Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ko Un: Poet, Monk, Dissident

Ko Un's life story is remarkable.  He grew up in a poor, rural region of South Korea.  He has been imprisoned four times for his political views, in particular for his opposition to the military government of Park Chun-hee in the 1970's.  Ko also spent ten years as Buddhist monk (1953-63); he has written over one hundred books--of poetry, fiction, and memoir, of which only a fraction are available in English.  His name often comes up in discussions of the Nobel Prize, and yet few in the West are familiar with his work.  I was fortunate enough  to come upon Clare You's translation of Ko's selected poems, The Three Way Tavern, published by the University of California.  It's a lovely book, with a generous overview of Ko's work and a fine introduction to his life and aesthetic by Clare You.  Here is You's comment on Ko's character (a man after my own heart): "A man of wantonness and spiritual yearning, with outbursts of creative energy, and irrepressible distaste for oppressors, and insatiable appetite for the unknown, a wry sense of humor--this seems to describe the temperament of Ko Un."

 Ever since reading Kenneth Rexroth's versions of Tu Fu while in college, I have sought out a certain kind of East Asian writer--one who is able to turn deceptively simple observations of the physical world into  insights that uncover subtleties of human experience (of course, it isn't only East Asian writers who do this). Since I have no Asian languages, I rely on gifted translators to allow me, at most, an intimation of the world of these great poets--who can say what Tu Fu's intentions were when he wrote: "Screech owls moan in the yellowing/Mulberry trees. Field mice scurry,/Preparing their holes for the winter./Midnight, we cross an old battlefield,/The moonlight shines cold on white bones."  Reading this poem for the first time in 1968, I had no doubt of what Tu Fu was referring to--the "white bones" made his subject clear.  And yet I now understand that when we read poetry in translation, we are placing our trust in another writer in just the way, as children, we trusted our friends to catch us as we played "buck-buck."  In his wonderful book on Rilke, William Gass demonstrates in memorable fashion the problems of translating a poet whose world is rather familiar to us--but what of the lost worlds of Tu Fu or Ko Un?

With Ko Un the problem appears insurmountable: what do I know of Korea?  What did it feel like to grow up poor in Gunsan in the 1930's?  To attempt suicide over the depredations of the Korean War? To live as a monk?  All of this is beyond me, and what is left are the shards of a life, memorably preserved in simple verses.

Morning Rooster

At the rooster's second crow, she is thinking more
about her son who left home two years ago
than about her husband who died last year.
Because he's buried
on the hill out back, he didn't leave home forever.
When the rooster crowed at dawn,
Changok was gone, pounding a nail
into his mother's heart.
Hoping against hope he'd return at daybreak,
Mother was up, didn't even have a sip of cold water, just thought of him.
She folded the blankets on the chilly floor of her room,
swept the garden,
swept the first snow fallen outside the gate,
and straightened her back on the thought of her son.

The University of California Press maintains and regularly expands an exceptional poetry list.

George Ovitt (1/27)