Ko Un’s Maninbo : History as Poem, Poem as History
Brother Anthony of Taizé
This essay was published in World Literature Today, January / February 2010, together with some poems from Maninbo and a number of other translations of and essays about Korean literature.
Ko Un is without any doubt the best-known Korean writer in the world.
This is due in part to his personal vitality, to the impact he makes
when he speaks or reads, even though his audience may not know a word
of Korean. He is one of the very rare Korean poets to be able to read
his works with a charismatic passion, and communicate warmly with those
around. The glasses of wine or soju that accompany his presentations
certainly help, but his very strong poetic sensitivity is the real key
to everything about him. We who translate his work cannot hope to match
his intensity, run though we may in an attempt to keep up with him.
I first met Ko Un in 1991 when I began to translate some of his poems.
I had been living in Korea for more than 10 years by then. In 1993
Cornell University’s East Asia Series published those translations, the
first volume of translations of his work to appear, as The Sound of my Waves, a selection of his poems that ended with several poems from the first three volumes of Maninbo. In 1996, Beyond Self,
a set of 108 Zen poems was produced by Parallax Press (Berkeley) with a
preface by Allen Ginsberg. In 2005 Green Integer (Los Angeles) produced
a volume of our translations from Maninbo as Ten Thousand Lives,
a volume that was limited to poems selected from volumes 1 – 10. Also
in 2005, Parallax Press published our translation of Ko Un’s great
Buddhist novel, Little Pilgrim. Our version of his Flowers of a Moment was published by BOA in 2006. A revised edition of the Zen poems, now titled What? was published by Parallax Press in early 2008. A very full selection of his poems, Songs for Tomorrow, was published by Green Integer late in 2008. They will also produce his Himalaya Poems
in due course. Other translators have also published volumes in
English, while his works have been translated into at least fifteen
other languages, a total of over 30 translated volumes published
worldwide so far, with many more announced. And there is a lot more
still waiting to be translated. He has written so much!
The genesis of Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) lies at a key moment
of Ko Un’s life. He was born in a small village near Kunsan in the
south-western Chŏlla region of Korea in 1933. During the Korean War,
overwhelmed by the atrocities and violence he had witnessed, he became
a Buddhist monk. His first poems were published in the later 1950s in
the Buddhist Newspaper he had helped found. They provoked intense
admiration. In the 1960s, having quit the monastic life, he went
through years of intense nihilistic anguish. After a failed suicide
attempt in 1970, he discovered a new vocation in the campaigns for a
return to democracy and a recognition of workers’ rights, becoming a
leading spokesman for the dissident movements, a familiar figure at
demonstrations. In May 1980, when the military staged a new coup, he
was taken to military prison along with hundreds of other opposition
figures, and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment by a court martial.
During long periods of solitary confinement in prison, unsure if he
would not finally be simply taken out and shot, he began to recall all
the people he had met in his eventful life, people poor and rich,
unknown and famous, and formulated a vow that if he survived he would
write poems celebrating each of them, convinced that every human life
deserves to be recorded and memorialized. That was the origin of the Maninbo project.
In August 1982 he was freed from prison, and in the following year he
began a new life, marrying and moving away from Seoul into a quiet
rural home. He revised radically all the poems he had so far published
for a volume of Collected Poems, asking people not to read the earlier
versions. Then he began to write Maninbo. When the first volume of Maninbo
was published in November 1986, the poet was 53 years old, and 23 years
have passed since then. In the meantime, in addition to 26 volumes of Maninbo,
he has produced a steady stream of collections of poetry of different
kinds, as well as several novels and other works too. Until 1993, when
he was formally pardoned by the first civilian government of Korea, he
had only been allowed to travel overseas on a special passport, very
occasionally. From that year, able to travel freely, he began to accept
invitations from many countries and became an internationally acclaimed
figure. His unique way of declaiming his poems has impressed audiences
in every continent. Since he turned 70 in 2003 he has begun to limit
his overseas travels, giving a priority to completing the Maninbo
project and to writing other works.
In July 2009, the Korean newpapers announced as a major piece of
national news that Ko Un had finished writing the last poems for his Maninbo
series and had delivered them to his publishers. Publication is
expected for early in 2010. Plans are being made to mark the event in
various ways, and the publishers will have their work cut out, because
this last portion is no less than four volumes long, the most recently
published volume in the series being volume 26. Only Ko Un could have
brought to completion a 30-volume project as just one portion of his
total opus! He has published some 140 books in all.
The Maninbo poems can best be seen as an immense, mosaic
narrative of Korean history. Instead of conceiving of history as
dominated and directed by a few powerful figures, Ko Un insists that
Korea’s history is embodied and endured by its people as a whole, so
that little children and poor old women are as significant as the
political leaders and famous public figures. Just as it is a great
challenge to discern the significant patterns of a nation’s history, so
too the reader is challenged by the kaleidescope of lives evoked in
every volume of the series. There is an overall chronological pattern,
the early volumes being mainly devoted to figures from the poet’s
childhood, then moving on to the Korean War in volumes 15-20 and after
that recalling people from the military dictatorships, and the period
of civilian governments of recent years. The poet is acutely conscious
of his duties as a chronicler of history. In order to write a short
poem about certain key figures, he has read several books, sought out
documentation, questioned eye-witnesses. These are not simply amusing
anecdotes, but deeply considered condensations of what really happened,
although very many aspects of recent Korean history are veiled in
secrecy and mystery. Ko Un goes far beyond stereotypes or ideologies to
pierce to the very heart of the matter, time after time. And while too
often the matter is pain, at the heart of the poems we find innumerable
indications of Koreans’ ability to endure what must be endured with
dignity, so many celebrations of the triumph of simple humanity in the
face of brutal inhumanity.
The Preface poem that begins volume 1 indicates succinctly the main
concerns of the poet and also the striking originality of his vision :
An instant that is born between you and me!
There the furthest star rises.
Meetings of people—
in the hundreds of miles of Puyo,
in each village of ancient Mahan’s fifty-four nations.
Since then, our fatherland has seen myriads of meetings of people!
In this ancient land
parting means an expansion.
Procession of endless living,
no one can exist all alone. Tomorrow!
Ah, a man can be a man, a world, only among other people.
It is far from being an accident that the first two poems after this
are devoted to his grandfather and to Taegil the farmhand. The poem
about his grandfather (the first in our Green Integer Ten Thousand
Lives volume) might seem to be mainly about his great love of drinking,
but at the heart of the poem there is something much more important :
‘Kid, remember, Japan is not our country.
Back in the old days, Admiral Yi Sun-shin gave the Japs hell.
So don’t lose heart.’
If his family was dizzy with hunger after missing several meals,
he’d kindle a fire in the kitchen so that the chimney smoked.
Deceiving anybody watching into thinking he was at least boiling gruel,
he’d boil plain water, burning fresh pine branches
that made smoke thick enough to choke on.
Under Japanese rule, from 1910 until 1945, every mention of Korean
history was banished from books and school classrooms, especially
anything which reminded Koreans that in the 1590s they had resisted the
Japanese invasion at immense cost and had finally forced the Japanese
to return home, thanks in great part to the extraordinary figure of
Admiral Yi Sun-shin. If the poet’s family was hungry, despite living in
some of the most fertile land in Korea, that too was largely due to the
Japanese, who shipped so much Korean rice back to Japan that there was
not enough to feed the local population. The grandfather’s strategy of
hiding their lack by sending up smoke-signals as if they always had
rice to cook is no mere face-saving device, but an act of defiance. The
other poem has never been published, despite its significance:
Taegil the farmhand
Taegil, the farmhand for Kwan-jŏn’s family in Saetŏ,
used to heavy tasks,
would easily pick up a fat hog
and transfer it to the pigsty.
Likewise, he quickly dealt with the hog’s squeals too.
If mealtime was late, he never thought to complain
and early in the morning he would sweep the dew clear away
from the neighboring lanes, leaving a broad track.
But his dark eyes shone more brightly by night than in daylight.
Moreover, he used to recite the Story of Janghwa and Hongryŏn
like rain pouring down.
It was he who opened my eyes to the world as a child.
After thirty-six years under Japanese rule, I was the only kid who knew
how to read and write our language: ka-kya-kŏ-kyŏ.
His master and the other local adults never spoke carelessly to
Climbing the hill behind the village when apricots were blossoming,
he never cast glances at girls in thin summer clothes
but simply propped his A-frame against his staff and gazed at the far-away sea.
I used to gaze too, imitating him.
We heard the weeping roar of the rushing sea.
Amidst the snowdrifts of icy winters
the wind would penetrate sharp to his very armpits.
He used to say:
‘If a person lives in too much comfort, that’s all he knows.
Yet this world is about living with others.’
He was a lamp for me.
A lamp always burning, all night long, whether I slept or woke.
The erasure of Korean cultural identity under the Japanese began with
the exclusion of Korean language from education and administration.
Although newspapers and books might still be published using the Korean
Hangŭl system of alphabet, children were given no school instruction in
how to read or write it. For Ko Un, education in writing Korean was
received at an early age from this poor farmhand of a neighboring
family. That is the meaning of the mysterious “ka-kya-kŏ-kyŏ” which are
the basic four syllables everyone learns to write first of all. In
addition, Taegil complemented Ko Un’s grandfather’s teaching about
Korean history by telling the village children traditional Korean
folktales. The “Story of Janghwa and Hongryŏn” is a kind of Cinderella
story about two sisters, their names mean “Rose” and “Pink Lotus,” who
were driven to kill themselves by a wicked stepmother. Their restless
spirits return as ghosts. They finally find a just magistrate who
listens to them and punishes the stepmother. Their father remarries and
they are reborn as twin sisters; the family lives happily ever after.
This story should be seen as a lesson in endurance and in anti-Japanese
resistance, since it teaches that justice will eventually prevail,
being stronger even than death.
The scale of Ko Un’s vision is so vast, his research for each life so complete, that the 30 volumes of Maninbo
seem destined to become essential reading for any who want to know what
really happened in recent Korean history. People are already beginning
to mine them for PhDs. Maninbo works by a process of gradual
accretion. Each of the poems, taken separately, might seem slight and
anecdotal. Some are short, some seem fragmentary, incomplete, some are
opaque, unclear. Many are touching, amusing. But taken all together
they tell an extraordinarily powerful story. Even if there may not
really be ten thousand poems in the complete series, the word “manin”
(literally “ten thousand people”) is also used to mean “the multitude,
everyone.” That is surely why Ko Un defined Maninbo as “narrative poetry” in contrast to his 7-volume “epic poem” Paektu-san about the struggle for Korean Independence.
That is the meaning of the Preface poem quoted above. 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 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
interconnectedness of the universe as seen in 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.
This might help read a poem such as “Maternal Grandmother” :
those dull vacant eyes
my grandmother’s eyes.
The most sacred person in the world to me.
A cow that has stopped grazing the fresh grass
and is just standing there.
But she’s not my grandmother after all :
rather, this world’s peace,
dead and denied a tomb.
It is an essential part of the art of Maninbo that the poems are
printed without any footnotes or explanations. Most of the poems have
as their title the name of the person evoked. Obviously, there are
“famous” names that are going to be familiar to every Korean, or at
least to those who lived through the period in question. But most poems
are not about famous people. Ko Un seems almost to be quoting Keats at
his readers: “That is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
The project of producing an annotated Maninbo should keep
scholars busy in future. Even such a simple poem as the one just quoted
gains in meaning if the reader knows that Ko Un’s maternal grandmother
died during one of the most chaotic moments of the Korean War, and when
peace came there was nobody who could tell them where she had been
buried. Like this world’s peace, indeed. Such is Ko Un’s understanding
of history expressed in Maninbo.