For his keen sensitivity, outstanding powers of intuition, breadth and depth of imagination, and skillful use of language—as well as the maturity of his understanding of life—Ko Un is widely acknowledged to be Korea’s most prolific and revered poet. His is an immense literary achievement of 155 books, out of which almost 70 are poetry collections. He recently published Untitled Poems, a collection of 607 poems covering 1,013 pages.
Ko Un was born in 1933 in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do Province, South Korea. He made his official debut as a poet in 1958 when he was living as a Buddhist monk. In the 1960s he practiced Seon meditation and traveled throughout the country.
After returning to the secular world in 1962, he dedicated himself to nihilism full of desperation and alcohol, producing many striking works. He was awakened to the social reality of his country by the self-immolation of a poor laborer in 1970 and became engaged in political and social issues, opposing the military regime and joining the struggle for human rights and the labor movement.
For more than a decade, Ko Un was, many times and for long periods, persecuted by the Korean CIA, with arrests, house arrests, detentions, tortures, and imprisonments. In 1980 he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but thanks to international efforts for his release he was set free with a general pardon in 1982, after serving two and a half years’ of solitary confinement.
After getting married at the age of 50, a period of productivity unparalleled in the history of Korean literature began, which one critic has called an “explosion of poetry.” The seven-volume epic Mount Baekdu, a 30-volume poetry project Ten Thousand Lives with over 4,000 poems, a five-volume autobiography, and numerous books of poems, essays, and novels came pouring out. “He writes poetry as he breathes,” a literary critic once said. Literary critics often call him the “Ko Uns” instead of Ko Un because of his incredible volcano of productivity.
Ko Un was invited as a visiting research scholar at the Yenching Institute at Harvard University and at UC Berkeley, and also, more recently, at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy with the title of Honorary Fellow.
He has received some 20 prestigious literary awards and honors at home and abroad, and approximately 50 volumes of his work have been translated into more than 25 foreign languages. Ko Un is currently President of the Compilation Committee of the Grand Inter-Korean Dictionary.