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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 559-578

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Zen Poetry and Realism:
Reflections on Ko Un's Verse

Paik Nak-chung

The following essay was originally written in Korean as a contribution to the Festschrift volume celebrating the sixtieth birthday of Ko Un (b. 1933).1 In addition to the obvious, yet not uncritical, task of paying tribute to a distinguished contemporary poet, it had two other aims: (1) a characterization of certain important developments in Korean poetry at an early point in the then new decade, following some momentous changes both within South Korea and on the geopolitical scene, and (2) an exploration, if largely implicit, into the nature of poetic quest.

Some remarks on the background seem in order regarding the first of these aims. The 1980s in South Korea began with the Kwangju massacre of May 1980 and witnessed a sharp radicalization of student and mass movements resisting Chun Du-hwan's new military rule. In literature the decade produced a large crop of militant works and a fierce critical debate on the political function of art, with many vocal advocates of literature dedicated [End Page 559] to the proletarian and/or national liberationist cause. The success of mass protest movements in June 1987 meant both a further stimulus to these tendencies initially and a necessity for fundamental rethinking in the longer run. The geopolitical transformations of 1989–1991 coincided with this domestic conjuncture, producing a rather abrupt change in the atmosphere of the literary world as well. Not only the more rigid doctrines and sloganeering works but any concern for social and political reality as such was often rejected or derided.

The vogue for “Zen poems” in the early 1990s can be seen as a reflection of this atmosphere. While the merits of individual productions naturally vary, both the mystical and the antinaturalistic elements in Zen provided a fit antidote to, and in some cases an easy escape from, the militant politics and the various kinds of ‘‘realism'' of the 1980s. It is important to note, however, that there indeed was more than one kind of realism. Most of the works extolled by the more extremist critics hardly diverged from the socialist realism of the official Soviet school, yet a more complex critical discourse of earlier decades also persisted, adopting the Lukácsian distinction between true realism and naturalism but also moving beyond what the critics saw as György Lukács's political and conceptual narrowness.

The project of assessing Korean poetry of the early 1990s and at the same time pondering the nature of poetry by juxtaposing the terms Zen and realism must be seen in this particular historical and literary-critical context. Ko Un's aptness for this project hardly needs elucidation to readers familiar with South Korea's poetic scene. Nor will I attempt here to give even a sketch of his biography.2 With ten years of actual experience behind him as a Zen monk and considerable fame if not notoriety as an aesthete and nihilist during the earlier years of his poetic career, Ko emerged in the mid-1970s as one of the most militant leaders of the democratization movement and a strong advocate and practitioner of the literature of political commitment. Yet throughout the 1980s, when he wrote some of his finest work, his relationship with the more radical colleagues in the movement remained highly ambiguous. He managed to sustain the same complex attitude in the changed atmosphere of the early 1990s, producing (as I attempt to show below) a highly original combination of the new interest in Zen poetry and the old spirit of social commitment. [End Page 560]

Since my essay of 1993, Ko Un has continued on his amazingly prolific career. He has published several more collections of shorter verse, with numerous poems that exhibit the same strength as discussed in the essay; completed the multivolume epic Paektu Mountain, which despite many wonderful passages did not finally live up to the expectations raised by the splendid opening book;3...


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