Ku Sang

Korean poet

Saturday 22 May 2004 00:00
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Ku Sang was a Korean poet of great originality and personal integrity. As well as poetry, he wrote essays on social, literary, and spiritual topics, and plays and scenarios, and edited popular anthologies. He was already in his seventies before translations of his poetry began to be published - in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Japanese. The Korean International Pen Centre several times proposed him for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ku Sang, poet: born Seoul 16 September 1919; married (one daughter, and two sons deceased); died Seoul 11 May 2004.

Ku Sang was a Korean poet of great originality and personal integrity. As well as poetry, he wrote essays on social, literary, and spiritual topics, and plays and scenarios, and edited popular anthologies. He was already in his seventies before translations of his poetry began to be published - in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Japanese. The Korean International Pen Centre several times proposed him for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He was born in Seoul in 1919, but grew up in the north-eastern city of Wonsan. His parents were Catholics; his elder brother became a priest and was later martyred by the Communists at the outbreak of the Korean War. Ku Sang underwent a crisis of faith during his student years in Japan, where he studied the philosophy of religion, especially Buddhism; in later life he came to his own understanding of Catholicism through the works of French philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and Gabriel Marcel.

Ku Sang returned to the northern part of Korea to begin work as a journalist. Not long after the Liberation from Japan at the end of the Second World War he was forced to flee to the South because of conflict with the already all-powerful Communist authorities when he tried to publish his first volume of poems, deemed to be ideologically flawed. His mother remained in the North and he never saw her again.

In the South he served in military intelligence during the war with the North, and then worked for various newspapers. Soon after the war ended, when the ageing president Syngman Rhee was clearly abusing his powers, Ku Sang wrote articles attacking his regime. He was immediately imprisoned on trumped-up charges. After his release, he lectured on literature in a number of universities.

He first attracted popular attention with the poems he wrote on the sufferings caused by the Korean War, Choto-ui shi (1956). These were translated into English in 1989 as Wastelands of Fire. Later, in 1979, he wrote on specifically Catholic themes in Nazareth ui Iesu ("Jesus of Nazareth"). But his finest poetry is probably found in the two 100-poem cycles he wrote about the spiritual, social and ecological values he discovered in nature - Christopher ui gang ("Christopher's River" 1978) and Pat ilgi ("Diary of the Fields", 1967). These were published in English in one volume as River and Fields: a Korean century in 1991. The volume Mogwa ongduriedo sayeoni itta (1984, translated as Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales, 2004) contains 100 poems evoking his life's stumbling progress through the agonies of modern Korean history.

His poetry was, from early on, marked by a rejection of the refined symbolism and artificial rhetoric that characterised some senior Korean poets. Instead, Ku Sang often begins his poems with the spontaneous, artless evocation of a sudden moment of perception, in the midst of the city or of nature, and moves from there to more general considerations, frequently becoming into a meditation on the presence of Eternity in very ordinary experiences. His finest work has a Zen-style lightness and freedom.

He was remarkable for his laughing responses to life. A neighbourhood child once referred to him as "that old man who looks like a little boy playing".

Anthony Teague

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