South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time


This Side of Time: Poems by Ko Un - Ko  Un, Claire Young, Richard Silberg

Ko Un is another poet I found while browsing Many of us (Westerners) have come across Japanese or Chinese poetry, but rarely Korean poetry. That’s a shame. The Korean Wave has brought us Korean popular culture–K-pop and drama–and I hope the country’s literature rides that wave.


Ko Un is a big deal in South Korea, and translations of some of his many works (over 100 volumes of poetry) have brought him to a larger context. I subscribe to the Dodge Poetry Festival on YouTube, and noticed they have videos of him reading (in Korean, with a translator). He’s been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He’s also one of those poets who’s led quite a life: soldier, zen monk, teacher, political prisoner, and political activist.


This Side of Time, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg, presents poems from three collections. The poems are mostly short, many with the sort of surprise turn at the end that delights or moves. In a way, it’s like reading the best parts of longer poems: that shift at the close that brings the whole poem into focus and makes you revisit it. I’m a longtime fan of concision, too, of the highly lyric moment, and these poems are great examples of that. They’re often witty, earthy, sometimes sad but not depressing. They offer a deep caring about the world.


An example:


Regular Guy


We trust there is sun

when it’s covered by clouds.

We believe in the world

even though we all die.

We believe in this world of trees and grass.


This is a collection you’d be able to enjoy no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with poetry.


I copied down a couple poems from the book and put them on my brother and sister-in-law’s refrigerator when I visited recently; they hadn’t yet noticed them before I left. I hope when they did, the poems changed a moment of their day.

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South Korea’s Ko Un, This Side of Time