Ko Un : Korean Poet, World Poet


There can be no real doubt that Ko Un (nb. Ko is the family name, always written first in Korean) has for long been Koreas foremost poet. And now he is one of the worlds leading poets. From the very outset of his life as a poet, in the late 1950s, he was recognized as having rare talents, with his keen sensitivity, outstanding powers of intuition, the breadth and depth of his imagination and his skillful use of language, as well as the maturity of his understanding of human life.

Ko Uns life has been acclaimed as a prime example of ten-thousand-foot high waves, an ancient Korean expression indicating the link between suffering and strength. He has long been called a phenomenon, and is sometimes referred to as the Ko Uns instead of Ko Un because of his productivity, unparalleled in the history of Korean literature. He is often said to write a poem every time he breathes.

A Korean literary critic once said, Its as if he breathes his poems before putting them to paper. I feel that his poems emerge from his lips rather then from his pen. Ko Un himself says, I am constantly liberating myself from the poems Ive already written. This suggests the enormously wide spectrum covered in his creative activities.

The legendary American beat-generation poet Michael McClure once said, after reading Ko Uns poems, Ko Uns poetry has the old-fashionedness of a muddy rut on a country road after rain, and yet its 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. But Allen Ginsberg probably summed it up as well as anyone ever could when he wrote: Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscenti, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.



2. Ko Uns Life Story


Ko Un was born in 1933 in the city of Kunsan in Koreas North Cholla Province when Korea was under Japanese rule. He began to write poems after reading a well-known leper-poets poems. He experienced terrible suffering and witnessed immense inhumanity in the early stages of the Korean War and in 1952, before the war was over, he joined the Buddhist clergy in a state of deep despair. For the next ten years he lived a life of Zen meditation, traveling the whole country, living by alms. He founded the Buddhist Newspaper in 1957 and then left the Buddhist community in 1962.

From 1963 to 1966 he secluded himself in the southern island of Cheju and led a life of severe self-torment, running a charity school, for three years. During and after his three years extreme experiences on Cheju Island, he abandoned himself to a nihilism full of desperation, alcohol abuse, insomnia and attempted suicides.

Immensely impressed by the self-immolation of the garment-worker Chong Tae-il, from 1972 he started engaging himself in current political and social issues. He soon became a militant activist, opposing the dictatorial military regime. He took a leading role as a key figure in the Korean struggle for human rights and the labour movement. He established the Association of Writers for Practical Freedom in 1974. He many times experienced arrest, house arrest, detention, torture. He served several prison terms. He became representative of the National Association for the Recovery of Democracy in 1974, vice-chairman of the Korean Association of Human Rights in 1978, and vice-chairman of the Association of National Unity in 1979. His obvious deafness is due in part to beatings inflicted by the police when he was arrested in 1979.

Arrested and tried in 1980, together with Kim Dae-Jung and hundreds of others, he spent more than 2 years in military prisons, unsure from one day to the next if he would not be taken out and shot. Freed from prison, in 1983 his life took on a complete new shape. Ko Un married Lee Sang-Wha, a professor of English literature, and they went to live in the countryside at Ansong, about two hours drive from Seoul. Two years later Cha-Ryong, his only daughter, was born. Marriage and family life brought a new degree of stability and happiness, which resulted in his increasingly prolific creation.

He was elected to be chairman of Association of Korean Artists, 1989-90, and president of the Association of Writers for National Literature, 1992-93. He served as a Delegate in the Committee of National Liberation in 1995. He was invited to teach as resident professor at the graduate school of Kyonggi University, 1994-98. He was invited to Harvard University as a Visiting Research Scholar at Yenching Institute in 1999. He visited North Korea as one of the special delegates for the inter-Korean Summit in 2000 and was called to read a poem before the assembled representatives of the two Koreas to celebrate the signing of the agreement.

He was elected as a co-chairman of the National Trust of Korea in 2000. He was invited to Verona, Italy to be a one of sixty constitutional members of World Academy of Poetry which was organized by UNESCO in 2001. In the last few years he has made many visits to North Korea; he is chairman of a joint North-South project to compose a Pan-Korean Dictionary covering all the different forms of Korean spoken today, a project involving dozens of scholars from both sides of the 38th Parallel and other countries.

Under the military regime he was not allowed to go abroad. It was only in 1992 that he was issued a passport; since then he has been traveling extensively around the world. Ko Un has been invited to numerous international poetry gatherings and conferences. He has captivated audiences worldwide with the beautiful and powerful Korean language, making them aware of the long, sad and turbulent history of Korea and its culture and customs expressed through his poems.

Michael McClure stated how deeply he was moved when he first went to Ko Uns poetry reading: I first heard Ko Un at Berkeley, California. His poems laugh and growl because they have their own cave within the poet who laughs in grief and intoxication and growls in discontent and pleasure, and with much energy. I knew I had found a brother poet from half-way around the world. California fog passed on the street outside as Ko Un read a series of poems. Each poem was vibrant drama as Ko Uns voice twisted the shapes of the vowels and sculpted the consonants. In the world of poetry his reading is unique. There is no one who reads like this. Ko Un uses his language with the intensity of one who was forbidden to learn his native Korean language as a child, but learned it anyway.

Under the military dictatorship, there was an official unwritten policy that his works should not be translated . This may explain why he only became known to the outside world when he was already in his sixties. Since 1991 Ko Uns works have been and are being translated into all major Asian and European languages and have received outstanding reviews. On his collection of Zen poems, Allen Ginsberg said, This little book of Son (Zen) poems gives a glimpse of the severe humorous discipline beneath the prolific variety of his forms and subjects. Gary Snyder also said, Not just holding his Zen insights/ and their miraculous working tight to himself/ Not holding back to mystify,/ Playful and demotic,/ Zen silly, real-life deep,/ And a real-world poet!/ Ko Un outfoxes the Old masters and the Young poets both.



Ko Un: So Many Different Poets!


Monk-poet prior to 1962, Nihilist-poet until 1972, Dissident-poet until the 1980s, but then, surely, simply Poet, Major Poet, Leading Poet, until today. Perhaps only posterity is entitled to bestow the ultimate title of Great Poet. He is certainly entitled to be called Koreas National Poet. As the former American Poet Laureate, Robert Hass, has pointed out, what is amazing about Ko Uns writing is the way he has reinvented himself every decade.

Most of the poems he wrote in the earliest period, from 1952 to 1962, while he was a monk deeply engaged in extremely challenging Zen practice, strive to represent the futile and transitory nature of life. The poems are preoccupied with illness, psychic wounds and death, while they are marked by a strongly aestheticising sensitivity with symbolist overtones. The poet tries to explore the meaning of the inscrutable culmination of life in terms of death. They are deeply Buddhist and agonizingly human.

In the period from 1962 to 1972, the main novelty that emerges is a sense of naturalness and spontaneity. In this period, his way of looking at things is dark and nihilistic, full of desperation and self-abandonment. Not surprisingly, this period culminated in a nearly successful suicide attempt.

The poems written between 1973 and 1983, the years of social turmoil as the pro-democracy movement grew ever more intense, show yet another transformation in Ko Uns poetics. They begin to be marked by his tragic awareness of Korean history, which is deeply rooted in his acute sense of the miserable predicament of the Korean people in the twentieth century.

From 1983, after his years in prison, Ko Un began to write numerous poems, including the multiple volumes of Ten Thousand Lives and Paektu Mountain. Underlying these are the effects of the events connected with the Kwangju Pro-Democracy Movement of May 1980, when hundreds of citizens were killed by Korean army troops, the poets imprisonment and his confrontation with death. Confined in a special section of a military prison, he conceived of a vast series of narrative vignettes called Ten Thousand Lives, which is still in progress, to represent every person he had ever known. He also resolved to write a multivolume epic of the Korean Independence Movement under Japanese rule, Paektu Mountain.

Almost forty books have poured out since then. A critic once called it a great explosion of poetry. Many critics call attention especially to the language in the two grand epics, terming it a language of liberation—popular language that is copious, loquacious yet not untidy, calm but crisp, and vividly expressive. Robert Hass has said of Ten Thousand Lives that this is one of the most extraordinary projects in world literature in this part of the century. Later Hass also wrote in The Washington Post that the poems of are remarkably rich. Anecdotal, demotic, full of details of peoples lives, theyre not like anything else Ive come across in Korean poetry.

Ko Uns acute sense of history and love for his people and country have made it one of his dreams to see a unified Korea. Since the 1970s he has been writing poems about the unification of Korea. He had already visited North Korea before he accompanied President Kim to the historic reunification summit, and the result was a volume of poems, South and North (2000). Together with his ardent yearning for the countrys peace, since the 1990s, his poetry aspires to attain a vast open world of harmony, liberation and love where he can embrace all beings in compassion. Ko Uns mind is always on the alert; and he confesses that there are more things left to write than he has so far written.

In the foreword to the collection Sea Diamond Mountain, Ko Un says of his sense of poetic creation: If someone opens my grave a few years after my death, they will find it full, not of my bones, but of poems written in that tombs darkness. Am I too attached to poetry? Because my poems exist side-by-side with a farewell to poetry, my attachment is one aspect of a deliverance from poetry. He wants to make his entire life, even his grave, a poem, while refusing to let himself be imprisoned by the effort to write poetry as an end itself.




English translations of works by Ko Un


The Sound of my Waves  A bilingual edition by DapGae (Seoul) / Cornell East Asia Series. 1996. (Selected Poems 1960-1990)


Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems. Parallax Press (Berkeley). 1997. (Out of print)


Ten Thousand Lives. Green Integer Press (Los Angeles). 2005. (Selections from the first 10 volumes of the 20-volume Maninbo series)


Little Pilgrim. Parallax Press (Berkeley). 2005. (A Buddhist novel)


Still unpublished: Songs for Tomorrow (Selected poems 1960-2001) and Flowers of a Moment (Brief poems) (Publication of both planned for 2006)


All these are translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé with the late Kim Young-Moo. Gary G. Gach assisted with the stylistic editing of several of these volumes. Volumes by other translators are in preparation in the United States. These books can be purchased from Seoul Selection bookstore, from the publishers, or through the main online bookstores.




Some Poems by Ko Un translated into English





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


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


Never to return!

Never to return!

Hail, brave arrows, our nation's arrows!

Hail, Warriors! Spirits of the fallen!




Maternal Grandfather


Choi Hong-kwan, our maternal grandfather,

was so tall his high hat would reach the eaves,

scraping the sparrows nests under the roof.

He was always laughing.

If our grandmother offered a beggar a bite to eat,

he was always the first to be glad.

If our grandmother ever spoke sharply to him,

hed laugh, paying no attention to what she said.

Once, when I was small, he told me:

Look, if you sweep the yard well

the yard will laugh.

If the yard laughs,

the fence will laugh.

Even the morning-glories

blossoming on the fence will laugh.








What is our country's deepest point? Indangsu.

Where are our country's deepest thoughts found?

Not in Toegye, the noted scholar,

but in the firm resolve of one destitute girl

from Mongkumpo, by the name of Sim-ch'ong.

Come, clouds, driving furious!

Beat out, deep drums!

Sharp waves in Mongkumi Straits,

tear away at the loose rock slabs!

Open your eyes, everyone!

Blind father, open your eyes!

Go sell yourself for sixty bushels of rice!

Little girl, poised on a gunwale

with seventy boats at your water burial

out there off Changsan Cape:

your body's the world with its icy winds,

your body's the world rising up again,

your body's now the lotus blossom.

One body freely tossed

with your head muffled in deep blue skirts,

tossed into the water off Changsan Cape:

awake now, world! Awake, everyone,

like a battle!

After being a battle speeding,

with all our people wielding their tools,

the battle can turn into a dance

and merrily go dancing along!

Look: the world made new!

With open eyes!

Sim-ch'ong, ah, Sim-ch'ong, my dear!




A list of all Ko Uns main works


Ko Un has written far more than any other Korean poet, publishing some 140 volumes, including 50 volumes of poems. A collection of his Complete Works published a few years ago filled nearly 40 very substantial volumes. He keeps saying that if the quantity of his works were to compromise the literary quality of his writing he would immediately stop. His poems manifest an immense diversity: epigrams of a couple of lines, long discursive poems, epic, pastoral, and even a genre of poems he has himself created, which we may term the popular-historical poem, like those found in the 20 volumes so far published of Ten Thousand Lives.



(All of the following are in Korean, of course, the titles are translated here for convenience.)


Books of Poems


Other World Sensibility(1960), Seaside Poems(1966), God, the Last Village of Language(1967), Senoya, Senoya: Little Songs(1970), On the Way to Munui Village(1977), Going into Mountain Seclusion(1977), Early Morning Road(1978), Homeland Stars(1984), Pastoral Poems(1986), Fly High, Poems!(1986), The Person Who Should Leave(1986), Your Eyes(1988), My Evening(1988), The Grand March of That Day(1988), Morning Dew(1990), For Tears(1991), One Thousand Years Cry and Love: Lyrical Poems of Paektu Mountain(1990), Sea Diamond Mountain(1991), What?—Zen Poems(1991), Songs on the Street(1991), Song of Tomorrow(1992) The Road Not Yet Taken(1993), Songs for ChaRyong(1997), Dokdo Island(1995), Ten Thousand Lives, 20 Volumes(1986-1997), Paektu Mountain: An Epic, 7 Volumes(1987-94), A Memorial Stone (1997), Whispering(1998), Far, Far Journey(1999), South and North(2000), The Himalayas(2000), Flowers of a Moment(2001). Poems Left Behind (2002).




Cherry Tree in Other World(1961), Eclipse(1974), A Little Traveler(1974), Night Tavern: A Collection of Short Stories(1977), A Shattered Name (1977), The Wandering Souls: Hansan and Seupduk (1978), A Certain Boy: A Collection of Short Stories(1984), The Garland Sutra (Little Pilgrim)(1991), Their Field(1992) The Desert I Made(1992), Chongsun Arirang(1995), The Wandering Poet Kim, 3 volumes(1995), Zen: A Novel, 2 Volumes(1995), Sumi Mountain, 2 volumes(1999)


Collections of Essays


Born to be Sad(1967), Sunset on the G-String(1968), Things that Make Us Sad(1968), Where and What Shall We Meet Again?—A Message of Despair(1969), An Era is Passing(1971), 1950s(1973), For Disillusionment(1976), Intellectuals in Korea(1976), The Sunset on the Ghandis(1976), A Path Secular(1977), With History, With Sorrow(1977), For Love(1978), For Truth(1978), For the Poor(1978), Penance to the Horizon(1979), My Unnamable Spiritual(1979), Flowers from Suffering(1986), Flow, Water(1987), Ko Uns Correspondence(1989), The Leaves Become Blue Mountain(1989), Wandering and Running at Full Speed(1989), History is Dreaming(1990), How I Wandered from Field to Field(1991), The Diamond Sutra I Experience(1993), Meditation in the Wilderness(1993), Truth-Seeker(1993), I Will Not Be Awakened(1993), At the Living Plaza(1997), Morning with Poetry(1999)


Travel Books


Old Temples: My Pilgrimage, My Country(1974), Cheju Island(1975), A Trip to India(1993), Mountains and Rivers, My Mountains and Rivers(1999),


Works of Literary Criticism


Literature and People(1986), Poetry and Reality(1986), Twilight and Avant-Garde(1990),




A Critical Biography of Yi Jooung-Sup(1973), A Critical Biography of the Poet Yi Sang(1973), A Critical Biography of Han Yong-Un(1975)




Son of Yellow Soil: My Childhood(1986), I, Ko Un, 3 Volumes (1993)




Selected Poems of the Tang Dynasty(1974), Selected Poems of Tufu(1974),

Chosa: Selected Poems by Kulwon(1975)




Several works of old Korean poetry and songs.


To say nothing of some Childrens Books


Ko Uns own Home Page