Guest Review: Nicholls On Ko Un

Sophie Nicholls reviews
by Ko Un

‘What still still stillness,/as Yang-sul's wife,/ covered in snow, goes out to draw water,/ puts down her tiny little water jar/ and picks up the gourd dipper but forgets to draw water,/ watching snowflakes die:/ that still still stillness.’
(from ‘The Little Spring’, Ten Thousand Lives, Volume 3, 1986)

Such moments of ‘stillness’ seem central to many of the poems in Ko Un’s Ten Thousand Lives. Perhaps it is this ‘stillness,’ a certain quality of awareness learned from his Buddhist training, that helped Ko Un to create a small still space inside himself during his years of solitary imprisonment in the dark.

Ko Un was born in 1933 in a rural village in Korea. The Korean War killed or harmed many of his relatives and friends. In 1952 he became a Buddhist monk and he began writing in the late 1950s. He was active in the pro-democracy movement in South Korea, becoming a spokesman for the struggle for freedom, writing prolifically and, as a result, being imprisoned four times (in 1974, 1979, 1980 and 1989).

It was during one of these periods of imprisonment that Ko Un began to compose the ongoing work that was to become Ten Thousand Lives. He began it, not on paper, but entirely in his head.

As he sat in solitary confinement in a tiny windowless prison cell, in darkness so black that he could barely see the glint of the coffee can that he had been given to use as a latrine, Ko Un began to reflect on his vocation as a poet and the strong connection he felt between his own situation and the sufferings of all Korean people. He began to make a mental inventory of all the people he had ever known, both in the real world and in the pages of literature and history books. He vowed that, if he was ever released from prison alive, he would begin to write a poetic record of each of these people. Having made this vow, we are told by Robert Hass in his Preface, Ko Un felt a greater sense of peace.

In fact, it was not until a general pardon in 1982 that Ko Un was to be released. In 1986, he was finally able to begin transferring to paper the work that had, thus far, taken shape entirely in his head. T his is the major work that became Ten Thousand Lives (or Manimbo, which might be translated as ‘family records of ten thousand lives’ or ‘the background people’ or ‘all the people’).

Twenty volumes of Ten Thousand Lives have been completed so far, with a further five planned. This publication, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Yung-moo Kim and Gary Gach is merely a selection from the first ten volumes.

In one sense, Ten Thousand Lives might be read as a political statement. Ko Un gives each remembered life a voice and enables the ‘background people’ to be heard for the first time.
It would have been easy for Ko Un to manipulate the music of these voices, using them to ventriloquise political messages. Instead, he simply remembers and honours each life, without sentiment, with tenderness and often with humour. He lets each life speak for itself.

Together, the poems tell other stories: a story about the way in which we can use our minds, even in the most difficult circumstances, to overcome fear and pain; and a story about the importance of re-establishing and experiencing our interconnectedness with the people and the natural world around us, even if that world has become limited to one cramped, dark room and that connection can only take place in memory and poetry.

It is fitting that, in the final poem from Volume 8 (1989), Ko Un remembers the life of Sim Ch’ong, the heroine of a popular Korean folktale whom, he says, ‘surely embodies the burning resolve deep in the heart of every Korean daughter.’ He writes: ‘How could Sim Ch’ong be merely a girl in a tale?/ How could Sim Ch’ong be merely a girl in a song?… ‘Such a girl is everyone’s Sim Ch’ong, isn’t she?’

In one sense, the lives Ko Un records for us here are particular lives from a particular time and place; but in another sense, Ko Un seems to be saying, these stories are everyone’s stories, aren’t they?

Sophie Nicholls has had poems published in various magazines such as Poetry London, PEN International and Nthposition. She researches the use of creative writing in health and well-being and works with private clients and groups through her consultancy, Sophie Nicholls Personal Development. Her latest book is Hypnotic Journaling.
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