15 April 2012

Poetry in Motion: A Poetic Interpretation of the Patterns

In a recent post on the value of patterns (Part I) I referred to the essay below, which was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #15. Since I plan to soon continue my discussion on the value of patterns, I thought it good to also post the essay here.

Poetry in Motion: A Poetic Interpretation of the Patterns

I cannot remember if it is how my instructor introduced patterns to me or if my own love of poetry sparked the comparison, but I have always regarded patterns as poetry in motion.

One of the things I do to fill my life with meaning is to teach literature, and particularly poetry, as a university lecturer. As a scholar of poetry I am sensitive to what is sometimes known as poetic devices; in other words, the different techniques poets use to craft their verse. As a scholar of Taekwon-Do I have found that some of the same “poetic devices” are present in the patterns.

I have always thought of the individual techniques as words and compared combinations of techniques to phrases. A poem is a composition of aesthetic phrases. A Taekwon-Do pattern is a composition of combat combinations (a number of combat techniques flowing into a sequence).

There are numerous parallels I find between poetry and patterns; one poetic device which is worth considering is probably the one most people associate with poetry, namely rhyme. Many an aspirant poet makes the grave mistake of thinking that poems have to rhyme and will therefore force verse lines to end with rhyming words in an arbitrary fashion. This makes anyone well read in poetry cringe as we know that the mere presence of rhyme does not guarantee good poetry. The result of such forced rhyme creates, at best, cute nursery rhymes. While the master poets may employ rhyme, it is never used arbitrarily—rhyming just for the sake of rhyme. Instead, since every rhyme causes the rhymed words to stand out, the poet knows that emphasis is given to rhyming words. Rhyming is therefore used to emphasize meaning and to create denotative significance between words.

Following I would like to give some examples from the Chang Hon patterns of “rhyme” and how being aware of such rhyming can help you understand the patterns better.

Let’s consider the pattern Chon-Ji. If I were to ask you to identify the rhyme in Chon-Ji you would most likely tell me that the movements that are performed on the left-hand side are repeated on the right-hand side. Such an assessment would be correct. There are many repetitions of movements on different lines, all constituting “rhyme” in Chon-Ji. However, to really get value out of these observations one needs to ask how the rhyming gives meaning to the rhyming parts, i.e. to the similar movements. If it is merely the repetition of the same movements in symmetrical fashion purely for the sake of repetition (i.e. symmetry), there is no real deeper meaning. What we have then is merely a nursery rhyme.

Mr. Jaroslaw Suska performs the pattern Chon-Ji in the video below. 

(It may be true that the lower ranking patterns have some nursery rhyme quality to them, and that is as it should be. A child immediately introduced to T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” would be completely ill equipped to understand it. No, the child should first learn the nursery rhymes and then progress to, maybe the Romantics, next be exposed to Dickinson and Whitman, later to some of the Imagists and other Modernists, and then only do you expose them to T. S. Eliot; for only after a systematic progression in poetic difficulty is the reader equipped with the tools and experience to understand the grand poems, such as “The Wasteland.” So too martial art practitioners and especially novices should progress systematically through the patterns and not be too eager to learn new patterns until they have thoroughly familiarized themselves with the material at their current level.)

In trying to understand poems, one should endeavor to allow the poems to interpret themselves. Permit different poetic devices, such as rhyme, to highlight certain ideas or “significances.” Such significant ideas then become what we may call “motifs,” which are the controlling ideas of the poem. One should not merely be aware of the symmetrical repetition of movements, but should pertinently look for meaningful repetition. It is this meaningful repetition that I will henceforth refer to as “rhyme.” Here is an example of meaningful repetition that creates a motif in Chon-Ji. One “rhyme” in Chon-Ji is the middle section attack—the walking stance middle front punch. Another “rhyme” in the pattern is the inner forearm outward middle block.  These two techniques, the middle front punch and the middle front block creates one motif. What the practitioner learns is that the solution to a middle front punch is a middle front block. Such “problem-solution” motifs are rampant in the patterns. Take for instance the black belt pattern Choong-Jang. The solution to the knee kick, movement #19, is provided later as the twin palm pressing block, movement #24. Often an earlier technique seems to anticipate its counter later in the pattern.

Using an inner forearm outward block in an L-stance, Jay Kang (red belt) defends against the punch by Tae Hyeong (green belt). Both the problem (the walking stance front punch) and the solution (the L-stance inner forearm outward block) are derived from the pattern Chon-Ji. 

Another type of rhyme that causes a motif is when the same technique is repeated with different variations. For instance in the pattern Toi-Gye the X-block is used twice, but in different ways. It is used first, in movement #7, as a walking stance pressing X-block and second, in movement #29, when one jumps into an X-stance pressing X-block.

Being attentive to such rhyming and motifs in patterns, one can often find solutions to questions. In a previous issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do Michael Munyon raised a question along these lines:
“In Yul-Gok, why do we perform movement #1 as a measuring technique at the shoulder line yet we strike center line? What is the purpose of the measure and why are we measuring at that rank versus an earlier rank?” 
Mr. Jaroslaw Suska performs the pattern Yul-Gok in the video below. 

In other words, what is the function of this “measuring technique” (movements #1 and #4)? As a scholar of poetry, and reading the patterns as poems, the answer is to me quite obvious, but allow me to guide you through my analysis.

This specific combination consists of three movements. The first movement moves the arm in a slight arc horizontally to the outside in line with the shoulder line. It is then followed by an attack (two double punches). The rhythm is first slow (or at least at normal pace), then accelerated. Where else in Yul-Gok do we find this motif: a motion where the arm is moved in a slight arc towards the outside followed by an attack, with the rhythm starting out normal but then accelerated? Actually, we find this motif repeated for at least two other unique combinations. The first other unique combination that starts with an arm moving horizontally to the outside followed by attacks (with progressive acceleration) is the sequence of movements starting at #7 (#7-10 or #11-14)—the inner forearm outward block, followed by a front snap kick and the two fast motion punches. The same motif, but again a different combination of techniques, is encountered at #15-17 or #18-20. The palm hooking block moves the arm out horizontally in a slight arc to the shoulder line, then the rhythm is accelerated as the next palm hooking block and front punch is done in a continuous motion. Although the second technique in this combination is a block and not an immediate attack, the general tone is similar to the previous combinations. (Mr Anslow picked up on this tone and therefore aptly proposed in his Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul that alternative interpretations for the second palm hooking block is to understand this second movement as an “attack” to manipulate the opponent’s head.)

Keeping our motif in mind, let’s return to our original combination, the “measuring technique” followed by the two attacks. The other two combinations clearly show that in each case where the arm is moved horizontally and in a slight arc to the shoulder line (an inner forearm outward block or a palm hooking block), it functions as a defensive technique. Using the poetic interpretive method the “measuring technique” ought also to be interpreted as a block. Well, in the general way it is performed, is it closer to the inner forearm block or the palm hooking block? Certainly the hooking block. In my assessment, the “measuring technique” is nothing other than a hooking block with the forearm, instead of the palm, used as the blocking tool. Consider the application: Your opponent is in front of you and attacks your middle section with a punch. You step into a sitting stance, simultaneously moving your forearm in a slight arc horizontally to the side, intercepting the oncoming punch with your outer forearm and redirecting it to the side. You then follow up with two well placed punches to the ribs of the attacker, which will be on your centre line.

The three photos above illustrate the first three movements in the pattern Yul Gok. When Jay Kang (red belt) is attacked with a front punch by Tae Hyeong (green belt), Jay Kang steps off the centre line into a sitting stance while redirecting the oncoming punch with a forearm hooking block (i.e., “measuring technique”), then counter attacks with two punches to Tae Hyeong’s ribs. 

The question raised by Michael Munyon included “why are we measuring at that rank versus an earlier rank”? If one understands this “measuring technique,” as I have proposed, to be a forearm hooking block, then it is simply a similar situation like we saw in Toi-Gye where the same technique is merely repeated in different variations. It is not that we are suddenly introduced to a measuring technique at this level; rather, it is that we are introduced to hooking blocks (both the forearm hooking block and the palm hooking block) at this level.

A poetic reading of the patterns can aid you in identify motifs in the patterns. This will help you see connections within the pattern that may otherwise go unnoticed. It can also be a method of interpreting the patterns and finding solutions to some questionable techniques. Apart from rhyme, other poetic devices such as understanding how verse lines function (either as end-stop lines or run-on lines); rhythm created through the use of stressed and unstressed syllables; rhetoric devices such as repetitions and parallelism; figures of speech like imagery, simile and metaphor; and so on, can all assist in interpreting the patterns. Of course, the poetic reading of patterns is not the only interpretive method available. Other methods of interpretation may include an interpretation focused on martial strategy, or an interpretation focused on self-defence application. However, since patterns are probably the most specifically aesthetic segment of the art, it would make sense to augment your interpretation of the patterns by also employing methods of interpretation that focus on patterns as works of art. While a poetic interpretation is one such a method as this essay proved, one could easily apply interpretations methods borrowed from other art forms, like interpretative methods from the visual arts (e.g. painting and sculpture) and performing arts (e.g. dance). Using a variety of interpretative methods will enhance and enrich your study of the patterns.


Dan Djurdjevic said...

As a lover of poetry, I must say that I really enjoyed this!

SooShimKwan said...

Thanks Dan! It seems that we have a lot in common.