First Person Sorrowful

  • onOctober 29, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byKo Un
First Person Sorrowful
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taize and Lee Sang-Wha


I am sad. Enlightenment soon becomes a contradiction.
After the revolution early last century
the Soviet poets
decided they would only say ‘We’.
They decided they would only call themselves
They were enchanted. 
Their decision held
even when they could not go out into the streets,
even when they lingered indoors
due to heavy blizzards.
They took oaths saying ‘We . . .’
by themselves.
‘I’ had disappeared somewhere
deep in the looking-glass.
Mayakovsky, too, one bright sunny day, dashed out
shouting and shouting ‘We’.
He was a poet of the street.
‘I’ was not allowed anywhere.
‘I’ was wicked.
‘We . . .’
That alone had incantatory power.
Little by little, a low-pressure front settled in.
Summer flowers kept being trampled.
devoured revolution.
The air went out of every child’s ball.
Likewise the taut round atmosphere
of ‘We’
slowly went flat.
Someone boldly wrote
‘I am in love’,
but still, as long the custom,
it was read, ‘We are in love’.
Winter snows had not all melted.
Spring is always uncertain.
Late last century
the Soviet Union disappeared.
Countries dropped out of the Warsaw Pact
one after another.
Since then
poets have nothing but ‘I’.
Starting with ‘I’
they end the day with ‘I’.
There is nothing
except ‘I’.
God, too, is another name for ‘I’.
Today I bury
the ghosts of ‘We’ and ‘I’ in the endless waves of the Pacific Rim
Who will be born?
Who will be born,
neither ‘We’ nor ‘I’?
Each wave is one wave’s grave, another wave’s womb.


Note: An earlier version of this poem was included in Songs of Tomorrow.

Author's Profile

Ko Un’s poetry collections have been translated into twenty-seven languages, east and west. English editions of his books include Ten Thousand LivesManinbo: Peace & WarFirst Person SorrowfulHimalaya Poems; and What?: 108 Zen Poems. He has received several prestigious awards, such as the Golden Wreath Award at the 53rd Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, the America Award, Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, Bjørnson Order for Literature, and the Republic of Korea’s Eungwan Order of Cultural Merit. His poems have been featured in PO&SIEChicago ReviewWorld Literature TodayThe New YorkerAzalea, and Mānoa.