Ko Un was born into a farming family in a small village near what is now Gunsan, South Korea, in 1933. At that time, Korea had not been divided into two, but it was a colony of Japan. The Japanese colonial administration outlawed the teaching of Korean, so Ko studied Chinese classics at school (and was secretly taught Korean by a neighbor’s servant). He started to write poems at the age of twelve. In 1945 (the year Korea was liberated from Japan), he discovered a book of poems by the famous leper-poet Han Ha-un (1920-1975) lying on the wayside, and he decided to become a poet. The Korean War (1950-1953) had a major impact on his life. When the war broke out, he was forced to repair runways at a South Korean air force base. Ko saw a great deal of violence during the war, and as a result, he attempted suicide several times and suffered a nervous breakdown. He entered a Sŏn (Zen) Buddhist monastery when he was nineteen and became a student of the noted monk Hyobong. In 1958, his first poem “Pyekgyeolhaek” (“Tuberculosis”) was published in the review Modern Poetry, and in 1960, his first collection of poems, Pian kamsŏng (other world sensibility), was published.
Two years later, Ko left the monastery. He lived in Seoul for a time, and from 1963 to 1966, he taught Korean and art at a charity high school on the southern island of Cheju. During this period, Ko drank heavily. His second collection of poetry, Haebyŏn i...
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