Tuesday, December 28, 2010

One word, one meaning?

A Blizzard of Meaning?
(Image from eglos.com)

One of my favorite columnists in the Korea Herald, Dr. Kim Seong-kon, has written an amusing critique of unimaginative exams, "Hitchcock, Chaplin and Korean exams" (December 22, 2010) -- including a couple of 'exams' that Hitchcock and Chaplin failed in interpreting their own work --- but he particularly dislikes the Korean SAT. Dr. Kim is an English professor at SNU (Seoul National University), and one of his literary essays was included in the Korean SAT Preparation Book, but he found the question posed so wrongheaded as to leave him appalled. I'll leave that one for you read about on your own and decide for yourself if you are similarly appalled. Instead, I'd like to focus on an example that I personally find more appalling:
[The] Poet Choi Seung-ho . . . often complains about the Korean equivalent of the SAT test, which contains questions on his poems such as "Blizzard Warning."

"Even I fail to find the right answer," he muttered. "In poetry, image is like flesh, rhythm is blood and meaning is like bones. But the exam forces students to find the bones only."

Indeed, our testing policy, as well as our education system forces our students to forget the warm flesh and blood, and search for the dried bones of a dead man instead. It is common sense that you cannot possibly find one answer when it comes to poetic meaning. In fact, you cannot simply find one meaning for each stanza and line of a poem. Unfortunately, however, the Korean SAT test leads students to believe there is only one correct meaning in a poetic word or stanza, which is definitely a serious fallacy.
Not quite the poetic fallacy, of course, but pathetically fallacious, nonetheless. One word, one meaning works well in logic but not in poetry, which thrives on wordplay and polyvalent signification. Even prose often plays with words, as in Professor Kim's use of "bones" to refer both to "dead man" and to "meaning."

Now, I don't know Choi's poem "Blizzard Warning," but I'd bet my bottom dollar that the word "Blizzard" has more than one meaning in the poem, perhaps much as my poem "Water Witching" is not just about dowsing but uses the expression "water witching" to refer both to dowsing and to something else that might also require a bit of magic.

Read it on your own if interested . . . and also Professor Kim's article.

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At 10:22 AM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

Finally, a current of sanity in the South Korean educational sea of insanity.

It reminds me of the time I got to pick Robert Wise's mind about some of his films (could not mention "Star Trek" though due to some bad blood there) and found that my PhD of a film professor was not only totally off the mark but not even in the same ball park when it came to "The Day The Earth Stood Still." Mr. Wise said that many of the scenes had no hidden or special meanings other than they looked good and sounded good when he was shooting them.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Professor Kim Seong-kon has long been on the side of the angels. He thinks for himself, something increasingly rare not only in Korea but even in the academic world at large, I sometimes fear.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting article. However, if I may play the devil's advocate...

Does the article make any observations that are really new to a lot of Koreans? I would assume that most Koreans already realize that the Korean education sytem turns their students into "mechanical robots that must automatically pick the "right" answers".

Personally, I would rather like to see influential Koreans writing articles that discuss suggestions for fixing/improving the Korean education system (instead of making the same observations over and over again).

End of snarky comment...

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that Professor Kim has suggested changes in some of his other articles, but from what I recall, he thinks the forces of the fallen angels are too powerful.

Mainly, he critiques and suggests, but I have the impression that he's not especially optimistic.

I met him once, though, and he seemed quite energetic, the sort of person who can get things done . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:47 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Jeffery, it it is not too forward a request, might we invite Professor Kim to consider writing something for Emanations?

And John from Daejeon: Could you write up that discussion you had with Mr. Wise? Again, for Emanations. We're looking not so much for academic writing, but for academics writing in a rather more informal, subjective and candid mode. Yes, and with the emphasis on candid. The mask removed, you might say. It is my feeling (and this has been confirmed by what I am seeing in submissions so far) when academics lower the mask they can be very nimble, forceful and (hence) entertaining writers.

Sorry, but I see these wonderful themes and writers emerging all over the place, and I feel it is my proper role to ask.

At 1:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I can send Professor Kim a note to inquire.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:21 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Cheers. Thanks very much.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No problem.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your poem, and thought it was interesting. I will bring it up again and muse over it again.
But by noting that your grandmother was a dowser, I wanted to relate my own experience.
Woodrow and I were helping two other men remodel a motel across and to the west side of the river bridge, just past the Fulton County Hopital.
The backhoe man was going to dig up the water line and tie into it.
There was no record of its location, and we were wondering what to do. One of the men said he could find it. He took two wire coat hangers, straightened them, made a 90 degree bend on one end, held them in his hands and started walking. Suddenly they crossed, and he put a rock down.
He walked back and forth, and laid down a rock every time the things crossed.
He asked if one of us wanted to try it. Nobody volunteered, so Woodrow handed them to me and said, "Try it, Cran." I didn't want to, but the guys dared me.
I tried it, and sure enough, they crossed over the line. Woodrow said, "Hey! Cran's a water witch."
That was my one and only experience.
I've never tried again, and can't explain how it worked.


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I believe that both Grandma Nora and Aunt Pauline alluded to that story, for they both said that you discovered that you had the gift for water witching, but I'd never heard the entire anecdote.

Jeffery Hodges

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