Man of poetry sings sijo with a global voiceThis year’s prestigious Swedish “Cikada Award” has been given to Ko Un, the Korean poet who has been a Nobel Literature Prize contender on several occasions.
The award, which is named after a poetry collection written by the 1974 Swedish Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, Harry Martinson, is given to an East Asian poet whose work “defends the inviolability of Life.” The award was given to Mr. Ko yesterday in Seoul at the residence of the Swedish ambassador, Lars Vargo.
Ko is a symbolic figure in Korean poetry. Some of his most talked-about poems were written during the 1970s, when he was involved in civic struggles against the authoritarian government and read his poems at demonstrations. His works have been translated into several foreign languages, including the English version of “Little Pilgrim” and “Ten Thousand Lives.”
Before the award ceremony, a panel discussion took place between Mr. Ko and Mr. Vargo, a fervent supporter of Asian literature who has published several haiku-inspired poetry books.
Vargo: We talked earlier about forming a literary society in Seoul. The idea was to have a forum where writers from Europe who visit Korea could participate in an intimate seminar. Mr. Ko has kindly agreed to become a founding member of the Seoul literary society. I have invited ambassadors from Germany, Qatar, France, Spain and Ireland to join as well because they represent a strong literary tradition. We also hope to meet with other Korean writers.
Ko: I have just arrived back in Seoul after resting at my home in the forest for a week. Fall is about to leave Korea. The old Koreans used to say the tranquillity of the autumn wind was the song of the fall. Fall is the best season, in the east and the west. Friedrich Nietzsche loved fall so much that he changed his birthday to the fall. Is this your first fall in Korea?
Vargo: It is. I came in January. The autumn here at the end of November is like the autumn in early October in Sweden. I was born in early October, so I feel like it’s my birthday weather. We like fall very much in Sweden, where we have four distinct seasons. The autumn is wonderful there. We don’t have many people, but we have many trees. I’ve been reading as much as I can of your poetry. There are many aspects that I find very impressive.
Ko: I have three poetry books that have been translated into Swedish. Next year, one of my novels is going to be translated into Swedish.
Vargo: I think it’s very important to have good translators for literary works. The translators of your work have been very good.
Ko: In the past, poems were celebrated in the regions where the poets were born. But I think poems have the spirit of a nomad. They like to travel abroad. They want to cross the sea and bloom in other places outside of their home. I am a close friend with the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. We’re like brothers. His poems have also been translated into Korean. When I visited his home on my trip to Stockholm, he played a piano piece with his left hand. [Mr. Transtromer had a stroke in 1990, which left his right arm paralyzed.] His wife Monica treated me with great wines, knowing I love wines.
Vargo: It seems that, in the tradition of Asian poetry, poets and wine go very well together.
Ko: Indeed. In ancient Asia, poetry and wine were like one body.
Vargo: I think even in the Swedish poetical tradition, you find many poets especially in the old town of Stockholm where bars create special poetic gatherings. I think some major poets even had drinking problems.
Ko: I feel a sense of companionship, hearing that you write poems. There are a few ambassadors who were poets. Paul Claudel, Camille Claudel’s brother, who served as a French consul in China during the 1910s was a poet. Octavio Lozano, who recently passed away, was a Mexican poet and diplomat, [he won the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature]. Ambassadors are often considered politicians, but I wonder whether they are companions to poets. When I was young, I also dreamt of becoming an ambassador to South Africa. In the end I pursued my dream as an ambassador of poetry.
Vargo: The rough translation of one of your poems goes, “A snake disappears under the rose bushes. I can see well from here.” Another one says, “Moss on stones; the gifts of nature are wrapped.”
Ko: It sounds like bash, which is a style of Japanese poetry that appeared during the medieval period and was adopted as a poetic style in many places around the world. I’m proud that a form of Asian poetry became a global standard. There is a style of Korean poetry called sijo. It’s made up of three verses. Slowly it’s becoming known to the world. I recently wrote a sijo after writing free verse for a long time. I am thinking of publishing a book of sijo. In the future, I hope to break new ground by mixing the modern poetic style with the medieval style. While you are in Korea, I think it’s a good for you to get to know sijo. Often a sijo should be sung.
Vargo: It’s interesting, because early Japanese poetry also talked of poetry as songs. I am fascinated with pansori. I don’t understand it, but I feel the spirit of the Korean people in its sound. It is wonderful to listen to.
Ko: There are two basic sentiments of Korean people. One is han, a state which transcends all pain and sadness. The other is heung, an energy that supersedes pain. The spirit of pansori includes these elements.
Vargo: So it’s bit like the blues for African-Americans.
Ko: The notion of han is not essentially Korean. Instead, it’s a feeling shared among all Asian people. In India, for example, they divide human emotions into 100 categories. Han for them is a more frightening emotion, an expression of deadly force. In China, it’s considered a grudge. Yet in Korea, anger and revenge are removed and Han is a state of emotion that has no specific person as its target. It’s more general and less threatening.
Vargo: I’ve studied Chinese and Japanese literature (mostly Japanese). While doing that I tried to read what I could by Korean writers. Korean literary works haven’t been translated much. Now more and more translations are being done in Swedish and English. It’s easier to find them in bookstores. The distinct character of Korean literature is very much connected to nature, and the tragedy the Koreans have gone through. While having experienced tragedy it seems that poets are trying to see the wisdom of life. I think this is the strongest theme in Korean poetry. Through tragedy comes wisdom and wit. Although life can be very tough, there is a sense of lightness of life, which draws on the stoicism of Zen poetry.
Ko: It’s been little over a century since modern Korean poetry was introduced. Many poets these days base their poems on their experiences, their inner life. Poems in South Korea are very diverse. In North, however, it’s not so. They are didactic, and lack diversity. Yet if you look at it in the long-run, after the two Koreas are reunited, you will see that North Korean poetry will add diversity. Several years ago, myself and another North Korean poet were invited by the Swedish government to do a reading together. But now the North’s diplomatic situation has deteriorated. So the plan has been shelved, but I feel I must include North Korean poetry whenever I have a chance to talk about Korean poetry.
Vargo: It will be wonderful if you could meet in Panmunjom with a North Korean poet and hold a poetry reading. The first Korean poem I read when I was in Japan as a student was a Japanese translation of Kim Ji-ha’s “Five Thieves.” There are more translations now, like this one, by Choi Jeong-ryeol.)
Ko: There are many poets in Korea now. Maybe 5,000. When I first appeared on the literary scene in the late ‘50s there were only about 200. We knew each other very well. Now there are so many that we don’t know who’s who. When Pearl Buck visited Korea, we had a large gathering of poets and she was surprised to see so many poets. Then as she watched the great landscape of Korea on her train ride to Gyeongju, she said she realized why there are so many poets in Korea.
Vargo: In Sweden, poets tend to distance themselves from society. In Korea do you have to go through the traditional literary scene in order become a poet?
Ko: In essence, you are a poet if you write poems. Yet no matter how well you are received, it’s important to write poems continuously. If you can’t continue, your existence as a poet disappears, like smoke. T S Elliot said it’s better to start your career as a poet in your 30s, but have eternal freedom as a poet. You could start being a poet as a child, or you could also start writing when you are 80.
Vargo: Our king’s grandfather came to Korea during the colonial period. He participated in an excavation project for a royal tomb in Gyeongju, in which they found a phoenix symbol. The late king was deeply into archaeology. So now we have a relic named “Seobongchong” which means “tomb of the phoenix” in the west. In that sense you could safely say that Korea and Sweden had exchanged friendship long before they set up official diplomatic relations.
Panel led by Sohn Min-ho, Park Soo-mee
by Park Soo-Mee