Ko Un, the Shaman of Lyric Poets

  • onDecember 14, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byPark Hae-hyun


Park Hae-hyun: You published the poetry collection, Untitled, to commemorate the 55th anniversary of your debut. It is a collection of 539 untitled poems. What is the theme of this collection?

Ko Un: The first draft of the collection was written when I was staying in Venice. I sometimes wrote 10 poems per night. The poetic meteor shower rained night and day. The reason I didn’t give any titles to the poems was because I suspected that poetry, which I consider to be the language of freedom and liberation, was being trapped in the titles. I wanted the poems to pioneer their own destinies. I was almost in a trance as I wrote these poems. In Germany, someone referred to me as the “shaman of great lyric poets.” I feel as if the incantatory nature of my poems has been let slip through Untitled. I believe Untitled draws from my subconscious rather than my consciousness. The collection will be translated sometime next year.

Park: Despite being over 80, you have maintained your health and continue to attend poetry readings abroad. You’ve already held one reading in London in May and in Berlin in June. Do you plan to go abroad again in the near future?

Ko: I am immune to time zones. I am off to Macedonia in August to receive the Gold Wreath Award. I’ll be attending a poetry reading held by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and giving a lecture at the University of Illinois. If a forum that is being organized in Hawaii takes place, then I’ll do a reading and give a lecture there on my way back to Korea. I was invited to Italy in late October as well. I was also invited to the International Poets’ Festival in November, but I haven’t decided whether I’ll attend or not.

Park: It’s been a year since you’ve moved from Anseong in Gyeonggi-do Province to Suwon. How has the new environment affected you?

Ko: The 30 years I’ve spent in Anseong were very fulfilling. I had a prolific life as a writer there. It’s been less than a year since I moved to Suwon, so my life in Suwon is still in its infancy. Perhaps I’ll hit a growth spurt here. Untitled opened the first year of my Suwon Period. It seems my literary saga will meet its end here at the foot of Gwanggyosan Mountain. I recall the words of an American soldier who fought in the Korean War, “The hometown of a person is said to be the place of his birth, but the place where he dies is the true hometown.” Robert Frost was born on the West Coast, but is a New England poet. And you also have poets like Robinson Jeffers who was born in Pennsylvania but was known as a poet of the Big Sur in California.



Park: What are you working on these days?

Ko: I’m writing an epic poem called “Virgin,” which is a reworking of Simcheongjeon (The Story of Sim Cheong), a Korean classical novel. I plan to write a lyric poem about Sim Cheong coming down to earth from heaven, and then to the underwater world, back on land, and then back to heaven. It has the same structure as Dante’s portrayal of InfernoPurgatorio, and Paradiso. I want to depict the cycle of life and death through “Virgin.” Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism will also be incorporated into it. I think of Sim Cheong as a character who travels to many places but holds onto her virginity. She represents the purity of existences that does not succumb to the obstacles of her surroundings. Sim Cheong is my “idea” in the philosophical sense.

Park: Tensions are rising in East Asia these days due to the history disputes between Korea and Japan and the territorial disputes between Japan and China. You have once argued that the sea is where the three countries should look for common ground for the sake of peace in East Asia.

Ko: I once traveled to Japan and heard the fishermen there singing the reprise “senoya,” the same reprise you hear in the labor songs of Korean fishermen. Jang Bo-go, the King of the Sea who ruled over the maritime trade during the Silla Kingdom, is Korean, but he’s respected in China and Japan as well. Unlike land, the sea knows no borders. How could you draw a line on the undulating waves? The three East Asian countries must embrace the sea as a space of solidarity. In order to do that, we must reexamine history from the viewpoint of maritime history and then reconstruct our history.

Park: You resist being identified as Korean.

Ko: When the nation is under threat from outside forces, it is necessary to adopt such an identity. But our identities in general are not set in stone. When I return to my hometown, Gunsan, none of the old landscapes remain. But the landscapes of my childhood can be found in the American countryside. Then, that country village in America becomes my hometown. I respect the singularity of Korean culture, but I don’t like the confinement of a distinct culture. Physiologically speaking, culture is a volatile thing. To put it another way, it’s chemistry. The culture of a country is a mixed entity formed through contact with other cultures. Independence left undisturbed for too long turn into isolation.



Park: You are also involved in the Dictionary of the Korean Language that North and South Korean scholars are collaborating on. With the tension between North and South, how is the project progressing?

Ko: The Korean language that came after division is damaging the one before. The language of an individual is still alive in South Korea, but collective language overwhelms the individual in the North. On the other hand, the language of capitalism is violently unifying language into “market terms” in the South. We must make this North-South dictionary soon to stave off further division of our language. We have completed about 70 percent of the dictionary. The remaining 30 percent is the challenge we face now. I want to make a dictionary that comprehensively compiles the language used by ethnic Koreans who moved to Manchuria and Central Asia after the modern period. I want to find the newly formed words that appear in contemporary Korean literature and include them, too.

Park: You write the first drafts of your poems on the backs of used paper rather than a clean sheet. Why is that?

Ko: I think writing consumes too much paper. I’ve long since used the clean side of scrap paper to write on. I have yet to learn to type. When the day comes when my hand can no longer play the scribe, I will sit in front of a computer and founder.  


by Park Hae-hyun
Senior Staff Writer
The Chosun Ilbo