The Poet Who Speaks the Dialect of the Universe

  • onOctober 29, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byKo Un

Good poets are always loved before they’re comprehended and explained. The language used in poetry is letters and words, but it must always be something greater than that, because the movement of every living thing is not only ranked above words, but must be bigger and deeper than words. Ko Un’s poetry gives dimension to life by virtue of making readers feel before they understand. It is fruitless to try to label him when his works transcend reason and logic, meaning and form, and travel freely through time, space, and things.

Even though Ko Un was once a monk well versed in Buddhism, trying to find keys in Buddhism to unlock his world will get you nowhere. His experience with Buddhism does not explain why poetry, the true essence of Ko Un’s philosophy, led him back to the secular world. He was who he was when he sang of drifting at the peak of his life, and when he was a political prisoner fighting the paradoxes of reality. He was not a pessimist when he attempted suicide, and he was not a Marxist when he was imprisoned. In his 56-year history as a poet, he has never once relied on scriptures. The spirit of his poems does not allow the use of the tools of preexisting discourses, ideological systems, or epistemological devices. It would be a great shame indeed if the words in the hundreds of books that he has written were read through the lens of preconceived notions.

For Ko Un, being alive is itself more important than truth or ethics. He never fails to capture a moment when a life is not trapped in the cubicles of civilization. For Ko Un, scriptures are things that appear in unexpected moments—laughter he hears passing an alley, or the sound of raindrops on mulberry fields he’d heard when he was a child. These moments are neither right nor wrong. There are things in the world that must be accepted for the shape and color they are. Existence is always in harmony with the unseemly and other things we would rather not see. And so he does not refrain from marveling at the moments created by the movement of life.

There is, in fact, no moment that reveals everything in life. The magic of Ko Un’s language lies where awareness and ignorance operate in the same body. What glitters between a crying bird during a moment in its short life and a star 70 million light years away is not a real star, but mere starlight that is the ghost of the star. So the complete absorption of the man who perceives the gloriousness of life in the starlight always sings of the dramatic moment of light when new things appear. Just as the primitive body unadulterated by civilization and the purity of primitive sentiments shackled by the notions of civilization renew life and the world, Ko Un is like a puppy frolicking in a snowy field or a bear deep in hibernation.

So if shamanism isn’t dependent on scriptures but rather on the secret meaning of the earth, one could say that Ko Un’s spirit shares properties with the power of the shaman that cures ailing lives, and if we define language that does not adhere to preexisting systems and frames as incantations, then his poetry is incantatory. And if an artist hears the pain of the world that he belongs to and his body dwells and ails with it, then his language cannot help but belong to the “here and now” that breathes with the substances of his true reality.

To Ko Un—who has remained a part of nature that exists harmoniously with a world independent of customs and systems, who sings of its marvels but does not rely on any knowledge, and who has never once upheld the discourse of the sages from the history of human philosophy—the world is a garden of living things more important than civilization.

The most wondrous thing of all is that Ko Un has developed these sensitivities in the backdrop of the political turmoil of the Korean peninsula. He was born in a village where one’s identity and one’s village were one and the same; he fled the ruins of war and wandered; he returned to the world and fought on the side of those marginalized in the process of industrialization; and he bemoaned the tragedy of a long-divided nation. This life created a magnum opus that is Ten Thousand Lives, a poetry collection that portrays the lives of 4,001 individuals. Even through this vast number of individual parts, he shows that the world is still a single ocean which consists of a thousand drops of water.

What, then, is the philosophy this offers humanity? The Algerian writer Frantz Fanon saw the strength of a young Africa in the drumming of the Africans that echoed the resonance of the universe. He compared it to the sophisticated and harmonious Baroque music of the West and said neither is superior but each different and unique. But civilization had already clouded Fanon’s eyes. A modern perspective of standardization, centralization, and structuralization was operating without his realizing. Also, the 400 years of Armenians and Slavs endlessly slaying one another on the Balkan peninsula is an act of painting absence on absence, an act of masochism where the marginalized search for an answer in the margins. However, Ko Un knows no center or margins in such contexts. Perhaps Ko Un is a bearer of time that has yet to be discovered by humanity. Not one who travels from one battered land to another, but one who exists outside such realms. One who calls phantoms, ghosts, and the dead by name and summons them into our world, one who expels the modern values that fill our bodies. When he says that the prehistoric period, which exists not inside but outside civilization, is full of not knowing, it also means it is full of wonder.

How does Ko Un’s language contribute to humanity as a human collective? Animals go extinct when their last connection to nature is severed. The same is true of the human spirit. Ko Un sings of the loneliness a life feels as it walks away from nature, much in the same way a baby feels lonely when it is separated from its mother. Just as UNESCO is introducing horses back into the wild now that the wild horses which used to gallop through the Eurasian plains are in danger of extinction, Ko Un is operating a poetic project to restore our primitive humanity by sending the time of man outside the dogma of civilization—for the sake of the sublime human existence from before the analysis of civilization intervened. 



by Kim Hyeong Soo

Poet and Literary Critic