The riddle is an ancient and persistent literary form. In Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar Viktor Shklovksy writes about riddles:
Hegel wrote in his Lectures on Fine Art that “the riddle belongs to conscious symbolism.” What is the riddle’s answer? It is derivation of meaning. According to Hegel, the riddle consists of “individual traits of character and properties drawn from the otherwise known external world and, as in nature and in externality generally, lying there scattered outside one another, they are associated together in a disparate and therefore striking way. As a result they lack a subject embracing them together [as predicates] into a unity . . .” This disparity of signs hinders the immediate solution as to which whole they all belong to.
In veiling the whole, the riddle forces us to rearrange the signs of a given object, thus showing the possibility of diversity, the possibility to combine the previously irreconcilable in new semantic arrangements.
Herewith we have a shrewd, clever, witty and expansive essay on the riddles and riddle poems in (mostly) Western literature from The Book of Exeter to Harry Potter and J. R. R. Tolkien and Emily Dickinson. It’s partly a highly suggestive craft essay and partly an informal history of ideas, also a refreshing sort of literary criticism, the kind that takes a long and inquisitive look at the words on the page.
Julie Larios is a friend, an esteemed colleague in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program and a gifted poet whose work has already graced these pages more than once (here and here). It is always a huge pleasure to have her back.
I’m not much of a “main highway” kind of person when it comes to thinking about the craft of writing. I go down lots of sides streets, I let my mind wander. Sometimes even a side street feels too wide. And I’ve been thinking lately about a small alley named “Riddles,” a deceptive short cut (sometimes filled with broken bottles and garbage cans) between one street and the next. I have the feeling deception is important. “Most felicitous sayings rely…on a capacity to deceive beforehand…” said Aristotle. “We have even more obviously learned something,” he said, “ if things are the opposite of what we thought they were, and the mind seems to say to itself, ‘How true. I was mistaken.’”
Riddles are all about questioning our own grasp of the world by questioning the nature of things, casting a new light – thereby casting new shadows – and I believe that thinking in riddle-mode can help us be better writers. After all, don’t riddles follow the pattern of all great works of literature by asking large questions of us like “Who am I?” and “Are things what they appear to be?” and – perhaps the most important question of all – “When is a door not a door?” Ah, yes, one of the great questions of Western literature. It has survived the test of time, as has its existential answer – “When it’s ajar.”
I remember the first time I heard this riddle, I was in Mrs. Frizzy’s second-grade class at Booksin Elementary, standing outside the cafeteria in the lunch line. A boy named Dickie, who was in line in front of me, turned and asked, “When is a door not a door?”
I repeated the riddle out loud. “When is a door not a door?”
Dickie waited as I turned the riddle over and over in my head. Well, I thought, maybe it’s not a door if it’s like a –what do you call it? – one of those swinging things you see in the movies; cowboys push through them when they walk into an old-time saloon, like Gary Cooper did in High Noon, or maybe John Wayne in something?You know, not a door but like shutters on hinges. I didn’t say that, because it didn’t seem to me like Dickie was waiting for that particular answer. So I repeated the riddle with more emphasis.
“When is a door not a door?”
Dickie looked annoyed, so I gave him what he was waiting for: “I don’t know.”
“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.
“What?” I asked, which is actually a good question the first time you hear a riddle like that.
“When it’s ajar,” Dickie said.
“A jar?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Dickie, snickering.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“When it’s ajar,” Dickie repeated.
“What do you mean, when it’s a jar?” I asked.
“Ajar,” Dickie said.
I said nothing.
“Ajar,” Dickie said again.
“Oh,” I said, as if I understood. And that was that.
I think it was my father who explained the answer to me. I bet my mother groaned, but my father probably thought it was funny, and I was left at 7 ½ years of age wondering about the world of discomfort and flat-out deception that the English language might inflict on me for years to come.
And that was my introduction to riddles. I didn’t like them. They weren’t funny. They made me feel stupid. I don’t remember ever telling them to my friends. I don’t think I ever checked a riddle book out of the library. Some people groan when they hear punning riddles, other people laugh. For a long time, I didn’t laugh, I groaned. Now, if I’ve never heard the riddle before, I usually laugh and groan.
“What’s black and white and “red” all over?” Answer, of course, a newspaper – black and white and “read”– r-e-a-d- all over.
This category of riddle is also called “Shrewd Questions.” The riddle of the Sphinx is a shrewd question in an answer-this-or-you-die way. Basic shrewd questions and punning riddles are the riddle forms most children are exposed to, and I think it’s fair to say some of these shrewd questions are shrewder than others.
What did one wall say to the other wall? (Meet you in the corner.)
What birds are always unhappy? (Bluebirds.)
How do you make a lemon drop? (Hold a lemon up and let it go.)
If there were no food left in the city, what would you eat? (A traffic jam.)
I particularly like that last one. It turns the word “jam” so steeply and suddenly on its head that the reader thinks immediately, “Traffic jam – what a strange phrase.” Anything that slows us down and makes us hear language in a fresh way is alright by me, though I didn’t believe that when I was seven.
I do remember liking the following shrewd-question” riddle, even when I was young: What flies but has no wings? The answer –most of us know this – is Time. That riddle is elegant – it moves away from goofy wordplay and into the territory of poetry. Emily Dickinson, whose poems were sometimes riddles and sometimes what appear to be their opposites – definitions – knew this when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” To turn that definition into a riddle, all you do is reverse it – “What has feathers and perches in the soul?” One answer could be Hope. That’s the kind of riddle I’m interested in.
Listen to the lovely beginning of this “riddle” by Ms. Dickinson:
She sweeps with many-colored Brooms—
And leaves the Shreds behind –
Oh, Housewife// in the Evening West –
Come back, and dust the Pond.
Who is the Housewife in the Evening West with her many colored Brooms? She’s the sunset. Dickinson’s poetry is full of definitions and riddles. What house has no door? “Doom,” Dickinson answers.
At the very least, riddles help us understand that definitions are elastic, as is identity itself, and language is delicious and strange, not to be taken for granted. As a creative writing teacher, I like encouraging fiction writers to taste them – words – once in awhile. Like blueberries, they are good for you, full of antioxidants. It’s a fine approach, slowing down and thinking about word sounds, word choices, and how language either flows or gets tangled into traffic “jams,” or – and this is a shame – how it loses its luster and becomes dull, rusted out by cliches. I believe we write better fiction when we balance forward motion (plot) with attention to language. And I could justify studying riddles that way, hoping they would be seen as evidence of the nutritional value of wordplay. Acquire a taste for wordplay and see where it takes your prose. If it takes you too far, step back – no need to go overboard, and certainly no need to go beyond wordplay and overwrite the thing, no reason for your language to get fancier than the story requires it to be.
But I‘m actually more interested in how our minds use language as a way to organize the world – that is, the way the mind searches for stability by creating categories and classifications, and the way it makes meaning. I’m quite serious in saying that the study of riddles – their long history, their presence in nearly every culture of the world in every age, their subversive nature – affects our mode of thinking. Riddles interrupt our human inclination to stash things in well-defined cubby holes, to insist upon order and to find “solutions” to things that puzzle us. Riddles ask us sometimes to live comfortably without firm solutions. At their best they can teach us to think metaphorically, to find fresh ways to say things, to think about indirection as a writing strategy, to build a tolerance for alternative meanings and contradictory truths, to turn away from infallibility and learn to live with our own stupidities, and to question assumptions – something every writer, not to mention every good citizen in a participatory democracy, should know how to do. For example, here’s a riddle which is not poetry but which I do like:
A bus driver was heading down a street in Colorado. He went right past a stop sign without stopping, he turned left where there was a “No Left Turn” sign and he went the wrong way on a one-way street past a cop car. Still – he didn’t break any traffic laws and didn’t get a ticket. Why not?
(Because he was walking.)
Our assumptions are wrong from the beginning, and the person who framed this riddle understood how to manipulate the reader into believing one thing (a bus driver only drives) while many alternative things about a bus driver are true – for example, a bus driver can walk. Riddles obstruct our desire to pigeon-hole people, objects and events, and to keep things neatly organized in categories. They make us rethink our assumptions.
I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the interruption of assumptions as a technique of fiction. We lead people to believe something, based on the preconceptions they come into the story with. Then we turn those preconceptions on their head, and we take our readers someplace unexpected. Neither our characters nor our readers have to go where stereotypes, clichés and assumptions push them – they don’t have to file things into orderly little categories like “bus driver” or “walker” or – more irritatingly – “bad guy” or “good guy.” Characters can be more complicated, readers can be asked to leave their assumptions behind. And as both readers and writers, we can say, as Aristotle wants us to say when we learn something new about the way the world works, “How true. I was mistaken.”
Sure, there’s a level of discomfort associated with admitting we are fallible. But being convinced of our infallibility will ultimately make us miserable (along with our readers, our spouses or partners, and our children) due to a little thing called hubris. Believing as an author that you have a lesson to teach, that you know the truth, that you are infallible, can be lethal to your storytelling. For starters, it usually produces boring stories. It also assumes your readers are children in need of guidance – not bad if they are children (after all, five-years-olds are probably not quite ready to be knocked senseless by the blurred line between good and evil) but not great if they’re young adults and fully-grown adults.
One solution to being boring and pedantic is getting into a riddling frame of mind – admitting that answers are hard, that tricks are played, that situations and people are not always what they appear to be, that the “right” answer sometimes proves to be wrong, that we’re not the only ones who head one way and then have to circle back or start over in order to understand.
I grew up thinking riddles were only puns and plays on words. I moved from the typical groan to a kind of bemused admiration for the best punning riddles, and lately I’ve felt true affection even for the worst ones. Especially for the worst ones, actually. But punning riddles and “shrewd questions” are only a small part of the whole idea of riddles.
I took several classes at the University of Washington with the poet Richard Kenney, whose delight in word play, proverbs, charms, curses and blessings was infectious. He mentioned in passing one day that his favorite riddle was a medieval one, traced back to the 1300’s: Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window.
I’d never heard a riddle like that, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was a riddle, yes, but it was also mystery and a story, and it was also poetry. Who or what was going around the house? Why more than once? Who did that white glove belong to, why was it at the window, what was happening? Could I conjure up a narrative to stand alongside this riddle? A girl who is pushed…is it sorrow that spins her round and round, is there something of herself she leaves behind? Something that says, “I was here”? Or something that asks “I was here, but who was I?”
Professor Kenney told us one answer to that riddle, of course. What was swirling around the house was snow, and it left a white glove – a small drift – at the window. But he wasn’t as interested in answers as he was in questions. He believed, as Samuel Coleridge did, that “In a complex enigma, the greatest ingenuity is not always shown by [the person] who first gives the complete solution.”
I thought about that riddle – Round the house and round the house, and a white glove at the window – as I went to sleep that night. Along with all the other questions I had, I began to think about another person – the one inside the house, looking out. What is that person doing or what is happening to that person? I loved how far I could take this riddle, loved feeling haunted by it, loved trying to make sense of it and loved its changing perspective. Good poetry makes you do that, makes you wonder. Wondering was what I enjoyed, not the “solution.” And the riddle didn’t say, “Snow is like someone going around and around the house and leaving an accumulation at the window frame that is similar to a white glove.” And it didn’t say “Snow IS a white glove at the window frame.” Those imply a more direct approach to metaphor and simile. I’m interested in the leap – the method to the madness– and in what we don’t see.
The snow riddle’s method is indirection – another term for “sleight of hand” – the trick of magicians and con men who convince their audiences to pay attention to one hand while the other hand is hiding the card up the sleeve. Indirection is what Archibald MacLeish was talking about in his poem “Ars Poetica” when he said that for “all the history of grief” you could substitute “an empty doorway and a maple leaf.” This ability to direct attention somewhere else – to describe something by describing something else – is the key component of poetry. Taken larger, and sustained a bit longer, it becomes T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Basically, it boils down to this: You turn the reader’s gaze to something clear, physical and observable, in order to understand something deep, emotional and invisible. Grief exists, yes, but it’s an emotion, an abstraction, while an empty doorway is touchable and real – much more powerful for a writer to use, because it gives us an image rather than something ephemeral or intellectual. What we encourage our readers to do, when we use this strategy, is to think about convergences: “How and where does this touchable object intersect with that emotion or idea?” But we don’t ask the question directly. We simply turn to the physical world and evoke it. We let readers understand, either immediately or later, on closer reading, that we directed their attention to this other thing for a reason. This is the point at which the writer makes a leap of trust –we trust our readers to notice and to make meaning.
One reason we use indirection is because it’s more subtle. No one wants, hopefully, to hit a reader over the head with a 2×4 to get a message across. We don’t say, “Hey, that maple leaf, it’s grief, get it?” Instead we want the reader to intuit that when a character turns to look at something – let’s say it’s a bird flying – the bird stands in physically for an invisible desire. Perhaps the character wants “to fly,” to break out of his or her oppressive world. The repeated trope of the flying bird becomes an objective correlative, triggering this convergence automatically. Granted, a bird standing in for freedom is a cliché; writers should be able to come up with something fresher than that. But cultivating a riddling frame of mind helps us turn from blatant telling to subtle showing, via correlatives – things that correlate – and that’s an important tool for our writing toolbox.
At the heart of riddle-making are the concepts of correlation and equivalency. A equals B. That sounds more like basic math than story, doesn’t it? But math is not the opposite of story, because math, like much of human behavior, is about patterns. Metaphorical-thinking is also a matter of patterns and convergences – A and B overlap and intersect like harmonies in music. Or, in chemistry, A and B exhibit the same properties when reacting to C. Or maybe it’s alchemy – base metal (the story’s bones) turn into gold (the story’s beauty.) By thinking of a story that way, I can create a riddle:
Bones in my body, that’s how I stand.
Beauty as I move, my sleight of hand.
Who am I?
Does my riddle-poem have an answer? Well, one answer could be “a good story.” Her bones and her body are structure and plot – without them, she can’t stand. The beauty and sleight of hand are language and metaphor – without them, there’s no magic, no elegance, no “liquefaction of her clothes” to borrow a phrase from the poet Robert Herrick.
You can notice freshness of thought in something as simple as a Mother Goose rhyme describing a candle: Little Nanny Etticote in a white petticoat and a red nose. The longer she stands, the shorter she grows. In this ditty is the most basic of all lessons about writing: “Say it new.”
After taking Rick Kenney’s class, I started collecting “Who Am I?” riddles. I love the idea of identity being hidden behind the mask of metaphor. It’s a little exciting, a little creepy, a little Carnivalesque. Reality with some slippage into the dream-world, that’s what the language of many riddles is like. Here for example:
Always old, sometimes new, never sad, sometimes blue. Never empty, sometimes full,
never pushes, always pulls. Who am I?
One answer is “the moon,” which is old, yes, but sometimes we see a “new” moon, we see a blue/sad moon though never a blue/blue one. How lovely, in this case, to find identity in contradiction. Not a bad thing for people to think about, that contradictory things can both be true. There’s the moon, a large stone in the sky, supposedly dead and cold. And yet, it glows, it pulls. That feels like something to put into a story, a very human story, something that turns to the sun and says, “Did you do that?”
In my hunt for “Who Am I?” riddles, I found a huge encyclopedia of Indian Literature offering up these three Punjabi riddles:
I’m the son who can climb to the roof before his mother is born. (Smoke)
See her coming, see her going, thinner than water, sweeter than sugar. (Sleep)
Tied in a blue cloth, a handful of rice – lost in the daylight, found at night. (Stars in the night sky.)
Compare that last riddle to one from the Aztec culture in Mexico, transcribed by early Spanish explorers – same answer, but it goes like this: A blue calabash sprinkled with toasted kernels of corn.
Here is a lovely riddle from the Congo: Who am I that when I fall, I make no noise? (Night.) To me, that feels like the beginning of a story. It encompasses the Zen idea of satori which, by means of a koan – a kind of riddle – produces first, hesitation, then, self-revelation.
It’s curious how the Western mind puts objects and people into well-defined hierarchies of classification, just as pre-determined as those used in museums of natural history. The famous cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker calls categories “fuzzy similarity clusters” and the key there might be the word “fuzzy.” The edges are not always as well defined as we want them to be. When is a door not a door? If we think too rigidly, in “unfuzzy” similarity clusters (in this case doors) we can’t come up with solutions. The more determined we are to sort things according to the closed cluster we assume they are in, the more we fail. If something is a door, it can’t NOT be a door, right? If something is a son, it can’t be smoke, can it? Well, what if we learn to think of fire as a mother? Is smoke her son? We’re re-clustering when we try to understand the relationship of fire and smoke to mothers and sons. George Lakoff, who knows a thing or two about metaphor, says that putting things in categories is a “bad habit” left over from the days of Aristotle. Lakoff says “pristine categories are a fiction.” So if we want to move over from Aristotelian territory into a landscape where categories are fuzzy, maybe we need to change the way we think and the way we use language. As the wonderful poet Richard Wilbur said, riddles are the “confounders of categories.” Deception is not only the riddle’s method but the riddle’s glory.
The language of literary riddles can cross over into a dream-world in the same way charms, incantations, curses and blessings do, as opposed to punning riddles where much of what confuses us and makes us hesitate is a trick. Many of the great writers of fantasy, interested in the dream-world, have been interested in riddles. That’s because one essential question of fairy tales, legendary quests or shape-shifting is “Who am I?” Looking at the Harry Potter series, an extended journey where Harry moves from innocence to self-knowledge, we see a world filled with riddles, including at the most unsubtle level, Lord Voldemart’s original name, Tom Riddle. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, whose characters Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit engage in a riddle duel, using along with traditional folk riddles some examples written by Tolkein, like the following about the wind: Voiceless it cries,/ Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters. And this, whose solution is Time: This thing all things devours: / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; / Gnaws iron, bites steel; / Grinds hard stones to meal;/ Slays king, ruins town, / And beats high mountains down.
Imagine yourself as a twelve-year old again, reading The Hobbit for the first time, trying to figure out the answers to those riddles. The more committed you are to finding a single solution, the more you must learn how to de-code, looking for words that block you and send your thinking into the orderly, tidy world of classifications and categories, rather than into the messier poetic world of overlapping meanings and metaphors.
De-coding is a valuable thing – nothing wrong with looking for the trick that’s being played on you. But it’s a familiar undertaking, and it treats storytelling as if it were a standardized test. Find the right answer, fill in the bubble. The thinker who stands outside the box and see alternatives that are equally interesting or plausible traditionally does the worst on that kind of test. Do we want always to encourage the decoding approach? Stories are not information, there are not right answers. A story haunts us not because it can be decoded but because it can’t. Not quite, anyway.
This is another thing the lowly riddle reminds us of: Good readers – and the good editors and good critics who judge them – don’t always want the most easily de-coded narrative. They often want something innovative. They don’t always want to know exactly how the story is built and where the story is going; they want surprise, whether in structure, language or plot. As Emily Dickinson said: The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise —/ Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise —
Some riddles, like some very good stories I know, are not meant to offer solutions; they’re only shaped to make us wonder. Part of the pleasure derived from them is in the hesitation they produce – that “satori” I mentioned. Hesitation, failure of the author to spell it all out, drives readers who want easy answers crazy. What on earth are those bears about in Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels?? Lanagan wants us to hesitate – she expects us to make a guess, she wants us to make our own meaning from her story. Some riddlers and storytellers take such a lot of pleasure in the hesitation that they offer no answers at all. “How is a raven like a writing desk?” is one of the riddles Lewis Carroll posed in Alice in Wonderland, and it’s never actually been “solved.” Carroll did come up with an answer, but it was after the fact; he never intended the riddle to have an answer, and the one he made up later is pure nonsense. Northrop Frye, in his essay Charms and Riddles, says that Carroll’s riddle tactic was often to overwhelm sense with sound. I think that’s true, and not all of us want to overwhelm sense with sound, at least not all the time, though you’ve got to admit “Jabberwocky” is a lot of fun.
If we look up the word “riddle” in the Oxford English Dictionary, we can trace it back to the Old English root “rede” – meaning counsel, opinion, or conjecture. We come back again to the idea of interpretation. If riddles with no firm answers, and fiction open to interpretation and conjecture, can move us toward actively making meaning, that’s got to be a good thing, right? Most of us would be proud to help our readers do that. One of my students recently shared a quotation with me by the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus: “Writers are people who can make riddles out of answers.” If that idea appeals to you, you are in a riddling frame of mind.
And what if the answers to the riddles are lost? For over a thousand years, people have been offering up solutions (the answers have disappeared) to riddles in The Exeter Book, written between 960 and 990 A.D. by Benedictine monks. Some answers seem guessable: A wonder on the wave / water became bone. Could it be ice on a lake? Possibly. Some are more difficult:
I was locked in a narrow nest, / My beak bound below the water
In a dark dive; the sea surged / Where my wings work – my body quickened
From the clutch of wave and wandering wood. / Born black, streaked white, I rise
from the womb of waves on the wind’s back, / Sailing over seals’ bath. Who am I?
Bright people, many of them doctoral candidates working hard, have guessed at the solution over the centuries: Maybe it’s an anchor, a bubble, a barnacle goose, a water-lily, a baptism…? We just don’t know. Besides, dissertations notwithstanding, aren’t we better off swimming in that lovely poem and not knowing the answer?
With literary riddles, we sometimes learn to let go and say, “There might not be an answer I understand,” or “There might be more than one answer.” If you can be comfortable with that, then you’ve learned a very large and important lesson for writers, which John Keats described as “negative capability” – the ability to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s another lesson riddles can teach us – to live in uncertainty, to shrug and say, “I’m not sure I can come up with anything more than my own answer.” What we give our readers is not a possible answer, and not even a partial answer, but wonder.
Overwhelmingly, English teachers unfamiliar with poetry present it to their students as a process of decoding and finding an answer. “Here’s a poem; let’s decode it, let’s figure out the solution to the riddle.” That’s not bad exercise, actually – certain muscles build up. But one problem about this approach is that readers want the solutions to come fast. It’s a fast world, there should be fast answers. That’s a problem, because the best riddles (the best stories) don’t have easy answers – the reader works to make meaning. The biggest problem is when a teacher says, “There’s only one right answer to this riddle – one proper interpretation of its meaning.” Admitting to alternative interpretations, admitting there might be NO answer, understanding that the joy is in the wondering, is essential in the classroom. And it’s just as essential when it comes to the fiction we write.
It’s especially important to get into a riddling frame of mind for writers who are vulnerable to the super-virus called didacticism. If you have learned to live with uncertainty (that is, no single answer to the Big Riddles) it is very, very hard to be pedantic. We may offer up a scenario or a guess, but remaining open-minded is vital to being a good writer. There are so many ways people deal with adversity and try to live meaningful lives and make good choices in this world. Writers tell stories about the choices people make, and the changes those choices provoke, and the end-product is empathy. We don’t want to be “right,” necessarily – I don’t like to think of myself as a judge, coming down with the gavel and startling everyone in the courtroom. The economist Daniel Kahneman theorizes that people have two different systems for processing input – System 1 is the knee-jerk brain, the one that makes fast and easy choices based on biases and assumptions. System 2 is thoughtful and open to new perspectives and new information. I want to write a good poem or tell a good story that is filtered in by System 2.
After all, the effort to make meaning is often more valuable to us than what particular meaning we make. As writers, we present people with the stories that will help them pick up cues, think about behavior, think about complications, assumptions, categories and – bottom line – will encourage them to take all that System-2 thinking and make meaning with it. We give readers compelling situations and complicated characters. We give them a well-shaped story arc. We do it, hopefully, with some attention to well-crafted prose. That’s our part of the job. Then we let go. Our readers make meaning. And good for them for doing it. A little work, a little lost sleep as they try to puzzle out their particular perspective on a story – isn’t that a good thing? It’s just as valuable as saying, “I’ve written a book that will tell you the answer about the right way to live in the world. I know who the bad guys are. I know who the good guys are, I know the solution to the riddle.” If you find yourself in that frame of mind as you write, feeling wise, feeling certain, feeling smug, get up from your desk and take a walk. Relax, come back later, when you remember that you don’t really know much.
So, I’ve been thinking about thinking. As I said, I go down not just side streets but narrow alleys when it comes to wondering how fiction and poetry work. For a moment, let’s allow the vista open up on Heraclitus, the 5th-century B. C. Greek writer known as “the father of the riddle.” He came up with the idea of “logos,” which has at its core the idea of flux. In flux, the nature of things is not fixed and everything is in process. Heraclitus famously suggested that you can’t step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly moving and changing. He also suggested that despite attempts to understand our world, “Things keep their secrets.” I like that idea. I find that satisfying because it humbles me. It encourages me to write poems, not teach people lessons. It allows me – and my readers – to guess. As Northrop Frye once said, “Guessing is an integral part of the poetic experience.” And as Emily Dickinson once wrote to her sister-in-law, “’In a life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home.”
So, here we are, embracing the common riddle. Riddles are common to all language groups, all cultures, all parts of the world from all periods of time. How is that possible? Why do riddles in cultures with no contact share motifs and have, more often than coincidence can explain, near-identical phrasing and similar patterns of musicality?
Well, it has something to do with the nature of a world in flux and the phenomena of synchronicity. The riddle scholar Craig Williamson says, “All things shift in the body of nature and the mind of man. But the flow, the form and movement, remains. As the mind shifts, it shapes meaning. When is an iceberg a witch-warrior? When it curses and slaughters ships.”
This synchronic system – of patterns, events and objects that mirror each other and that are grouped not by cause and effect, but by similarity of meaning – sits on the opposite end of the seesaw from Causality – Cause and effect – the stuff we are told drives plot. Now we’ve entered the world of Carl Jung and Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell. The books they’ve written belong on our shelves as much as any traditional how-to books about fiction, because they offer writers examples of a different way to organize the world – possibly more ancient, more a part of the dream-world, shared by other cultures. How exciting a tool is that in our writing? Jung believed that synchronicity shared something with the idea of the “intervention of grace,” a kind of spiritual awakening, and you can’t get much bigger than that.
Maybe the vista has gotten a bit too Big and Grand now. I’ve arrived at the doorstep of what I sometimes point out to my students as a BPM, a Big Poetry Moment. At those dangerous and inflated moments, when spiritual awakening is accompanied by the call of trumpets, crashing waves, fluttering flags, sunsets, rainbows and a grandmother’s tears, I usually ask students to step away from the vehicle, put down their weapons and take a deep breath. Instead of talking anymore about these large ideas, I want to leave you with two riddles – the first from The Real Mother Goose:
In marble walls as white as milk,
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.
The second is by children’s author Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Sliver of moon / slice of a star. / Rhinestone in / a jelly jar.
If we can learn to think that a firefly is a rhinestone in a jelly jar, learn to think of the golden apple of an egg yolk and the marble walls of an eggshell, our stories will be richer and deeper. Next time you put your head on your pillow, listen – can you hear night falling? Can you imagine a girl who, like the night, makes no noise as she stumbles in her life from daylight into darkness? A girl who asks, like the best riddles, “Who am I?” I think you can. After all, you’re a story-teller. Train yourself to listen carefully, see if you hear the wind muttering without a mouth. When you can hear it, that’s when you sit down to write.
Julie Larios has had poems appear in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, Field, and Margie, among others. Her libretto for a penny opera titled All Three Acts of a Sad Play Performed Entirely in Bed was recently performed as part of the VOX series by the New York City Opera. She has published four poetry picture books for children, and she teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program.