Ko Un

Poems by Ko Un

Pumpkin Flower


The News of Flowers

  Ko Un

Described as “a force of nature” and frequently mentioned as a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ko Un is a beloved cultural figure who has helped to shape contemporary literature. The preeminent and most prolific Korean living writer, he has published more than one hundred thirty-five volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, translations, and drama, and has twice won the prestigious Korean Literature Prize. Allen Ginsberg called him "a magnificent poet, a combination of Buddhist cognoscente, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.”

Ko Un’s remarkable life is reflected in the many lives his literary output embodies. Born into a peasant family in 1933, Ko Un began writing poems from an early age. Traumatized by the horrors of the Korean War, he entered a monastery and became a monk. “If I hadn’t met Buddhism,” he has said, “I wouldn’t be here today, since I was lost at one time.” After leaving the Buddhist community in 1962, another “lost” decade of despair followed, including problems with alcohol and multiple suicide attempts, though his poetic output continued through these years of tribulation. After a profound political awakening in 1972, he joined in vigorous opposition to the military regime and in the struggle for human rights. He was detained, tortured, and imprisoned repeatedly and for long periods, during which Buddhist meditation sustained him. Finally set free in 1980, Ko Un married, moved to the countryside, fathered a daughter, and entered a period of stability and happiness, though he was still considered a dissident, and it would be more than another decade before he would be granted a passport.

Finally allowed to travel, Ko Un visited India, Tibet, the United States, and, at last, made his first trip to North Korea. In 2000, he accompanied President Kim Dae-Jung to the historic reunification summit in Pyongyang, reading his poetry before the leaders of the two Koreas. Later that year, he was an invited speaker at the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit in New York. Once his work was translated (into seventeen languages!) Ko Un quickly gained an international reputation and gave readings widely, including in Poland, Greece, Colombia, Sweden, Italy, and China.

Ko Un’s books in English include The Sound of My Waves (1993), Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (1997), Traveler Maps (2004), Ten Thousand Lives (2005), Abiding Places: Korea South & North (2006), The Three Way Tavern (2006), and Songs for Tomorrow (2008), from publishers as diverse as the East Asia Program at Cornell University, Parallax Press, Tamal Vista Publications, Green Integer, Tupelo Press, and the University of California Press, respectively. Ko Un has presented his poems at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, in Stanhope, New Jersey, and, in 1999, he was visiting professor at the Korea Institute at Harvard University. In 2008, he was honored with the Lifetime Recognition Award from Canada’s Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. Presenting Ko Un with this distinguished honor, the poet Robert Hass praised him as “a remarkable poet and one of the heroes of human freedom in this half century.”






    Poetry Center Reading:
    Spring 2010