A Dawn Soliloquy

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byKo Un

I would like to cast off all reserve and start writing about my private life.

Recently I woke at dawn. I had come home very drunk the evening before, and the intense intoxication of the innocent drunkenness had passed but I felt very thirsty. I drank some water.

Suddenly I disliked asking the simple question, “Who am I?” So I began with a doubt whether perhaps someone once gave the name Ko Un to a Ko Un who never existed and so became the I who has now been living as a poet for nearly 60 years. Is it a false I? I felt a chill.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were a number of cases of false Ko Uns appearing in various parts of Korea. One acted as president of the jury at a regional poetry festival; one gained people’s attention by speaking in Sanskrit; one obtained money and valuables by saying that he was about to go on a journey overseas, which was something extremely rare at that time, but did not have enough for the fare. Worse still was that someone pretending to be Ko Un married a graduate from a women’s university in Seoul.

One of those false Ko Uns got arrested. I dropped the charges against him. After slapping him once on each cheek, I bought him a drink, encouraging him to go back to his own life. At that time I reflected that perhaps I might be the fake and that false Ko Un might be the true one.

Recalling those very bizarre incidents that happened to me in the past, I began to wonder whether I am really what I am and if not, whether, by turning an absent being into a present one, that fabricated I has become as solid as the true I.

In that case, how could one speak about the poetic world and multiple literary works by a Ko Un who has gone through the ups and downs that I have lived through?

Just as Jeong Ji-sang, the poet-genius of the 12th century, argued that his poems were made in collaboration between himself and his friend, a ghost, my poems too might have been produced by someone or some ones in my name, working day and night, all through the years.

I sometimes strive to confirm the reality of myself and the phenomena of my poems with a strict scrutiny. The more I do so, the more I shudder at the fact that I might be just a kind of outer cover, an outward appearance, an outer layer of skin, some kind of fabrication. Also, I cannot escape from the thought that the so-called modern self is nothing but an assumption of a vulnerable sense of selfhood.

Therefore, I cannot help but recognize the fact that no firm definition of my poetry is possible. Categorical imperatives are invalid.

In the theories of the origin of poetry claiming that the poems and songs of ancient times were always anonymous and collaborative works that were finally established as authentic texts after generations of revision, there have been temporal environments that could produce a poetics of such self-abandonment or self-denial.

Even today, among certain ethnic groups of the Altaic highlands there still remain enormously long narrative poems that require several days and nights to finish reciting. In the nomadic life in the Gobi Desert, too, there are narrative poems, which after a whole night awake reach their last line and finish their task with the light of the rising sun on the horizon. Perhaps I am descended from the blood of the anonymous authorship that has been integrated into this perpetual movement on the continent, so that I too have written narrative poems requiring several days to finish reading. The seven-volume Mount Baekdu and the 30-volume Ten Thousand Lives for example.

In the narrative world before me, the author was ultimately a plural “authors,” not only in the process of a work’s production but there were also multiple people, not just one individual, who appeared in the work. Furthermore, not only the author of the poems but the people who enjoyed the poems were all individual persons, extending far beyond a few individuals at the royal palace.

In fact, the Mahabaratha and the Ramayana of ancient India and the Book of Odes from ancient China’s Yellow River basin are not the work of one poet. The Greek myths and epics that were borrowed directly from the poems and myths of India were undoubtedly collective compositions. The view of the cultural historian who saw Homer as “Homer Alpha” is a wise one. Thus the tension between self and society is even prehistoric, before modern political poems or poems of engagement.



However, despite this socializing of the fundamental poetic self at the very root, the name of an individual poet is clearly shown in a poem written on a Sumerian clay tablet from 5,500 years ago, so that we remember the first identified author. That name is Kanoche Kadro.

The existing form of a poem that bears a poet’s name on this planet of life in our solar sytem, as if it were a cosmic incantation, has meaning in the history of civilization, sustaining the poetic world on Earth. Probably for that reason—despite the New Criticism theories that exclude the fictional relationship between writer and work, removing the poet from the poem and isolating the poem from the poet, as if concealing the name of the author in order to achieve a fair evaluation in some kind of contest—the poet always follows behind the poem and is linked by destiny with his own poems.

Here I refuse any kind of conclusion that poetry is enlarged to a whole or condensed to an individual. How, in modern physics, could the “Planck length,” the smallest unit, and the biggest universe become independent by each one’s physical concept only? These two ultimately have to be defined simultaneously, like the Buddhist Huayan concept “One is all, all is one.” The “one” or “all” as poetry’s raison d’être is reflected in the way language is expressed. I do not want Korean poetry to be isolated from the poetry of the world’s many regions by failing to transcend the destiny of being in its native language, and neither do I want it to be lost amidst the world’s poetic turbulence. 

Nonetheless, poetry cannot be bound in a rural self-satisfaction, claiming that the poem’s original language cannot be translated. A poem cannot be restricted to a life that blooms only in the land of the language where it was born. Such a poem would stay fixed as a tribal canon only after a lengthy period of time. The poems of Persia’s Hafiz are an example.

Poetry is not only earthly, it is also heavenly. In addition, poetry has a heretical dream that cannot be lulled by the original blessing of having been born in one place on earth. Poetry is fundamentally restless and rebellious. Therefore, the poetry of one language is mixed with another language, that of a region nearby or distant, then enters into that language and is reborn.

Therefore, poetry is instinctively pregnant with the arduous rebirth from its original language into another language. Some interior world turns toward the land’s end of some exterior world, just as the hero Gilgamesh, in his namesake poem written 5,000 years ago, has an incomplete life and is obliged to travel to the ends of the land. This is linked to the notion that a poem is something individual but also a whole.

Despite the distrust that the French poet Michel Deguy has expressed against the translation of poetry into other languages, the translation of the American poet Gary Snyder’s poems and the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s poems into other languages is a liberation of their own language as well as a realization of friendship between one language and another. A poem’s self yearns for the poem’s others. Every cultural act is a chemistry, a connection and a mixing of blood in mutual understanding.

Like the poems by my brother-poets, my poems too, having their originality in my mother tongue, have been reborn in dozens of other languages. This has made it possible for me to live in other places in the world. Being is being-in-the-world.

I am not only a poet on the Korean peninsula in East Asia but a pilgrim of poetry, venturing through the world’s time zones. I am an ancient South-West Asian Hotar and an Alima who roamed through ancient Egypt. I aim at the revolving and rotating freedom that makes no distinction between wilderness and altar. I am also a troubadour or a minnesinger in medieval Europe. I participate, day and night, in every place in the world where the soul or spirit of poetry continues to soar.

Poetry does not end with one place’s rhythm. My poetry will ultimately become the poetry of another. 


by Ko Un

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.