Ko Un Analysis
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.
The title of the work is self-explanatory. Ko’s portraits are short (usually no longer than one page), direct, and humanistic; often speak in an exclamatory and informal voice; and have been compared to miniature Korean folk tales. His dignified and deeply human subjects stand in strong contrast to the horrors of twentieth century Korean history that they have endured. The poems in Ten Thousand Lives are written in Korean spoken idiom and display Korean literature’s traditional stress on nature poetry, animism, and shamanism.
“The Women from Sŏnjei-ri” is a good example of his style. This poem is a group portrait of women from Sŏnjei-ri who are returning home at night after an exhausting day of selling garlic bulbs at the local market. Ko simply but precisely captures their long, lonely trek home: “Several miles gone/ several miles left to go in deepest night!/ The empty baskets may be light enough/ yet I wonder: just how light are they/ with empty stomachs, nothing to eat.” However, the women’s difficulties are offset by the warmth of their characters and relationships: “Still, they share this pain/ these plain, simple people/ these plain, simple women./ What a good homely life!”
“Hyegong: A Monk in the Days of Old,” tells the story of the Silla dynasty monk, Heyegong, who was born of a slave. Ko concisely describes the earthy yet spiritual charms of this eccentric monk:
Although he was a monk, he never once put on silken robesand when he was famishedin the course of his roaming, he’d catch a fish in some shallow streamlet,chew it up raw and still flapping:“Ah! I’m full.Ah! Buddha’s full.”Then he’d piss and his pisswould bring the fish he’d eaten back to lifeand it would go swimming down the streamlet again,or so people said.
The purpose of What?, a widely acclaimed collection of Zen mini-poems, is to train the reader’s mind to focus on the intense immediacy of everyday experience. They display the traditional Zen distrust of words and reason and its strong emphasis on viewing the world like a child, directly, with an open mind, constantly seeing things as fresh and new. “The Winter Sky” captures this approach well, using repetition to drive home the unobstructed and spontaneous nature of daily existence: “What aching blue!/ Though it shouts,/ nothing can be heard./ What aching blue!/ Birds fly away for days.”
In “Daylight,” Ko challenges the perception that life is too short by offering another perspective on viewing time: “Three hundred-millionths of a second./ If that’s how long one particle lasts/ think how endless one day is./ You say a day’s too short?/ You greedy thing.”
Songs for Tomorrow
Songs for Tomorrow, a collection of Ko’s poems translated into English, covers all periods of his writing. The poems are one to two pages long and show his varied poetic styles. In the first stanza of “The Thirteenth Night of the Month,” Ko lyrically describes the maternal yearnings of the village’s young women: “The scent of hay from last autumn’s rich harvest is truly potent./ Out behind the deadly silent village/ naked young women gather armfuls of moonlight./ Now for the very first time it seems they long to be mothers.”
Ko’s images in this poem, as in many of the poems in this collection, are sharp and sensuous.