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
Mister Taegil.
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.’

Mister Taegil!
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” :

Cow eyes
those dull vacant eyes
my grandmother’s eyes.

My grandmother!
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.