The famous American beat poet Allen Ginsberg called Ko Un "a passionate political libertarian and a natural historian." There is so much to say about this farmer, turned Buddhist monk, turned political activist, turned chronicler of every person he ever met. Ko suffered immensely during the Korean War. He became physically and emotionally traumatized, so much so that he poured acid into ears during an especially critical time in the war. Shortly before the war ended, Ko became a Buddhist month. After ten years, he life monastic life and decided to become a poet.
For three years, 1963-66, Ko retreated to Jejudo, a small island where he established a school. After returning to Seoul, Ko's life had its moments of ups and downs, and included two attempts at suicide. However, in 1972, Ko became extremely active in the country's democracy movement. He led activities to improve Korea's political situation. During this time he started to write prolifically and was sent to prison a number of times. While in prison he was unsure from one day to the next if his life would end by execution. In 1979 he was forceably beated by police further injuring his earlier eye damage.
In May 1980, during the coup d'etat led by Chun Doo-hwan, Ko was accused of treason and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment. He was released in August 1982 as part of a general pardon. After being released from prison, Ko returned to his poetry, including the reworking of his previously published works. In 1983 he married San-Wha Lee, an English Literature professor and moved to Anseong, Gyeonggi-do were he still lives.
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"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 poet’s 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."
There is no doubt that Ko Un is Korea's foremost poet and is recognized as one of the world's leading poets. His continual nomination for the Nobel Prize for literature attests to his international regard. "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 Un’s 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, “It’s 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 I’ve already written.” This suggests the enormously wide spectrum covered in his creative activities.
Poems by Ko Un
Ko Un reading his work in Korean at the Dodge Poestry Festival, Richard Silberg reading his poems in English
Poems: A Cenotaph, Rowing with just one oar, Bably in a womb and On the way down
sharing a meal of the food they've been given
The new moon shines intensely
In a poor family's yard
the moon's so bright it could beat out rice-cakes
Get yourself a friend
come to know a foe
Get yourself a foe
come to know a friend
What kind of game is this?
A thousand drops
hanging from a dead branch
The rain did not fall for nothing
Without a sound
resin buried underground is turning into amber
while above the first snow is falling
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Kim and Gary Gac
Piercing the air
let's go, body and soul,
with no way of return,
rotting with the pain of striking home,
never to return.
One last breath! Now, let's quit the string,
throwing away like rags
all we've had for decades
all we've enjoyed for decades
all we've piled up for decades,
Transformed into arrows
let's all go, body and soul!
The air is shouting! Piercing the air
let's go, 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, arrows, our nation's arrows!
Hail, Warriors! Spirits of the fallen!
A section in Voices Reflective Writing and the Arts is devoted to Ko Un: voiceseducation.org/content/ko-un-%EA%B3%A0-%EC%9D%80-korean.