|Conference on 'The Poetic World of Ko Un' / 8 May 2003 / Stockholm University, Sweden
It is a privilege to speak at this conference, but I must confess that I have undertaken an impossible task. I have been asked to give, within twenty minutes, my sense of the world of Ko Un's poetry with specific reference to the Zen poems and the Maninbo (or Ten Thousand Lives ) series.
Ko Un is a phenomenally prolific writer covering many literary genres. Publications of shorter verse works alone number some thirty volumes, that is, not counting long narrative poems like the seven-volume Paektu Mountain or the 15-volume Ten Thousand Lives series, or anthology selections or the verse portions of ‘complete' works. It would take full twenty minutes or more just to enumerate them and give the basic bibliographical data. Naturally I won't make the attempt.
As for Zen poems, Ko Un has published one collection explicitly so named,  but not only has he produced other volumes (including the recent Flowers of the Instant  ) entirely devoted to poems of similar nature, but nearly all collections of his verse contain some samples. In fact, the poet himself once remarked, “My lyric poems were tinted by some elements of Zen, however awkwardly. Then again, that might not be anything extraordinary if you consider that all poems have some inherently Zen-like quality.” That is to say, an adequate attention to his Zen poems should involve our coming to terms with his entire poetic oeuvre!
But again naturally, I shall not take that course. I will instead take up a few specific poems available in English translation, comparing them where necessary to the original Korean, and attempt to read them in the light of a theme I took up ten years ago when I contributed an essay called “Zen Poetry and Realism” to a Festschrift volume in honor of Ko Un's sixtieth birthday.  By linking together Zen and realism I meant to reveal the peculiar tension and the resultant distinction of Ko Un's poetry, and at the same time engage in some reflections on the nature of poetic quest. Here I will only offer my conclusion in that exercise (without reproducing all the arguments leading to it), a conclusion to which I still adhere: “[O]ur glimpse of the successful reconciliation between Zen poetry and realism in Ko Un's recent collections signifies more than a convenient coexistence; it points to the possibility of Zen poetry and realism meeting each other on the ground of a certain fundamental affinity.” 
But it is time to read a few specific poems. The first piece in the Zen poetry collection Mwonya is titled “Echo.” I shall quote the full text; it has only three lines:
Is this good poetry, or are we just being mystified (or intimidated) into accepting it as such? I don't have a clear answer. But I suggest approaching it like any other poem and attend to its specific use of language.
To mountains at dusk:
What are you?
What are you are you… ( Beyond Self , 3)
The title tells us that the third line represents the mountain echoes of the preceding question. It also foregrounds these echoes as the main feature to attend to. The echoes obviously will continue and gradually die away. But why mountains ‘at dusk'? At dusk they are not clearly visible to begin with; they are there mainly to produce the echoes, and perhaps will have disappeared from the mind's eye by the time the echoes have died down, leaving only traces of the question.
And what is the question? Here the translationㅡhardly by the translators' fault, for they have to respect the grammar and the usage of the target languageㅡdoes some injustice to the original. For those of you who know Korean, the original reads:
You will notice, for one thing, that it's much terser. But more important, the echoed question is mwonya (what?)ㅡthe quintessential ‘critical phrase' of Zen. (Ellision of the auxiliary particle n?n in the echo of n? n?n tends further to downplay ‘you' and privilege the crucial word ‘what?'ㅡexactly the opposite effect of the English version.  ) I think you will agree that, whether great poetry or not, the piece is a quite skillfully organized artifact.
너 뭐냐 뭐냐……
“Mountain Is Mountain” is another poem that incorporates a typical Zen phrase, but I cite it as an example of a certain realistic impulse working in Ko Un's Zen poems.
The words, “Mountain is mountain, water is water,” are familiar to most Korean readers as a pronouncement offered the public during the 1980s by Songch'ol, the famous Zen monk and then figurehead of Korea's largest Buddhist sect. The poem obviously carries a satirical intent at such an Olympian stance taken during some of South Korea's darkest and most turbulent days, but its demotic thrust is in accordance with Ko Un's conviction that from its historical beginning Zen “contributed to the legitimization of the role of the ordinary common people and even of the slaves, by rejecting the religious system centered on monastic life.” 
“Mountain is mountain
water is water,” Tai Neung chanted.
“Mountain is not mountain
water is not water,” Tai Neung chanted.
Eat your food.
Once you've eaten, go shit. ( Beyond Self , 18)
 <高銀禪詩: 뭐냐> [What?: Ko Un's Zen Poems], Seoul: 청하, 1991. Translated into English by Young-Moo Kim and Brother Anthony as Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems by Ko Un , Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1997.
 고은, <순간의 꽃>, Seoul: 문학동네, 2001
 Subsequently revised and translated into English as: Paik Nakchung, “Zen Poetry and Realism: Reflections on Ko Un's Verse,” positions: east asia cultural critiques volume 8 number 2 (fall 2000, published by Duke University Press) 559-78. I am in part drawing on this material in the present paper.
 Ibid. 575.
 And the French version as well: see Ko Un, Qu'est-ce ? traduits par NO Mi-Sug et Alain GENETIOT, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2000, p. 12. The same problem, I understand, is reproduced in the Swedish edition. Would it be too jarring in the target language if the translation read, “You are what? / You're what what …”?
 Poet's Preface, Beyond Self , p. xxv.