- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

Even without deep-throated pipes or plaintive drums behind his voice, there was drama enough in the air Monday night as 70-year-old Ko Un, South Korea’s most renowned poet, gave voice to the grief of generations at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Zen-like reflections on nature commingled with images of political prisoners, desperate farmers, wily grannies and neglected countryside children.

Mr. Ko is “without question the most prolific writer in Korea’s twentieth century,” says professor David McCann, associate director of Harvard’s Korea Institute, who joined Mr. Ko onstage to translate and read the works in English.

Mr. Ko has published more than 100 books — of poetry, essays, novels, narrative poems and drama. His novels, notably “The Garland Sutra” (1991), have been best sellers in South Korea, and his translated collection of Zen poems, “Beyond Self,” was published in the United States with an admiring forward by Allen Ginsberg.

In his younger years, Mr. Ko served as a Buddhist monk, and his poetry reflects a Buddhist sensibility throughout. “There is not a real distinction between the animal and the human world,” he told the packed audience at the Folger. According to Mr. McCann’s translation, the poet says he “cries out his poems, the way insects cry out.”

Mr. Ko became an activist leader in the democratization movements of the 1970s and ‘80s and was imprisoned several times for his efforts. Some of his poems inevitably are focused on the travails of a political outsider who got little sympathy from vigilant South Korean police. The poems he read at the Folger were typically short and evocative, not explicitly political but with political overtones.

Critics have observed that Mr. Ko’s writing bears witness to the lives of ordinary individuals. “Maninbo” (“Ten Thousand Lives”), a work he vowed to write while in prison, is a series of poems dedicated to making a record of everyone he has ever known. The work has reached 15 volumes so far. “The project itself, just the idea of it, should be enough to put him on the short list for the Nobel Prize,” says Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States.

Having spent most of his life as a political dissident, Mr. Ko today is welcomed in the corridors of Korean power. He is a friend to the government of President Kim Dae-jung and accompanied the South Korean delegation to North Korea in June 2000. He is pictured in a famous photograph of the two delegations singing the “Reunification Song,” a happening considered a watershed event in North-South relations.

Mr. Ko tells The Washington Times that he is serving as an adviser to a committee charged with writing a common dictionary for the Korean language as spoken in both the northern and the southern parts of the peninsula. He recently published two books on his journeys to North Korea.

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