2020 Countdown, day 4: Remember me? says the earth

Anyone still here? The countdown series is winding down—only four more days. The poems will be dark for the next seventy-two hours but I promise to close out 2020 on a positive note.


Today we look at the forgotten sister of the Family Annus Horribilis, climate change. Just as ugly as her siblings but unnoticed amidst their headline-stealing escapades.


I left Ko Un’s poem “In the old days a poet once said” at a gas station.


poem is on pillar


In the old days a poet once said

by Ko Un


In the old days a poet once said

our nation is destroyed

yet the mountains and rivers survive


Today’s poet says

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

yet our nation survives


Tomorrow’s poet will say

the mountains and rivers are destroyed

our nation is destroyed and Alas!

you and I are completely destroyed



(The repetition of the first line in the photographed poem is my error.)


We’ve been so consumed with the virus and politics in 2020, it’s easy to forget it’s also been a year of record-breaking natural disasters. Just here in the United States we’ve experienced a record number of hurricanes, we’ve had wildfires in California, Oregon and Colorado that destroyed more acreage than any fire ever, record heat, terrible flooding (remember the dam collapse in Midland, Michigan? me either and I live in Michigan). Worldwide the story gets worse—oil spills, volcano eruptions, typhoons, bushfires.


When I was looking for a poem to mark the year’s environmental disasters, Ko Un’s “In the old days a poet once said” was the shortest, simplest, and to my mind, most powerful. This is a grim little poem made slightly less grim (Grimm?) by the fairy tale overtones. In the old days, the poem begins, and the parallel structure of the tidy triad keeps the horrors in check. Even the Alas! (which holds the single end mark punctuation in the whole poem) is a light and fanciful touch given the outcome predicted. It all makes for a poem that’s hard to forget.




I’ve never come across a poet with a more eventful life than Ko Un. Whatever could befall one human being—war, deafness, spiritual conversion, suicide, alcoholism, imprisonment, torture, literary stardom, and sadly, late-life accusations of sexual harassment and subsequent cultural “cancellation,” Ko Un has been through it. He’s a superstar (or was) in Korea but is only gradually becoming known outside his native country. For much of his life a repressive government prevented his work from being translated.


Ko Un was born in 1933 in Korea to a peasant family. During the Korean War he was forced to be a gravedigger. He was so traumatized by violence and death he poured acid in his ear to stop the noise, leaving him deaf. He entered a Buddhist monastery in 1952, but left after ten years. He fell into despair, drinking and writing nihilist poetry. In the 70’s, inspired by a newspaper article on the self-immolation of a political protestor, he committed himself to fight for human rights and democracy against the military dictatorship. He was arrested, imprisoned three times, beaten and tortured.


In 1983 he was freed from prison, got married, had a daughter, moved to the countryside. He has  published over 135 books, and has been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature.


In 2018 allegations of sexual harassment led to his poems being removed from South Korean textbooks. Ko Un denied the charges.


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