several of his friends remarked that it was only suitable that the photograph carried before his coffin at his funeral showed him smiling rather mischievously. In Ku Sang, Korea produced a major poet of great originality and utter personal integrity. The major French poet and critic René Tavernier once wrote of his work: ‘A poetry born out of faith in God, and at the same time emerging from history, the thoughts of Ku Sang are based on experience as well as on belief: physical reality, appearances are by no means insignificant but beyond them there is another truth of which we only detect traces here and there. The thinker, the theologian, the believer are able to sense the existence of that higher universe. For Ku Sang, poetry is the sign of an inner experience.’

He wrote in the preface to Yuchichallan ‘Infant Splendor’: ‘The mind of childlike innocence that we try to portray in our poems and paintings is not that state naturally found in the child before it reaches the age of discretion, but rather the condition of someone who has reached purity of heart by achieving mastery over self. Not, of course, that we claim to have attained such a state; I would rather say that we have simply been striving to fathom what might be the nature of such a state. At a time when the whole world seems fascinated by strategic values such as ownership and profit, in the midst of all this uproar, the fact is that we are eager to achieve such an innocence in our lives. While we were bringing out our series of poems and paintings, we were criticized on the one hand for being ‘unrealistic,’ on the other for being ‘unartistic’. But since neither of us has ever had any thought of becoming the ‘ornament of the age’ as poet or artist, it seems not to matter!’

That recalls one of the poems from that volume, in which he tells how delighted he was to hear a neighborhood child say she had told her school teacher that she knew a famous poet ‘who looks just like a little boy playing by himself.’ Authenticity in him meant lightness and truth; he was never ashamed to evoke moments of sexual or other transgression, to the great surprise of many Catholic priests who wanted Korea’s leading Catholic poet to present a mask of feigned respectability to the world. He is one of the very few poets to report having had a ‘wet dream’ in the course of a poem, and more than once recalls spending the night with a prostitute.

Ku Sang’s wife died in 1994, and his two sons also predeceased him. He leaves a daughter, Ku Ja-myeong, who only a few weeks after his death received the 2004 Catholic Literary Award. At his funeral, the presence of several people in wheelchairs reminded those present of Ku Sang’s constant concern for the handicapped, expressed in a number of extremely generous donations in recent years. Also, a few years ago he gave his very important library to the town of Waegwan and in 2002 a magnificent building housing it was inaugurated. But Ku Sang was already too sick to attend the ceremony.

Translations of Ku Sang’s poetry began to be published when he was already over 70 and four volumes in English were published, as well as volumes in French, German, Italian, Dutch and Japanese.