Pointless poems that ignite living

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Pointless poems that ignite living

I read the following poem the day after I drank several bowls of dongdongju, a Korean rice wine, with friends in Insa-dong recently.

Recovering from the brew, I flicked through this collection of poems by Ko Un and settled on “A Drunkard”: I’ve never been an individual entity./ Sixty trillion cells!/ I’m a living collectivity./ I’m staggering zigzag along,/ sixty trillion cells, all drunk!

Ko Un’s poetry electrifies the mind with what the American poet Allen Ginsberg refers to as “thought-stopping Koan-like mental firecrackers” in his generous foreword to “What? 108 Zen Poems.”

In A Drunkard, the sozzled speaker is unconcerned that he is not an individual but instead mere molecular structure. He rejoices in the sheer quantity of his cells, marveling that each one is as smashed as he. Gone is all that is he thinks of as human, the drunk realizes, as he perceives in that alcohol befuddled moment the truth of his existence.

For me, the poem is not only an authentic evocation of the inebriated state, it embodies the fundamental ideas concerning Seon, or Zen, that shape Ko Un’s work in this volume.

“Seon is mind and nothing else,” writes the poet in his message of welcome to his book. “Only through the true self within the mind can we meet a radically new world, one totally different from the old; that is the goal of Seon.” Thus the drunk shrugs off his being and becomes at one with his self, the trillions of cells that buzz with the surging alcohol.

In The Path, the speaker adopts a more radical voice and rejects Nirvana, even though that is the condition that Buddhists strive for, right? Not in Ko Un’s Seon thought process. He’s going to follow his own path “over the rocky crags or under water” because the path revealed to him is “the old master’s path, the corpse’s path.”

This subversive mischievousness plays out in “A Friend” when the speaker ridicules making objects to worship: The Buddha he fashioned out of clay turned back to clay when it rained. “Pointless as the clear skies after rain,” he says.

Pointless, though, is a loaded word, and Ko Un’s poems don’t advocate negativity. The poet realizes that “emptiness is not nihilistic, that to understand emptiness is to realize the oneness of all beings,” explains Ok-koo Kang Grosjean, who championed Ko Un’s work for many years.

Ko Un’s ideas might seem irrational and inaccessible, like stories in Seon literature that present ideas such as “What is the meaning of life?” for example, to which the answer might be, “Bread.”

Absurd, perhaps, but Ko Un’s poems are intuitive. In “The Master’s Scroll,” we hear a multi-layered tale that leads us in circles: The monk Dahui of ancient Sung/ set fire to his master’s scroll/ of the Blue Cliff Records./ Well done. He did well./ Yet here’s the work in question.”

Fizz goes the firecracker.

Other poems revel in the sheer joy of living. In “Jongno Street,” he writes “As I went strolling down Jongno Street in Daegu/ I bought and drank a bottle of schnapps.” In “Mosquito,” the speaker thanks the insect for biting him: “Why, I’m really alive./ Scratch scratch.”

This volume first appeared in 1997 titled “Beyond Self,” and it has been republished this year, Ko Un’s 50th anniversary as a published poet. The collection contains extraordinary beautiful verse, illustrated with the poet’s fine brush work.

Grasp life, the poet say says, but don’t ask for too long. After all, a particle only lasts millionths of a second, he writes in “Dayfly.”

“You say a day’s too short?/ You greedy thing.”


By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor [michael@joongang.co.kr]
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