Paulus Torchus

Month: November, 2013

Let’s All Write Haiku!

This is perhaps one of the more familiar forms to those who went through High School English. It’s an old story, but I’ll tell it again, of the high school teacher instructing children to write lines of 5/7/5 to teach poetic form composition. And, indeed, I will go so far as to say I believe this to be a useful practice. It shows children, who might not otherwise ever be called upon to compose such a thing, what it is like to compose poetry in a form.Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of true educational content being excised from schools today.

However, I do feel compelled to mention two of the possible problems with the practice. One is that the form is not considered so strict in any serious poetic circle. Ron Padgett calls it “a genre (type) of poetry. That is, along with its typical form, the haiku has characteristic content and a certain style of language. Of the three- form, content, and language- form is least important.” He later goes so far as to say that the way to write one, formwise, is “three lines with the first and last a bit shorter than the middle.” Simple as that. Simple as that?

Well, the second issue is the importance of the content and language. I firmly believe that style can (and must) be taught (and, as far as I can tell from contemporary American schools, isn’t). This led flip, glib, cheeky high-school-aged-Paul to write haiku for his class like:

“Cool winter breeze

As I bite into a York

Peppermint Patty.”

or

“A girl passes by

in cut-off blue jean shorts.

What was I saying?”

Current-me wants to slap high-school-aged-me on the wrists with a ruler over these. These are very nearly in the prescribed form (high-school-Paul was also not disciplined at counting), but certainly deviant from content and tone. Padgett quotes one unnamed expert (maybe it’s Padgett pretending to be someone else!) saying haiku is a “poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which nature is linked to human nature.” So I took a stab. It seems like haiku is either something that will come with great labor and hand-wringing, or it will come completely naturally. I struggled for many days to write my first three (by the way, the quotation marks I’ve added simply for the sake of further denoting the individual haiku. My western eye, at least, wants to read them together as a single poem):

“Beside a pile of leaves

the wind blows more down

to clog the gutters.”

 

“In bath water

hairs on legs drift slowly

back and forth.”

 

“Rough winds

blow leaves down around neat raked

leaf piles.”

All of which I felt were decent enough to post on the blog without total embarrassment, but they still feel labored to me. In the first I am trying to pair euphonious words. In the second, the final line is superfluous, simply there for the sake of there being a final line. In the third, completely unintentionally and I didn’t even notice until I typed it here, I quote Shakespeare.

Yesterday I was off from work and, being Thanksgiving, it was a quiet morning of staying out of my wife’s way as she prepared the meal. I took my journal outside and just observed my yard with a quiet mind:

“Sparrows

flock leaf pile, pecking,

singing.”

 

“Cherry sapling.

Two leaves left for

five months.”

 

“Still pool

broken by pine needles

and wind.”

 

“Oak leaves

yellow, ivy remains

green.”

 

“Old trees

branches all point

windward.”

I feel these are far better (although I still have mixed feelings about breaking the thought into two lines for the sake of there being three lines. I feel as if they should be three separate lines. It’s a learning process).

To write a haiku, I would recommend taking pen and journal out into the wild and using the form to “take snapshots.”

A Graceless Heritage

There has been a lot of talk online recently about the new practice of some major chain stores in America opening for the purpose of sales on the actual day of Thanksgiving. In days gone by, this was a practice reserved for the day after Thanksgiving. Now certain conspicuous businesses have decided to run with profaning the holiday and, as is so often the case with transgressing taboos, the fact that someone has done it seems to mean that this is now a thing that human beings do.

A great deal of the outrage I am reading seems to focus mainly on how this harms the workers in the stores, specifically on their inability, thanks to their duties, to spend the holiday with their families. This comes on the heels of revelations about businesses running food drives for their impoverished employees, businesses straight-faced giving advice to cut food into small pieces to make the employee feel fuller, and any other number of tales of the entrenched greed culture beyond the wildest imaginings of anything Dickens was commenting on.

I do not wish to minimize any of this. All of those aspects are real and terrible, I acknowledge, I “yes and amen” the outrage. I feel that any company that holds a sale on Thanksgiving day is treasonous and anyone who shops on Thanksgiving day is a Philistine.

However, I did not want to write a post simply to add my voice, but in hopes of illuminating some troubling aspects that I have thus far not seen addressed in the public discourse. Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are our two genuinely unique American holidays. Thanksgiving is the final place in the American public arena where any form of virtue is encouraged. I welcome anyone to prove me wrong on that. It would be such a relief if someone would. The virtue is gratitude and the antidote is discontent, a near synonym (if such a thing actually exists) of which is covetousness. This is the precise antidote being peddled by those open stores on that hallowed date.

Of course, this is the part of my argument that some will be more than willing to reject out of hand. The original language of President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation is highly religious. It rather puts me in mind of a quote from Martin Luther:

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It also puts me in mind of the Old Testament. One way of telling the story of the Old Testament might go something like this “People turn back to God and His expressed ways of worship and expressed ways of pleasing Him. Things go well and people rejoice. Then they forget. Things go very badly for them. Then someone remembers and tells people to go back to God’s way of doing things, at which point you return to the first sentence and repeat until you get to Matthew 1.” Check this out from Nehemiah 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose... And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also… the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Now, I am not explicitly saying that these corporations are calling for damnation to rain down upon us or, at least, for God to withdraw His blessing from America. At the very least, I think we are doing a fine job of that without the help of Wal-mart. But the larger point I was grasping for is this: so often the judgment of the sin, at least in this world, is that the sinner is given over to the sin. In other words, the true horror of what’s happening to Thanksgiving here is that we are becoming a nation in which Thanksgiving and, indeed, thanksgiving has been proclaimed an anachronism.

I would love to see the people rise up and declare as a whole that this will not stand. I would love to see that rarest of beasts, an efficacious boycott, happen. I am wizened enough by harsh experience to expect nothing of the sort. Instead I will seek to foster within myself a spirit of thanksgiving as a lifestyle choice. Also I will stay out of stores this Thursday. I will behave as if they are closed. Perhaps if 10 righteous people are to be found in this climate, we’ll be spared for that.

Perhaps.

‘Twas Ever Thus

In my ear buds as I rake

the voice of a 60 year gone

Welshman’s sermon

“There is Hell in everybody’s heart

by nature.”

And I wonder if this spoke in

Abraham’s bosom

as he sat under the oaks of Mamre.

These same leaves have not changed

and never will.

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

ImageIndeed, one of the great things about A Moveable Feast is that is Hemingway in which Hemingway not only appears but is both protagonist and narrator. As it was published posthumously, we get an unfiltered look at bohemian Paris of the 1920s through the eyes of Ernest Hemingway. He speaks of Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and the needless to name Alice B. Toklas, Wyndham Lewis (which was hilarious), Picasso, Ford Maddox Ford (which was also hilarious), and many more. It is a wonderful book, but one with some issues.

One of the issues is in the current available editions and, indeed, in the ambiguity of what the author would have intended. When I went to purchase this book, I could not find anything but the Restored Edition for a price I was willing to pay. This surprised me as my last brush with this book, sometime in the early 1990s, the mass market paperback of the familiar edition was readily and cheaply available. This seems to have something to do with the machinations of the current Hemingway family. There are critiques of the Restored Edition, over the grandson’s purging of his own grandmother from the text. I found myself not missing or remembering or noticing anything about this. My issue was not in the omissions, but what was added.

There are some additions to the chapters that already existed and I took no issue with those, but the book finished with “additional sketches” and even worse “fragments.” Interesting for completists, but played havoc with the flow of the book. The final chapter of the book with Scott Fitzgerald is perfect. To tack on other bits you found in grandpa’s shoebox was a flagrant breach of the editorial arts. In short, the book was brilliant. Sometimes cutting ruins a work of art, sometimes adding does the same. I hesitate to say that it was ruined, but it was like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. When I learned where Welles had meant to end the film, I stopped it at that point at every subsequent viewing of the film.

Hemingway’s prose was as crisp and modern as I remember it. Perhaps it’s in contrast to the sort of prose I’ve been reading for the past several years, but I found the clarity to be quite refreshing. My next poetic form is the haiku and his prose style seemed to bear some similarities.  The austerity and economy of language can strike me as admirable, although, this illustrates my relationship with Hemingway. I love Hemingway in one book. I discovered this about myself in my teens. If I try to read another book by Hemingway immediately after, halfway through my hands will begin shake and I’ll go hunt down any other author, grab them by the collar, and say, “Come on, man. You’ve gotta help me out! Make me go look something up in a dictionary! Reference a Greek myth! Self-reference! Talk about an emotion! Anything!”

I think I love Hemingway once in every five years.

A Moveable Feast is, on the surface, a series of vignettes although I would argue that it is a unified book (if you don’t go adding things to it). You should read it to gain a firsthand perspective on life in one of the flashpoints of art, literature, and culture, a flashpoint which, in our time, must still be reckoned with. Unlike Woody Allen’s recent romanticization of the period (not to denigrate It was a fine film), I think one of the great values to a work like this is that it shows these people as mere people. They drink too much, they have insecurities, they have petty squabbles, they wander around aimlessly, their conversation about works of art fail to capture the greatness they mean to communicate. In other words, it leaves you with a question: what if they greatest artists of the last 100 years were just like you and me? 

 

A few words on faith

 

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“The murder of Zwingli”, by Karl Jauslin

Many years ago, I worked in the ticket booth of a theater in an affluent area of Orange County. Every Yule season, the theater mounted a production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I still remember the patrons coming to the window in foul moods, mistreating the staff, then dragging their spoiled brats in to see the overpriced production, the irony of the message of the story lost on no one but them. It must not have been a very good production because I did not see people exiting the theater with their lives and values changed.

Every year, after Thanksgiving (because anything Christmas before Thanksgiving is over is GAUCHE GAUCHE GAUCHE!) I read A Christmas Carol aloud to my wife. I do the voices and everything. I was thinking about this the other day and reflecting on the impact of the story, a story with a decidedly Christian morality, and the prospect of the vitality of the story continuing in a post-Christian culture. As far as I can tell, the immorality of the contemporary business world surpasses the anti-Christian values which spurred Dickens to write the piece as a critique of a certain type of businessman in his time. Not to mention the amoral disorder of the hoi polloi in contemporary America. I think it’s coming, possibly even already here. It think at this point the story is nothing more than a nostalgia piece for most people and that the morality of it is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. That doesn’t change the power of the piece; it simply speaks to the bankruptcy of the civilization.

The video above was posted by my wife on her Facebook feed and it has been biting me ever since I watched it. It’s an anti-bullying advert. I was bullied mercilessly in my childhood and this video brought all of that emotion rushing back on me. I was reminded of earlier this year something I read when I was writing my epic poem about Glenn Gould. Gould was commenting on the anti-nuclear proliferation movement, one of the problems of which being that what they were seeking to remove from the equation were nouns. Gould said words to the effect of, “I don’t believe in the anti-nuke movement because there is not an equally fervent anti-child-who-tears-the-wings-off-of-dragonflies movement.” What he was driving at was human nature. I like that there is an anti-bullying movement gaining legs in our culture right now, but I also feel like it’s futile.

When I became a believer, it was largely because of the doctrine of sin, the Fall, and human nature. It explained so much of what I observed in others, in the world, and in myself. It spoke to my existential suspicion of the depth of seriousness to existence, and to my constant neurotic realization that no matter how much fun I was having at any given time, someone somewhere was having the worst moment of their life. It spoke to the bullying I’d experienced, bullying for no gain on the part of the bullies, entirely senseless malevolence.  It spoke to death, decay, madness, addiction, and entropy, all the seemingly most recurrent themes in existence. It spoke to the imperfections in myself, which are so glaring in my own eyes. It also explained the age old problem of why bad things happen to good people with the succinct and true answer, “There are no good people.”

I know a man who does not believe in Hell because God is love. A few years ago, one of my best friends died quite suddenly. He was not a believer and was always very good to me. A number of other truly horrific blows to my faith came at the same time and I found myself asking a lot of questions of my faith, one of those long dark nights you hear about. I struggled with the concept of Hell because I knew what my faith would say about my friend. At one point I began to read those banal and jejune neo-atheists because I found myself at a crossroad where I asked, “Can I not believe?”

I found that the answer was “No! I can’t not believe!” And this was because of two truths that surpassed “faith” and wedged into my cranium’s crenellations like a trident: 1) the ontological argument and 2) the sin nature of humankind. That latter eventually lead me to reconcile God being love with the existence of Hell, by the way. God being love means he demands justice for evil, it means that we do not live in chaos. God being a God who loves order is a great source of comfort to mercurial me.

In John 6, things get real for the disciples, and many people turn away from Jesus because he starts laying down the hard stuff, the predestination stuff:

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”

And that was (and is) where I found myself, saying “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I’ll tell you something aout myself that I have struggled with in the recent years. I am a hypochondriac and germ-phobe (opening doors with paper towels, constant handwashing, carrying hand sanitizer and a little spray bottle of rubbing alcohol for phones, pens, and anything else anyone else has touched, washing my nostrils out whenever I’m around someone who coughs and then texting my wife to have her reassure me that I did not just give myself the brain eating amoeba – which may sound funny but I’m sure isn’t when you have to live with someone like me – eating sandwiches and pizza with a knife and fork, skin cracking from rubbing alcohol, avoiding shaking hands, and so much more) to the extent that I am fairly certain I would be diagnosed obsessive-compulsive. I haven’t sought that out because I know that if I rely on that path to overcome it, I will forever be a slave to it. I know I need to work it out in faith. In the past few years, it has exploded into a sort of mania. I’m better now than I was a year or two ago, but I still struggle. I am currently teaching a class on the history of the Reformation and this past week I taught on the life of Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was a reformer in Switzerland and a priest. The bubonic plague broke out in Zurich and he stayed to minister to people. And he caught the plague.  And he survived it! And after that the people respected him. After that, he became earnest in his faith and learned to trust God in everything.

That has stuck with me over the past few days so much and, indeed, has been such a balm to my soul. He took his faith that seriously. Indeed, it should be taken that seriously. It has to be taken that seriously. None of us takes it as seriously as we should. We all want out peccadillos and wisps of perfume of the seven deadlies to tell the world we are not stuck up. We want our autonomy. We want our pat pop answers of the needle’s eye being some kind of gate where they took their possessions off of the camel to get through and then piled them back on, or how the apostles were not communists. We want our childrearing manuals with the easy answers and our gender roles that we can take great pride in. We want to leave a church body because the songs don’t make us want to wiggle our butts and we want our pastor to write us permission slips to travel in the world with a tourist visa. In short, we want for God to bow to us.

Again, I am faced with the question of whether or not I really believe this and I have to say, “To whom shall I go?” Sure this world is beautiful in many ways. I am fully convinced that that beauty is only the vestigial remains of the imprint of the creator. In most ways, it is a very ugly world, a very brutish and bullying world. The seriousness of my faith is not only extreme; it is the only thing of any importance really. It is the only thing I have to hang onto in this world.

I do not wish to be so gauche as to write a Christmas post at this point, but I did want to remark on the coming season. I feel that the coming season holds a mirror up to us, whether we realize it or not.  It is certainly an intensifier… and seems to be a bit of an accelerator. It’s amazing that we don’t all have conical heads by New Year’s. In that time there is a story all around us. It is undoubtedly there the rest of the year if we were willing to tap into it. It is a story that, if we really understand it and really take it seriously, is the key to charity, love, and the relief of redemption from this bleak, cold existence. We are beggars. This is true.

As I am reflecting on these things, making connections over the past few days, I would like to offer all of my fellow believers two phrases that are helping me tremendously right now. Write them down and stick them in your pocket. Get them tattooed on your forearms. Whatever helps. One is “To whom shall I go?” Think of this in reference to the seriousness of your faith. And also try walking around with this other one in your head in reference to the seriousness of your faith, and try saying it whenever your walk becomes difficult:

“Zwingli caught the plague.”

Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh

Again, I am faced with the happy and unhappy task of attempting to write about one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. In days long past I had a rather peevish attitude about identifying too closely with characters of fiction as it gives one an illusory excuse to fancy one’s self heroic. As is so often the case, age has softened me. The book struck razor-close to my own experiences. I know that to many in my youth I was (and fate-wise to some extent remain, although I like to think that I have the dipsomania under control. To a lot of my former peers I’m sure they see a lively and promising young man resting sadly in middle-age upon the crutch of religion.) I would be remembered as a bit of a Sebastian character. To many others, most I would say, I think I am more likely remembered as more of an Anthony Blanche (complete with the real-life inspiration’s failed poetry career). I could certainly imagine some of my old friends’ stodgy family members advising them, “Now that Paul Mathers – now there’s a man there’s absolutely no excuse for.” And I can also imagine some of the walking thumbs I was subjected to associate with in school later claiming to have put me “in Mercury one night.”

I went through a brief Waugh phase in junior high. (“Of course you did, Paul.”) Alexander Woollcott touted A Handful of Dust as a masterpiece, and I’m pretty sure I read Vile Bodies immediately after. I think I then moved on to either the autobiography or The Letters of before moving to some other wild anachronism like Somerset Maugham or something like that. A strange habit of mine, I avoided the most obvious piece completely, but in this case there is a way in which I’m glad I did. At that young of an age, scarcely the age of Sebastian and Charles at the beginning of the story, I doubt I would have understood the emotional weight. I would have understood Ryder’s nostalgia upon returning to Brideshead. I doubt I would have caught the subtlety of the book being a highly religious one told through the eyes of an agnostic. At this point in my life, I have a folder of photographs on my Desktop of architectural detail shots I took of the house where I grew up. The Folder is titled “Home.” So, yes, I think I get that element of the book on a highly visceral level.

There are a few elephants in the room. One is the seemingly pro-aristocratic view of the book. I am tempted to make a snide comment about how we Americans pretend we have no such thing in our country, but I think I’ll only do that by pretending I’m not going to do that. Of course, I am not an aristocrat, nay, I am not even, by any stretch of the imagination, anything higher than lower middle-class. I am, however, a traditionalist. In times of social upheaval and discord, it is a recurring historical theme for the intelligentsia to beat the drum of lessons from the past which would serve well the present. They hearken back to source texts and seek to reinstate wisdom, order, and beauty. The Renaissance and Erasmian Humanism spring to mind, as does Wagner. And the Old Testament is sort of the cyclical story of a people falling away from the Law, rediscovering it, returning to it, prospering for a time, then forgetting it again. I feel we are living in a time of severe discord and that is part of why I am a Classicist. Not so much of a Classist, I hope, but in this specific instance there are parallels of lamenting a lost order in a time of present anarchy. I also like to think that the real argument is not so much The Divine Right of Kings (or, rather, the ruling class), but a pro-civilization view which has my full sympathies. But maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m reading into it what I want to read into it. So be it.

One of the critiques I keep finding in the cursory glance I’ve taken at what others have written about the book is the morality of the book. This surprises me, but I suppose it shouldn’t. I expect to have similar problems with my own novel which decidedly takes place in Christian reality, but of necessity portrays decidedly unchristian events. (I guess I wanted to make sure it would be as difficult to find a publisher as possible.) The morality of Waugh’s book is decidedly Catholic. Just because a character like Anthony Blanche exists, even if he is occasionally charming, does not constitute condoning on Waugh’s part. Also, it surprises me that anyone would miss that Ryder’s objections to religion, even though they are told in the First Person, are emphatically wrong in the eyes of the book. Sebastian’s fate is called, by Cordelia (who may well be the closest thing to a heroine in the story), not a bad one as far as fates go. Ryder is wrong about Lord Marchmain’s deathbed experience and the priest is a sympathetic character. Nanny Hawkins gets the last (well, penultimate I suppose) word in the book. Even Brideshead and Beryl’s “offensive” remarks about Julia and Charles… kind of turn out to be right. As if morality is not a movable feast. Albeit it is a story in which just about every character attempts to move it to some extent and a story about the consequences. As humans, as sinners, it is what we all do. There is a great truth to this story.

It is a book that contains that famous line, “Oh God, make me good, but not yet.”

Of course, although almost entirely in the periphery, it is also a war book, isn’t it? And to many of us in this time of war without end, the war is both horrifying and peripheral in our quotidian little lives, isn’t it? Later in life, Waugh lamented the florid prose and over-indulgences of the book. He said, and I am am highly paraphrasing here, that it was written in the lean times of war and now (in the time in which he was speaking), in a time of full stomachs, he found the flavor unpalatable. Two comments on that:

1) Waugh had this sort of consummate curmudgeon persona which makes me take all such statements by him with a grain of salt large enough to choke a horse and

2) We don’t live in a time of full stomachs anymore. We live in lean times of constant war in which “I must have champagne” is the sort of thing you can go around saying charmingly.

It is one of those books that I would like to buy a case of and give to everyone I know. More to the point, I would like to give it to people when they first meet me. It is a book that I would demand all of you to read if you could, for your own good, if for no other reason than my desire to share with you one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.