As I write this it's less than a week since I first made acquaintance with Ko Un, both the man and the poems, at the 2012 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. That was an extraordinary experience. Ko writes in one poem:
"I write with my body alone with my soul alone."
Whether this is a reflection of his Korean roots, or a feature of him, I don't know, but as he read and spoke, it was as if everything was delivered with his whole body and not just his voice.
Reading these in a book is not quite as powerful as that. Even Ko's marvelous writing perhaps cannot completely capture his presence -he sometimes suggests that poems themselves are not completely adequate to capture experience- but this collection does give something special. Indeed it surprises me that this is his first book to be published in Britain because he already has a substantial international reputation with plaudits on the cover from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Andrew Motion. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Prize. What we get here makes me understand why.
Korea's (both North and South) history has been checkered with being caught between China and Japan who at times in history seem to have occupied the country and tried to suppress its culture. Having studied a Korean martial art, I have a cursory awareness of its history which is alluded to in some of the poems which the translators have provided notes to explain when necessary, But there is much more than that here.
Readers of translations of Japanese, Chinese and Zen poetry will also find similarities in some poems with focus on the moment, the love of nature, mountains, rivers the seasons and clouds. The front cover photograph has Ko in a kilmono which is suggestive of a Zen monk, which he once was after coming out of the Korean war emotionally scarred from his experience then. The translations have been done effectively by Brother Anthony of Taize and Ko's wife, Lee Sang-Wha.
There is a strong spiritual edge showing the influence of Buddhism in these poems. Yet it would be a mistake to be confined to this. Ko has lived a lot, having also been a political dissident and jailed for championing libertarian causes in South Korea, as well as being a very prolific writer. There are also hints that he has also suffered from despair, possibly depressions and self-harming, yet his spirit comes through undaunted in these poems.
One of the features I also came across about Korean culture was its earthiness. A lot of Korean food is spicy also. Ko as well as being able to write detached poems can howl like Ginsberg. He will write about despair and joy. There are also poems showing an awareness of European literature, and he is aware of the treachery of words. As he writes, perhaps with a hint of irony and self-deprecation:
"Poems block the path for better poems."
Yet for all this, Ko is not a poet of the half-expressed feeling that is common in English poetry, i.e where deeps feelings are implied by understatement. Though there is the inevitable Asian sensibility in her, there is also a full throttle expression of a wide range of emotions similar in this way to what I find in Spanish language poets like Lorca, Hernandez and Pablo Neruda. In my experience this is also a very Korean trait. Reading those poets always leaves me feeling enlivened because of that. These poems do the same.
Ko has been through a lot of living and suffering. He is a force of life. This also comes through in the poems. After reading them, I wonder why it has taken so long for a book by him to appear in Britain. Thank you Bloodaxe for amending that omission.
I bought First Person Sorrowful because I've been trying to get to know more about Korean culture, since my son married a Korean woman six years ago. I saw some videos of Ko On on Youtube and liked him as a person. He is the most famous living Korean poet, a prolific writer. In Maninbo, (Ten Thousand Lives) he painstakingly documented those lives of "ordinary people" who had influenced, and contributed to, his own life. He has a background of political protest and imprisonment for his belief in individual and national worth and freedom. These themes are echoed in this wide-ranging selection. His rootedness in, and love for, Korea, is ever present, a fitting landscape in which to explore many intriquing and thought-provoking perceptions. An excellent introduction to Korean culture. A courageous man and wonderful poet.