Loyal readers who have followed this site from its early months may recall a question posed by a visitor about a year ago. Gavin O’Toole was working on assembling a compilation of poems from around the world about the great revolutionary Che Guevara. He’d heard that there was a couple of poems about him by Korean poets, and he needed to track them down in translation. After some help from LKL readers we confirmed Ko Un and Min Yeong as the prime candidates for inclusion, but the problem was — the poems were only available in Korean.
One quick email from LKL to Brother Anthony of Taizé via the Korean Studies Portal distribution list, and those translations were quickly forthcoming. Working with his wife Lee Sang-wha and consulting with the poets themselves, Brother Anthony produced the translations which are included in the book. Brother Anthony kindly gave me permission to reproduce them, and I posted them here last year.
Now, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Che’s death, the whole collection has come off the presses. The launch party was last week, and I was able to meet the editors to mark my very small part in the production of a piece of revolutionary literary history.
The collection is a monumental labour of love. Getting the necessary publishing permissions from 135 poets in 53 countries cannot have been an enjoyable task, and meticulous attention has been paid to ensuring all contributors get an acknowledgement1. Biographies have been provided for all poets and translators, and an extensive introduction has been provided by Gavin O’Toole.
The range of poems, and the way they deal with the iconic subject matter, is very broad. Sometimes Che only gets a passing mention, sometimes the whole poem is about him. Sometimes he’s just a logo on the tight T-shirt of a cute protest marcher, sometimes he’s an all-pervasive Christ-like figure offering inspiration or redemption. What is without doubt is that, as the back cover says (and as the geographical distribution of the poets represented in this book attests) he’s “the first truly global icon of the modern era”.
So what did he mean to two poets on the other side of the world? The biographies of the poets2 and their involvement in the democracy movement of the 1970s and 1980s provide the answer:
Ko Un (1933- ) is one of Korea’s greatest poets and has been shortlisted for the Nobel prize for literature several times. Traumatised by the suffering of his family and friends in the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk, only returning to secular life in 1962 as a poet. He suffered emotional problems and attempted suicide several times. He was a leading activist in South Korea’s democracy, human rights and labour movements and was jailed four times after 1974 as well as suffering house arrest and torture. His obvious deafness is due in part to beatings inflicted by the police when he was arrested in 1979. In 1980, during the coup d’etat, he was accused of treason and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, but was released in 1982 as part of a general amnesty. He has published some 140 volumes, including verse and fiction. His works have been translated into 15 languages, he has won many awards, and he has been a leading light in efforts to improve relations with North Korea.
Min Yeong (1934- ) is a poet, writer and democracy activist who is best known as one of the poets who resisted South Korean dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s alongside Ko Un, Shin Kyong-nim and Kim Nam-ju. He was born in Cholwon, to the north-east of Seoul, but in 1937 his parents fled the poverty of Korea, which had been under Japanese rule since 1910, to seek a better life, before the family returned to Korea after Liberation in 1945. His first published collection of poetry was Danjang (Fragments, 1972) and at least four other collections have followed, his most recent being Haejigi chon ui sarang (Love Before Sunset, 2001). He has written a number of books for children.
Give the poems a read, for the directness of the language and emotion.
- Buy Che in Verse from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk. A great seasonal stocking-filler for the revolutionary in your life.
- Cuba honours Che Guevara 40 years after death, Reuters, 8 October 2007
- 40 years on, Latin America remembers Che Guevara, Times, 8 October 2007
- Even LKL gets a mention at the bottom of page 325
- again, provided by Brother Anthony