Ko Un is popularly hailed as the people’s poet of Korea. The octogenarian holds your attention with the words, “Poetry is news from the heart.” As the heart takes the place of the head and becomes central to this conversation, a pause carves itself out in the hustle-bustle of life and Ko Un asserts that this pause will stay, for poetry cannot die.
The incurable romantic that this poet appears to be, he writes in Korean and gives interviews also in Korean. His passionate words that touch you deep within make meaning when Brother Anthony of Taize translates them for you. The question therefore was, should one listen to the meaning or the sounds? For reasons that poetry alone may be able to fathom, the choice was with the second. The meaning came, in this interview, as subtitles.
“Ha!” says Ko Un, “the problem is that my definition of poetry is always changing.” As to why he defined it as news from the heart to the students of Harvard, he says, “When I was in my thirties…I may have said that because I was young and also because we were living in such extreme times, I felt the need to say something extreme as well….I am always going back on my own words and saying, ‘this is what I mean’.” Continues the poet, “When I say poetry is news from the heart, that doesn’t mean necessarily my heart…all the hearts in the world are the mother of poetry. I would like to dispel the idea that only poets can be poets…dust, stone, the sound of waves, a speck in the universe, leaves, rotting guts…all of these have a place in poetry, in the paradox or meaning of our times…”
If these were short poems, Ko Un has also written a 30 volume poem called “Maninbo” or “Ten Thousand Lives”. “There is a reason why I still hold on to poetry, defend poetry and cherish some embarrassingly naïve vision of spreading poetry throughout the world…poetry is not something that lives or dies. Poetry sings about life and death and all that is in between. In that sense poetry cannot die any more than it can be born…In 1934, a year after I was born a respected Oxbridge scholar is quoted as having said that ‘poetry is dying’. But at that very moment in some small village in Korea a child who was to become a poet had just turned one year old. So which one should we believe in? His statement or the child? The child, of course.”
He tells us why he chose to live on the mountains, “…perhaps because I love the mountains. I feel very positive about being here, not in the sense that I expect my life to improve, but that everything is new here and that I might create something new…”
The poet whose passion surges as he speaks on says,” I would like to finish with one last thing. I could bring up a scholarly definition of poetry like Eliot’s, but I won’t. What I have to say is very simple. As long as we have the stars, as long as we have grass, and as long as we have human tears, how can we not have poetry? And how can my poetry forsake me as long as the sound of waves, the sound of the evening sea refuse to leave me? Poetry cannot die. No matter how much it may want and want and want to die.”