Ko Un: Beautiful poems I don’t want to read

In 2013, when I was still in Highschool, I started getting interested in the two Koreas. It all began with North Korea’s missile tests, and slowly evolved from just another interesting political topic to a deep urge to understand the two countries as a whole. It went from news articles detailing the newest development of the quarrels between two nations in a similar situation that my country was in not that long ago, to books on the Korean war, and then to literature.

I began randonly ordering translated books on a rather niche German website specialising in books from and about Korea. To this day, “The Poet” (시인) by Yi Munyŏl (이문열), a novel I randomly ordered back then about Kim Sakkat, a famous traditional Korean poet, ranks at the very top of my favourite books, just behind “Chess” (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig. I also bought poetry books. I like poetry, and, of course, I wrote my own cringeworthy and pretentious little poems as a teenager, mostly about the society. I was “that kid”, you could say.

The very first poetry book I bought was from Ko Un (고은), one of the most (in)famous modern Korean writers. He has been active since Korea was annexed by the Japanese, and put out an impressive amount of literary works. He has been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but came under pressure in recent years due to sexual misconduct allegations. In this post, I want to do three things: Introduce Ko Un and his writings, explain why I love his poems and how they have profoundly influenced me and my understanding of literature, and finally take a look at the aforementioned allegations and adress why I don’t want to read these poems anymore, basically answering the big “Can you view the artist and the art separately?” question for myself.


Ko Un was born in 1933 to peasant parents in the southwest of annexed Korea. He got interested in poetry early on, when he found a book of Han Ha-un at 12 years old, a contemporary of his time, well known for his sad poetry. He would, however, only begin amassing written works himself later on during the Korean War. Traumatized by the deaths of friends and family members, and compulsory work as a grave digger, he turned to monastery. He began living as a Buddhist monk in 1952, and would continue doing so for 10 years, in which he started publishing his first volumes of poems. After his return to society, he began drinking, fell into a depressive episode and even attempted suicide. He would find a new purpose in life, however, after Park Chun-hee solidified his dictatorial rule in the Yushin regime starting 1972. He would, from then on, fight for democratic rights, for which he was arrested several times, thrown into prison, and tortured. He was, in the end, sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later on suspended and turned to house arrest under Chun Doo-hwan, the dictator that followed in Park’s footsteps. As a gleaming literary figure for the fight for liberalisation, the would gain notoriety, and he wrote prolifically, publishing book after book (in total, he published over 130 books in his lifetime, and he is still going). After Koreas Democratisation, he worked towards unification, even gaining the permission to visit North Korea, and being part of Kim Dae-jungs entourage when he orchestrated the first official state visit to the North under his Sunshine Policy that would soon after win Kim the Nobel Peace Prize.

This concise look at his life is probably enough to get an idea of what kind of stuff he wrote/writes about: sad, depressive poems during the Korean war, “zen-buddhist”, “balanced” poems during his time as a monk, prolific verses for freedom and democracy, followed by the grim, hopeless stories he told during his imprisonment, then the poems actively engaging in political discussion on the South-South divide, and you can yourself probably assume that he is nowadays on a more holistic, retrospective trip; he is already 88 after all. I certainly cannot talk about all of this, but I want to introduce some poems of his that might be able to represent the range of topics he has touched upon over the years. I will not follow chronological order in this post, I will just write it how it comes to me, but I will make sure to give the necessary context.

눈 내리는 날

눈 내란다
마을에서 개가 되고 싶다
마을 보리밭에서 개가 되고 싶다
아냐
깊은 산중
아무것도 모르고
잠든 곰이 되고 싶다
눈 내린다
눈 내린다

Snowy Day

Snow is falling.
I want to become a dog in a village.
I want to become a dog in the villages barley field.
No.
Deep in the mountains,
aware of nothing,
I want to become a sleeping bear.
Snow is falling.
Snow is falling.

This little poem from his 2017 release 시선 (Gaze) is a good introduction into Korean poetry in general, I believe. It works with rather unusual pictures, that might just be fully understandable if you are Korean. In this, the speaker (I will presume it is Ko himself although this probably would’ve lost me some points in poetry analysis back in Highschool) expresses his feelings when snow is falling; he wants to be a dog at first thought, even playing around with the imagery in his head a bit, before abruptly changing his mind: Much rather, he wants to be fully secluded: a bear, hibernating in the deep, untouched mountains, knowing nothing of what Ko seems to have had on his mind at the time when these thoughts appeared. But all that happens is the snow falling, with Ko still observing and noting it for two more lines. Obviously, his little wish does not come to fruition.

It is a short poem expressing a deep desire to escape the troublesome life he has, and thusly something I think we can all related to in one way or another. Take the snow as a metaphor for a moment: All the stress, anxiety and whatever might plague you on a certain day, falling down on you, piling up to a thick layer. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to sleep through it and wake up when everything is over? It would, wouldn’t it. But this is but mere wishful thinking, and the snow keeps coming, regardless of how much we wish to not be there.

Whether or not this is what Ko intended to express with this poem, it is what I interpret it to be, and what I interpret it to be is a finely woven metaphor on a thought so inherently relatable that I believe it can speak to everyone if he can see through the imagery a bit. The last thing I want to note about it is the outcome: It is rather glim, isn’t it? After all the vivid imagination, everything just keeps on going like it began. It is a harsh ending, I think; it doesn’t offer anything to conclude any thoughts of the speaker or us, we gain a little bit of access to the inner thoughts of the speaker, and get thrown out soon after, but with the almost unbearable realization that, whatever there might be, idealism and wishful thinking won’t do anything, everything will just continue on.

Onto the next one:

시인

시인은 시인이기 전에 수많은 날을 울어야 합니다 시인은 세살 때 이미 남을 위하여 올어본 일이 있어야 합니다
시인은 손길입니다 어루만져야 합니다 아픈 이 술픈 이 가난한 이에게서 제발 손 떼지 말아아야 합니다
고르지 못한 세상 시인은 불행한 이 하나하나의 친족입니다
시인은 결코 저 혼자가 아닙니다 역사입니다 민중의 직관입니다
마침내 시인은 시 없이 죽어 시로 태어납니다 즈믄 날 밤하늘의 거짓 없는 별입니다

The Poet

Before becoming a poet, the poet has to have cried on many days. With three years old, the poet must have already cried for strangers.
The poet is a helping hand, he has to touch. This hand must not be taken off anyone hurt, sad, or suffering.
In this rough world, the poet is a close relative to every single unfortunate one.
The poet is never just for himself, there is also the history, the intuition of the people.
At last, the poet dies without and is born through poems. On most days, he is the unfeigned star at the night sky.

This is a poem from 조국의 별 (“Stars of the Fatherland”) published in 1984. In 1984, South Korea was still a dictatorship, at that time governed by Chun Doo-hwan. Ko had already experienced imprisonment and torture, and many poems in this books deal with this topic, but we will come to that later.

“The Poet” is more meta, and deals with the role of poets in society. Even if there are some strange images again, I believe this poem to be rather straight forward. The poet has a role to play, and to be a poet, he needs to fulfill this role. He is supposed to express the sadness, the misery, the loneliness of the people, or much rather his people. The poet needs to be empathetic to the suffering of the people around him, and this is what should prompt him to write his poems. If he has endured the collective trauma and starts using his poems to create art for the others, then a poet is born. In dark times, he is what the people use to have their trauma expressed. This, of course, is in reference to the struggle against dictatorship. Ko understands his role in this struggle as expressing what others can’t, and he will go down for it if he has to.

“Stars of the Fatherland” was the aforementioned book I randomly ordered. I was fairly young back then, and knew poetry as just a way to express yourself artistically. What this book taught me was that this is not where it ends: Poets are never for themselves, they will always be a part of something, and can, or rather should, use their poetry to benefit society. This can happen in various ways, of course: If we look at German Biedermeier or Romanticism, we see people trying to turn away from political turmoil and seek happiness within their own space. Such literature can put people at ease. On the contrary, literature can also stirr people up, and directing the anger and frustration of the people is just as valid a form of using your literature to help society. At last, Ko shows us how a poet can be a tool for society, a guiding figure in a collective struggle. However you do it, utilizing your art to help others, to critique the status quo, to help people cope, the make them happy, angry sad, etc., I began to think, is the true purpose of an artist. I still think that way, and it started with poems like these. To this day, I have a very narrow definition of art in general, but that is not to say that I dislike things I don’t consider to be art: A pretty painting can also just be a pretty painting, and a beautiful poem can just be a beautiful poem. I can appreciate it, but more often than not, I wouldn’t call it art.

Let us look at another poem, a poem about Ko’s time in prison:

햇볕


어쩔 줄 모르겠구나 침을 삼키고 불행을 삼키자
9사상 반 평짜리 북창감방에 고귀한 손님이 오신다
과장 순시가 아니라 저녁 무렵 한동안의 햇볕 접고 접은 딱지만하게 햇볕이 오신다
환장하겠다 첫사랑 거기에 손바닥 놓아본다 수줍은 발 벗어 발가락을 쪼인다
그러다가 엎드려 비종교적으로 마른 얼굴 대고 있으면 햇볕 조각은 덧없이 미끄러진다
쇠창살 넘어 손님은 덧없이 떠난 뒤 방안은 몇 곱으로 춥다 어둡다 육군교도소 특감은 암실이다
햇볕 없이 히히 웃었다 하루는 송장 넣은 관이었고 하루는 전혀 바다였다
용하도다 거기서 사람들 몇이 살아난 것이다
살아 있다는 것은 돛단배 하나 없는 바다이기도 하구나

Sunshine


I don’t know what to do.
Let me swallow my spit, and my misery, too.
A noble visitor comes to my small north facing prison cell.
It is not the manager patroling, but a gleam of sunlight for a moment in the afternoon, no bigger than a piece of paper folded again and again.
I go crazy; it’s like first love. I put my palm around it, put my shy feet down and warm my toes.
Then, as I lay down my skinny, unreligious face, the piece of sunshine slips away all too soon.
As my guest, in vain, recedes beyond the iron bars, the room is several times colder and darker. The special feature of this military prison is it’s darkroom.
Without the sunshine, I laugh like a madman. One day, it is a corpse-filled coffin, one day it, wholely, is the sea.
Astoundingly, this is also where some people came back to live.
Being alive is itself being at sea with not a single sail boat in sight.

“Sunshine” is depressingly grim. It is a painfully simple description of what happens to him in his cell, his dark, cold cell. You could interpret this poem in two ways, depending on whether or not you decide to take the “gleam if sunshine” as a metaphor (for hope, e.g.) or just take it as a literal description. The outcome would be more or less the same. I feel like it suits the style of this poem best to take it literally, but you do you.

The, for me, most interesting line is “용하도다 거기서 사람들 몇이 살아난 것이다” – “Astoundingly, this is also where some people came back to live.” I have seen it translated in different ways than how I decided to translate it, but as I read it, he expresses amazement about that some people have been “revived”, which I understand as that some people have found new hope in their cause in this cell, even with the circumstances being this depressing. These poems were part of his struggle against dictatorship, after all, so reading it like this in the greater context makes sense to me. However, I could just be bad at understanding Korean and it could just mean that he is amazed that some people have survived, not been revived. Take this as you will.

In any way, this is a fantastic poem. It deals with loss of hope in harsh circumstances, and it does so very well. I won’t say too much about it, as I feel like it is easily understandable given the historical context and just, well, plain good.


Now that I have given an insight into Ko Un’s work and why I think it is so good, I want to now explain why he fell from grace recently.

최영미, 2018

Fellow poet Choi Yong-mi, who is pictured above, published a poem called “괴물” (goemul, “Monster”) in 2018, about a poet called “En”, alleging habitual sexual harassment towards her and other young female poets. Although Ko has not been named directly, it was soon clear who it is about, and others came out to back the allegations.

Ko stepped down from his professorship and a library in his honor was canceled, he left the city he lived in, and was cut out of school textbooks. He denied the allegations and subsequently sued Choi for defamation, which was later turned down in court. Ko’s misconduct is not just a simple story, though, but paints a bigger picture of systemic problems in the literary circle.

There were also people coming out in his defence, including a woman working in the bar where the harassment towards to Choi described in “Monster” supposedly happened, but the very coherent allegations of several women and the fact that the court didn’t find anything they could have called baseless make it kind of hard not to believe the allegations.

This brings me to the last point: Can I (for myself) disconnect art and artist? Well, at least in this case, I can’t. These beautiful poems are fundamentally flawed, as they have been written by someone not fully understanding, or even “abusing” the very good points they make. I cannot read Ko Un’s magnificent works anymore, although I want to, as they have helped me when I tried to understand the very basis of art and artistry. In other cases, I might be able to glance over something like that, but Ko set an example he cannot follow, so his example, however well done, is worthless.

I said earlier that poets need to write poems for the people around them, to “help” them, so to speak. Ko certainly did that, and gained the deserved notoriety for it. Then abusing this very pedestal he stood on to inflict suffering on others, including others aspiring to do the same thing he was supposed to do (and has done), taints his earlier work in my view. How come a true artist does something so selfish? How come the poet that should cry for others makes others cry? Besides the obvious moral side of it, from an artistic side, he invalidates what he created. I love “The Poet”, and I learned a lot from it, but I cannot read it anymore without thinking about its disingenuous nature.

Thank You for reading.

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