Ko Un has frequently stated that he does not know why he writes poetry but that words are his religion and he is fascinated with discovering the spiritual traces of past poets. He has strongly rejected the idea that modern Korean poetry is essentially a clone of Western literature. In 1986, he declared that he is completely free of foreign literary influences. His poetry, which ranges in form from the short lyric to the pastoral and epic, reflects his tumultuous personal life, and is frequently concerned with discerning the simple truths of everyday existence. His poetic style is colloquial, arrestingly vivid, frequently earthy, and democratic in both spirit and tone. Although he has been, and continues to be, politically very active, his poetry is rarely political. He has many loyal supporters, but some commentators have criticized his lack of literary refinement.
Ko’s poetry can be divided chronologically into three periods. In his early period, Ko’s work is antirealist, highly emotional, and centered on romantic nihilism and emptiness. During this stage, Ko was strongly influenced by the French Symbolists, particularly Charles Baudelaire, and by Imagism. In his middle period, the 1970’s, which Ko refers to as “post nihilism,” he was a politically and socially engaged poet, rejected modernism, and opposed the official government literary theory of “pure literature.” In his late period, which started in the 1980’s, he has concentrated on...
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