So Chong-Ju and Ko Un : Much Ado About Something


Published in The Korea Times June 6, 2001


             Faithful readers of the Korea Times will perhaps not have noticed that the Korean-language press has for the last few weeks been giving prominent space to opinion articles denouncing the well-known dissident poet Ko Un for having dared to criticize his “Master” the senior poet So Chong-Ju who died at the end of December last year. The thought of major national newspapers in the United States or Britain giving considerable space to quarrels about poetry is almost laughable, so it may be good to spend a moment reflecting on why such a thing happens in Korea. What is all this fuss about?

             First, the poets: So Chong-Ju was born in Kochang, North Cholla Province, in 1915 and began to publish poems in the later 1930s. His first collection of poems was published early in 1941, during the Japanese era, and made a considerable impression by their dramatic, sensuous images and powerful language. He soon became one of the most celebrated poets of Korea and was, late in life, several times nominated for the Nobel Prize by the Korean literary establishment. Ko Un was born in Kunsan, also in North Cholla Province, in 1933. He began to write poetry in the late 1950s, when he was a Buddhist monk; after leaving the order in 1960 he spent a nihilistic decade before becoming the leading literary spokesman for the opposition to the increasingly absolute dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee in the early 1970s. His role as a “dissident” earned him numerous arrests, and police beatings that left one ear permanently deaf. He was imprisoned in May 1980 during the coup led by Chun Doo-Hwan and was subject to ongoing harassment until the gradual triumph of something closer to democracy finally led to him being invited to be part of the South Korean delegation that accompanied President Kim Dae-Jung to Pyongyang last year. There he was summoned to read a poem as part of the celebration of the Joint Declaration.

             The cause of the row? Ko Un has just published a 22-page article about So Chong-Ju in the current issue of the literary review “Changjakkwa Pipyong,” in which he lays out the case for a radical re-evaluation of the place of So Chong-Ju in the history of modern Korean poetry, and of the value of his poetic achievement. The article is extremely subtle, wide-ranging and thoughtful, I would say. It is in fact surprisingly lucid, compared with certain other texts by Ko Un, but that does not make it an easy read. The main reason for hostile reactions at an initial level seems to be a case of “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” – the convention that we should only say good things about the recently dead. In the article, Ko Un does not only say good things, although it would be hard to say that he attacks the memory of the dead. He certainly exposes at considerable length some problematic aspects in the critical evaluation of So Chong-Ju’s poetry, but probably the main cause of the ruffled feathers is the fact that he evokes in detail the ways in which the deceased systematically allied himself with all the powers-that-be, Japanese or Korean, culminating in the notorious moment when he wrote that Chun Doo-Hwan’s smile could only be compared with that of Tangun (the mythical founder of the Korean Nation). Worse still, he never admitted that he had done anything wrong.

             Anyone familiar with the history of modern Korean literature knows that writers have long been divided between the advocates of “pure literature” and the advocates of “engaged literature.” The first stress universal, humanistic themes and aesthetic style; the latter insist that literary works must be directly related to the social and political realities of the age and that writers have a direct responsibility in those realities. There is perhaps not really any real difference between them in terms of ideals, but what this has led to in fact has been a distinction between those writers who were approved of by the Japanese, and by the following dictators (beginning with Syngman Rhee) and those who were not approved of. Financial rewards went to one set, harassment to the other. The options were to shut up and be safe, or speak out and take the consequences. From the beginning, this polarization was linked with a wider social question; Korean society has long been marked by a great divide between the privileged elite and the suffering masses. It is not only the writers, but also all the intellectuals of Korea who have today to confront the question of what they said and did not say, wrote and did not write during the decades of dictatorship. To be reconciled with past pain, truth is a prior requisite. Amnesia is still a more popular choice in Korea.

             The attacks recently made on Ko Un in the press cannot be understood without that background. His major crime is to have raised unwelcome specters. Korea is still most unwilling to discuss and re-evaluate its past in individual detail. He is also accused of having sinned against traditional decorum by daring to be critical of his “ssusung” (Master) whereas he should, as “cheja” (disciple) always speak respectfully of him. This is ironical because in his article he pinpoints that very tradition as one of the Great Diseases of Korean literature. The American critic Harold Bloom has created the term “Anxiety of Influence” for the complex feelings of inferiority and hostility each young writer is bound to feel for the great models who went before. In order to create, the young writer has to get free from oppressive veneration of masters. Otherwise, nothing new is born. Which may explain the sterility of so much Korean writing, of course.

             The moralistic indignation expressed in the press about Ko Un’s “betrayal” is misplaced. There is no way in which So Chong-Ju can really be termed Ko Un’s “Master” and Ko Un is careful in his article to explain how he first came to be recognized as a poet, the point at which Koreans usually identify the role of their “Master.” It might rather be suggested that it was So Chong-Ju who cultivated the idea that Ko Un was his “Cheja” in order to bask in the reflected glory. It was, in any case, always a fraught relationship, while Ko Un almost certainly knew So Chong-Ju better than anyone precisely because he never felt obliged to pretend or hide his independent thoughts.

             The other point that Ko Un makes, which is also ironic, is that he would not have had to write as he did if he had not been part of the same history. People in the West sometimes now declare that there is no relationship between a writer and the works. An outsider, not Korean, can perhaps more quickly move beyond the historical past to seek the lasting poetical quality. Ko Un cannot because he knows that much of the positive evaluation So Chong-Ju has received, his inclusion in school text-books, his rise to high positions in literary circles, was all a direct result of his skill in currying favor and in making pleasing sounds. Ko Un does not denounce him for this; rather he offers a deeper explanation in terms of So Chong-Ju’s essential personality. What he is now trying to initiate is an open debate about the true quality of So Chong-Ju’s work, in which the criteria are finally defined without denying his personal weaknesses and historical failings.

             What this ruckus has revealed most strongly is how ready people are to attack famous senior writers, once a chance is given. About ten or more years ago this happened to So Chong-Ju, when young writers first made an issue of his failure to stand up to the Japanese, and the suspicion that he gladly collaborated with them. Now Ko Un is attacked for not simply uttering conventional platitudes about a dead poet. It is a lonely thing to be an independent thinker. But behind the noise of superficial protest, it may be possible to hear a rather more positive sound. Many readers are heartily grateful for Ko Un’s insistence that So Chong-Ju deserves a deeper evaluation, one that includes a full recognition of what he was and did in history, and that comes to his poetry without a prior need to say only positive things. Unconditional adulation is no praise; for a great writer it is rather the greater insult. So Chong-Ju’s poetry has strengths and weaknesses; like every poet, he wrote quite a lot of uninteresting poems but there is no doubt that some of what he wrote was of great value. Once a poet has died, the poems are all that are left. They should not be embalmed as “great poetry” but allowed to live so that posterity can sift through them and say, “Look, here is dross but here is treasure.”



Brother Anthony has published translations of works by So Chong-Ju and Ko Un