Readers as Actors and Reactors

My translation of Yi Si-yŏng's 평화 ("Peace"), from his collection For Our Dead Sons (Korean):

If I were somehow the wind,
I would become the gentlest breeze in the world,
as not to wake that baby squirrel from its afternoon nap.

When I first began studying Korean poetry, this poem popped up on Siyoil, a Korean poem-a-day app I'd downloaded, and I spent a few minutes memorizing it so I'd have something to pull out of my back pocket when someone asked me to speak Korean for them. I soon found out that, like "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways" (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese), "Peace" is a poem many Korean speakers know by heart but can't quite identity. In a certain sense, that's the beautiful thing about "Peace"—its ability to seep into the reader's subconscious memory, stirring beneath the surface while we pursue other literary avenues. Beyond its brevity and cuteness factor, what makes "Peace" so easy to memorize and yet so forgettable? I'd suggest that this poem is so contagious because it's conducive to embodied mental simulation.

Just as we make more consistent assumptions about a romantic relationship when it's described using metaphors rather than abstract language, when Yi's speaker imagines being the wind, most readers initiate a neural simulation of this image. Because the wind is not an instrument in the speaker's control but the speaker himself, the sorts of decisions the personified wind can make are distinct from those the wind would make in another simulation—say, one in which the speaker is somehow given control of the earth's weather. In Yi's simulation, because the wind's agency is inherited from the (human) speaker, its sympathies are local—its affection is drawn to the speaker's immediate surroundings, "that baby squirrel." The wind's resolution to "become the gentlest breeze in the world" is one that all but nullifies its own existence. Yi could've dodged this by speculating about what he'd do if he were somehow the air, but that change would miss our mythological conception of the wind as an agentic character. This poem contains but one metaphor (and a conventional one at that) but the poem and the words that make it up are memorable because they pull the reader into a specific, embodied fantasy. And within that fantastic space, the speaker chooses to unwrite his own existence by having the wind efface itself—a gesture that embeds a subtle message about sacrifice and the purity of nature. Perhaps, having read "Peace," we would live more unassumingly, taking up a little less space.

In my home state of Washington, the masterminds of the state lottery came up with a similar innovation. For some time, lottery advertisements had relied on the standard technique: blinking billboards showing the next estimated jackpot in dollars. But by 2011, would-be gamblers had grown numb to the dull orthography of dollar sign, integer, and (some number of) zeroes. Enter Jessica Urgo, copywriter. She devised a hashtag campaign, #ifiwon, encouraging viewers to mentally visualize—and, of course, tweet about—the life they would purchase if they picked the right numbers in the Powerball or Mega Millions games. With a couple of humorous starter ideas and social-media pages open to public submissions, the campaign worked. The idea seems obvious in retrospect: if people mentally inhabit their lottery fantasies, they're more likely to buy lottery tickets.