Meeting Ko Un
Ko Un, with his books. © Barry Hill
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Strong poets must live on the knife edge of death/life. Few have done so better than Ko Un, the Korean who has been short-listed for the Nobel Prize since 2002. He has long been the most famous poet in Korea, a man born, you might say, in the crawl of its abysmal oppressions and wars, but one who has made a vital, vocal, defiantly prolific self out of his miraculous survivals.
A lean man aged 79, wiry and quick, he has a sad face in repose, but with a smile that can splash into yours like a glass of fresh water. He speaks in hushed tones, as if he is about to whisper a poem – perhaps because he has only one good lung or because he has been hard of hearing since he poured acid into his ears to drown out the sounds of war. The American poet, Gary Snyder, once remarked his style “outfoxes the Old Masters and the young poets both”. This is evocative enough, but not as instructive as Allen Ginsberg’s exclamation: “Ko Un is a magnificent poet, a combination of Buddhist cognoscente, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.”
Among the first stories Ko Un tells, when speaking of his origins, is of the revelatory jolt poetry was to him as a schoolboy. Under the Japanese occupation, Korean was banned; children were given a Japanese name. Ko Un was studying his native language in secret when he discovered the poems of Han Ha-un, Korea’s leper-poet.
“I read the whole collection straight through. There was a poem about his toes falling off in the evening, no eyebrows the next morning … The first feeling was not so much I want to write like that so much as be like that person – that that person’s disease should become mine. And then I had the feeling that as I travelled around I should also be giving birth to poems.”
“On and on along the earthen path,” Han Ha-un wrote, and Ko Un vowed that he would live accordingly.
At that time a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “The Emperor of Japan,” he replied, and for this he was, as expected, punished.
He also likes to tell of his father, whose affirmations lodged in his mind. When the Japanese appropriated the harvest, his father would say. “There is no rice today, but there will be rice tomorrow.”
“All through the colonial period he was a dreamer,” says Ko Un. “And when the moon was full he went out to the dusty yard and started dancing. When I saw that, I wanted to become a man who dances.”
But the man who danced still had the war between the North and South to endure, and his son, whose mind was yet to dance, was tormented by it. Twentieth-century Korea is like Poland in this respect: a victim of colonisation, as well as murderous armies that marched to and fro across its countryside, razing memory with atrocities, and laying the ground for a modern literature conceived in trauma. Ko Un fled to the mountains, in the direction of the partisans. Twice the father managed to bring him back; on the third attempt the son managed to elude him.
When the war ended in 1953 – bear in the mind that the present situation between North and South must still be called a ‘truce’ – Ko Un had to help clean up. He hauled corpses onto his back and carried them to their graves. Eventually, aged 20, he found himself out on the road again, walking in the footsteps of a Zen monk. The monk had his back to the young man, who was drawn to him as if to a magnet. Ko Un joined the temple under the famous monk Hyobong, “the master teacher who rescued me”.
He lost touch with his parents. Ten years went by, during which Ko Un took orders as a monk and founded Korea’s first Buddhist newspaper (in which he published his first poems). One day his Master came into the temple to find Ko Un taking an axe to its lovely floor. Ko Un was shouting with fury: “No more Buddha. No more Buddha!”
The Master put his head down to the floor. “Yes,” he called, “No more Buddha; let’s have fun!”
This was giving him kind permission to be himself, but he knew he would have to chose between being a monk and a poet. His first book of poems, Other Shore Sensibility, was published in 1960. Three years later, disillusioned with monastic life, he derobed and set himself adrift. When I imagine him at this point, I think of his Zen poem about the mosquito:
Why, I’m really alive
Playful Ko Un, the poet who has learnt to dance, despite everything, or perhaps because of everything. But he was barely alive; he spent the rest of the decade vagrant and on the grog. He says he carried death on his back, the unshakable result of all that he had seen and lost during the war.
He sailed south to the windswept island of Cheju, planning to throw himself into the sea, but got so drunk he passed out instead. He stayed on to start a charity school, and teach Korean and art, all the while remaining drunk as often as he could.
“In Korean, the word for ‘drink’ is the same as the word for ‘Lord’. I am of the Lord. When a woman establishes a drinking house, the fortune teller usually says you are destined to live not in a house of water but in a house of fire.”
The gods were with him on the island, he felt, and they left him when he left the island. There was a year when the sight of trees and clouds made him weep. The next year he was subject to fits of uncontrollable laughter, which proved disconcerting, not least to himself. He speaks of this now not so much as a breakdown as a metaphysical crisis – as being overcome by the arbitrariness of words, even his own name. His condition fit the cultural crisis of the time, its nihilistic preoccupation with ‘Zero’, and the invidious task of starting life all over again, but he does not resist the suggestion that he was also driven by a compulsion to punish himself.
“I have suffered from self-torture and self-negation for a long time, like an illness. There was a long period when, if I sat looking at the sea, I wondered when I would be thrown into it. Looking at the bus coming and going, thinking I might go under it. Since the 1950s many people across the country have experienced death, not only me. In reality half of my age group were killed during the Korean War. So I was alive, and guilty that I survived their deaths. Finally, the word ‘death’ became the most fascinating word for me. Even when I didn’t feel very much like drinking wine, when I think of the word ‘death’, if I evoke that word, I feel like drinking. In short, when I recited the word ‘death’, I was the happiest!”
He attempted suicide for the last time in 1970, the year of what he calls his “turning point”. An epiphany flicked him out of the fire of destruction into the fire of creation. The occasion was the death of a young man called Chun Tae-il, the leader of the textile workers who were engaged in a bitter dispute. The strikers were the poor, sweated labour working and living in hovels in the centre of Old Seoul. Tae-il set fire to himself and perished – like the monk in the square in Saigon, at the height of the Vietnam War.
“Tae-il tore me out of my tomb, my grave, and brought me back to life in this world. His self-offering was essentially a declaration that these poor sick kids were also human beings. I compared that to my own private, personal death wish. I had attempted suicide only for myself. But here was somebody who died, had offered himself, for the sake of all the others.”
Ko Un the poet-activist was born – in perfect time for the long battle for democracy in South Korea. In the mass struggle of protests, imprisonments, tortures and the slaughter of hundreds of students by government troops, Ko Un became one of the most celebrated dissenters. He was of the labour movement and of the student movement, and could cut a romantic figure on the dissenting stage – barefoot, dressed like a peasant farmer, and beating a drum (some see him as a poet with a shamanistic bent).
“I used to speak out there,” he says, pointing out the window. At our first meeting we were sitting in the plush tearoom of the Koreana Hotel, in the centre of Seoul, near the city square. He conjures the huge crowds he’d become famous for addressing.
“I was always in the front line of demonstrations. What I needed then was liquor to give me the courage to be there, to play that role in a situation of violence. They thought I was someone who knew no fear.”
“What were you afraid of?”
“There was always the thought, ‘This time they are going to grab me, arrest me; they are going to torture me.’ Some people saw me and thought I was stepping up without any fear because of Zen, that through all those years of sitting I’d somehow risen above fear. That might have made me a little bit less frightened. But I had not lost all fear through that.”
A childhood anecdote illustrates the kind of connections he often makes in his pithy poems: the family is hungry, little Ko Un is with his aunt, waiting for his mother to come back from the mudflats, where she has been gathering seablite. Night has fallen and he is clinging to his aunt’s back under a starry sky.
“Then I noticed for the first time the stars in the night sky. The cosmic landscape struck me for the first time. Only I mistook the stars for fruit dangling from the sky. So I began to beg her to pick me some stars, weeping. That first error of mistaking stars for food was the vague beginning of a poet who would later sing the stars as a dream.”
Ko Un’s poems are, it’s true, laden with sorrow. They are also full of irreverent play. They explode, like seed pods, with forward-looking narratives, each as vital as the life force Ko Un has come to exalt in himself. Sometimes all you need is two lines that could only have been written by a man with a deep insight into the lives of others.
A man whistling as he cooks seaweed soup
after his young wife has given birth
From 1979 until 1989 he was imprisoned four times. Initially he was punished as an active office-holder of writer’s groups or human-rights outfits. In 1980 he was court-martialled for “conspiracy to incite civil war” and sentenced to 20 years. Sitting in the dark in solitary confinement, he began to imagine all the faces that he had encountered in his life so far. The poem he would then write would include them all (as well as figures known to him from history and mythology). So began his epic project, Maninbo or Ten Thousand Lives – 30 volumes of what has been a marathon bestseller. Tears began to flow as he wrote the poem about his 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 is not my grandmother after all:
rather, this world’s peace,
dead and denied a tomb.
The poems of this classic of twentieth-century Korean literature are gritty, colloquial, big-hearted pictures of the men and women who people Korea. When I suggest the spirit of Maninbo is akin to that of the Russian social realists, Ko Un is very pleased. He absolutely lights up when I recognise a second impulse enlivening his project: Maninbo was written in the spirit of a Bodhisattva (a Buddhist disciple devoted to the wellbeing of all sentient beings).
He is standing up now, reaching across the table to take my hand.
“You are the first person to mention these two projects! I feel as if the sky has cleared up today.”
Yet he will not, these days, describe himself as a Buddhist. I cite all the Buddhist work he has done – from Zen fictions to sutra commentaries – but he will not be religiously labelled. The same goes for politics, and who can blame him in the rebarbative Cold-War cauldron of the two Koreas.
What he is protecting, I feel, is his sense of himself as a pilgrim, a traveller in all worlds. “My destiny rejects my belonging to anything,” as he puts it.
His novel, The Little Pilgrim, another bestseller, and “the best expression of my own life’s progress”, is an adaptation of the mammoth Flower Garland Sutra. It tells of a boy who has adventures and undergoes spiritual instruction from one end of the Earth, the underworld, the sea and the sky, to the other. In the original, the text is a continuous cascade of superlatives, almost indigestible. In his fiction, Ko Un makes it a deceptively simple fable for all ages, in which the higher spiritual freedoms can only be reached via social justice.
These days, Ko Un lets his writing do most of his political work. But he is renowned for his advocacy of reconciliation with North Korea. “My dream is to liberate the DMZ [the Korean Demilitarised Zone] from politics. Ecologically, it’s a wonderfully preserved system. When the DMZ is liberated it will become a great nature reserve.”
He attempted to have a meeting in 1989 with North Korean writers at Panmunjom, the borderline between the two Koreas, for which he was imprisoned for two months. There was much more travel to come. Kim Dai-jung, the liberal elected president in 1997 (who had been tried and sentenced with Ko Un years before), included the poet as a member of his first official visit to the North in 2000. Ko Un had his photo taken standing between Kim Dai-jung and the leader of the North, Kim Jong-Il.
Since then he has thrown himself into the Korean Dictionary Project, rather like the one that helped bridge West and East Germany before the wall came down. Politics skews language on both sides of the DMZ, and what could be better for its health than for poets to be active in its care?
“Taiwan and China are in the process of making a unified dictionary. So that when at last some unification happens in advance there will be some preparation for a unification of language – towards mutual understanding.”
What are the forces against that? The North, the US, Seoul?
His answer seems to point the bone at his own government.
“The most fearful American prisons,” he says, “are not in America.”
We could have talked all day and into the night. Most of the understandings that slowly passed between us were facilitated by the two people who often translate him into print: Brother Anthony of Taize, who teaches at Sogang University, and Ko Un’s beautiful wife, Lee Sangh-Wha, who is a Professor of English at Chung-Ang University. They married in 1983, soon after he was pardoned and released from prison. They have a daughter, who is now grown up, and they live a couple of hours south of Seoul, in the countryside. It’s a peaceful life these days, whatever you say about his incessant need to keep reading and writing, reading and writing; he’s been prolific: 152 titles in many genres, 76 of them poetry, with no sign of abatement.
Of course, he is only as peaceful as a room packed with books can allow a man to be. The second time we meet I take a photograph of him grinning as he stands knee-deep in them. I love his poems about doing away with the damn things.
“Throwing out books is a good thing,” I say, alluding to the Zen teaching that wisdom is best deepened without grubbing for more concepts.
“As poets, when we throw out our books, what are we replacing them with?”
He laughs. “Not sure, more books!”
“Is it like giving up alcohol?”
“I have burnt books!”
If ever I write a long essay on you, the key word will be ‘wild’, I say. The word has been bandied around between the three of us, because Sangh-Wha has translated Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild into English.
Ko Un is as quick as a flash. “The Buddha is wild,” he says.