On a hazy autumn day in Seoul in October 2009, Cordite editor David Prater spent an all-too-brief hour with Ko Un, one of Korea's best known poets and the author of a true twentieth century epic, Maninbo [Ten Thousand Lives]. Ko Un's chief English translator An Sonjae acted as interpreter during the conversation, which ranged across various topics including silence, epic poetry and democracy in the twenty-first century.
DP: Ko Un, first of all thank you very much for agreeing to meet me today, it's a great honour for me to meet you in person. Obviously the your introduction to Songs for Tomorrow: Poems 1960-2002, (LA: Green Integer, 2008) you talk about the idea of the 'Zero' as being very prevalent at that time in Korea. For people in Australia who might not know much about Korea and what was happening then, can you tell me something about why that idea was so prevalent and why you might later have rejected it?of your life and works are but I'd like to ask you about the period of your life when you first started to write poetry in the 1950s. In
Ko Un: At that time it was just after the Korean war, everything was destroyed. I was a survivor surrounded by ruins and emptiness, and an orphan. So therefore it's not just my poetry or myself personally or something, it's that the whole world seemed to be nothing but zero, a mound of ash. So my poetry begins in the midst of this zero, and me being this naked survivor, so to speak. And when you come to the present time, I can't tell with this zero whether I've moved in a plus or a minus direction but in the present too it's always a matter of starting again, starting again from a zero, again from nothing, to always start again from that, as it were, ground zero.
DP: You spent a decade as a Buddhist monk – is that a Son or Zen Buddhist concept?
Ko Un: Buddhism for me is like food I ate for ten years, for a long time as a monk, and the food you eat goes to your bones and stays there, so in that sense it's inside me, it's not that I wouldn't be identified by Buddhism but it's there, a part of me … Buddhism has this emptiness and in opposition to it the 'is-ness', but the zero concept – there's nature, there's the whole existence of the universe but that itself for me is a part of the zero.
DP: In an interview with Patricia Donegan for Kyoto Journal in 2005 you described the Korean people as 'a poetic people' – not just in terms of actual poetry but in the way that they live their lives. In your childhood, what was people's attitude to poetry? Was being a poet seen as a viable or respectable occupation, or was it a punishment or curse?
Ko Un: I had left home and I was lost. This is a process of loss, to have left home is to have lost home. Looking back now, the people there – my mother, father, grandparents, uncles – none of them were literary people but the way they spoke, the way they lived, their speech and everything was full of poetry, making them in a sense better poets than I am now. But looking back at that as a lost reality, it's no longer there and you can't go back. So at present I have this sense of having lost something, of having been deprived of something, it's no longer there, due to the process of modernisation.
DP: On that topic, of course, a big factor in the early twentieth century for Korea was the Japanese occupation. You write about having to learn Japanese forms and Japanese stories, having to speak in Japanese, given a Japanese name (Dakkabayai Doraske). You write that these Japanese influences were 'like splinters embedded deep within me'. Do you think it's possible for these splinters to be removed, or negated?
Ko Un: Of course, originally, a lot of what's Japan came from Korea, it was one reality and one culture. But then they changed, over a process of time they changed and then in recent times they became more and more aggressive, as it were, more outreaching, taking over and attacking. And so when I was born and grew up it was under Japanese rule and I had to take a Japanese name and learn Japanese, so in that sense there is within me that wound of having undergone the Japanese colonialism. But at the same time even in that period I had the chance of learning to write in Hangul, so that when in 1945 liberation came, I was virtually the only child, the only person of my age who was accustomed to writing and reading in Korean, so in that sense I was powerfully less influenced than most of the people who grew up in that time. I was taught in secret, in the village, by my neighbours and relatives, and could mature myself in writing in Korean.
DP: You've described the manner in which you lost your hearing in the early 1950s. Speaking as someone who also experienced hearing loss as a younger person, this is something that's very interesting for me, and it seems that it's a very important aspect of your work. Despite the loss of hearing your poetry emphasises sound and focusses on words that have sounds, the sounds of rivers and waves, for example. To what extent is hearing and sound still a part of your experience of the world? To put it another way, in the attempt to block out the sound of the experiences around you, is it true that you turned inevitably inwards? Was this how you approached your writing from that time onwards?
Ko Un: [offering a handshake] I'm glad to meet somebody else who's had hearing loss. I once met somebody who originally couldn't hear at all and developed hearing later. We reached the conclusion that you have to come to accept this world as a world of noise and sounds. For the person who hears and then no longer can hear, then the sounds heard remain forever inside that person. Such a memory in some cases might grow weaker and fade but in other cases might grow and increase. So that's right, I have these memories of sounds, of wind and sea more strongly than other poets would have – it's the memory. Because on one side there's no hearing, on the other side it's only an artificial eardrum, so if you take that away I am completely left in silence.
DP: It seems to me that the noises of the world are very important in your poetry but that there is a deep, I guess profound silence in many of your poems. Can you perhaps put into words what that silence is, how it feels?
Ko Un: [pause] Silence is not the sort of trash of words and silence is not the tomb of words. I dream of a reconciliation between silence and words; they are not distinct and they are not in conflict. The finest poetry is silence.
Ko Un: Image by David Prater
DP: Moving onto another topic, Brother Anthony describes how you travelled by boat to Cheju-do, and it reminded me a little of the story of the Dutch sailor Hamel being marooned there, or even of Gulliver landing on Lilliput. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience of living on Cheju? Would you say it is a different place from mainland Korea?
Ko Un: I had a dream that Brother Anthony and I would visit various islands around Korea once, but we're all a bit busy and old now! Going to Cheju-do, some people go to an island on a kind of quest but actually the real reason I headed to Cheju-do was that I intended to kill myself by jumping into the sea before I got there, so I wasn't really setting out to get to Cheju-do.
DP: Okay, okay.
Ko Un: When I went I didn't realise, but arriving in Cheju-do I realised that it's not just beautiful nature but that in 1947-48 there were these terrible massacres by the rightists in Jeju-do, so arriving there I discovered these great deep wounds left by the experience of history. So I feel that during the three years I spent in Cheju-do, I was the Lilliputian, the small guy. I am very sad, because in those days there was still a sense of an ancient tradition surviving, its own language and culture, but now it's all been developed, transformed, it's gone.
DP: I visited Cheju last month and that was my experience of it also. That there was lots of resorts, hotels. It still seemed to me that there were ‘real' Cheju people living there but that perhaps they are being passed over by history …
Ko Un: Yes, like Miami …
DP: Turning now to Maninbo [Ten Thousand Lives], your recently-completed master work, which I'm very interested in reading once the final volumes have been translated into English. Why 10,000? Does that number have a special significance for you or for Koreans?
Ko Un: It's not arithmetic, it's like in The Arabian Nights where the 'thousand and one' means 'lots', or 'many'. In Korean and Chinese, again, it's a way of expressing a large number, a lot of people – more than a few.
DP: Would you describe Maninbo as an 'epic'? Is it one poem or is it ten thousand poems?
Ko Un: It's like a flock of butterflies …
DP: Wonderful! Would you say that Maninbo has a style or form that is different from your other books?
Ko Un: Each poem is different, each poem is about a different person, so in each poem I have to find the style or form that's suitable for what I want to say about that person, so it's multiple in style and form. I'm not interested in form – the subject makes the form.
DP: Right. You've described how you invented for yourself a fictional sister, early on in your life. I'm very interested in why that fiction was created – for instance, why a sister and not a brother? Who or what did she symbolise?
Ko Un: That was a sort of aspiration, a longing somehow for a an aspect of my own soul, the female aspect. And so instead of writing poems lamenting the absence of a sister, I created a sister to fulfill that longing. That sort of dream ideal has turned into reality now that I have a wife and daughter [laughs].
DP: In terms of that character, or that sister, you've described how Maninbo is an attempt to write about every single person in your life. The people whom you've written about in Maninbo, could they be seen as being similar to that sister character, i.e. not being a particular person but a type of person?
Ko Un: I never remember the poems I've written so I can't answer because I don't know. I never memorise anything …
DP: Okay, all right. Is there anyone you couldn't write about? Anyone who is not in that book?
Ko Un: There's nobody excluded but now that I've finished Maninbo I keep realising that I didn't write about this person or that person – and the most obvious person is King Sejong [who actually lived in the 15th century - note] … so I have an urgent task, I feel I must really write about King Sejong because he didn't get a mention in Maninbo.
DP: When did you know that you had finished the book?
Ko Un: My promise was that I would write thirty volumes. I'm not saying that I'll never write any more Maninbo poems – that could happen. But at the moment the promise of the thirty volumes is fulfilled. So long as there is life in my hand I can go on writing.
DP: Turning to a very different issue, you've spent a lot of time and energy as an activist, both in the political and cultural senses. And during your life you've witnessed Korea's transformation from dictatorship to democracy. What does democracy mean to you? Do you think that democracy has been successful in Korea, and if not how could it be improved?
Ko Un: Democracy isn't the greatest human happiness, but it's the ability, or the situation where you can overcome the past and live according to values. It can always be better, it's always possible to perfect it and improve it, so that living within a democratic situation you're always hoping to move towards something more perfect. There never has been any perfect democratic situation … Nietzsche for example despised democracy – I don't, but I can understand why he had this kind of negative attitude towards it, seeing it as some sort of 'low' … You have these very high values but they have to be approved by many, many people. This majority rule doesn't always produce the highest vision …
An Sonjae, Ko Un and David Prater, Seoul 2009.
DP: Obviously very recently Koreans lost a great democrat in [former President] Kim Dae Jung. What do you believe will be his legacy?
Ko Un: He was a politician, and I'm a poet. But in the time of the struggle for democratisation, whether you were a poet or a politician or a religious figure or whatever, we were all struggling together for one vision. So naturally at that time you were working together and you were close and you became friends because of democracy. And then once democracy is achieved and Kim Dae Jung once again becomes an active politician, then the poet withdraws in that situation.
You can also see Kim Dae Jung as a kind of Asian Mandela – suffering for this vision; for the vision to come into reality he had to endure many, many things, that's for sure. But in any case, the present time is no longer a time for figures of that kind. We're past the point where these individual figures matter in that way … Kim Dae Jung had this dream and this deep vision of reunification, of the oneness of the two Koreas, and that is his essential legacy.
Now perhaps there's more strain and more conflict between the two, but this in any case is part of a wider North-East Asian context, and you can hope that we can come again to a time when between North and South there's a happier relationship, there's more exchanges and meetings. In order to achieve that, Kim Dae Jung's vision remains essential and something we must always bear in mind.
DP: On that subject, and I guess you're asked this question a lot, but Kim Dae Jung's metaphorical counterpart or opposite was and still is Kim Jong-il. You met him on the occasion of the Inter-Korean summit in 2000. Did you speak to him, and if so what did he say to you?
Ko Un: No, because there was a lot of people around there was no opportunity to talk together, but we did exchange glasses of wine, drank together.
DP: The poem you read out on that day, 'At the Taedong River' – do you know if it was transmitted or shared with the North Korean people?
Ko Un: Maybe … the North Koreans also welcome me very much. I've been to North Korea since.
DP: Can you tell me a little more about that?
Ko Un: Because of this division between North and South, the Korean language on the two sides is diverging, and in order to help prevent too big a divergence there is a plan now to publish a joint 'great' dictionary. So you have scholars, linguists and writers from North and South working together on this project and I am the Chairman of it. And so from time to time I go when they have meetings to go on with this very official project. So from time to time I go there. But I do not actually want to visit North Korea too often.
DP: In your view do South Koreans now, as opposed to 2000, view unification as inevitable or impossible?
Ko Un: There was a whole process of coming closer, reconciliation in the process leading to the two summits and now at present there is a certain regression, a growth in tension, but that is also not something that necessarily will last forever. It's the way things go in life, a few steps forward a couple of steps back, you cannot expect it to be otherwise. There's always, still, the hope of a growing closeness, a growing reconciliation to overcome the past.
DP: One final question, you've described your poetry as like a 'flow', like a river. You use the metaphor of the river quite a lot in your poetry – for example, in your novel Little Pilgrim there's the River Ganges, as central to the idea of a life narrative. Given that you've expressed your desire in the end to be remembered not as a poet but as a poem, what kind of poem would you be, and is that poem a river?
Ko Un: The question is enough in itself, there's no way you can answer a question like that. Better to leave it as a question! … [laughs] Actually, I met some Indian poets, and it was one of the Indian poets who said 'you're not a poet, you're a poem!'
DP: [laughs]: Ah, so that's where it came from, it wasn't your idea at all!
Ko Un: No. We're all living poems …
Visit Ko Un's website where you can read a good selection of his poems. This interview was conducted as part of Cordite editor David Prater's Asialink residency in Seoul, sponsored by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation. David Prater's interview with An Sonjae appeared recently on the Cordite site.