Saturday, October 03, 2009

ko un

Poet Ko Un Preaches Songs for Tomorrow

By Choi Yearn-hong
Korea Times Contributing Writer

Ko Un is one of the most famous Korean poets. No! He is the most famous Korean poet, and has been a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature over the past several years. He has written 135 books in various genres ― fiction, essay, translation, drama and poetry. He is best known for his poetry.

His poems from 1960 to 2002 are arranged in this collection in chronological order, and can be categorized in two groups: romantic poetry and poems of resistance against the authoritarian rule of the 1970s to `80s. His political poems after the 1980s push for national reunification. Ko was imprisoned four times for his political activities against the authoritarian government.

His poems are basically the products of his life. His early poems, written in the 1960s, are characterized by nihilistic romanticism. But the political situation in Korea in the 1970s molded him into an activist whose pen was mightier than the sword. When President Park Chung-hee declared the Yushin Reform in 1972, Ko responded by creating the Council of Writers for Practical Freedom and becoming a spokesman for the National Association for the Recovery of Democracy. He later became vice president of the Korean Coalition for Human Rights. President Park was assassinated by his intelligence head in 1979.

Ko was the poet of the 1970s. His political poems were adapted into popular songs in Korea and helped spark university students to revolt against the authoritarian regime under President Chun Doo-hwan in 1987. In other words, his poems were an agitating force in the young people's movement for democracy.

After his former jail mate Kim Dae-jung was elected president, Ko came to be the de facto poet laureate of the country. He joined Kim Dae-jung on his trip to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on June 15, 2000. His frequent trips to North Korea, a closed nation for most, made him famous and notorious among Koreans. Internationally, he became a short-list candidate for a Nobel Prize.

Ko characterizes his poetry as containing elements of both music and history. He wrote in the preface of this book:

"My poetry is flow. That flow will at times produce rhythms as it strikes against the riverbanks or frolics, speckled by light and shade. Thus my poetry is resonance. In an interview with the New York Times in the late 1980s, I said that `poetry is the music of history,' stressing the `music' no less than the "history."

All poets are surrounded by their own times and places. Life experiences are all historical. Ko's surroundings were marked by turbulence ― Japanese colonial rule, liberation, the Korean War, resistance to the authoritarian governments, and finally, the achievement of democracy.

The political history of his time dictated for him to be a dissident poet and he became as such only after a long struggle. His poetic sensitivity resonated with the social and political events. And though his lines were written in resistance, they are never short on the imagination and metaphors that once filled his romantic nihilism.

I was not able to return to Korea after my advanced study in the United States due to my own political writings against the Korean government, but I could imagine the powerful impact of his poem, Arrows, on Korean college students in the 1970s. In it, he wrote:

Body and soul, let's all go

Transformed into arrows!

Piercing the air

Body and soul, let's go

With no turning back


Rotten with the pain of striking home

Never to return.

One last breath! Now, let's leave the bowstrings,

Throwing away like rags

Everything we've had for decades

Everything we've enjoyed for decades

Everything we've piled up for decades


All, the whole thing.

Body and soul, let's go

Transformed into arrows!

The air is shouting! Piercing the air

Body and soul, let's go!

In dark daylight, the target rushes towards us.

Finally, as the target topples in a shower of blood

Let's all, just once, as arrows


Never to return! Never to return!

Hail, arrows, our nation's arrows!

Hail, our nation's warriors! Spirits!

But his enormous silence regarding the Kim Dae-jung government's Sunshine Policy, the post-Kim era, and North Korea's nuclear testing and constant threats to the South has prompted questions among Koreans. Where are the poet's arrows now? Is there no target for the arrows? Is his target now the Nobel Prize?

He was once a poet of resistance to the authoritarian regime, but he is now a poet of consonance. Most probably, he was somehow involved with Kim Dae-jung's team and his Sunshine Policy. But poets should be distant from power. This is a lesson I can learn from Ko Un.