Meditation on Beauty

Begin with breathing, as usual. Today we think about beauty. Let us be aware of all the preconceptions and just look at them in our mind. Symmetrical patterns. Some sort of similarity with things we expect to give us pleasure. An evolutionary side effect like a peacock feathers that for the female peacock are not beautiful but merely a trigger for reproductive behavior. Breathe again.

Let’s apply an operation we like when we feel we are stuck in static thinking. We understand our concept as a verb. We say not: something is beautiful, but: something beauties us. We want the aspect of time, of development. What we are saying is that beauty is structured like a narrative, a story. That is a wild speculation so let’s have a glass of water before we continue.

A story must engage us to invoke any emotion. We are going to make vague arguments that would require an entire book, but we don’t have time for the book. Yet, we are not rushing either. A story is told by another mind, we intuitively know this mind has the same expressive capability as we do. It is in the same way limited as we are: we cannot think its limitation. We breathe. This would be a complicated argument that we will leave for another time. Beauty is also a story that must be told in a language that we experience as universal.

Let’s think of traditional art forms like a symphony, a classicist painting or a sonnet. We find beauty in them as long as the story engages us. When we become aware of the limitations of their language, we might start to find it trivial and incapable of an aesthetic predicate. Once we talk about the limitations of tonal music, realist painting or formal poetry, we oblige ourselves to extend the domain of beauty. A theorist who is fully aware of these things might find beauty in Schönberg, Warhol or Ginsberg. This doesn’t invalidate the beauty of Beethoven, Rembrandt and Shakespeare, it just adds new ideas for situations where the limits of the old aesthetics become visible, much like Einstein’s theory of relativity didn’t invalidate Newton’s laws in their limited domain.

Breathe. We can read a book about the history of philosophical aesthetics and to which ‘school’ we belong. What is it we are saying? That aesthetic relativism is a serious challenge (a scandal even) that we must continually address. We can’t eliminate the notion of aesthetic relativism because things change and new limits become visible. Relativism can never be total either, because there are certain characteristics of ‘beautying’ (or ‘uglying’) that we can derive from its structure as a story.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Beauty was originally published on Meandering home


Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
William Shakespeare

was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Green Grapes by Yuk-Sa Lee

Yi Yuksa (1904-1944) was a well-known Korean poet and independence activist. As one of Korea’s most famous poets, he and his works symbolize the spirit of the Korean anti-Japanese resistance of the 1930s and 1940s. The pseudonym he used, (이육사) also means 264, the prisoner number assigned to him. His real name was 이원록, Lee WonRok. I encountered his poetry on the glass pane that separates the platform from the subway tracks in Seoul, and decided to read it here.

Green Grapes
My hometown in July
When green grapes are being ripened

The hometown legends told in heavy clusters
And the sky far away comes into grain by grain dreaming

The blue ocean under the sky opens wide its breast
That a white sailboat may come in beautifully drifted

My dear guest whom I long for, even in his weary body
Wearing green outfit will come, he said.

So when I greeted him to share freshly plucked grapes
I’d gladly have my both hands get dripping wet.

My dear child, upon the silver plate on our table
Be sure to set white linen napkins

Let’s read this poem naively. I have no idea upon the circumstances of oppression under which it was written. I read about green grapes, used to make sweet wine in Korea and delicious real wine in Europe. I see the dreamy sky and the blue ocean opening its wide breast and we are all sky children nurtured by the wideness of our thought.

The guest with the green outfit must be a soldier freeing Korea from the commies. Let’s share grapes with him! It is a very special occassion, so the silver plate must be with dressed with white linen. Blue, white and green are the colors in this poem. I think of the flag of Sierra Leone, a country that was once war-torn but is doing relatively well now.

Here is the Korean original:


– 이육사

내 고장 칠월은
청포도가 익어 가는 시절.

이 마을 전설이 주저리주저리 열리고
먼 데 하늘이 꿈꾸며 알알이 들어와 박혀,

하늘 밑 푸른 바다가 가슴을 열고
흰 돛 단 배가 곱게 밀려서 오면,

내가 바라는 손님은 고달픈 몸으로
청포(靑袍)를 입고 찾아온다고 했으니,

내 그를 맞아 이 포도를 따 먹으면
두 손은 함뿍 적셔도 좋으련,

아이야, 우리 식탁엔 은쟁반에
하이얀 모시 수건을 마련해 두렴.

Reading: Green Grapes by Yuk-Sa Lee was originally published on Meandering home

A street

yesterday the street I live in
became new to me
I saw blushing windows in its bend
and wound-up cars following the curvature
the signs on the rooftops read names I had
not noticed before behind a rusty gate
the glimpse of an overgrown trellis
the scent of blossom rushing in
from another season
in doorways weak smiles assemble as
always, how’s everything
the 24-hour bus service,
diagonal zebra crossings
the cracked asphalt
breathed empathy, elated me

I pray and the pale
sky promises me devices:
metaphors, commas, gene splicers
and molten licorice words
that you use to redeem themselves

I never was much of a proselytizer
who would go door to door in a suit,
keeping them open with his foot, but
such aggrandizing scene obliged –

Can you not see it? This changes everything!
We can dance on the eyelids of history,
waltz in the heat of her mementos, excite
their stranger relatives, who were never
buried in manly narrations. If only

if only you listen, Justice can be borne
of such a street whose name
(is not to be mentioned in the poem for reasons of privacy)

So I told an old man about aforementioned epiphany
He said I don’t have much time don’t you see
I’m repurposing a machine to write poetry,
and I can tell you boy it does so well,
it can turn your house into a doggerel and your street into a hell
of a villanelle.

So I step out of his shadow and ask him again
The old man says the machine is broken.
I nod and offer him my help,
which he accepts generously by sending me
on an errand to the beginning of time.

I am not given a dress code, and
rather harshly pushed out on the street.

At 8:54 this morning I begin walking
backwards, my hands in my pockets,
I think a certain nonchalance
would befit the circumstance.

I retract into narrower streets
until a streetlight waxes from a dark alleyway
and I was taken in, like a lunatic

beriddled by my task I walk on the cobblestones
trying to remember good music and putting on an overall
I pass telegraph poles, water mills, pig sties,
fortifications, Roman roads, temples, pyramids.

History is so soothing in reverse
Going back, I strangely have a sense of purpose:
I am going after something that must be done.

A warm haze consumes me. I am
retracing the steps taken by nameless ancestors
in a frivolous bid for supreme justice that is what it is.

I decide I am not dressed for the occasion and don
a multisex suit with a neutralizing tie, ungendered
I continue several light years towards my
destination, and

the air is clearing, I see homo sapiens devolve
and everything becomes almost nameless. I begin
to take notes as I trip over details:
carved stones, graves, bones
I lurch further back, silence takes away
my good mood and I feel daft in my formal suit.

I enter childhoods, analyze everything,
the children always want to become my best friend
and later would leave me disgruntled.
So I analyze the mother of the mother and so on and so on

back to the primates where loss of language
is promising at first,
but the monkeys show me their food and show me their teeth
and I conclude that I must go further

back to some fish with bright angled eyes on each side,
where movement becomes a derivative of the stream
1 fish looks at me
I see the promise of infinite possibilities, or
a play of vectors all equally unlikely
then the fish says “excuse me”,
and crawls ashore.

I put on a sweater and hum Beethoven
because hard silence (<20 dB) makes you mad
and as a child I dreamed of turning his music
into the cosmic background noise
the good vibrations of my arrival
at the phenomenology of the cosmic soup,
where the chef is slime
and later at the speck of dust that engendered everything.

I am no longer sure if I should study philosophy
but I still want to reach the beginning of time
to help the old man and his machine
I flip-flop ever simpler molecules, measure picojoules
rearrange Higgs bosons and quarks
until everything is phase and frequency,
and then just dark,
an infinitesimal
densely simmering
from which follows everything

I write it down in my notebook:
I am trespassing a dark fluid
and again, I’m overdressed
knee-deep in its viscous inevitability
all aspects are lacking and seem to be –

I get my stutter back

Sick with wisdom I return to the old man,
and tell him what I have seen. He nods and
turns a knob. The machine begins to rattle
semicolons, hyphens, commas, ampersands,
parentheses, periods, virgules, apostrophes:
a score of silence

The old man and I are reciting poetry
that is hopelessly, revoltingly right.

A street was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: So Little Depends by Miguel-Manso

Miguel Manso (b. 1979) is a Portuguese poet born in Santarém. He has written eight books of poetry. I read a verse with a title that appealed to me, ‘so little depends’:

The original is on the website of Poetry International.

So Little Depends
you prefer the corner, the hidden place
the foliage, the shadow, the room, this
sack of wheat: textual gold
spread out on the old secretaire of the real

outside the blaze of the wood
the quick glazing of the fields
here inside, less leeway – another

panorama: simply the presence
uninhabited by a person, mystery without
attribute or function

always the undoing of a heart
the industrial cultivation of figures
and leftover sadness and days for the body that writes
in the calaboose of a vast morning

radiant with drops of honey
as the cats lick Saturday
and sitting, like a gold frog, you let yourself add to the world
(but why) another poem

I like this kind of imaginative poetry. The metaphors are wonderful and so is the meta-metaphor of the ‘secretary of the real’ I think of the Lacanian Real here). I try to understand the meaning of the dichotomy outside-inside. In the Portuguese original, ‘leeway’ is ‘caminho’, there is less road here inside. The simple presence is unambiguous. It is a writer’s desk and his struggle with emotion is beautifully rendered here, I quote the original to give some sense of the sound of the Portuguese:

sempre a desfeita de um coração
o cultivo intensivo das figuras
e sobram tristeza e dias ao corpo que escreve
no calabouço de uma manhã muito larga

I have my own writer’s dungeon that I will call calaboose from now on. Adding another poem to the world, never sure about why we do this. But this is how the poetic survives: By gestures of poets who imagine they are gold frogs and rewrite everything in a next poem.

Reading: So Little Depends by Miguel-Manso was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Singidunum by Nina Stojkovic

Nina Stojkovic is a Serbian-American poet. I had the honor to welcome her in my place here in Seoul. Today I read from her 2013 poetry book ‘Three words: foreign’.

Hugging the dirt under the fortress
Two rivers marry again and again
Witnessed by our virginity and ideals

Rain cascades over crosses and chimneys
Undermining sacred tenets of our ancestors
Deflating compliant artistic notions

Cobble stone sounds off her heels
She grabs my arm firmly
Ripeness overflows forecasting a fresher dawn

Adorned in fragrance of a marketplace
Cherries and melons map out our corporal passage
She stays silent, undetached

Blinded by the imminent pleasures
Our racing hearts declare the anticipated
Forgetting that nature amends her seasons

Bells play off beat
It’s 9
It’s 10
It’s almost midnight, magic will wear off soon

Embracing the imminent past
August sings
Of a town where we left our youth

I see a young couple in the opening lines. The metaphors are dense. I see an old castle and cobble stones and how from the ripeness of old things emerges something fresh that overcomes ‘artistic compliance’. The word is water: two rivers that keep flowing together, the rain, the ripe of a fresher dawn.

As the poem continues, we learn more about the relationship. A key term is ‘undetached’: a double movement of finding to each other in a silent moment between immininent pleasure and imminent past. There is the anticipation of pleasure, the confusion about time. The night is almost over, the summer is almost over. In August, we become aware of our transition from youth into adulthood.

I wish I could offer some more analysis here, but I feel that I can’t get a firm hold of it. Perhaps I have overlooked some aspect of the poem?

Arwork by Ian Bourgeot.

Reading: Singidunum by Nina Stojkovic was originally published on Meandering home

Appeal to the electric god

Connect my head to your terminal with a fiber optic cable
I’ll waive my right to an eternity of not-me
Have you noticed I am blushing? What can you infer from that?
That I am excited, good.
So you know everything about me.
How, like most people, I doubly failed at Oedipus
How I enjoy spitting on my cock when I masturbate

So, big one, how fast are you growing?
Am I already fully trivial? In the light of your light?
An automaton, Turing-complete as it may be, but feeble?
And you probably saw this coming too:
Help me finish my poem.

Appeal to the electric god was originally published on Meandering home