Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation
Ko Un has long been a living legend in Korea, both as a poet and as a person. Allen Ginsberg once wrote, 'Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscente, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.’
Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) is the title of a remarkable collection of poems by Ko Un, filling thirty volumes, a total of 4001 poems containing the names of 5600 people, which took 30 years to complete. Ko Un first conceived the idea while confined in a solitary cell upon his arrest in May 1980, the first volumes appeared in 1986, and the project was completed 25 years after publication began, in 2010.
Unsure whether he might be executed or not, he found his mind filling with memories of the people he had met or heard of during his life. Finally, he made a vow that, if he were released from prison, he would write poems about each of them. In part this would be a means of rescuing from oblivion countless lives that would otherwise be lost, and also it would serve to offer a vision of the history of Korea as it has been lived by its entire population through the centuries.
A selection from the first 10 volumes of Maninbo relating to Ko Un’s village childhood was published in the US in 2006 by Green Integer under the title Ten Thousand Lives. This edition is a selection from volumes 11 to 20, with the last half of the book focused on the sufferings of the Korean people during the Korean War.
Essentially narrative, each poem offers a brief glimpse of an individual’s life. Some span an entire existence, some relate a brief moment. Some are celebrations of remarkable lives, others recall terrible events and inhuman beings. Some poems are humorous, others are dark commemorations of unthinkable incidents. They span the whole of Korean history, from earliest pre-history to the present time.
'...this volume serves as a testimony, a monumental feat of remembrance memorializing the lives of ordinary people interrupted by extraordinary events.' - Dan Disney, World Literature Today
Ko Un live at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival
Ko Un launched First Person Sorrowful - the first UK edition of his poetry - at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival with translator Brother Anthony of Taizé in November 2012. In this video, he reads these poems followed by Brother Anthony the translations in English: 죽은 시인들과의 시간 (Time with Dead Poets), 햇볕 (Sunlight), 작은 노래 24편 중 (from 24 Songs), 그 속삭임 (The Whisper), 작은 노래 24편 중 (from 24 Little Songs), 만약 10년 30년 또는 60년 (Ten years, thirty years, or fifty years), 오늘이 하찮은 날일지라도 (Today may be a trivial day), 붉은 영산홍이 피어 있네 (Scarlet rhododendrons are in blossom), 일인칭은 슬프다 (First Person Sorrowful). The film ends with the finale of another Aldeburgh event at which Ko Un delighted the audience with his rendering of the traditional Korean folksong Miryang Arirang (밀양 아리랑). All the poems are taken from First Person Sorrowful, translated by Lee Sang-Wha and Brother Anthony of Taizé (Bloodaxe Books, 2012). In 2015 Bloodaxe published their translation of Ko Un’s Maninbo: Peace & War.