In a recent issue of Poetry Magazine, I came across a translation (by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock) of a poem by Korean poet Ko Un. It caught my eye because, in a few brief lines, the poem created a whole, mysterious imaginative world.
from the other world.
Hiss of night rain.
Someone's going there now.
The two are sure to meet.
One way to read this poem is as a reflection on birth and death. A sort of balance is envisioned; one person leaves the world, another one comes (or perhaps returns). What interests me most, though, is that moment when the poet imagines both persons meeting.
Where is it, I ask myself, that this meeting occurs? I suppose it is a kind of Bardo state, a liminal space visible to the poet when things are murky (like on a rainy night) in the ordinary world. But as mysterious as this imaginative space may be, it insists itself upon the speaker's consciousness, hissing into his awareness.
The Riddle of the Two Buddhist Monks
The alternate world that the poem creates is the result of a blending of two states that normally don't occur in a single space: coming/going or birth/death. By blending these opposites, a third state is created -- one that transcends both. (Note: "Conceptual blending" has been covered earlier on this blog, here).
This all reminded me of a riddle I came across recently in a book by Mark Turner, a literary scholar who draws on coginitive science, entitled The Origin of Ideas.
The riddle, said to originate with Arthur Koestler, goes like this:
"A Buddhist monk begins at dawn one day walking up a mountain, reaches the top at sunset, meditates at the top overnight until, at dawn, he begins to walk back to the foot of the mountain, which he reaches at sunset. Make no assumptions about his starting or stopping or about his pace during the trips. Riddle: is there a place on the path that the monk occupies at the same hour of the day on the two trips?"
The answer is yes, but what interests Turner is how our minds go about finding it. He shows us that one way to do so is to compress the two trips and envision, in the mind's eye, not one, but two Buddhist monks (though they are the same person) -- each traveling a different direction (up or down the mountain path). Then, through our imaginative visualization we see for ourselves that...
"...no matter how the two monks move, so long as they start at dawn, end at dusk, and traverse the path without leaving it, the monks must always cross, or meet, somewhere, at least once, and that meeting point will be the location that the monk occupies at the same hour of the day on the two successive days. We do not know what point it will be, but we know that there must be at least one such point."
To solve such a riddle, Turner points out, we suspend time and space as well as the way we normally think of personhood. For we blend two days and two directions into one moment in one location -- and clone a single person into two. Like in the Ko Un poem, we create an alternate world where coming and going meet, except this time it's the same person who meets himself coming and going.
The theme of Turner's book is that this sort of conceptual blending (of which poetry provides the richest examples), is something we all do everyday to solve mundane problems, or even (or especially?) to help us come to terms with existential riddles. In the case of Koestler's riddle, such imaginative blending enables us to solve a thought problem without having to resort to a laborious mathematical proof.
And when it comes to a poem like "Ear", the "blend" offers a way to think about what's normally unthinkable: the infinite. Through creating a space outside of life and death, the speaker -- and we readers -- get a handle (at least for a moment) on the incomprehensible.
The revolutionary writer, Lautreamont, once insisted that "poetry must be made by all."
What fascinates a fan of poetry like myself is that the notion of conceptual blending suggests that Lautreamont was right, but in a way he couldn't have anticipated. For according to writers like Mark Turner, eveyone, of necessity, uses their own, innate metaphor-making and, and in this sense, poetic abilities everyday, to create blends that aid in navigating and reconstructing the many clashing worlds we all inhabit.
In other words, it takes a hell of a lot of imagination to get through the day. Any day. Thoughts?