Translator's notes

Two poems by Ko Un

By Ko Un

Born in 1933, Ko Un is more widely known across the world than any other Korean writer. He is frequently invited to read at major festivals and his work has been translated into more than 30 languages. His leading role as a dissident and human-rights activist during the years of military dictatorship, in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was often arrested, made him widely known. His poetry is essentially lyrical and often narratorial, with a focus on everyday experiences. He is one of the world’s most prolific writers, having published more than 155 books. This is only possible because he writes like a poetic shaman, passionately, little concerned to revise and refine details of style. He is always on the verge of leaving one poem behind in order to write the next, and constantly reinvents his style and himself. Driven to despair by the horrors of the Korean War, he spent 10 years as a Buddhist monk. Leaving the monastic life to become a poet, he spent the later 1960s in deep, dark nihilism. Imprisoned for several years after the 1980 military coup, he was 50 when he was freed and married Lee Sang-Wha. In the 1990s he published a flood of books. Now over 80, he still travels, still writes. In 2013 he spent several months in Italy then, returning to Korea, published a volume Untitled Poems from which these poems are taken. Over a thousand pages, with 539 numbered poems, as well as 100 pages of titled poems, all published for the first time! His work is playful, light, immensely varied in length and topic, and we have tried to preserve the flow and flavour of the original writing without dressing it up in foreign clothing, despite the very considerable difference between Korean and English prosody.

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