Ko Un¡¯s Life Story


Ko Un was born on August 1, 1933 in a village that now forms part of the city of Kunsan, North Cholla Province, in southwestern Korea. He was his parents¡¯ first child. His parents were not rich or highly educated but they encouraged their son to study. His mother was physically weak and taciturn by nature. His father too was affectionate but rather withdrawn. Ko Un¡¯s paternal grandfather was a habitual drunkard, notorious for fits of violence but he was also a patriot who first taught Ko Un about Korean history, at a time when Korea was a Japanese colony. His maternal grandmother loved him dearly, and he admits that when he was writing the poem about her in the Maninbo (Ten thousand lives) series, that was the only time he wept while remembering the many people he had known. She died fleeing during the chaos of the Korean War and her family was never able to find where she had been buried.

He grew up a precocious scholar; by the time he was eight years old, he had mastered classical Chinese texts difficult for far older stu¡©dents. Korea was under Japanese oc¡©cupation at the time, having been brutally annexed by Japan in 1910. When he was in the third grade, his Japanese headmaster asked his class what they wanted to be when they grew up, and Ko Un replied, ¡°Em¡©per¡©or of Japan,¡± for which he was severely punished.

He was shat¡©tered by the bitter, fratricidal Korean War. He volunteered for the People's Army, but was rejected due to lack of weight – he only weighed 40 Kg! He witnessed rape and murder by the Communists, then the Korean Army exe¡©cuted Communist collaborators, including Ko Un¡¯s family mem¡©bers, neighbors, friends, and his first love. He was or¡©dered to transport corpses, carrying them on his back for many nights. This experience brought him to the verge of mental breakdown, and to attempted suicide. He lost all hearing in one ear, after pouring poison into it.

In 1952, before the war was over, he became a Buddhist monk and devoted himself to the practice of Son (the Ko¡©re¡©an equivalent of the more commonly known Japanese word, ¡°Zen,¡± meaning meditation). He became the principal disciple of the great monk Hyobong, and travelled around the whole of Korea, living by alms. He at¡©tained a high rank in monastic life, holding several important administrative posts at a very difficult time. During those years, Korean Buddhism was marked by intense conflicts as the married clergy who had been encouraged by the Japanese were ejected from the temples and the tradition of monastic celibacy was reaffirmed. He helped establish Korea¡¯s first Buddhist newspaper.

At the end of ten years of monastic life, however, he returned to the world. In part he had grown disillu¡©sioned by the formalism and the corruption he found within the Buddhist hierarchy. More important in his decision, though, was a growing awareness that he was going to have to choose between being a monk and being a poet, that he could not be both at the same time.

One day in 1945, when he was twelve, on his way home from school he had picked up a book lying by the wayside. It was the well-known leper-poet Han Ha-Un¡¯s Selected Poems. He stayed up all night reading it. He later wrote, ¡°My breast seemed torn apart by the force of the shock those lyrics produced on me.¡± He too wanted to become a leper-poet; that is how Ko Un began to write poems. Ko Un¡¯s first collection of youthful poems, Other World Sensibility, was published in 1960, while he was still a monk.

     Many people were astonished when he published a dramatic ¡°Resignation Manifesto¡± in the daily Hankook Ilbo newspaper and left the Buddhist clergy. From 1963-66, he was unpaid headmaster, and teacher of Korean and art, at a charity school on the southern island of Cheju. At this time, he published his second and third volumes of poetry, At the Sea¡¯s Edge (1966) and God, the Last Village of Language (1967). His return to Seoul in 1967 was followed by years of drunkenness and dark nihilism until autumn 1970, when he attempted suicide again. He was in a coma for thirty hours after taking poison.

One day soon after, in November, he read by chance about the self-immolation of Chon T¡¯ae-il, a young gar¡©ment worker try¡©ing to improve labor conditions. Deeply touched by this, Ko Un felt spurred to take a leading role in the drive against president Park Chung-Hee¡¯s declaration in 1972 of the ¡°Yushin Reforms¡±  amending the Constitution, suspending the normal democratic institutions and allowing him a virtually unlimited term in office. So Ko Un be¡©came an ac¡©tivist and subsequently one of the main spokes¡©people for writers and artists opposed to the Korea¡¯s dic¡©tatorial regimes.

When the Association of Writers for Practical Freedom was established in 1974, he became its first secretary-general. In the same year, he became the official spokesman for the National Association for the Recovery of Democracy. This provoked repression by the Intelligence Agency (commonly known as the KCIA) and he was imprisoned for a time. Despite intense political activity, he kept writing and published prolifically. The books published in these years include collections of poems: When I went to Munui village (1977), Going into the Mountains (1977), Early Morning Road (1978), translations from the Chinese: Selected Poems of the T¡¯ang Dynasty and Selected Poems of Tu Fu, as well as biographies of famous artists and poets: Critical Biography of Yi Joong-Sup, Han Yong-Un, Critical Biography of the Poet Yi Sang. In 1978, he became Vice-Chairman of the Korean Association of Human Rights.

In October 1979, President Park Chung-Hee was assassinated by the head of his Security Agency. By this time, Ko Un had become Vice-Chairman of the Association of National Unity. This earned him a second imprisonment and the drum of his good ear was permanently damaged by beatings during sessions of torture. An operation early in 1980 fortunately restored some measure of hearing. With the death of the dictator, there was hope of a renewal of democracy. However, the military imposed its will once again, and the rise of General Chon Doo-Hwan culminated in a military coup in May 1980, coinciding with the murderous repression of the popular struggle for democracy in the city of Kwangju, in the course of which hundreds died.

On the day of the May 1980 coup, hundreds of people were arrested, including not only Ko Un but the popular political leader and future president Kim Dae-Jung. Ko Un was thrown into prison, court-martialed, and sentenced to life-imprisonment. Kim Dae-Jung received a death sentence. Once the new regime was assured of its hold on the nation, these sentences were reversed, and in August 1982, Ko Un was set free in a general pardon.

In jail, Buddhist meditation sustained him, and as he reflected on the fate of the many people he had known in past years, he con¡©ceived of an epic cycle of poems, Maninbo (Ten thou¡©sand lives) to include every person he had ever met. Of this, 15 vol¡©umes have been published thus far. He later also under¡©took a seven-volume poetic epic of the Korean Independence Movement un¡©der Japanese rule, entitled Paektu Mountain.

On May 5, 1983 Ko Un married Lee Sang-Wha, a professor of English Literature somewhat younger than himself, and they went to live in the countryside at Ansong, about two hours¡¯ drive from Seoul. In 1985, ChaRyong, his only daughter, was born. Marriage and family life brought a new degree of stability and happiness to his life. As a result, he became increasingly prolific, and although the exact figure is hard to calculate, in all he has certainly published well over 120 volumes of different kinds of poetry, as well as volumes of essays, a number of full-length novels, dramas, and trans¡©lations.

In 1983, just after his marriage, Ko Un revised all his previously published poems extensively and declared, in the preface to the Complete Poems of Ko Un published by Minumsa in 1984, that from then on critics should take the revised poems as the originals. It caused a great deal of controvery and it upset many of his readers, because they felt that Ko Un had made his most beautiful poems worse. They thought it a great shame that, after defying government censorship, such beautiful poems had been mutilated by the poet himself. Many thought that they had lost some of the most beautiful ¡°poems of sensibility¡± ever written in Korea. However, Ko Un stubbornly explained that he had done what he most wanted to do if he came out alive from prison. He was determined to make a clean break with his previous life, which had been notorious for its sometimes vicious immorality, while infusing a new sense of moral seriousness into the poems written during those long years of torment.

Since his marriage and the move to Ansong, the books Ko Un has published have included numerous collections of lyric poems: Homeland Stars (1984), Pastoral Poems (1986), Fly High, Poem! (1986), Your Eyes (1988), Morning Dew (1990), For Tears (1991), Sea Diamond Mountain (1991), What!--Zen Poems (1991), Song of Tomorrow (1992), The Road Not Yet Taken (1993), Songs for Cha-Ryong (1997). He also began serial publication of Ten Thousand Lives, with 15 volumes so far published (1986-97), and completed Paektu Mountain: An Epic in 7 volumes (1987-94). He published a lengthy Buddhist novel Hwaom-kyong (Little Pilgrim) in 1991, and is currently publishing Zen: A Novel as a serial evoking the origins of ¡°Zen¡± in China; the first two volumes have already been published. A much enlarged Collected Works now fills 20 volumes, and since 1986 he has published 5 volumes of his Autobiography. In 1987, he was able to make his first journey abroad, to speak in Japan

With the growth of greater democratic freedom in Korea, Ko Un¡¯s attention increasingly turned to overcoming the division of the Korean Peninsula between North and South. An unauthorized attempt to visit the North in 1989 earned him a fourth, brief term of imprisonment and the withdrawal of his passport. He served as Chairman of the Association of Korean Artists for one year 1989 – 1990 and was President of the Association of Writers for National Literature 1992 – 94.

In 1992, South and North Korea signed a Joint Agreement which seemed to promise a rapid development of friendlier relations, and this inspired the poems of Song of Tomorrow. However, until this time, Ko Un was officially listed as a subversive dissident and there was an official unwritten policy that his works should not be translated. This, together with his personal preoccupation with struggles within Korea, may explain why he only became known to the outside world when he was already in his sixties. A Japanese translation of some poems appeared in 1989 but the first English edition of a volume of his poetry, The Sound of My Waves, did not come out until 1992. At about the same time, he was able to receive a passport again and began to travel.

His first journey was to India in 1992, which had been the setting of the novel Litle Pilgrim, accompanied by the director of an award-winning Korean film inspired by the novel. After that he soon began to visit Europe, Japan, and Australia, meeting poets and writers, giving readings. Meanwhile, he continued to publish. The later 1990s saw the publication of the poetry collections Tokdo Island (1995), A Memorial Stone (1997), Whispering (1998), and the epic evocation of the migration of salmon, Far, Far Journey (1999), of the novel Chongsun Arirang (1995) and the two-volume novel Sumi Mountain (1999), to say nothing of volumes of essays, travel books, and literary studies. Although he had received no formal higher education, from 1994 he was invited to teach as Resident Professor at the Graduate School of Kyonggi University, Seoul until 1998, when he reached 65.

At last, in 1997, he went to the United States for the first time, to celebrate the publication of the second volume of his poems in English, the collection of Zen poems Beyond Self. Of this collection, Allen Ginsberg said, ¡°Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscent, passionate political litertarian, and naturalist historian. This little book of Son (Zen) poems gives a glimpse of the severe humorous discipline beneath the prolific variety of his forms and subjects.¡± Gary Snyder wrote, ¡°Not just holding his Zen insights/ and their miraculous working tight to himself/ Not holding back to mystify,/ Playful and demotic,/ Zen silly, real-life deep,/ And a real-world poet!/ Ko Un outfoxes the Old masters and the Young poets both.¡±

To mark the occasion, he gave a reading at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was introduced by Robert Hass, and at the Black Oak Bookshop, Berkeley, together with Gary Snyder. Michael McClure has said how deeply he was moved when he first went to Ko Un¡¯s poetry reading: ¡°I first heard Ko Un at Berkeley, California. His poems laugh and growl because they have their own cave within the poet who laughs in grief and intoxication and growls in discontent and pleasure, and with much energy. I knew I had found a brother poet from half-way around the world. California fog passed on the street outside as Ko Un read a series of poems. Each poem was vibrant drama as Ko Un¡¯s voice twisted the shapes of the vowels and sculpted the consonants. In the world of poetry his reading is unique. There is no one who reads like this. Ko Un delivers his language with the intensity of one who was forbidden to learn his native Korean language as a child, but learned it anyway.¡±

In that same year he made an amazing and nearly fatal 40-day journey to Tibet, where he was determined to reach the heighest points of Mount Kailash and the Himalayas. This journey resulted in the collection of poems Himalayas (2000).

In 1998, he was at last permitted to visit North Korea, as part of an authorized visit to the main cultural and natural sites of the North under the auspices of major publishing and broadcasting companies in the South. Again, a volume of poems was the result, South and North (2000). Ko Un spent the whole of 1999 in the United States as a visiting research scholar at the invitation of the Harvard Yenching Institute, Harvard University. At the same time, he taught modern Korean poetry for half a term at UC, Berkeley and travelled to some 40 venues across the United States and Canada to give readings.

     If he has become a pilgrim poet, one of the greatest moments on his pilgrimage came in June of 2000, when he accompanied President Kim Dae-Jung to the historic reunifica¡©tion summit in Pyongyang, and read his poem At the Taedong River before the leaders of the two Koreas as part of the celebration of the signing of their joint agreement. In August 2000, he was an invited speaker at the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit, in New York. In November 2000, he read his works in Cracow at the invitation of Nobel laureates Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska. In 2001, he read his poems at the celebration of the UNESCO World Poetry Day in Delphi and Athens, with his friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading the English. After that, there was not a month when he did not find himself leaving for distant lands – Columbia, Italy, Sweden, the United States, Canada, China ...

Publications have continued in the new century, of course, with a volume of brief epigrams Flowers of a Moment (2001), a book of essays The Road has Traces of Those Who Went Before (2002), and a volume of poems Poetry Left Behind (2002). He has also continued to publish numerous articles and poems in newspapers and periodicals.

     Responses to Ko Un¡¯s work within Korea cannot be separated from responses to his social commitment and opposition to authoritarian dictatorships. All Korean literary criticism is conditioned by such considerations and fierce controversy is inevitable, since so many other writers and critics have chosen the way of silence and compromise. Politics and personalities continue to play an excessive role in the world of Korean literature. It is hard for people to come to terms with the past, or to recognize Ko Un¡¯s unique talent without feeling threatened by it.

Ko Un received the officially sponsored Korean Literature Prize in 1974 but after that official disapproval meant that his work went unrewarded until he again received the Korean Literature Prize in 1987, at a time when demands for greater democracy were beginning to have their effect. He received the first Manhae Literary Prize in 1989, the Chungang Cultural Prize in 1991, and the Daesan Literary Prize in 1994 for Song of Tomorrow. Ko Un naturally has a great affinity with Manhae, the Buddhist monk-poet Han Yong-Un, who was one of the leading figures in the launching of the Korean Independence Movement in 1919. It is only fitting that he received the Manhae Grand Prize in 1998 and the Manhae Buddhist Literature Prize in 1999.

     A literary critic once said of Ko Un, ¡°Perhaps he breathes his poems before putting them to paper. I can imagine that his poems spring forth from his enchanting breath rather then from his pen.¡± Ko Un himself says, ¡°I am constantly liberating myself from the poems I¡¯ve already written.¡± This helps explain the wide spectrum of his creation. The legendary American beat-generation poet Michael McClure once said, after reading Ko Un¡¯s poems, ¡°Ko Un¡¯s poetry has the old-fashionedness of a muddy rut on a country road after rain, and yet it is also as state-of-the-art as a DNA micro-chip. Beneath his art I feel the mysterious traditional animal and bird spirits, as well as age-old ceremonies of a nation close to its history.¡±

Ko Un¡¯s work has been translated into Spanish, French, German, Polish, Danish, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as English. Other translations are announced, in these and other languages. As he approaches seventy, Ko Un shows no sign of slowing down or wanting to take things easy.