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Ko Un (b. 1933) also: Ko Eun; Buddhist name: Il Cho


Prolific Korean writer, an advocate of civil rights and the reunification of Korea, frequently mentioned as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. A voice of the older generation, that experienced the Korean War and the political turmoil in the country during the following decades, Ko Un's career has spanned over five decades. His poetic work has universal, timeless quality, and present in the writer's quest to comprehend life, human existence, death, truth, and justice. Ko Un has produced well over 140 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, and drama.

Where's the mountain I 've just come down?
Where am I?

('Walking Down a Mountain', in Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems, 1997)

Ko Un was born into a farming family in a small village in North Cholla Province. The region was under Japanese occupation at that time. Nowadays the village where he grew up, is a part of the port city of Gunsan. Ko Un himself has claimed to have been born, firstly, as a mare in 1125 BCE, and then as a peddler, a firewood collector, and an innkeeper.

At an early age, Ku Un already read classical Chinese texts, and in 1945, inspired by the leper-poet Han Ha-Un, he began to write poems. His grandfather taught him Korean history and language, subjects which the Japanese suppressed. By the time of the liberation, Ko Un was virtually the only child in the village, who was accustomed to writing and reading Korean.

Prospects for reunification of Korea  after WW II were destroyed by the Korean war 1950-53. Ko Un's studies at Gunsan Middle School were interrupted. He volunteered for the People's Army, but was rejected because he was underweight. However, forced to cart away corpses, he saw the atrocities of the war. Before the end of the war, after a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt, which led to a permanent damage in one ear, he became in 1952 a Buddhist monk of the Zen sect. He was given the name Il Cho.

Pian Kamsang, Ko Un's first collection of poems, was published in 1960. His first novel, Pian Aeng, appreared in 1961. After returning to secular life, Ko Un worked for a period as a teacher at a charity school on Cheju Island. During a particularly difficult period in his life in 1970, Ko Un attempted suicide by taking poison.

Ko Un had started as a Modernist, but in the 1970s and 1980s, in an atmosphere of increasing suppression of civil liberties, political concerns entered heavily into Ko Un's work. One of his most famous poems from this period is 'Arrows', in which he wrote: "Transformed into arrows / let's all go, body and soul! / Piercing the air / let's go, body and soul, / with no way of return". (trans. by Brother Anthony) Ko Un was active in the Association of Writers for Practical Freedom, the National Association for Recovery of Democracy, and the Association of National Unity. An outspoken dissident and opponent of the dictatorial rule of President Park Chung-Hee, his passport was withdrawn, he was blacklisted, jailed several times and also tortured. During this period his hearing was again seriously damaged due to beatings. In 1980, after Park Chung-Hee's assassination, he was arrested on charges of treason.

"This military prison special cell / is a photographer's darkroom. / Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool. / One day it was a coffin holding a corpse. / One day it was altogether the sea. / A wonderful thing! / A few people survive here." (in 'New Year's Full Moon', tr.  Brother Anthony) While in prison, Ko Un decided to compose a poem of every person he had ever met in his life, as well as historical figures he admired. This on-going work was published in Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives). By 2010, he had completed 30 volumes.

In 1983, Ko Un married Lee Sang-Wha, a professor of English Literature at Choong-Ang University. They had one daughter. Ko Un settled in Ansong, south of Seoul, and entered into a prolific period of literary productivity. He began to work on a seven volume epic, entitled Baekdu-san (1987-94), which dealt the history of Korean nation. Other works include Chokuk ui Byol (1984), Nei Nundongja (1988), Neil ui Norae (1992), Naega Mahndean Samak (1992), Gudeul ui Balpahn (1992), Chongsun Arirang (1995), and Sumi-san (1999).

"Poetry will never die," Ko Un has said. "Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in the distant future, poetry and poets will be united as in the transmigration of souls described in Buddhism." Ko Un's prose works include Hwao-kyong (1991, Little Pilgrim), based on the Garland Sutra, and the serial Son, about early Zen masters. He has also published biographies on such poets as Han Yong-un and Yi Sang. The first part of Ko Un's autobiography appeared in 1986. 

A new democratic constitution was established in 1987, and from the early 1990s, Ko Un was allowed to travel abroad. Ko Un visited in 1992 India – the setting of his novel Little Pilgrim, about Sudhana's spiritual journey through India toward self-discovery – and in 1997 he traveled in the United States and the Himalayas. He served as Chairman of the Association of Korean Arts in 1989-90. From 1992 to 1994 he was President of the Association of Writers for National Literature, and in 1994 he was appointed Resident Professor at the Graduate School of Kyonggi University in Seoul. In 1999, Ko Un taught modern Korean poetry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hwaom-kyong was written for Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. When he was still a monk, Ko Un began reading Avatamsaka (Garland) Sutra at the suggestion of a senior monk, who wanted him to compose a long epic poem of Sudhana's wanderings. However, at that time he had no interest in writing poetry, but after his own wanderings Ko Un began publishing in 1969 regular installments of a tale in the Dok-so newspaper.  This text, which contained the first thirty chapters of  The Little Pilgrim, was published in book form in 1974. It took seventeen years to finish the work. "In the course of writing, I reflected my own states of mind in this work", Ko Un has said. "This work may constitute the best expression of my own life's progress."

In the 1990s, a dramatic change took place in the political and cultural life of Korea. The film as art and entertainment began to flourish. Kang Je-Gyu's Shiri (1999) and Park Chan-wook's Joint Security Area (2000) signalled a new attitude toward the demonized North Korea. Ko Un's former jail mate, Kim Dae-jung, was elected president in 1997; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. In 1998 Ko Un visited the reclusive communist state as a member of a delegation. He also accompanied Kim Dae-jung in 2000 on his visit to Pyongyang. On this historic occasion, Ko Un read the poem 'At the Taedong River', expressing his longing for peaceful reunification of the two countries. Ko Un's collection of poems, entitled South and North (2000), was inspired by the journey. Since then, he has made several trips there as President of Compilation Committee for the Korea Grand Dictionary.

Ko Un's first volume of poems translated into English, The Sound of My Waves, came out in 1992. Beyond Self, with the foreword by Allen Ginsberg, was published in 1997. They had met in Seoul in 1989 at a poetry reading.  "I can't account for them", Ginsberg said of the Zen mini-poems, "only half understand their implications and am attracted by the nubbin of poetry they present. " Though Ko Un has more than 140 books to his name, it was not until 2011 when he published his first collection of love poems. This work was dedicated to his wife, professor Lee, whom he has called his goddess and savior.

Ko Un's numerous awards include the Korean Literature Prize in 1974 and 1987, the Manhae Literary Prize (1989), the Chuang Cultural Prize (1991), the Daesan Literary Prize (1994), Danjae Prize (2004), and the Korean Academy of Arts Award  (2008). He received in 1998 the Manhae Grand Prize and next year the Manhae Buddhist Literature Prize. In 2011 he was chosen as the winner of The America Awards for a Lifetime Contribution to International Writing by the Contemporary Arts Educational Project, Inc (USA).

For further reading: South Korean Poets of Resistance by Won Ko (1993);  'From Korean History to Korean Poetry: Ko Un and Ku Sang' by Brother Anthony, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71 (1997); Voices in Diversity: Poets from Postwar Korea, ed. by Won Ko (2001); 'Poet of Wonders' by Robert Hass, in New York Review of Books, 3 November (2005); Life and Poems of Three Koreans: Kim Chi-Ha, Ko Un, Yang Song-Oo by Harold Hakwon Sunoo (2005); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, Volume 2, ed. by Michael Sollars, Arbolina Llamas Jennings (2008)  - For further information A Scandinavian View of Ko Un's Poetry  

Selected works in English translation: (NOTE: Selected bibliography is under work!)

  • The Sound of My Waves: Selected poems by Ko Un, 1991 (tr.  Brother Anthony and Young-Moo Kim)
  • Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems, 1997 (foreword by Allen Ginsberg, translated by  Brother Anthony of Taizé and Young-Moo Kim; rev. ed., What? 108 Zen Poems, 2008)
  • Traveler Maps: Poems=Yojido, 2004 (translated by David R. McCann)
  • Ten Thousand Lives, 2005 (tr.  Brother Anthony of Taize, Young-Moo Kim)
  • Little Pilgrim: A Novel, 2005 (tr.  An Sonjae, Young-Moo Kim)
  • Abiding Places: Korea South & North, 2006 (translated by Sunny Jung and Hillel Schwartz)
  • Flowers of a Moment, 2006 (tr.  Brother Anthony Of Taizé, Young-moo Kim, Gary Gach)
  • The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems, 2006 (tr. Clare You, Richard Silberg, foreword by Gary Snyder)
  • Songs for Tomorrow: Poems 1960-2002, 2009
  • Himalaya Poems, 2010 (tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé & Lee Sang-Wha)  

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