Time, Hope, Illusions, Peace: Korean Poet Ko Un

Translator’s Note

Ko Un
1998, reading a poem at Chon-Ji (Heaven Lake),
Mount Paektu, North Korea.

The poems translated here are selected from Ko Un’s most recent collections. They refer to themes — time, hope, illusions, peace — that often recur in his recent writing, whether verse or prose, in the allusive style he mainly favors. Ko Un has so far published over 150 volumes, including almost every imaginable kind of poetry, works of fiction, autobiography, dramas, travel writing, essays, as well as translations from the classical Chinese. The “Maninbo” project, which he recently completed, comprises over 4,000 poems in thirty volumes, short narratives about a vast multitude of individuals. Readers looking at the selected poems translated in Songs for Tomorrow (Green Integer Press, 2008) will realize what an enormously varied work Ko Un has produced, in terms of theme, style, length… and while the poet is approaching his eightieth year, his work remains as fresh and as unpredictable as ever.

Koreans are often puzzled by the fame Ko Un enjoys outside of his country. They wonder how he can communicate so effectively when he speaks no foreign languages. One reason, certainly, has to do with translation. His work cries out to be translated. Today, his translations have been published in more than thirty volumes in at least fifteen languages, and more are forthcoming. But above all, Ko Un has been invited to read in numerous countries and his fame as a reader now precedes him. He reads his work with an intensity that owes nothing to elocution and everything to passion.

Often he begins in a low growl and as the poem progresses, his voice will rise to a shout or a cry. But for other poems, the quiet tone continues to the end. Audiences are enthralled. In addition, his life story enthralls: tormented by the horrors of war, he became a Buddhist monk; leaving the monastic life, he became deeply nihilistic and self-destructive before the challenges of Korea’s social and political turmoils led him to a new life as leading spokesman in the struggle against dictatorship. Imprisoned from 1980 till 1982, he returned to a completely new start, revised all his earlier work, married, moved away from Seoul and was soon publishing a stream of writings, several volumes every year.

Ko Un’s originality is disconcerting, his writings — especially in prose — are sometimes immensely difficult to translate. It is, I think, another sign of his greatness that he is still now incapable of saying the same thing twice. I believe the same can be said of few poets when they are nearly eighty.

— Brother Anthony of Taizé

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