Paulus Torchus

Month: December, 2013

Let’s All Write Limericks!

I can’t decide if I feel like the limerick is one of the lowest forms of poetry or one of the highest. In writing them, I’ve found them to be one of the quickest shortcuts to sounding clever. They are devilishly easy to compose and great fun. There were moments, as you will see, where I felt like the smartest drunkard in the neighborhood bar.

I think we’re all familiar with the pattern. My first attempt is a theology lesson:

 

Sinner man, God’s own enthronement

compels you to your conversion moment.

So say Calvin’s Five Points,

but the one that disjoints:

where to fix the limits of atonement?

 

I often think about the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me when I think of limericks. They famously do a weekly news quiz in limerick form where the contestant must fill in the blank at the end of the limerick to reveal the news story. I thought I would try my hand at this and clicked on Google News. Boy oh boy! There is not a lot of material there that I would feel comfortable putting into limerick form. What a wicked evil world we live in. What a daunting job the NPR limerick writer has! So I plucked the first non-tragic headline I saw and had at it.

 

Stocks Waver, but the Dow hits a record.

The best stock performance in decades has been scored.

It’s just too bad jobs

don’t multiply in such gobs.

There’s already a new head of the Federal Reserve Board.

 

Ouch! Pretty clunky. Let’s try summing up great literature in limerick form. Here’s Crime and Punishment:

 

Raskolnikov’s conscience does races

and he puts the police through their paces.

Will he trip on his guilt

over blood he has spilt

putting axes in old lady’s faces?

 

How about Hamlet?

 

Said a ghost to son Hamlet, “Remember,

your vengeance should burn like an ember.”

So he went through theatrics

and mental gymnastics.

Now the whole royal court lies dismembered.

 

How about some Edgar Allan Poe:

 

To the amontillado cask he was allured

“the finest wine ever” he’d heard.

“Nemo me impune lacessit”

as the masonry was beset

Now he finds himself bloody immured!

 

How about Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

 

Madeleines have such exquisite flavor,

I’m transported by one that I savor

I reflect on affairs

with orphans and heirs

And I’m still laying here 1000 pages later.

 

Which is all well and good and fun, but if you’re anything like me (and I know I am!) you’re thinking of dirty limericks. My own sense of humor seems to have never passed through puberty. I find bedroom humor to be vulgar. But I find bathroom humor to be hilarious! So, when it came time to try my hand at the dirty limerick, I stuck to poop and fart jokes:

 

There once was a lady from Naseby

who thought constipation bad, maybe.

So she chugged Metamucil

to loosen up her stool

and crapped out the size of a baby.

 

How about some of local interest?:

 

There once was a man from Chico

whose gas would always go “squeek-o.”

The doc said, “Your colon

is probably swollen.

Bend over and I’ll take a peek-o.”

 

There once was a girl from Grass Valley

who was known as a rather crass gal-y.

She ate onions and steak

with a Tabasco milkshake

and it certainly made her butt howl-y.

 

 

Thank you for your kind attention.

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The Year in Review

Of course, I’m proudest of finishing an unpublished manuscript to a full length novel which, if I were to die suddenly, would not be far from ready for publication. Barring sudden death, however, I’m still tinkering with it before I go shop it around. Also, this year, I’ve nearly completed one novella manuscript and started another of undetermined length (although I suspect it will be another novella). I am proud of the epic poem I wrote about Glenn Gould this year, the goblin wedding poem, and the poem about playing Santa Claus. I think those were all pretty darned good poems. I think this was my most prolific year in writing since my early 20s, possibly in my life so far. I intend to keep up the pace.

I read some of the greatest books I’ve ever read this year, and I’m a better man for it. At this time one year ago I was beginning The Divine Comedy. I am currently reading Crime and Punishment. I feel it’s good to start the year with a great deal of existential weight.

I am much less of a man of fear than I was a year ago. I am a man who takes his faith a lot more seriously than I was a year ago. I think I’m happier and kinder than I did a year ago. All of which make for a great year. We were blessed with some opportunity to do some good this year and we, by the grace of God, rose to the occasion. I hope in the next year we have more such opportunities.

My step-daughter moved into the house across the street from us. Laurie and I had a vacation in which we were able to help my parents out a bit (a drop in the ocean of how much they’ve helped us over the years). I got to have lunch with my grandmother at one of our favorite restaurants. I got to visit my alma mater and take a lot of pictures of the campus. I was able to make a pilgrimage to see a Warhol Campbell Soup Can. I taught a seven week course on the history of the Reformation. I built a box garden and grew an abundance of vegetables. Nothing short of miraculous, we kept our house for another year. We have received devastating financial news that is a bit of a Sword of Damocles over our home. Still, there is no constant aside from change and circumstances could swing in another direction. Also, our hope is not in this world, so losing our home would only sting to an extent. And it hasn’t happened yet. But still, I hope that it doesn’t. I like my house.

As increases exponentially with age, we lost some people this year. Laurie and I both had people we loved very dearly pass away suddenly.

I would also mention that I still feel the sting that the world lost one of its great men this year.

In the upcoming year, I resolve to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Native Son by Richard Wright, Lolita, and The Jungle Book. That should get me through to about March and then I’ll have to think of other things to read. Aside from those specifics, this year I have two groups I would like to focus on reading: The Russians and the Early Church Fathers.

I have an idea for a much larger and much more ambitious novel, as well as completing the two smaller pieces. In this next year, I intend to start shopping at least one of these pieces (the novel that I’ve already finished, most likely) for publication.

But I should probably save the comprehensive list of resolutions until after the first of the year. Instead, I think I’ll recap this past January’s resolutions with commentary on how I did:

Finish the Harvard Classics. Instead I hit indefinite pause on that project because I was losing my joy in reading. I have no regrets.

Write more poetry. 2013 was a great year for my body of work and I intend to keep this habit up.

Be softer, less judging, more compassionate. I realized how much the bullying I received in my childhood lead to me 1) tending towards reclusiveness, and 2) attempting to harden my heart. Neither of which is good or helpful. I feel like, at 35, my armor is my most major stumbling block. Mixed. I feel like I have succeeded in cultivating a softer heart and forced myself kicking and screaming away from reclusiveness. Some of that remains, but I also, in the process, have found that I no longer think of introversion as a vice. Experience has also led me to the hard truth that, contrary to popular belief, unfettered compassion is not always wisdom or called for. Discernment and a heart seeking goodness and truth are the qualities to be coveted.

Imitate Christ and Socrates. Modesty forbids!

Replace fear/anxiety/worry as my chief character traits with thankfulness/blessing/compassion. I think I’ve had some great success with eliminating the first part of the clause and I doubt I could ever achieve the extent of the second part of the clause that I would like to. Two major game-changers helped me in this pursuit this year. One is the teaching that all sin is rooted in unbelief and that unbelief is, in fact, the worst sin. Realizing this, I have found that working on my faith and the fruits thereof has been an antidote to the great failures of my character. This is a lifelong project.

The second great help came from Theodore Roosevelt who had the courage to admit that he had fears, but that he found that the best way to eliminate them was to act as though he were not afraid. By so doing, he would soon find that he was in actuality not afraid. This worked (and works!) Not to overstate, but I have found that “WWTRD?” has been a helpful mantra for me.

For this New Year, we have champagne and we have a jar of blessings written down that we’ve been adding to over the year. I wish you all a happy New Year’s celebration and I wish you all efficacious self-reflection, as befits the season.

Let’s All Write an Insult Poem!

It took a lot to get myself to write that title. I am praying that our text will return to poetic forms that I actually want to write sometime in the near future. Laurie actually suggested that I skip this one, but, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit of an obsessive completeist. The problem being: I am not an insulter. It’s a poetic form which grates against my belief system. I believe in creating good rather than pointing out evil. In the few cases where I find it appropriate and, indeed, necessary to speak out against an evil, I sure as hell don’t write a jokey poem about it.

The poem form is precisely what the name would suggest. You are called upon to write a poem insulting someone. I do not think of myself as something grand and others beneath me. The few things in this world I might feel capable of summoning up an insulting spirit toward I take a little too seriously to put into a smug poetic form.

And suddenly I see that I could write an insult poem about the poetic form of insult poems.

All of this is why it’s been several weeks since our last poetic form. I’ve been stewing about what to do with this one. I finally decided to write one about what we as a civilization do with Christmas. I found it worked because I could say “we” rather than “you.”

A Christmas Insult Poem to the Damned Human Race

by Paul Mathers

On Avarice! On Pride! On Lust and Anger! On Gluttony! On Envy! On Sloth and Disappointment!

Fear which shines so brightly

that it’s all we trust to lead us through our self-imposed darkness.

Our slavish, horror-show children Ignorance and Want

forced to load this sleigh with bijous

grown from the bloated corpse of starvation.

This satyr to Hyperion of intention.

This world could be whatever we make of it

and this is what we’ve made of it.

Tabula rasa of infinite potential

and we use it to flip out about things we saw on television,

build cases for our superiority upon sand.

That we delight in insulting

like vomiting down our shirtfronts

as the wondrous universe unfolds above us unnoticed

and the hand of God preserves us

like the germs beneath our fingernails.

The goodness in the heart of man stirs some innate remembrance:

A standard born in each babe

and systematically murdered,

thrown into the furnace of self-interest.

The potential like photosynthesis in this season.

We could but we won’t.

The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt

Image

“There must be the keenest sense of duty, and with it must go the joy of living; there must be shame at the thought of shirking the hard work of the world, and at the same time delight in the many-sided beauty of life.”

I suppose the best place to start is to state that Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite president of the United States and, I think, the last great man to hold that office.

His autobiography paints explicitly my reasons for feeling this way. It’s an odd book in some ways, almost seems uncharacteristically incomplete at parts, but I think this can be explained by the perception of importance at the time of its publication. The most fractured parts of the narrative are either about some of the best known portions of his life (the Rough Riders, the Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine all spring to mind) or, the odd notes the book ends on which are rebuttals of issues contemporaneous to the publication of the book (he ends by rebutting some statements by Woodrow Wilson, statements which we, the casual 2013 reader, are unlikely to be familiar with). Barring these odd points, it is a rip-roaring good read.

There are a few other oddities. One might expect him to talk about the experience of the attempted assassination which left him carrying a bullet inside of him to his grave. But he only mentions it in passing, to say that his old Dakota cowboy friends couldn’t understand the fuss over Roosevelt making a 90 minute speech just after being shot in the chest. They didn’t see anything about getting shot in the chest that would prevent him from making a speech and, indeed, it didn’t stop him. Roosevelt tells this story in the middle of his account of his cowboy years. His non-linear time structure seems to be borne more of irrepressible enthusiasm than any stylistic choice.

He also spends a lot of time talking about how much he hates what Taft did.

Roosevelt was a sickly young man whose father, who seems to have been the sort of man who sought every opportunity to improve his time, encouraged him to “build his body.” Roosevelt became an advocate for and liver of “the strenuous life.” He was a renaissance man and, save possibly Jefferson, one of the best-read presidents we’ve ever had. All of this has a lot to do with the sort of man he became.

He was one of the East Coast American Brahmins, however, his view of wealth and privilege is quite different from what one might expect from that background. His policy of “The Square Deal” comes from a belief that the best business transaction, be it in sales or in employer to employee relations, is one in which both parties gain the best advantage from the deal. I am so accustomed to a world in which it is accepted as matter of course that business transactions are about one party seeking to gain the most possible advantage over the other party. At this point, I had a bit of a revelation about myself.

I’ve always aligned myself with the Left in our country. In recent years, I have fought tooth and nail to maintain that as I’ve watched the Left behave in atrocious ways (not wanting to degenerate into a political post, I won’t list my specific grievances here). But I’ve felt like a man without a party because as poorly as the Left has behaved, the Right seems outright monstrous to me. I now see the problem. If I were living in pre-Ayn Rand times (that most horrid, vile, anti-Christian of self-proclaimed philosophers), I would be a Bull Moose Progressive Republican. I’ve thus far been a life-long Democrat, save for the wild, hairy-chinned days in which I would have called myself a Socialist. Midway through the path of life, I find that I would be a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. If such a thing even existed today.

I mean, could you imagine a modern Republican candidate saying, “The great masters of corporate capital in America [must] fully realize that they were the servants and not the masters of the people, that they were subject to the law, and that they would not be permitted to be a law unto themselves.” Or a Democrat for that matter. I think this love for and practice of Order is a large part of what appeals to me so much about his policy.

Roosevelt was staunchly anti-corruption. He built his career on that cornerstone. He was the anti-corruption police commissioner of New York who was so effective that he won the Governorship of New York. He then kicked the corrupt corporate bosses who had New York politics in their hip pocket out of power and influence. This was so popular with the people that the people demanded he be nominated for the vice-presidency of the United States. The bosses thought this might be a good way to get rid of the problem as the vice-presidency at the time had little real power. Roosevelt agreed to the nomination after ascertaining that it was the desire of the people. And he would have been farmed out to a figurehead position, except that he was vice-president to McKinley. McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist.

One of the more depressing realizations of the book is that the system is such that a truly honest and virtuous, anti-corruption, actually truly pro-conservation, pro-progress, pro-civilization man could never rise to such a position today. In fact, even in his day it was a fluke. With all due respect to the memory of McKinley, it was one of the best accidents that ever happened to America.

His policies of anti-corruption and The Square Deal extend to his presidency. Corrupt senators end up serving actual jail-time and Roosevelt himself, in a harrowing account, mediates a nearly disastrous labor dispute in the coal mining industry. He furthermore has no qualms about insisting that government ought to put restrictions on business to prevent corruption so long as it is to prohibit abuses by the wicked and not to inhibit the work and profits of the honest.

I mentioned pro-civilization earlier, which longtime readers know is one of my key points in politics. Roosevelt, as you might know, was an enthusiastic conservationist, at which point some cynical people like to point out the seeming discrepancy of his big game hunting. It is important to note that one of the purposes of his big game hunting was preservation of specimens for scientific study, most of which are still preserved at the Smithsonian. It is also important to understand time and place. I mentioned elsewhere online his banning of the traditional White House Christmas tree out of his conservationist agenda. A friend mentioned the environmental impact of artificial trees. Of course, in the early 1900s, there were not the sort of Christmas tree farms we see today. People were cutting down actual forest trees for Christmas. One thing that was excruciatingly evident to me while reading this book was that the policies of 1903 are not generally applicable 110 years later.

There is so much more to talk about, but suffice it to say I loved the book. I highly recommend the book. Along with getting me to think about some major issues in different, refreshingly wholesome ways, it also helped me with some of my mental state problems. Roosevelt was not a man of fear or anxiety. He said,

“There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

And, really, for me and the life that I lead, the life that I have to lead, this lesson alone made reading this book worthwhile. Here at this jaded middle-aged time in my life, I may have found an increasingly endangered species.

I may have finally found a hero.

‘Tisn’t

Like skydiving to overcome a fear of heights, I, germophobe less than an hour out from opening doors with paper towels: insecurities forged in the heart of my bullied youth (will they pull my beard?), enter onto 40 kids, the non-prescription costume glasses blur their faces. What child is this?

I’ve stumbled into a shadow holiday, always Christmas but never Advent, where He who suffered the little children to come to Him is but an unspoken ghost of past. He whose greatest gift non-redeemable with merchants.

I try to banish the hubris of feeling sacrificial. No heretics will be punched. I call out gifts from my diaphragm in my best Brian Blessed, strike poses for parents’ iPhones.

She looks at me earnestly, confronting, desperate. Her brother told her that I am not real. Here we both are and I cannot lie to her. I say, “Santa is as real as human kindness. Santa lives wherever there is good in the hearts of mankind.”

She’ll figure it out.

Full disclosure: last night a friend who is landlord across the street came over and told me of cleaning from his former tenants’ midnight moveout, in the shed he found the corpse of their chihuahua, locked in there as they could or would not take it with them. Frozen in December or frantic starved or both, the cutie that Mrs. Claus once saved from traffic when it escaped the neglectful owners in warmer months, died alone, 100 feet or so from where Santa slept. Santa who could have and would have saved her had he known, forced the fatal shed door down, but he didn’t know. It is a world where the list is not shown us. We fumble in darkness, a bestial lonely cold floating globe. The dog is but a dusting on the tip of human history’s iceberg.

When it first came time for God to reveal Himself, the first chronological truth was 10 dead children, lost flocks, painful sores to potsherd scrape, ineffective, false comforters, and our insignificance.

Full disclosure, little one: All of this confuses me far more than it confuses you. Wizened white-bearded experience tells me: there is no guarantee that all will be calm and bright, richer bad kids will get nicer presents, people will create strife for no reason at all save that they can, and peace on Earth unreliable. There is none good, no not one, a blank list.

And Santa is an hour out from cabernet, poetry, and other coping mechanisms.

Prayer.

And faithless hand-sanitizer.

Let’s All Write an Imitation!

This was not at all what I was expecting. I was expecting: “Write a poem in the style of Allen Ginsberg or John Milton or whoever you feel like imitating.” You know, like what most contemporary poets do with Bukowski.

Instead, the instructions seem to be more like this: take a poem in a foreign language, preferably one that you do not know well. “Translate” a poem by writing what you think it might be saying.

I thought, “Oh great. Another jokey form.”

In college I took one year of French and I barely passed because at all of the tutoring sessions my professor and I invariably ended up talking about Dostoyevsky instead of me learning French. We also talked a lot about Verlaine who I loved in English and she loved in French. Verlaine is actually one of my favorite poets even though I can’t really read him in his native tongue. So, I figured that my knowledge of French would be perfect for this exercise and I thought it would be appropriate for me to use Verlaine. The result, frankly, stunned me. Here is the original poem:

Femme et chatte

Elle jouait avec sa chatte,
Et c’était merveille de voir
La main blanche et la blanche patte
S’ébattre dans l’ombre du soir.

Elle cachait – la scélérate ! –
Sous ces mitaines de fil noir
Ses meurtriers ongles d’agate,
Coupants et clairs comme un rasoir.

L’autre aussi faisait la sucrée
Et rentrait sa griffe acérée,
Mais le diable n’y perdait rien…
Et dans le boudoir où, sonore,
Tintait son rire aérien,
Brillaient quatre points de phosphore.

And here is what I wrote as my imitation:

Woman and Kitty- An Imitation of Verlaine

By Paul Mathers

She’s jovial next to that cat,

and certainly wonders at the mirror.

The primary white and the primary cat food

she bats around the brown parts after sunset.

The girl catches the little scallywag.

She looks at her mitten paws all night long.

The mewing can be heard out by the gate

and a couple carrying pastries comment on the racket.

The kitty’s face looks so sweet

and she rents the vast apartment

from the Devil, by the pretty rain…

They dance in the bedroom, to sonorous music

and tin whistles fill the air,

brilliant four points of light.

And I finished and thought, “This is going to be so silly compared to the actual translation.” But then I looked at the actual translation and was stunned. I really wasn’t far off! Here is C.F. MacIntyre’s translation!

Woman and Cat

by Paul Verlaine

She was playing with her cat,

and it was marvelous to see

white hand and white paw, pitty-pat,

spar in the evening sportively.

The little wretch hid in her paws,

those black silk mittens, murderously,

the deadly agate of her claws,

keen as a razor’s edge can be.

Her steel drawn in, the other seemed

all sugar, the sly hypocrite,

but the devil didn’t lose a bit…

and in the room where, sonorous,

her airy laughter rang, there gleamed

four sharp points of phosphorous.

The lesson here is one about language, about composition, about trusting a sense of language and a sense of poetry in the brain. I did not expect to like the outcome of this exercise. Instead, I ended up liking it quite a bit.