Ko Un, Korea’s most famous poet, is still young

August 7, 2014

By Kim Ji-soo

Poet Ko Un poses against the stone wall near Deoksu Palace in Seoul on a recent Sunday. (Shim Hyun-chul/The Korea Times)

Poet Ko Un poses against the stone wall near Deoksu Palace in Seoul on a recent Sunday. (Shim Hyun-chul/The Korea Times)

Ko Un, Korea’s most revered living poet, says there should be no boundaries between genres of poetry, adding that all contribute to the collective body of the art form.

“The lyrical becomes epic, when enough of it is accumulated,” the 81-year-old said during a recent interview near Deoksu Palace in Seoul.

“I don’t want to be defined by one category or definition.”

Then, he talked of the intentions within his work.

“I want to communicate not just with people and nature but the stars as well,” he said.

Ko’s memories about stars, however, are about hope and sadness combined.

“I remember when I was really young, I wished I could eat all the stars I could see, while looking at the sky on the back of my dad’s sister, waiting for my mom to bring home food,” he said.

Even now a hint of that childhood yearning remains with him and is expressed in exaggerated motions he makes when speaking.

During what turned out to be a very animated interview, the poet would stand up or stamp his feet or suggest singing together.

It was as if he was attempting to compose music, his words being the lyrics and his motions a melody.

One question, however, caused him to be momentarily silent: Whether he will win a Nobel Prize in literature.

“That I do not know about, so there is nothing I can say,” he said. Ko has been floated as candidate for a Nobel since the early 2000s.

About a poem he wrote as a form of memorial for the victims of the sunken Sewol ferry, he said, “I used the language of our mothers. It was very raw, because we lost of a lot of young students.”

His diverse range of poetry has prompted critics to say that there are multiple “Ko Uns,” as Brother Anthony of Taize writes in the introduction for the “Songs for Tomorrow” (1960-2002).

But mainly he said he has tried write about the basic human emotions — joy, anger, sorrow and pleasure.

What he witnessed during the Korean War prompted him to become a monk in 1952.

He dedicated himself to Buddhism but could not quell his thirst to write.

“Chon Tae-il made the seasons abruptly change from summer to winter, without fall, from winter to summer without spring,” he said. “Change is achieved through a process, but that was like standing on a cliff,” he said.

Chon was a factory worker who killed himself in protest of dismal working conditions, and his death galvanized the nation’s union movement.

“I am like a lark in a barley field,” Ko said, comparing himself with a bird that symbolizes freedom.

He is currently composing his next work, an epic poem about “Virgin Simcheong,” a young woman who sacrifices herself.

The following are excerpts from the hand-written answers in an interview with Ko Un.

Q: You have just published a volume of poetry with 68 poets to mark the sinking of the Sewol ferry. Was this your idea?

A: No. I wrote the poem in a hurry on request from a paper, after hundreds of lives were lost in a tragedy caused by the inconsistencies in our society. I woke up early one morning to write in hurry, and thankfully the other poets also joined in. We like to think of it as a eulogy for those prematurely ended lives.

Mankind has always been reverent in front of death. To us, death holds a religious element. In what is now Iraq, there was a fossilized hyacinth flower discovered on the forehead of the fossilized remains of a child in a cave dating back some 60,000 years. In Danyang, China, a fossilized chrysanthemum was found on the forehead of a fossilized child dating back some 20,000 years. This shows where mankind stands before death from time immemorial. We hope that this volume of poetry will offer a small degree of solace to relatives of the victims of the sunken Sewol ferry.

Q: You have mentioned poetry as a “language of liberation.” What were you seeking liberation from throughout your life?

A: If poetry is not a language of liberation, it’s dead. Poetry should not be limited to only being a form for sentiments to express something, but a self-movement of freedom from something. That’s what determines whether a poem has life or not. I do not mean liberation as an alternative concept to politics nor capitalism. It’s more about boundless freedom, one that’s about realization of the self and the finality of the universe. The language of liberation conceptualizes the material and also materializes the concept. Isn’t dark matter a metaphor for the spirit of the universe? My poetry encompasses all the conditions of my life; it escapes from it in a wild animal-like movement. Liberated thinking is a wave hurling toward worldly ideas and away from my thoughts or away from other poetry.

Q: What should Korea be liberated from after the sinking of the Sewol ferry? In other words, can you tell us about why the Sewol happened and how we need to address it?

A: When we talk about liberation or freedom, we tend to regard it as a freedom from violence from outside. But I think it should be liberation from the capitalistic social order and realizing through what practical actions we can tackle the incongruities of this social order.

We need self cleansing, social-cleansing. But prior to achieving this, we need to recover our dignity as human beings by freeing ourselves from power-first, growth-first values that have fed corruption.

Korea currently suffers the infamy of having “the worst” social values among advanced nations. It has the highest suicide rate; the worst corruption; and where wealth is concentrated in the top 1 percent of the population. We’re a bad example of a pressed growth model. Healing doesn’t come instantaneously. We need long-term, permanent innovation in which the privileged must first forego their privileges.

Q: You have been very active overseas with poetry citations and receiving numerous awards, including the 2014 Golden Wreath Award. What do foreign readers expect to learn about poetry or about Korea from your poems?

A: For the past 20 years, I have been invited to literature festivals around the world. It was an honor and a commitment to take part in these festivals to represent Asia, East Asia and also Korea. I do not differentiate my personal life from my public one, and I consider it a blessing that people in the world love my poems and my truth. Also, because they are now learning about Korea _ its life and history _ through my poems, I am repaying in a small way the gratitude I have for being born in Korea as a Korean. But I am the host of the private space in my works and I am a poet. My life is writing and reading and I live a full life with my wife.

As people once said, “We need to first set ourselves right by putting our families in order, and then to put the nation in order,” and vice versa. If this is not achieved, my work will only be half-complete and I will only be half-complete. I like the circular constant of Buddhism, upholding the cyclical processes of the secular world-leaving the secular world and then returning to it.

Q: You have held different occupations, earning you nicknames such as revolutionary or “soldier of fortune.” Do these integrate or harmonize?

A: I have only lived 80 years or so, but there are many of life’s accessories attached to me. I am not singular but plural. To me, a “poet” is a meaningless term if it does not relate to myself or the universe and speaks of the mission of this heaven-sent job.

Q: You have mentioned that you would like to see the birth of the “poetry of reconciliation” between the two Koreas. What can we do to achieve this goal?

A: The division on the Korean Peninsula needs a dream that will surmount the wishes of those in power to retain their privileges. We need a festival of reconciliation that will melt away 100 years of animosity, five generations of animosity. I firmly believe that the future of the Korean Peninsula will end in a historic resolution that will above all despair and pessimism to stand on optimism. Today’s reality where unification seems so far away means the process toward unification must be explored.

Unification is not a dot, but a line. It’s not a short steel fence but a long waist band. We need to unfurl, unroll unification through this waist band.

Q: You have said that you felt a shudder run through you when you first encountered poetry. Should people dedicate themselves to what they feel excited about or what they are good at?

A: I saw my first poem in the Korean language in a textbook during my first year at middle school, after Korea was liberated from Imperial Japan in 1945. It was the poem “Gwangya” or “Vast Country” by poet Lee Yuk-sa. It was a poem that did not speak of flowers or moonlight but of the vast space of the vast land, of remote antiquity, of vast time and of great men. It was an ode to a solemn world. How frightening for a boy to meet this world and feel a shudder? I believe I was already connected to the wonder, the higher unfolding world of the essence of poetry.

Q: You’re currently working on an epic poem based on “The Story of Simcheong.” Please tells us a little about it?

A: The long poem titled “Virgin Simcheong” will put together the stages of the sky, the Earth and the underworld. I would not object if you were to refer to it as similar to Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Even before I stayed in Venice, Italy, I was familiar with Florence, Verona and other such places. When UNESCO and the Greek government co-hosted the world’s “Poetry Day” at the Delphi Hall of Gods, I took part. The World Academy of Poetry was then set up in Verona. It’s headquartered in Verona. So maybe that’s what got me to connect a conversation with him between the past and present.

But the “Virgin Simchoeng” will encompass Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism of the East. I will be setting “Simcheong” as a universal idea in the poem.

Q: What do you in essence want to tell through your poetry? Has it changed?

A: I would like to make a small contribution to awakening the poetry that remains in people’s hearts. Then again, I will do away with this thought, and write poetry as if I were blind, deaf and like a crying baby.

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