Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry
Korea’s most prolific and revered living poet, Ko Un has led a life as impressive as his literary output: over 120 titles as a poet, essayist, novelist, editor, and literary critic.
Born during the Japanese occupation of Korea, when reading and writing his native tongue were outlawed, he had mastered the Chinese literary classics by the age of eight. During the Korean War, he survived the deaths of family, neighbors and his first love. Still in his teens, he was forced to work as a gravedigger, which included the gruesome task of carrying the corpses on his back up the hill to the graveyard.
He ran away and eventually joined a Buddhist monastery and became a monk. A decade later, he left monastic life and founded a charity school. In the 1970s he became a political activist, which led to his imprisonment in 1980. He spent many years as a political prisoner. It was while in an unlit cell that he began envisioning the massive Ten Thousand Lives, a sequence of poems with the intended goal of portraying every person he has ever met. Considered his masterpiece, fifteen volumes have been published so far.
But listening to him read with such energy and intensity at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival, we hear no trace of bitterness. Despite the hardships he has endured, Ko Un’s poems are not full of lamentation or complaint, and they do not ask for retribution. Instead, they remind us it is foolish to ask for any more time than the time we have on earth, and point us, again and again, to the here and now.
Translations of Ko Un’s works in English include the poetry volumes Flowers of a Moment, The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems, Ten Thousand Lives, What?: 108 Korean Zen Poems, and The Sound of My Waves: Selected Poems by Ko Un.
Next week, Poetry Fridays will be on holiday hiatus. Join us in the weeks ahead for readings by Linda Hogan, Brian Turner, and others.