The Stubbornness of the Search: White Butterfly by Ko Un

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byLeonidas Aretakis
Vit fjäril (White Butterfly)
Tr. Choi Sun-Kyoung

In his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov declared the search for a certain insect his “single passion” since the age of seven. “I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.”

The quote shows how the constancy of his fascination for the winged creature contrasts with a life marked by movement: from Saint Petersburg to Cambridge, via Berlin and New York to his final home by Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

I am reminded of Nabokov’s obsession as I set eyes on the jagged illustration of a pale Lepidoptera in flight on the cover of Vit fjäril, released in Sweden this summer and elegantly translated by Choi Sun-Kyoung. For few bodies of poetic work are more shifting and “unpindownable,” yet stubbornly persistent, as Ko’s.

His eventful life and varied production has led his native South Koreans to refer to him in the plural. And as I flip open the first page, I wonder which of the Ko’s I am about to meet. The labor rights activist who saw the struggle as a flight of arrows (“Now, let’s quit the string, / throwing away like useless rags / all we have had over the years”1)? The Buddhist beatnik who was first born in 1125 as a mare by the Caspian Sea? Or the nationalist bard whose testimony sings forth the Korean spirit?

Advanced Swedish readers will have heard of Ko Un, but most are not familiar with his life and work, let alone the hardships of the Korean people. Therefore, the choice not to include a foreword surprised me.

Instead, the reader is swiftly led to a series of poems of an abstract natural setting: with flowers rather than azaleas, forests rather than birch tree groves, and birds instead of, as in a poem further on, “a flock of black-necked cranes.”

Both choices—the initial lack of specificity, and the omitting of a foreword to provide context—suggest a wish to relieve Ko Un of the historical luggage his name is burdened with, and to present him as a poet of the world. Perhaps this is thought to make his work more relatable to Swedish readers, most of whom have not seen war for centuries.

My speculation may be wrong. But in any case, as soon as I reach poems like “Arirang,” Ko Un’s remix of the familiar hymn, I realize what it is that has made his poetry speak to me across the continents: detailed events that on the surface seem the furthest away from my own experience. Here is how it starts:


One day in 1937 Korean men of Yonheju

were dumped onto a cattle train

on a Siberian railroad.2


This is, perhaps, peculiar scenery even for South Koreans. Ko transports us from the mountain pass on the Korean peninsula of the original song, to the craggy terrain surrounding Lake Baikal, and to eleven-year-old Ilyich Park, who plays a Korean folk song on his balalaika.


Is this song blood or what?

Arirang arirang arariyo.


Looking for Korean identity in the snow-clad Russian periphery not only expresses the bohemianism of Ko Un’s nationalism, but also reaches out across the continents to my own life: a migrant, both in ethnicity and class, I could be that frozen little boy—only with a bouzouki.

Such sudden outbursts of specificity are a clever way of introducing Ko’s abstract poetry, which makes for the main bulk of this selection, to an audience unfamiliar with Zen concepts.

This does not stop Vit fjäril from showing the diversity of Ko’s temperament, with topics like belonging, oppression, grief, and redemption all touched upon with Ko’s gentle hand. Which brings us back to the title poem:



One white butterfly,

ghost of wisdom, is flying

over the foolish sea.


All the books of this world are shut.3


Here, Ko Un expresses a central theme in the book, which is also a paradox of poetry itself: articulating that which resists articulation. Luckily, there are a few bug hunters out there stubborn enough to try. 


by Leonidas Aretakis
Culture Journalist



1. The Sound of My Waves, Trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Kim Young-Moo, (New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 1993), 39.
2. The Three Way Tavern, Trans. Clare You and Richard Silberg, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 9.
3. First Person Sorrowful, Trans. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha, (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2013), 73.

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.