Mícheál Ó hAodha – Irish-language versions of the renowned Korean poet by Gabriel Rosenstock

michael-oDr. Mícheál Ó hAodha is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Limerick, Ireland. He has published more than 100 books in both Irish and English on the history of Irish migration and Irish nationalist history. In addition, his research interests include oral history, subaltern history, the history of “outsider” groups in Ireland and Irish history as recorded in the Irish language. His books have been published with Palgrave (MUP), Peter Lang, Mercier, Liffey Press, Farmar Press, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Edwin Mellen Press, Coiscéim, Rowman and Littlefield, Irish Academic Press and others. His next two books are due out shortly with Syracuse University Press and New Island. Between 2006 and 2008 he was AHRC scholar in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester. He is a regular contributor to the Irish-language columns of The Irish Times. – See more at: http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-old-boot-resouled#sthash.p3mhljHB.dpuf


Irish-language versions of the renowned Korean poet by Gabriel Rosenstock*

By Mícheál Ó hAodha

When the literature of Asia is discussed today, the name of Korean writer Ko Un is often mentioned. The word “prolific” doesn’t do him justice in fact. He leaves most other writers, both West and East, trailing in his tracks in terms of literary output – the man has written more than 140 volumes of poetry in a writing career spanning more than five decades.
His life-story is nearly as interesting as his writing and I don’t think it is possible to understand him as a poet without a knowledge of his own personal journey. A long-time advocate of civil rights and the reunification of Korea his name has been touted on many occasions as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His poetic work has a quality that is universal and timeless and he has written poems of great beauty, many of them relating to nature, human existence, death, truth, time. In addition to poetry Ko Un has also written fiction, essays, and drama.
A highly-intelligent man, he had read the classical Chinese texts at a young age and it was in 1945, and inspired by a local wandering leper-poet named Han Ha-Un, that he first began to compose poetry. Interestingly, certain aspects of his life echo the experiences of the last of the Gaelic poets, the suppression of the native culture, the “underground” form of education whereby his grandfather taught him Korean history and language, subjects which the Japanese suppressed. By the time of the liberation, Ko Un was virtually the only child in his village, who could read and write in his native language. Sound familiar? Add in the various tragedies and monstrous evil that the Korean people experienced in his generation and one finds elements that broke many other men (and women) emotionally and physically, never mind artistically! Modern Korean literature, of which Ko Un is the most celebrated icon – (in the West, at least; depending on the legacy of the Left-Right divide in that country and traditional concepts of what constitutes literature the Korean literati have more ambiguous and even highly-critical things to say about Ko Un and his writing) – cannot be discussed really without reference to the two most powerful constellation of events that shaped its trajectory – the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 until the “liberation” of 1945 and the subsequent “carving-up” of this vast country between the two rival super-powers of the Cold War era, the US and the former Soviet Union. This series of events ensured that the longed-for reunification of Korea was destroyed indefinitely after the Second World War (another apparently- tangential yet significant parallel with what happened in Ireland) when the Korean war erupted 1950-53, a period when Ko Un’s schooling was interrupted.
He volunteered for the People’s Army, but was rejected because he was underweight and was given another unbearably gruesome job instead. He was forced to cart away the corpses of the dead and saw at first-hand the evil man is capable of undertaking against others in the name of man-made philosophies and ideologies. Not only this, but he witnessed members of his own family murdered. (By a strange twist of fate, there are many aspects of Ko Un’s life that reflect another poet with a strong religious sensibility, one of Poland’s leading twentieth-century poets, and later pope, Karol Wojtyla, the poet as underground artist, the loss of siblings, parents and other family members at a young age, the lifelong search for spirituality and ascetism,the background of concentration camps, torture and mass murder on an ideological scale, the fear of imprisonment and death from a fascist and dictatorial miltary regime – in the case of both Ko Un and Wojtyla, this regime was one which elucidated a very extreme interpretation of Marxist principles).
In these years also, Ko Un is said to have poured acid into one his ears in an attempt to block out the “noise” and pain of the world. It is a strange irony that this partial-deafness and the fact that he spent considerable periods of his life in total darkness (i.e. blind – again the parallels with Gaelic tradition are similar – Raiftearaí, a similarly bohemian poet who was blinded by smallpox at a young age and liked drinking), when imprisoned in later life, may well have enabled him to write some of the most haunting poetry of the twentieth century.
Perhaps, in an effort to find inner peace after what he had seen and witnessed, Ko Un, became a Zen Buddhist monk in his late teens. He spent a decade in the monastery but left because he was unhappy in 1962 and returned to the world with a deeply nihilistic attitude to life, one that is reflected in his writings from this period. He drank heavily for a number of years after this and attempted suicide on a number of occasions. He also devoted himself completely to his poetic craft from this point onwards, however and when the South Korean authorities attempted to curb the flowering of the democracy movement in that country, he, as a leading intellectual, felt obliged to speak out about what was happening. In May, 1980, he was arrested during the coup d’etat led by Chun Doo-hwan, Ko was accused of treason and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
While in prison he began an epic cycle of poems entitled 10,000 Lives, a great and monumental project of remembering. He was often tortured through sensory deprivation while imprisoned and left in complete darkness for long periods, and with the ever-present fear of execution hanging over him.
Ga Gréine

Táim i ndeireadh na feide.
Beidh orm mo sheile a shlogadh
agus an mí-ádh ina teannta.
Ach féach!
Deonaíonn cuairteoir oirirc teacht
go dtí mo chillínse a bhfuil a aghaidh ó thuaidh.
Ní hé an ceannfort é ar a chuid cuairteanna, ní hé,
ga gréine is an tráthnóna chugainn.
Loinnir chomh beag le stampa poist craptha.
Táim craiceáilte ina diaidh. Mo chéad ghrá go deimhin!
Deinim iarracht í a shocrú ar mo dhearna,
teas a chur im chos a nochtas di go scáfar,
ansin nuair a théim ar mo ghlúine is mo ghnúis thanaí neamhdheabhóideach
á hofráil agam di, imíonn an loinnir faoi mar a shlogfadh an talamh í.
Tar éis don chuairteoir éalú trí na barraí
braitheann an seomra i bhfad níos fuaire agus níos dorcha.
An cillín speisialta seo i bpríosún míleata
is geall le seomra dorcha grianghrafadóra é.
Gan solas gréine ar bith gháireas im stumpa amadáin.
Cónra ab ea é lá ina raibh corpán.
Lá eile ba é an mhuir é. Nach iontach!
Tá cúpla duine anseo a thagann slán.
Muir gan oiread is seol amháin ar fhíor na spéire,
sin é an saol.


I’m utterly helpless.
I’ll just have to swallow my spit
and adversity, too.
But look!
A distinguished visitor deigns to visit
my tiny, north-facing cell.
Not the chief making his rounds, no.
As evening falls, a ray of sunlight.
A gleam no bigger than a crumpled postage stamp.
I’m crazy about it! Real first love!
I try to get it to settle on the palm of my hand,
to warm the toes of my shyly bared foot.
Then as I kneel and offer it my undevout, lean face,
in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.
After the guest has departed through the bars
the room feels several times colder and darker.
This special cell of a military prison
is like a photographer’s darkroom.
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.
One day it was altogether the sea. How wonderful!
A few people survive here.
Being alive is a sea
without a single sail in sight.

from SONGS FOR TOMORROW (Green Integer Books, 2009)

This monumental project was an attempt to celebrate and “re-present” the ordinary lives of the many hundreds of people he had seen murdered, and to celebrate their joys and sorrows. These poems explore the legacy of a war-ravaged and ideology-torn society in terms of its personal cost on individuals and families. Its themes include death and futility, apathy, an impotence in the face of a society over which its people have little or no control and how individuals maintain their human dignity in such a terrible environment. As the poet said in an interview for a British newspaper last year:
Half of my generation died,. And I survived. So there was a sense of guilt, of culpability, at being a survivor. They had all died, and here I was, still alive. So from that time on I’m inhabited by a lament for the dead. I have this calling to bring back to life all those who have died…Sometimes it’s not me writing at all. It’s they who are writing, they are there, ahead, a live presence in what lies ahead…

Ko was released in August 1982 as part of a general pardon but startled many of large following by revising many of his previously published poems. Ko married Sang-Wha Lee on May 5, 1983, and moved to Anseong, Gyeonggi-do, where he still lives. He has continued writing at a prolific rate and has travelled a great deal in the West where he has read his poetry in many countries. Only a writer as hard-working and prolific as Gabriel Rosenstock would have the audacity to attempt a generous selection of a poet such as Ko Un and to do so in the Irish language. We are indebted to his foresight in making his Ko Un’s beautiful poems available to the reading public in the Irish language.
Ko Un is a poet whose output, similar to many poets of the former Eastern Bloc, has yet to be as widely translated as it deserves to be and, to complicate matters, he is an artist who has dabbled in a huge range of styles and conventions and that just within the poetic genre alone – narrative lyric, epic narrative, philosophical reflection and meditation and short poems that surprise with their joyful and humorous nature; they are all here and Rosenstock’s selection is intriguing and clever. In his Introduction he emphasises a number of truly magnificent poems which celebrate and record the lives of women – wives, widows, mothers, matriarchs, aunts, grannies, daughters, peasant labourers, lovers:
Mná Pioctha na mBláthanna Úll
Nach sneachtúil an geimhreadh a bhí ann.
Tháinig an t-earrach ansin,
mar a bheadh doras á oscailt.
Leath an rosamh i bhfad i gcéin thar Shliabh Kuwol.
Mar sin féin áit uaigneach is ea an domhan
is tháinig an t-earrach.

Tháinig bláthanna ar na crainn úll
ag bun Shliabh Kuwol.
Thosnaigh mná as Unyul
mná as Changton sa dúthaigh thall,
cailíní as Songhwa, thosnaíodar ag tabhairt faoin mbóthar.

Tuáillí fáiscthe ar a gcloigeann acu, bhíodar ag imeacht,
ina ndeichniúr
nó scór duine acu,
bhíodar ag imeacht go dtí na húlloird in Hwangju agus Sariwon
chun na bláthanna úll a theascadh.
Bhí an iomarca bláthanna ann,
bhíodar chun iad a thanú is gan ach beagán a fhágaint ar na crainn.

Agus iad ag siúl rompu
ghabhadar trína a leithéid seo is a leithéid siúd de shráidbhaile,
cuid de na hamhráin a chanadar
bhíodar corraitheach go maith
is uaireanta ábhairín caointeach.

Nuair a chuireann siad an mullach díobh
téann fuaim na hamhránaíochta i léig
agus cronaíonn baitsiléirí an bhaile iad,
caitheann clocha leis na gadhair atá ag leanúint na meithle
is sa deireadh cuireann an ruaig orthu.

Mná agus cailíní pioctha na mbláthanna úll
tógann sé trí nó ceithre lá orthu
an t-úllord a bhaint amach.
Tagann grúpa eile
roinnt laethanta ina dhiaidh sin.

Caitheann siad an oíche i gceathrú na mban
sna sráidbhailte a ngabhann siad tríothu,
Is fágann leathán d’fheamainn thriomaithe as Changyon ina ndiaidh
mar chúiteamh ar an mbia,
agus iasc leasaithe as Songhwa.

Sa deireadh, úllord Sariwon, úllord Hwangju,
i measc dhuilleoga bánghlasa na gcrann úll
raidhse bláthanna bána.
Ar fud an úlloird go léir
mná as Unyul, mná as Changyon,
cailíní as Songhwa agus iad ag teascadh na mbláthanna,
duine acu ag canadh, an duine eile ag éisteacht.
Gan scíth a ghlacadh i gcaitheamh an ama,
géaga á síneadh, súile á síneadh,
ag teascadh na mbláthanna is airde le scil.

Tá deireadh pioctha anois acu, tar éis roinnt laethanta,
agus iad ar an mbóthar abhaile,
plé ar siúl acu, an ceart cuairt a thabhairt
ar Theampall Songbul ar Shliabh Chongbang.
Lig don bhanchliamhain bheith ag obair faoi ghrian an earraigh
is d’iníonacha féin faoi ghrian an fhómhair,
nach in a deirtear,
aghaidh na mban seo griandóite ag grian an earraigh.

B’éigean dóibh dul abhaile, gan amhras,
gan amhras, b’éigean dóibh dul abhaile.
Pléann siad an ceart dóibh dul chuig Aonach Bongsan
ach b’éigean dóibh dul díreach abhaile, ar ndóigh.
Bhí báibíní sa bhaile acu ar nós coiníní,
fir chéile ar nós cuaillí, b’éigean dóibh dul abhaile.
B’éigean dóibh, agus an ghaoth ag séideadh ina n-aghaidh,
barróg á tabhairt acu don ghaoth,
B’éigean dóibh agus an ghaoth ar a gcúl,
an ghaoth á hiompar acu ar a nguaillí.

Although one hesitates to categorize Ko Un at all – and this is in fact, impossible – the majority of his poems concern suffering, the senses, the natural world, the landscape and the sea, including a striking sequence of poems about a Himalayan sojourn.
Many of the poems are ambiguous or leave the reader guessing which may, in addition to the relative popularity of Buddhist-inspired works in the West, partly explain why readers find them so intriguing. It is not always clear what the “message” or “conclusion” of the poem is or, indeed, whether there is one at all:

Nagarjuna san India.
Wonhyo sa Chóiré.
Milarepa sa Tibéid.

Fad is a bhí sé ag aithrí
níor ith Milarepa ach neantóga bruite lá i ndiaidh lae.
D’iompaigh sé bánghlas ó bhaithis go bonn.

Faoi dheireadh is glas
a bhí a bhabhla cré chomh maith.

Is é an babhla sin anois m’oide, arsa Milarepa.
Má bhriseann an babhla
admhóidh mé
go bhfuil athrú i ndán don uile ní.

Agus na focail sin á rá aige os íseal
bhris an babhla agus chuaigh Milarepa as radharc.
Na bochtáin a lean é
d’itheadar neantóga is d’iompaíodar san, leis, glas.
Indeed, many of the poems begin as a form of philosophical musing where the poet reflects upon some aspect of his own personal experience after which the poem takes on a life of its own or transforms itself into a mysterious event or happening that surprises the reader, given the poem’s initial starting point:

Bealach Nua

Téigh go grinneall na farraige.
Chuig na míolta móra, na siorcanna is na ribí róibéis,
síos an bealach ar fad go dtí an duibheagán.
Beidh scata compánach ansin agat!

Ná lean coiscéimeanna an Bhúda
ná faic mar sin
síos go grinneall na farraige leat.

The most striking aspect of Ko Un’s style, at least from the perspective of the Western reader who comes to his work afresh is the manner whereby he turns the world “upside-down” and challenges the set terms by which we define our everyday “normal” lives and human experiences. In his poems there are eyes that hear, tongues that listen, ears that speak. The dawn is awoken by the receding darkness. It is in indeed a world of dawn being awakened by darkness, and so much else. And all this, in a style which seems almost effortless and without striving, and without any of the apparent “unity” that so many poets have struggle so hard towards over long years of writing.
Maybe we need to go back to the Buddhist influences on his sensibility to understand what Ko Un is doing artistically here. Although we in the West tend to perceive Buddhism as a philosophy of continuity given such elements as karma, rebirth, transmigration and material rebirth, a significant discontinuity lies at its true heart also. This is particularly so with respect to the older Indian philosophical conception of time, and as evidenced in Ko Un’s poetry. From this perspective, time is a series of a series of radical breaks or discontinuities, a form of duality, as trapped between past and future, a duality which has the non-dual or eternal at the core of its nature since time is ceaseless and apparently subject to constant self-renewal.


Tá scéalta ann.
Daoine ag insint scéalta
agus daoine ag éisteacht leo.

Tá an seomra lán
d’anáil na scéalta.

Is leor sin.

Ocht mí gheimhriúla, míneas 40.
Leanbh a baineadh den chíoch cailleadh leis an bhfuacht é.
Níor mhair an caoineadh i bhfad.

Is gearr go raibh scéalta ann
idir urnaithe is tuilleadh urnaithe
idir dhá bhéile
scéalta arís.
Staid na foirfeachta an staid seo.

In Ko Un’s poety, each moment of our lives is seen as something completely new, unique and beautiful – a new beginning without any connection with that which came before. Ironically, it may be these very discontinuities and sudden cleavages that give Ko Un’s poems their particular power.
Mothúcháin Dhoimhne

Ag fanacht ar feadh na mblianta le calóg shneachta amháin
luisne im cholainn mar a bheadh fioghual ann
is mhúch ansin.

Leis sin, bhí na ciocádaí ag canadh, ansin ní raibh.

The absence of any form of closure or acknowledged meaning that defines his poetry, while frustrating to some of us, are the grist to Ko’s mill and enhance his profligacy as a poet. His mind is always searching and each living moment is celebrated with a beauty and stillness that is itself a form of birth, death and renewal. Ko Un once wrote that “Poetry is a revolution of the soul erupting into the open from within a person”. If any revolution can be deemed to be of exquisite beauty, then it is certainly this one. Vive la Revolution!

* Scairt Feithide: Rogha Dánta Ko Un
Gabriel Rosenstock
(An Sagart €15) An Daingean: Co. Kerry
ISBN: 1-903896-78-9



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