Paulus Torchus

Month: September, 2013

Let’s All Write Free Verse!

“Free verse is just that- lines of poetry that are written without rules: no regular beat and no rhyme.” says Ron Padgett, relating to me what I already knew.

I already knew because, like so many contemporary poets, I have written an awful lot of poetry in free verse (and I use “awful” advisedly). Most of my poetic output pre-25 years old is in Free Verse. I adored Whitman, Ginsberg, and Bukowski (probably in reverse order). I could write a long explanation for how I converted to the importance of fences in creative output, but I’ll save that for another time. When I came to this form in this project, I initially intended to write something satirical. I think my working title was “I Hear America Shrieking.” But then something happened to me today. Often poems come out of one like one’s guts if one were sliced across the stomach with a scalpel. I did not intend to compose this poem, but it just came out of me today.

I should probably add that it came out of me because everything in the poem really happened to me today. I should also add that I am, for one time only, breaking my own self-imposed rule of “Thou shalt not write about things that happened at work on the internet.”

Which, when I think about it, seems appropriate for a free verse poem.


The View from a Venetian Beach

by Paul Mathers


She’s 92 and hallucinates

and dearly beloved,

lists to the right in her recliner

watches public television children’s programming all day.

I push the medicine cart

and see the rodent cartoon child through her open door

who looks like I did in childhood

And I get it, sob once, swallow.

The world of delight, our world minus sex and death

and all of their chaos.

Minus the man I bike past

camped by the wall of a transient motel

sitting in unkempt leaves where the wild syringes sprout,

his frantic arms tearing at his sweat-soaked t-shirt.

Minus the split second observed moment biked past

of middle-aged man in a truck with a local Christian radio station sticker

holding in one hand his cameraphone

replays his day’s videos of surreptitious college girl butts.

His other hand is not visible.

Past the decline of an unrecommendable town.

Minus the shame unearned of doing worse than my parents did.

Subtracting back in the last days

as wombward as possible.

I resolve to call my mom.

And knock, walk in, to give eye drops

to keep wizened vision clear.

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Week 2

ImageWe spent a great deal of this week focusing on Sonata No.4, Op.7. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, I recommend you give it a listen before (or while) you read my classnotes. I listened to the Schnabel recording:

It was composed in 1796 when Beethoven was 26, so this would be the “early period.” Scholars like to say that Beethoven had 3 periods, but, as with any chronological demarcation attempts in art, systems like that usually prove to have glaring imperfections. The three periods are marked by these traits:

1. Brilliance

2. Monumentality (heroic. Not programmatic)

3. Spirituality (this is indisputable in his late period. One of the arguments against these three traits of three different periods is that each period contains some of each of these traits and some pieces from each of these periods deviate from the list. It’s a game scholars play).

In his early period, his work was already mature, but still aspiring and occasionally “show-offy.” Nearly every early work is fully representative of Beethoven. Opus 7 is both typical and wildly impressive. It is the second longest sonata. It was dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevich. We don’t know much about her except that she was a student of Beethoven’s, and that she has one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed dedicated to her. Not too shabby. Some people get to be historical footnotes without doing anything.

In early Beethoven, like Haydn and Mozart, there are contrasting themes, the dominant as critical event, and the center of emotional gravity lies in the first part of the work. It is unlike Haydn and Mozart in the wild inventiveness. This sonata has four movements. That was unheard of. Beethoven intended this as a serious statement and the piece crackles with energy.

In Sonata no. 23, Op. 57 “Apassionata”, the first theme contains a kernel of all of what’s to come in the piece. It is a miracle of economy. Op. 7 is not quite that radical. Op. 7 is “theme malleable” because it is neutral. This is the quintessence of Beethoven.

The piece is in a critical moment in the evolution of the instrument. This is the time when the instrument was shifting from the pianoforte to a close approximation of the instrument of today. Mozart’s piano only had 5 octaves, which was quite a restriction and it showed in his work. He attempted to wring every last bit of sound he could out of his limitations. Beethoven’s increased to 7 octaves and it showed in his work. He attempted to wring every last but of sound he could out of his newfound freedom. He was a bit of a techno-geek. He had a Broadwood imported from England. In spite of these advances, the instrument was never quite enough for him and that is always present in his work. Today we have the standard of the Steinway. Our era is one of equalization. Our great composers did not have this luxury.

Beethoven used silence to create atmosphere in his pieces. He composed the silence in his pieces.

Professor Biss told an anecdote of one of his piano teachers when he was young telling him “Beethoven must have been Jewish because he always answers a question with another question.”

Haydn and Mozart also used silence for effect, but the effect was outside of the piece. In Beethoven, the silence is part of the grammar of the piece. Beethoven’s slow movements are more transformative than Mozart’s. Beethoven was a master of time.

The last 2 movements return to the traditional. The 3rd is entirely unlike the 2nd (less acerbic and biting than usual). Minuets are usually the shortest and least enterprising movements of a piece.

Then comes the Rondo. It appears divorced from the rest of the piece. It might suggest that the drama of the piece is in the rearview mirror, but Beethoven has a surprise for us. It recurs to the opening theme and the listener expects a coda. He introduces a distant key when the piece should be winding down. The color of E major is so different that it paints the theme in a hallucinatory light. It breaks the contract Beethoven had with the 19th century listener. In this last movement, Beethoven transforms into a fulfillment of the whole work.

Next week, we will be talking about Opus 26, Opus 27, and Opus 28.

Let’s All Write a Found Poem!

Not to steal my own thunder, but I was not a fan of this form. First of all, it is preceded by “Foot” which is about a foot of a poem. Which is not a poetic form. It is a part of poetry. I can’t do a post about writing a foot.

And so, slightly annoyed, I turned to the next form. A Found Poem is a poem which you found in some other piece of writing and arranged the lines to make it look like a poem. I found something I wanted to use, decided that I didn’t want to reveal the source because it would color the interpretation of the piece too much, then felt as if it was plagiarism to not reveal the source. Then I felt as if the whole form kind of seemed like plagiarism to me. It is further unnerving to me to find that plagiarism is an immoral act that brings far more emotional distress to me than the thought of many acts that would be considered by many to be far more immoral.

So, in the end, the whole exercise left me exhausted and annoyed. Here is my found poem. You don’t need to know where I got it from. Please don’t sue me.

Found Poem

“by” Paul Mathers

“Over all these years, our attorneys have communicated.
We’re not buddies.
But, I mean, I have been in touch with him just a little bit by email.
Just personal stuff,
nothing worth talking about.”

She gives the impression she is protecting his privacy,
and, one imagines,
the fragile state of detente between them.

Has she sent him the book?
“No. I don’t know if he’ll read it.
I don’t believe he’s seen it. He’s a busy person,
so I’m not sure if it’s something that it’s important to him to get to.”
The tone of this –
there is no mistaking it –
is the deference that creeps into interactions with the famous.

It is alive, even now.

Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas- Week 1

ImageThe photo is of our professor, Jonathan Biss, who happens to be releasing recordings of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. As usual, when I’m taking a class, I like to digest my notes into blog entries. It helps me to retain the nutrients.

Let’s move on before I follow that metaphor any further.

We spent the first week talking about the times leading up to Beethoven, specifically J.S. Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. Beethoven studied Bach, whose fugal writing especially was a huge influence on him. Beethoven studied with Haydn personally. At one point, Beethoven left Vienna and hoped to study with Mozart. It never happened. Mozart’s shadow loomed large over Beethoven (just as Beethoven’s shadow loomed large over just about every composer since).

In Bach’s time, concerts did not exist, at least not as such. Music was a private function: at home, in politics, but mainly in church. The closest Bach’s music came to a concert was in coffeehouses. Performance was not at the forefront of Bach’s mind. He was more focused on published works. Appreciation was viewed differently in those times and Bach was, essentially, a servant as a court and then church musician. At nearly 60, with his greatest works in existence, J.S. Bach was still giving singing lessons to teenagers.

Haydn marked a new beginning. The place of the composer in society evolved. The Kapellmeister ran the musical life of the court. Haydn worked for the Esterházy family for 18 years. in 1779, he was permitted to publish music of his choice. This was a dramatic shift. This was unheard of. Haydn’s expressive palate broadened as a result. 

Mozart is 23 years old at this point. He is fully mature in his work (in his personal life… less so). Haydn and Mozart liked each other. Mozart chafed against the court musician system. He worked for Archibishop Colloredo and resigned in 1785 with no job lined up. This, too, was unheard of. Mozart returned to Salzburg. This was a composer refusing to be a servant.

Mozart’s first years as a freelance composer were successful. After 1788, his career became an absolute mess. Haydn, by contrast, was working at the House of Esterházy with freedom and great productivity. By 1795, he was quite wealthy. He continually enjoyed more freedom, which, as a result, made him more inventive. Still, by Beethoven’s time, the court system was disappearing.

Beethoven was the first composer with models to follow for a richer, freer life as a composer. Beethoven was recalcitrant. He refused patrons’ demands. He went to Vienna for a period of study and found a way to stay with independence. He viewed his patrons as friends, not as employers. Opus 1 brought in enough money for Beethoven to live on for a year.

After 1811 (the last 16 years of his life), Beethoven did not perform anymore. His 9th Symphony was paid for by an English patron. His piano sonatas had no performance history at all. Only one (Op. 101, the 28th sonata) was performed in his lifetime. The sonata was music for the home, music to publish for home performances. Managability and production were not his problem. That was the performer’s problem. Audience comprehension was also not his concern. The sonata was a private experiment between Beethoven and the player.

Form equals psychology. Form is the way music works on the listener, a sort of map of the emotional effect. The Classical period was the heyday of the sonata form. Without getting to deep into music theory: 3 movements, the first being the key shape or theme or whatever it is the music theory people call it, the other two in opposition. We are introduced to two key terms: the tonic (fundamental chord of the key we’re in) and the dominant (which always wants to resolve into a tonic). Again, I won’t unpack all of this (partly because I feel as if my own grasp on it is tenuous as best) save to say that the progression and resolution are the journey that we take when we listen to or play a piece. All of it is an embellishment of the tonic to dominant relationship. There is an expansion, a development (the sort of wilderness period of the piece in which we go fishing for the tonic), and the recapitulation (we do not leave the tonic, but otherwise revisit the exposition).

We have a strong need for resolution, even in benevolent sounding work. It conveys a sense of story, not a literal one, but a moving of states.

We ended with an analogy to Shakespeare. To know less is to have a more passive relationship to the work. Of course, you can enjoy something like Hamlet as a complete layperson, but your enjoyment deepens and increases by knowing the English language, poetry, form, or even knowing about the time and place in which it was written and the time and place in which the play takes place. That is why a layperson, like me, would want to take a class like this.

Next week: we get around to talking about Beethoven.

Let’s All Write an Event Poem!

First, I thought this would be a form of poetic journalism. Well, actually, first I thought “Aw crap. Does this mean I have to go to an event?”

But then I read Ron Padgett’s description of the poetic form. He said that the form evolved from “Happenings” from the 1950s. One example of an event poem he showed was a nonsensical, and in fact impossible, event where naked people are eating Cheerios on top of mountains of used tires. That sort of thing.

He then muddies the waters further by suggestion how to write one. Take a noun and make a list of five of six things to do with the noun. Let them be creative and let them be nonsensical if you so choose.

So, even more frustrated, I wrote something that would land me a suspension and regimen with the district psychologist if I were still in public school. Hint to public school officials: speaking as one who did this sort of thing in the days before adults went entirely irrational over such things, more often than not the child is probably being facetious.

This is me being a bit of a smart aleck with the writing prompt. I was, frankly, a little disappointed with this one.

Event Poem

by Paul Mathers

1. Look at the waiter. The waiter is in white with an apron. White denotes purity and holiness while the blackness of his trousers is reminiscent of the void, oblivion, non-existence.

2. Give the waiter ice cream, a vial of mercury, a canary, a stone, and a sportscar. See which one he eats.

3. Take the waiter to a carnival, the lavatory of a public swimming pool, a desert, an insurance investigator’s office, a walk-in meat freezer. Note how he reacts to each of these environments.

4. Taste the waiter. Feel the chewiness of the waiter. Note the difference between his external and internal flavor.

5. Feel the waiter. Thumb his face, his cheeks, his lips, his nostrils, his eyes. What happens if you press his eyes with your thumbs harder and harder? See how much fluid comes out of the waiter.

6. Speak rhyme and nonsense words to the waiter. What sounds does he make? When does he stop making sounds? Why do you suppose he has stopped making sounds?

Lord Kelvin and the rest


The Wave Theory of Light, by Lord Kelvin

I will try to be as brief on these last few essays as I wish they would have been.

It was great until math showed up.

I am being slightly facetious, but I realized long ago that I was destined to be firmly in the “general reader” category of science enthusiasts. That category of reader did not exist in the 19th century (or, at least, not as we know it today). Also, it is important to note that this piece is, today, of more historical scientific interest.

The Tides, by Lord Kelvin

Lord Kelvin gives a crash refresher course on the tides. He includes historical confusion over them, as well as a few instances of historical remarkable accuracy on why they happen (which I always enjoy. It’s always nice to be reminded that we’re not so clever and original as we think we are).

The Extent of the Universe, by Simon Newcomb

This was probably my favorite piece in the volume. Newcomb is an engaging writer:

“The reader who desires to approach this subject in the most receptive spirit should begin his study by betaking himself on a clear, moonless evening, when he has no earthly concern to disturb the serenity of his thoughts, to some point where he can lie on his back on bench or roof, and scan the whole vault of heaven at one view. He can do this with the greatest pleasure and profit in late summer or autumn- winter would do equally well were it possible for the mind to rise so far above bodily conditions that the question of temperature should not enter. The thinking man who does this under circumstances most favorable for calm thought will form a new conception of the wonder of the universe… I know of no way in which complete rest can be obtained for the weary soul- in which the mind can be so entirely relieved of the burden of all human anxiety- as by the contemplation of the spectacle presented by the starry heavens under the conditions described.”

Geographical Evolution, by Sir Archibald Geikie

I just barely remember having read this. It deals with the materials which comprise the land and the architecture of the land. It was written long before the understanding of plate tectonics. It was a frustrating read in that it was the last 30 some pages between me and Cellini and because I instantly realized that if I ever thought of this piece again it would be something like “one time I read some archaic geology.” At no point did that first impression shift.

Anyway, onward to Cellini with all possible alacrity!

Mucho Trabajo, Poco Dinero

To gaze upon the stars and feel our insignificance

is the greatest source of mental health.

Tomorrow we will return to rent-paying,

the value of completed tasks spiraling upward from us.

Tonight, drunk as lords,

we will forget the indifference.

We will take the business of our meaning

elsewhere whenever we can:

To God, to Art, to our most charitable of classes:

The working poor.

Throwing feathers against stone

in hopes of carving our name there.

Because Heaven forbid our jobs be our only contribution.

Faraday and Helmhotz Science Lectures


“Welcome to my science lecture. Say the secret word and win $100.”

There was a period in my late teens and early twenties when I had not yet learned that the quality of my life would dramatically improve through enforcing on myself complete ignorance of what is happening on television. I watched a lot of public television in that time and while I liked their offerings, I struggled a bit with the exclusive target audience of pre-teen. Not that that age group shouldn’t be awash in a flood of education, but, rather, people of all ages should. I observed that the night offerings for adults were “informative” and “cultural.” Which I suppose is a form of “educational.”

Anyway, there was a television show called Bill Nye, The Science Guy in which Mr. Nye introduced science concepts to the pre-teen crowd. I was enthusiastic about this show because I always loved science. I have always felt that there is only one major difference between a scientist and a poet: Mathematics. I recall telling another poet about this show and he, rather grumpily, telling me that children did not actually learn anything from these shows. They were entertained by them, but they would not retain any knowledge from them. I knew that this was false, but was unable to articulate why at the time. At the very least, such entertainments could ignite an interest in a child to go to the library and learn more on their own.

I do not think it unfair to claim similarities between what Nye did and what Faraday did. They were both speaking to children (it was a little jarring to suddenly have lectures tailored to children in the middle of the Harvard Classics Library). Faraday’s lecture hall was a Rube Goldberg device in my imagining of it. The lectures are “oh look, here at what I am doing. This is what I’m doing and this is why it is happening in this manner. This is what it means. Isn’t it grand?”


He is filling iron casings with water and freezing them to make them explode. He is playing with the center of gravity with toys and simple items that you would find around the house (and likely make a tremendous mess when you go home on holiday and try to recreate). He is filling things with different gasses and either lighting them on fire or seeing if they fly.

And, if for no other reason, it was well worth reading to have learned about Prince Rupert’s Drops.

The first set of lectures are on the Forces of Matter. The second set is The Chemical History of a Candle. But did I actually learn anything? Yes. Or, rather, I had a whirlwind refresher course on Gravitation, Cohesion, Chemistry, and Magnetism.

Hermann Helmholtz’s lectures were, I gathered, aimed more toward an adult audience. His first was On The Conservation of Force. It was a fascinating lecture about mechanical physics, although it wasn’t until the end when I realized that the point of the whole thing was to show that a perpetual motion machine was impossible.

“The force of falling water can only flow down from the hills when rain and snow bring it to them. To furnish these, we must have aqueous vapour in the atmostphere, which can only be effected by the air of heat, and this heat comes from the sun. The steam engine need the fuel which the vegetable life yields, whether it be the still active life of the surrounding vegetation, or the extinct life which has produced the immense coal deposits in the depths of the earth. The forces of man and animals must be restored by nourishment; all nourishment comes ultimately from the vegetable kingdom, and leads us back to the same source.”

His second lecture is on Ice Glaciers. He spends the bulk of the lecture discussing the various properties of frozen water.

So, I’m over halfway done with this volume of natural science and, while it’s interesting and I am learning a lot, I have to say that were it not for the promise of Cellini’s Autobiography next in the series, I would probably take a break after this one.