Every word a poem, unbound
Ko Un is Korea’s world famous poet and certainly its most prolific with well over 100 books to his name. His magnum opus is Maninbo, translated literally as Ten Thousand Lives — 10 000 in this case being a metaphor for “very many” in Korean. It was begun in prison (he has been thrown in jail many times, once sentenced to life) when he vowed to describe every person he had ever met. It is now 4 001 poems long and mentions 5 600 people.
A dapper dresser, he is a spry octogenarian with an expressive face and seemingly ageless energy. It is hard not to smile in his company.
Ko Un often speaks in poetic terms, further complicated in translation. Sometimes I have had to reach for the meaning. The interview was conducted through a translator — his wife Lee Sang-Wha. Some slippage has likely occurred.
You grew up under Japanese imperial rule. I cannot imagine being forbidden to speak one’s language and having one’s name changed.
I haven’t taken those facts of my life as a yoke or harness. However, all those memories still exist, strongly. It was a very shocking fact when I realised I should use a language outside my house [that was not] the language that I learnt at my mother’s breast. It was the same with our written language. It was also a shocking fact when I found out that my name should be changed ... Every day we were forced to bow to the emperor of Japan. We could only whisper our own language among our families.
And then, when Korea was liberated in 1945, I realised that liberation was also the liberation of my mother tongue. I could restore my old name, my Korean name, and also the forbidden Korean language. Those facts influenced me as a poet. I am still very conscious of that and even take it as my fate to use my mother tongue. [So] every word of my mother tongue is itself of a poem or poetry before it is used in my poems. My heart begins beating when I move forward in my own language.
You opposed the dictatorship of Park Chung-Hee [who ruled from 1963 to 1972]. Now his daughter is Korea’s first democratically elected female president. How does the poet respond in a democratic space?
I think no era or age is guaranteed happiness. In some respect, happiness is sleep; the opposite of happiness, unhappiness, makes people wake up from sleep.
And what can poetry do under a regime such as North Korea?
I've been to North Korea several times. In 2000, I went as part our president’s retinue to the summit in Pyongyang. I met Kim Jong-Il at the state banquet and we drank wine together. I also read my improvised poetry. On that trip, I met some North Korean poets.
Another time, I organised a meeting of poets [from] north and south. However, I don’t know much about what they are writing. I know that they are not allowed to say anything about the system of the country in which they are living. For me the poets in North Korea seem very naive [like] naive religious people, because they shed tears not artificially, but truly from within, when they praise Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il-Sung. The politics in North Korea is the future for them.
Has European poetry influenced your work?
It is unfortunate I haven’t had anybody influencing me in terms of writing poems. At one time I loved [Charles] Baudelaire. I also love Omar Khayyám, Gilgamesh, Ramayana, but although I love all those poets from the earliest parts of the world, I don’t think I have been influenced by them, that is my unhappiness. I started to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in prison.
I met all those great poets when I already had made my own house, so it was too late for me to accept them as the main pillar of my house, but I was very happy to receive them as guests. Korean modern poetry has a history of only 100 years.
Of which you are 80.
[Laughing] That is why in my poems there is the beginning of modern Korean poetry, but also the adolescence and the youth after the child has grown up. Also, I think I have the blood of ancient people over immeasurable time flowing in my body.
You lived for a decade as a Buddhist monk. How did that influence your poetry? Did it help you in prison?
When I was a baby I grew up on my mother’s breast milk. My tenure as a Buddhist monk was another sort of milk for me. I ate Buddhism. It has become a part of my bone, flesh and blood. I don’t know how I could have gone on living if I hadn’t met Buddhism.
At the time I went into the mountains [a Korean phrase for becoming a monk] it was after the Korean War in which millions of people had died. Even on my body, I had the smell of death. I actually tried to commit suicide several times.
When I learned how to negate language and written language as a monk, and I concentrated on meditation, I could feel I changed and became another self of mine.
Ko Un appears at the Dancing in Other Words international poetry festival on May 10 and 11 at the Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. Website: spier.co.za.