Ko Un in the English-Speaking World

by Brother Anthony of Taizé (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 Taizé & Kim Young-Moo. (Selected poems 시선집)
2. Beyond Self, (Berkeley: Parallax, USA, 1997), tr Brother Anthony of Taizé & Kim Young-Moo. (Short ‘Seon’ 선 poems, a translation of the collection Muonya 뭐냐 etc)
3. Travelers’ Maps (Boston: Tamal Vista Publication, 2004), tr. David McCann. (Selected poems 시선집)
4. Little Pilgrim, (Berkeley: Parallax, 2005), tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Kim Young-Moo. (The novel Hwaeomgyeong 소설 화엄경)
5. Ten Thousand Lives (LA: Green Integer Press, 2005), tr. Brother Anthony at Taizé, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach. (Selected poems from Maninbo 만인보 volumes 1-10)
6. The Three Way Tavern (LA: UC Press, 2006), tr. Clare You & Richard Silberg (Selected poems 시선집)
7. Flowers of a Moment (New York: BOA, 2006), tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach (Translation of the poems in the collection Sunganui kkot 순간의 꽃)
8. Abiding Places: Korea South and North (Vermont: Tupelo, 2006), tr. Sunny Jung & Hillel Schwartz (Selected poems from the collection Namgwa buk 남과북)
9. What? (Berkeley: Parallax, 2008) tr. Brother Anthony at Taizé & Kim Young-Moo. (Short ‘Seon’ 선 poems, a translation of the collection Muonya 뭐냐 etc, a new edition of Beyond Self)
10 Songs for Tomorrow: Poems 1960-2002, (LA: Green Integer, 2008), tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé, Kim Young-Moo & Gary Gach (Selected poems 시선집)

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 선)
2. Himalaya Poems, tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé & Lee Sang-Wha (The poems of the collection Himalaya 히말라야)
3. This Side of Time, tr. Clare You & Richard Silberg (Selected poems 시선집)
4. Poetry from the Ruins, tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé & Lee Sang-Wha (Selected prose writings 산문집)
5. Poetry Left Behind, tr. Choi Jong-Yol (Selected poems from the collection Dugo on si 두고 온 시)
6. More poems from Maninbo, tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha (만인보 시선집)

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 (김영무 교수) and published in 1991 as The Sound of my Waves (from the Korean selection 나의 파도 소리) 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-Kwan 문익관 목사, who was then in prison for visiting North Korea, and it was scheduled at a time when a government-sponsored international poetry festival 시인대회 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 선시 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 Reznicoff, 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” 만인보론. 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.