Himalaya Poems

Ko Un

Your Pilgrimage

A slower pace, a somewhat slower pace will do.
Of a sudden, should it start to rain,
let yourself get soaked.
An old friend, the rain.

One thing alone is beautiful: setting off.
The world's too vast
to live in a single place,
or three or four.

Walk on and on
until the sun sets,
with your old accomplice,
shadow, late as ever.
If the day clouds over,
go on anyway

The Himalayas

Recollection is short, fantasy long!
A place where I'd never been born,
must never be born—
the Himalayas.

On whose behalf
did I go there?
I went with all ten fingers trembling.

With so many kinds of foolishness left back home,
I gazed up toward a few peaks
brilliant at eight thousand meters, their golden blades piled high.
Before that, and after,
I could not help but be an orphan.

I had but one hope:
to stay as far from the Himalayas as humanly possible,
and from the world of troublesome questions.
Yes, that was it.


There are stories.
There are people telling stories
and people listening to them.

The room is full
of the breath of the stories.

That is enough.

Eight months of winter at minus 40.
A weaned baby froze to death;
the grieving did not last long.

Soon there are stories.
Between prayers and more prayers
between one meal and the next
there are stories.
This kind of state is a perfect state.

A Long Night

We put up a tent for the night
between Shigatse and Latse.
As soon as the tent was up
a storm broke.
The tent shook as if about to fly away.

The water rose
up the river bank,
and with it the loud sound of the stream.

Shortly before, our water had boiled at 80 Centigrade.
Not anything like 100.
My anxiety and resignation had boiled away with it.

Already unrecallable sights have been swept away.
The sound of the river rose louder still.
The only thing left for me was to be swept away in the swollen stream.
I recalled my wife's face.
I recalled my daughter's face.
I had absolutely no use for things like truth.

translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha

Read the original in Korean

Read translator’s note

Ko Un was born in 1933. He is a world-famous figure, and has published more than 140 volumes of poetry and other writings, including the monumental, 30-volume Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) series. His work has been translated into every major language. An edition of English translations of poems selected from the first ten Maninbo volumes was published by Green Integer in 2005 under the title Ten Thousand Lives and Flowers of a Moment was published by BOA in 2006. A new edition of his Zen poems What? was published by Parallax Press in early 2008. A full selection of his poems, Songs for Tomorrow, was published by Green Integer late in 2008. His Himalaya Poems are to be published soon by Green Integer. Click here for his website.

Brother Anthony of Taizé is a contributing editor at Asymptote. He was born in England in 1942 and has been living in Korea since 1980. He has taught English literature at Sogang University, Seoul, for many years and is now an emeritus professor there, as well as a chair-professor at Dankook University. He has published more than thirty volumes of English translations of modern Korean literature, including eight volumes by Ko Un. His Korean name is An Sonjae. Click here for his website.

Lee Sang-Wha is a professor of English Literature at JoongAng University. Her specialty is utopias in literature and she has published a study of British utopian novels in the 20th century. She has also translated a number of literary works from English into Korean, including works by Gary Snyder.

In 1997, the Korean poet Ko Un and a few companions spent 40 days traveling rough through Tibet. They went walking over some of Tibet's highest passes, and he nearly died of altitude sickness. After his return he felt the continuing effects of oxygen-deprivation and could not write for a year or more. He finally recovered and composed a poetic record of his Tibetan journey, Himalaya Poems. It was published in Korea in the year 2000. An English version is to be published by Green Integer early in 2011. The poems do not follow his actual itinerary but offer a mosaic of impressions from the journey and his reading about Tibet. The poems are not highly complex but it is often hard to find an English style that is sufficiently allusive. The poet is often stressing the "otherness" of this Himalayan world, he does not sentimentalize it, neither does he bring any Orientalizing exoticism to it. Rather, we find evocations of the simple "thusness" of many Tibetan lives, in a kind of continuity with his monumental, 30-volume Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) about Korea lives. We are grateful for many very helpful stylistic suggestions made by the poet Hillel Schwartz, to whom we showed the completed manuscript. It is often helpful to have input from someone who knows no Korean, they can spot potential difficulties that we who know Korean do not even notice.