Conversation / 4 September 2016

If Poetry is a Mountain, Prose is an Ocean

An Interview with the South Korean Poet Ko Un

Ko Un is a South Korean author whose works have been translated into more than 15 languages. He has been imprisoned many times, due to his role in the campaign for Korean democracy. He is in the mix as a potential Nobel Prize candidate. He has authored some 155 volumes, among them novels, poetry, drama, essays, travel books and translations from classical Chinese. 

The conversation was held in the frame of Days of Poetry and Winde festival in Ptuj, Slovenia.

Anja Radaljac (AR): What would be the perfect opening question for an interview with a poet? How would you like to start a conversation?

Ko Un (KU): I believe that a poet can receive a question of any kind; his answers will – regardless of the questions – always be endless, as the material for poems is just such. And even when he receives no questions whatsoever, he can just look at the sky at night and the sky will provide questions to which he will answer. When I meet someone who is asking me questions, I take them as waves of the sea. But answers can't solve everything, you know; they just might be simply questions in other forms.

AR: Your poetry – at least to a certain extent – follows the Huayan philosophy; how do you perceive history – personal and political, in that sense?

KU: I can answer to you as I would answer to a child: I exist because of you and you exist because od me. The first syllable of the word “huayan” – “hua” – means flowers. And I would like to compare flowers to the universe. You and me, together, become flowers … and in that moment, history disappears. Human history excludes every other being, it is very cruel and narrow; if you perceive history in that sense, there are no stars, no butterflies… I believe that we should correct the general concept of history and include nature, include the whole of the universe. The kind of history we currently nurture is not the true one. When you are in a “huayan,” everything becomes one, when you swim in the ocean of “huayan,” you don't know at which coast you'll arrive. While I am alive, I would like to float in the ocean of “huayan.” I don't want to reach any certain coast.

AR: In one interview, you proposed that we can use the word “relation” as a synonym for the word “life,” because we can only exist in relation to others. Considering we are an individualistic society, how would you describe our contemporary relations?

KU: I think that your question – indirectly perhaps – points out something very important: when you perceive relation as utterly significant, then you can ignore the agents that form a relationship. I'd like to point out that, in philosophy, existence often comes first, but I could not agree. I think that relation, in fact, comes first. A single unit cannot have any sort of a relationship; for example – we have to have Adam and Eve, because without the two of them, there is only single unit. In ancient China, in the famous Book of Changes, we find yin and yang, existing together, composing the universe together: first we have a relation, individualistic existence only follows. It is like a relation between a verb and a noun – the verb becomes a noun. I become in the process of coming out of my mother’s womb. I am made by my movement from my mother’s womb to this world. Action comes before existence. In a political sense, “I” can become independent, and independency can evolve into isolation. “I” becomes imprisoned, confined by “I.” At the same time, a relationship should not be defining individuals one by one – the difference between existence and relation should be erased, neither one or the other should continue to exist as the “only value,” together they should evolve in another life. One part of my answer to this question lies in my poem, “First Person Sorrowful.”

AR: How do you perceive relations between philosophy, poetry and politics? What is the essence of the poetry in that sense?

KU: I would like to answer this question indirectly, if I may. So – we have reality, on one hand, and dreams on the other. We cannot step out of reality but, at the same time, we cannot live – not even one day – without dreams. Sometimes we are lost in dreams, and some other times we simple live in reality. The most silly thing we can try to do is live in just one way, just in reality or just in a dream. I hope you can understand this metaphor.

AR: What is the role of poetic discourse today?

KU: I think it is important that poetry does not enclose itself in some kind of a ghetto. I believe that the fatal weakness of modern poetry is its monologist nature. In the optimal circumstances, dialogue and monologue should communicate, should work together to make something new. In the history of poetry, we have had many, many poetic discourses… But we could compare their fate with snakes, who cast away their skins before the cold days come; there is, so to speak, a lot of such dead skin laying around. I am not a big fan of “discourses” anyway, and I don't have time to make them, I just want to write as many poems as I can. As a cow likes to moo, a lion likes to roar, a volcano likes to erupt, a lake likes to make little waves or a butterfly to fly elegantly, I would like to devote my time on Earth to writing as many poems as I can – instead of “making discourse.” The world has been too busy making the discourses anyway.

AR: You are mainly interviewed as a poet, but you are a novelist, too – how do you feel about prose?

Ko Un: I wouldn't want to make a differentiation between them as genres of the literature – I would like to talk about both of them on another level. Poetry, at least for me, has a different form of soul than a novel. Poetry is something completely different from prose, I could say that poetry exists as a combination of philosophy, astronomy and other sciences. I don't want to propose that prose is somehow inferior. I could put it that way: if poetry is a mountain, then prose is an ocean. When I am writing prose, I am writing as a prose writer – poetry, at least for me, is not a continuation of prose, I write poems totally independently. In my study, I even have several different writing tables – one is for writing prose, one for poetry, one for Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) only. It is not possible for me to concentrate on different things at the same table.

AR: What is the most important realization, or even revelation, that an author can come to?

KU: I must say that I prefer intoxication to realization. I could compare it to getting drunk without drinking – in poetry, you do not come to realization, you come to drunkenness. If, for example, I don't like T. S. Eliot a lot, it is because in his poetry there is not enough intoxication, there is not that special kind of drunkenness. I think that all poems should have at least some of that drunkenness in them. It is like in shamanism, where shamans connect with God. Poetry is a way of communication between my heart and the universe. Poetry can unite you and the universe. It is like when you dance – then you have wings on your shoulders.


Anja Radaljac

is a comparativist, literary and theater critic, author and animal rights activist. In 2014, she published her first book, novel Polka from the sand verges (LUD Literatura) and in 2016 the genre hybrid text Desert, basement, catacombs (Litera). In her texts, she often addresses the questions of gender, women's rights and interspecies relationships. She gave a series of lectures on the issue of animal rights in Slovenian high schools and wrote a series of columns on the issue for the online medium of Airbeletrina.