Prolific, Renowned Ko Un Brings his Poetry to UCLA

Prolific, Renowned Ko Un Brings his Poetry to UCLA

The former Buddhist monk and activist for Korean democracy brings a distinctive voice to campus, two weeks after marking a milestone in his career, the completion of "Ten Thousand Lives."

A poem for every person he's ever met, in life or in books: that, Maninbo, is the 25-year, 30-volume, 4,000-poem project that Ko Un, a renowned Korean on the Nobel literature short list, completed this year. In English it's called "Ten Thousand Lives" and is in fact just one of the multidimensional author's massive undertakings. Two weeks after celebrating the accomplishment at a symposium in Seoul, Ko was in Los Angeles for poetry readings organized by one of his American publishers.

On April 22 in Royce Hall, Ko read from "Ten Thousand Lives" and other Korean-language works, and Green Integer Books publisher Douglas Messerli read English translations. Mickey Hong, an associate professor at Los Angeles City College and UCLA PhD candidate in modern Korean poetry, interpreted for Ko at the event, which was cosponsored with the UCLA Center for Korean Studies.

"In Korean, we don't say that the birds sing; actually, they cry," Ko told the audience of about 40 people before reading the first poem.  "Pigs also cry. That's the sound that they make. I also cry."

A performer who evidently relishes the roles of rhapsode, sage and clown, Ko covers a lot of emotional ground at a sitting. He accompanied his poem of the same title with a rendition of the folk song "Arirang." The poem imagines the 1937 forced deportation of ethnic Koreans to Central Asia by Stalin and an 11-year-old boy's bewilderingly poignant performance of the folk song for the lost souls around him. ("All the ancestors' grief was in it…./Is this song blood or what?") In another vein, Ko punctuated a reading of "Drunkard" with sips of California pinot noir.

I've never been one guy
sixty billion cells!
But I get to call the shots.
Sixty billion cells,
all drunk!

The poem and the work in which it appears, "Ten Thousand Lives," remind us "how a human is never a solitary being, but comprised of all those encountered in his or her life," writes Hong in an email.

That's a theme in Ko's life and work, the evocation of many people by one man. Born during the Japanese occupation, Ko in his past has been a Buddhist monk and, four times during the struggle towards democratization, an imprisoned political dissident. As a writer, according to Messerli, he is an essayist, a critic and a maker of fictions every bit as much as a lyric poet.

In Korea, said Messerli, "he's known not as Ko Un, but as the Ko Uns, plural. He's many people; he's many voices."

The voices are unmistakably his, according to Hong.

"Ko Un’s poems transcend topic and form, but what’s truly extraordinary about him is how one can always feel the force of his language and voice in his works," she writes.

Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2010