Ten Thousand Lives

ko un

I often read that Ko Un is a very likely candidate for the Nobel Literature Prize, but very few of the people I know have ever heard about him. I first read about Ko Un in an article by Robert Hass in the New York
Review of Books
. I was so intrigued that I ordered Ten Thousand Lives immediately. Hass wrote that just the idea of 10,000 lives warranted
short-listing Ko Un for the Nobel Prize.

So what was this amazing idea? In 1980, during a coup d’état, Ko Un was imprisoned for political reasons and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment . He has stated that he was kept in solitary confinement in a cell so dark that he began to see people from his past coming to visit him or even people from history who he had never met. He resolved that if he survived he
would write a poem about every person he had ever met. Maninbo as it is called in Korean has now gone to twenty volumes. Ten Thousand Lives is a selection from this work.

The staggering thing is the idea that every person is worth a poem. Ko Un’s subjects are by turns comical, wistful, tragic, poetic and plain scary – they cover the whole range of human experience. His grand-father one day raging drunk, the next day “fresh water’s blood-brother” standing under the rain spouting from the eaves of his house; Sam-man’s grandmother, “…such a great storyteller […] We kids would glimpse the whole wide world in her blackberry-black eyes”; Chin-Dong who “… was always forgetting everything/as if gongs were ringing in his head. …”;Aunt Ye-bok with “a laugh like cold bean-sprout soup”; Man-Sun’s family, all so gentle and kind that even the smoke from their house rises gently and kindly; Chae-Suk, “the girl from the house by the well. […]so like the darkness left after the moon’s gone down. …”;  idle Do-Sop, age six, waiting for evening so he can count stars; and Man-Sun, whose “…face was a mass of freckles,/as if she’d been liberally sprinkled with sesame seed,/but her brows were fine, and her eyes so lovely/they made breezes spring up from the hills and plains…” who is taken away as a comfort woman.

There are thieves, heroes, brothers who love each other, brothers who hate each other, misers so stingy they try to borrow a hammer so as not to wear out their own one, people who smile all the time, people who laugh all the time, people who are cleaning all the time and people who keep their promises after everyone else has forgotten what they were.

I’m not sure I know what it would be like to read the twenty volumes of Maninbo (apparently the complete project will have twenty-five), but reading this selection I felt life and lives running like sand through my fingers.

Here is one of my favourites:

Plum Blossom

The house in Saet’ŏ where Omok lives

is only a tiny thatched cottage and yet

so spick and span,

lacking in nothing, be it

rice, barley, wheat, soy-beans, red-beans, maize,

sorghum, millet, or oats,

all the traditional five or seven kinds of grain and corn,

all there:

the most frugal household around.

Omok’s mother:

such a careful housekeeper

with her hair tidy in a bun,

her apron never off.

When she winnows the rice,

sesame, or millet, not one stray seed

escapes from the tossing.

Beside that house,

when winter is gone

and spring returns,

two plum trees

stand blooming,

so although the house is empty

when the two are out working in the field,

those trees make the house all brightness.

One fine day or other some lucky fellow

will come courting

and carry off Omok, so like her mother.

He’ll carry her off on his back,

on his back. I hope he gets sore feet.

Here are some more poems from Ko Un on this website.

You can read three more poems here:Words Without Borders .

And ten more here.

Ko Un has written an amazing amount of work, including poetry, novels and translations. There is a lot of information about him at this site

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