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 realistically depicting the lives and language of ordinary people.
Ten Thousand Lives
Ten Thousand Lives is Ko’s most famous work of poetry. When he was imprisoned, he decided to write a very long series of short poems describing all the people he knew, including the historical and literary figures he was acquainted with through reading, as well as individuals from Korean legends and myths. This ongoing epic begins with character vignettes about the people of the village in which he grew up. The Korean original spans twenty-six volumes, but the English version is a collection of poems translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae of Sogang University), Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach.
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