Poet's Choice
By Robert Hass

Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 1998; Page X02

MODERN KOREAN poetry, like the poetry of Eastern Europe, is inextricably entangled with the country's history in the 20th century: Japanese military occupation from 1905 to 1945, during which time efforts were made to eradicate the Korean language; a devastating civil war; the division of the country; a series of military dictatorships in the South, the Republic of Korea, accompanied by continued Cold War tensions with the North, a U.S. military presence, a remarkable economic recovery, and an intense grassroots democracy movement that often fought the government in the streets.

The conflict between the protesters and the government culminated in a massacre in the southern city of Kwangju in 1980 in which more than 200 people, mostly students, were killed. It was the Tiananmen Square of that decade. After Kwangju, the memory of that event became the focus of the pro-democracy movement, which finally bore fruit in 1992 when the Republic elected a president, Kim Young-Sam, who exposed financial scandals and prosecuted the perpetrators of the massacre. Last week the leader of the movement for decades, Kim Dae Jung, was elected to the presidency. It's a remarkable story, and it's not over. And Americans, who bear some responsibility for the violent turns in modern Korean history, know very little about it.

One of the prominent literary figures in the movement to resist government suppression of the Kwangju incident and to bring about democratic reforms was a poet named Ko Un. In the 1970s and '80s he was arrested four times, imprisoned, tortured -- as a result of which he lost his hearing -- and ultimately pardoned. He had been a student in the years of Japanese occupation, a Buddhist monk when he began to write and, after his return to secular life, another of the 20th century's alienated urban poets, until he joined the democracy movement and became an active dissident.

While he was in prison, he conceived one of his major projects: to write a poem about every person he had ever known. Called 'Ten Thousand Lives', two volumes of this monumental work have been published. Only a handful of the poems have appeared in English translation, but they are remarkably rich. Anecdotal, demotic, full of the details of people's lives, they're not like anything else I've come across in Korean poetry. It's to be hoped that a fuller translation of them will appear. Here is a poem from the series that remembers the middle-of-the-night sound of peasant women passing through a village on the way home from market day:

The women from Sonjae

            In darkest night, near midnight, the dogs
            in the middle of Saeto start to bark raucously.
            One dog barks so the next one barks
            until the dogs at Kalmoi across the fields
            follow suit and start to bark as well.
            Between the sounds the barking dogs produce
            echo scraps of voices: eh ah oh --
            Not unrelated to the sound the night's wild geese
            let fall to the bitter cold ground
            as they fly past high above,
            not unrelated to that backwards and forwards
            echoing splendid sound.
            It's the women from Sonjae on their way home
            from the old-style market over at Kunsan
            where they went with garlic bulbs by the hundred
            borne in baskets on their heads,
            since there's a lack of kimchi cabbage
            from the bean-fields;
            now they're on their way home, after getting rid
            of what couldn't be sold
            at the knock-down auction at closing time;
            several miles gone
            several left to go in deepest night!
            The empty baskets may be light enough
            but empty-stomached with nothing to eat,
            I wonder just how light they feel?
            Still, they don't each one suffer on her own.
            It's a pain they share,
            these plain simple people
            these plain simple women.
            What a good homely life!
            Perhaps the dogs have got used to their voices,
            for the barking starts to die away,
            night seems eager to declare: I myself am night!
            And the darkness blinks its vacant eyes.

This comes from The Sound of My Waves: Selected Poems of Ko Un, translated by Brother Anthony of Taize and Young-Moo Kim, and published by the Cornell East Asia Series. A new book of Ko Un's short poems, Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems, has just appeared from Parallax Press and should be in bookstores.
            Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."
              Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company