Thursday, July 19, 2012

Let's All Write a Calligram

The Calligram, as Ron Padgett explains in our text The Teacher and Writer's Handbook of Poetic Forms (for newcomers, I am attempting to write one poem in every form covered in the book), is a form named after the Greek terms for "beautiful writing."  The form is to make a poem in which the words form a picture.  By way of example, Guillaume Apollinaire was, perhaps, one of the most famous poets to employ this form.  Here is an example of one of his poems:
 The poem is shaped like the Eiffel Tower, you see.

And so, approaching this form, I thought about images that I could form into, especially images which I might be interested in composing a poem on.  My first thought was to make a poem in the shape of my dog Schubert, but when I latched onto that idea I found that I kept putting off writing the thing.  Upon examination I found that I feared that such a poem would be too folksy, too close to cowboy poetry (a form which is mercifully absent from this text and which I would likely scrap this project if compelled to attempt to ever write one).

Then I had a panic attack earlier today.  Or something like that.  Anyway, my mind was running in circles of fear and I was on the phone with Laurie at lunch trying to talk my way out of it.  That seems to help me sometimes.  After I got off the phone, I remembered that wonderful quote by author Neil Gaiman:
“Remember, whatever discipline you’re in, whether you’re a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer — whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique: You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I’ve known, that’s been a lifesaver, the ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times, and it gets you through … the other ones. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong — in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.”
And so I went more abstract and made my calligram of my panic attack.  I call it  A) Lopressor, B) Metformin, or C) Ativan?  You will probably need to click on the image in order to make it large enough for you to read it.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Introducing Quixote

"You're reading them out of order now?!!? Outrageous! 10 points from Ravenclaw!"

I decided to leapfrog over Virgil's Aeneid to read Don Quixote.  I fully understand that this overlap in material covered in Plutarch's Lives and I am sure that the Harvard Classics were put in that order for good reasons.  My reasoning is simple.  I really want to read Don Quixote.  I will simply read the Aeneid next. 

As a little glimpse inside my brain, I can tell you that I struggled for some time over feeling guilty about this.

I decided to go with the recent Edith Grossman translation.  Quixote is one of those books that, as I have often heard from trusted sources, has suffered much in translation.  One of the key concerns seems to be preservation of tone and, specifically, humor.  I had heard good things about the Raffel translation as well, but my tipping point was in the footnotes and in the recommendation of the Grossman by my friend Christopher.  I am well into the text and feel that this was the best possible choice.  It really is, as the endorsement by Library Journal claims on the cover, "the translation to beat."

The translators preface further serves to back up what I assume was Ms. Grossman's intentions/philosophy in her translation.  Simply put, she intends to preserve the experience that readers of the work in Spanish would have for readers of the work in English.  She writes, "...all human efforts to communicate- even in the same language- are equally utopian, equally luminous with value, and equally worth the doing."

I skipped most of Harold Bloom's introduction.  Look, I have enjoyed Professor Bloom's work in the past and I am sure I will again in the future.  I did not enjoy his introduction at this particular time.  He spends a great deal of the introduction comparing Cervantes to Shakespeare (who, granted, were contemporaries to the point where they actually died on the same day.)  I commented to Laurie that it struck me as being a bit like what Quentin Crisp said about television interviews:
A television interview, you see, is like a geography examination. You can’t study the whole world. Therefore, on the night before your exam, you take your atlas down from its shelf and open it at random. The map that you happen to expose is of China. You regard this as a sign from You-Know-Who and study China. The next day the main question in your paper is about France. You-Know-Who has sold you a pup. Don’t panic. Your answer begins, "France is not like China, which is . . . "
I haven't graphed it, but I suspect he spent more of his introduction talking about Shakespeare than Cervantes.

But that is not why I skipped it.  I skipped it because twice in the few pages I read, Professor Bloom committed the unforgivable sin of revealing major plot points of the work that I was about to read.  I am cursed with the sort of brain that remembers everything.  I don't care how famous you believe the work to be, if you are called upon to speak before a piece, it is part of your duty to preserve the wonderful experience before all of the audience, especially those who have never had the pleasure before.  If you are unable to do this, you should not be speaking in that context.  In fact, I would suggest to the publisher that what they have from Professor Bloom is not an Introduction that should ever be used for this piece.  What they have from Professor Bloom is probably an excellent Afterword.  I shall treat it as such and I shall return to comment on it once I've finished the book.

And then there is Cervantes' own Prologue.  I was instantly enchanted.  I literally smiled while I was reading it.  I am finding Cervantes to be delightful clever, but that is an terrible understatement.  I am finding Cervantes to be one of the cleverest authors I have ever had the pleasure to read.  In his prologue he establishes that we are to read a work of satire and that the target of the satire will largely be chivalry (although there seems to be a winking understanding that the scope of the work shall be far far larger.)  He also establishes the startling modernity of the work.  Having read Milton and Shakespeare in recent memory, I found it astoundingly modern to be reading not only a novel, but one in which the author periodically appears in the narrative. 

In short, I have no regrets over my decision.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 4: Ceasar and Antony

Julius Caesar bestrode this narrow world like a colossus.  He stomped on the Terra.  We of the Judeo-Christian worldview like to think that we have the market cornered on events from 2000ish years ago which still impact every living human today, but, with all due respect, there was a secular moment of at least equal secular importance when a group of men walked into the Roman senate and stabbed the reigning dictator for life to death.

The sheer force of nature that was Julius Caesar is abundantly clear in the unfolding of his story.  Even saying any of this reminds me of how odd I've found the endorsement blurbs on the copy of Don Quixote that I'm about to read.  And, no, they are not just endorsing the translation.
"Yes, even some people of our own time love the best thing ever." -Paul Mathers
Even down to the New York Times Bestseller label on the cover.  I wonder if there is an edition of the Bible that boasts New York Times Bestseller.

What's so great about Julius Caesar?  Well, the first answer is that Plutarch clearly feels that Julius Caesar was the zenith of nobility towards which one ought to aspire.  The dizzying heights of his elevation certainly must have a dash of the hyperbolic about it, although I feel so horribly tainted by the modern anti-civilization mindset when I say that.

Certainly the conquest of Gaul is one of his inspiring achievements and students of Latin will more likely than not be called upon to read Caesar's own account of the campaign at some point in their studies.  There is also the weighty Roman Civil War circling around the power shift between Pompey and Julius.  Ascending to power, he took on the mantle of Dictator for Life.  Several of those close to him conspired to make that a much shorter honorific than it might initially sound.

Aside from these achievements, the man is portrayed as a model of virtue.  He overcomes extreme odds (just think of it: a warrior with epilepsy) by the force of a gargantuan will which would come to be envied by the likes of Nietzsche and Wagner.  Indeed, I felt there was something almost American in the individual will to power of Julius Caesar.  You can take that statement any way you like.  In a lot of ways, his is a snowball that is still rolling and gaining mass, for better or worse.

Having intimated that last point twice already in this post, my internal professor is rabid to write in the margins in red ink "Give Examples!"
1. Caesars were not Caesars until Julius Caesar.  He, in fact, changed government forever.
2. As I mentioned, his writings are standard for Latin students, making him one of the key figures in one of the major roots from which the English language grows.  And I think we can all agree that language has a direct effect upon reality; if not one of its major shapers, certainly, as Wittgenstein said, the fence at the limit of reality.
3. His story is woven into the fabric of our reality as well.  He came, he saw, he conquered.  "The die is cast" (I can't tell you how often I think that in the course of my daily life.)  The Ides of March and "Et tu, Brute?"  He is in Dante's Limbo and the subject of one of the greatest plays in the English language (two if you count Shaw.  And I do.)

Again, even listing these things makes me feel like I am giving an endorsement to something far greater than I.

Plutarch doesn't bother to include a summation comparing Caesar to Antony, at least not in this edition, and I have to assume that the truths were suspected, rightly I should think, to be self-evident.

Antony is described as dissolute.  He gambles; he drinks; he sleeps around; he is a member of some weird cult that goes around whacking women with whips on Lupercalia.  On that note, I felt there was a bit of a microcosm of the whole dynamic of the two men in the famous story where Antony approaches Caesar on Lupercalia with a crown, which Caesar declines in a gentlemanly manner to the great joy and support of the crowd.  I found Antony to be, in stark contrast to Caesar, one who was being chewed up in the teeth of time, rather than the chewer.  Another microcosm might be in each man's story of their relationship with their lover in common, that is to say Cleopatra.  Caesar restores her to her throne, effectively increasing both of their power (if not adding a bit more straw to the camel's back of those who were plotting his death.)  Antony follows her around like a puppy, which eventually leads him to the end of his own sword.

One difference in these two sections from any of the others is that they both contained stories of other major figures.  Cleopatra probably receives the most coverage.  She ascends to power, much like Caesar by willpower and manipulating circumstances to her advantage.  In fact, her suicide is one of those rare suicides that seems like an act born from a place of power.  She escapes her prison by the only means available to her.  She also has the ingenuity of gruesome foresight.  The painting at the beginning of this post is of Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners to see which one she might like best when the time comes to commit self-slaughter.

Timon of Athens is introduced as one of the most famous misanthropes of antiquity.  But for me the portion with the most emotional impact was the section about Caesar's murderers.  I was mainly struck by how much that section read like a prose retelling of the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy on the subject (not being an idiot, I know full well that the opposite is, in fact, the case.)  I was most stunned by the moments after his murder.  Of course, there were no police to be called.  The murderers walked out of there expecting change, solidarity, a new order.  Instead, people are stunned and then, after Antony's stirring speech, outraged.

I think the key lesson I gleaned from this section was to wield the power one has been granted for good and to build.  The negative example is one against allowing one's self to be blown about by circumstance or to allow one's self to commit wicked acts for the promise of better circumstances.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Paul Mathers Makes Pacifists Fight

I can't believe I did this.  You won't believe it either! This week's topic was a dash on the jocular side.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 3: Demosthenes and Cicero

Cicero and Demosthenes were both orators of great acclaim in their respective places. Demosthenes had to work for his oration skill and in that sense reminded me a bit of Milton.  He expended a great deal of time and energy on honing his skill, then reaped the benefit (sort of... for a time anyway.)  He was occasionally mocked for his practiced orations, but it seems no one took such criticisms seriously in light of the man's oratory skill.  He, perhaps ill advisedly, entered politics, which ultimately lead to drinking poison to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies.

I have noticed Plutarch seeming to show marked favoritism towards the Roman figures.  I may be reading too much into this (or it may simply be a result of the choices in this abridgment) and it may have more to do with Plutarch's familiarity and the availability of information to him, but it really does seem to me that the Roman pieces are far more compelling and perhaps a bit more on the noble side.

The story of Cicero was a bit more engaging, especially since it is building to the end of the reading in Plutarch.  The book ends with Caesar and Antony.  There is overlap with Cicero's story in each of those. 

Cicero's death was absolutely grizzly.  Something about cutting off someone's hands and head and then traveling with them to a place where they are to be put on spikes doesn't sit well with me.  I know that Julius Caesar is said to have remarked, ominously, that the best sort of death is a sudden one.  I'm not sure I agree with that.  Dying at the violent hands of others seems terrible to me.  I imagine my final thought would be something like "I never made it through Infinite Jest!"  What a horrible way to go!  I increasingly find myself feeling that a good death is a lingering one, like Mozart who laid on his deathbed composing his Requiem (apocryphally it seems, but it makes a nice story, what?)

It would be difficult for me to not love Cicero.  He was a bit of a rascal and his wit was enviably keen.  The accounts seem to suggest a decent and lovable man, but he had this knack for boasting and self-promoting that put me in mind of a modern day rapper.

Rather than rehashing the details of their lives, I should, as Plutarch intended in writing these lives in the first place, focus on what lessons I gleaned from reading about these two men.  I think that Plutarch would agree that looking at the lives of the great people of history can and should inspire the reader and instruct them in good living, be it in the positive or negative example (with the added level of whether or not the reader agrees with the author's point of view.)  I would add, and I also think Plutarch and Dr. Eliot would back me up on this, that this is precisely why a work like this ought to be requisite to the education of young people.  Perhaps this might serve as a drop of antidote in the ocean of arrested adolescence which comprises the culture in which they bob rudderless (there I go mixing metaphors again.  Oh well.  I've buttered my bread and now I must lay in it.)  Aside from the historic material from, what one could certainly argue if one were so inclined, two of the most important civilizations of all time, one gets the distinct impression that the true function of the book is examples of great men towards which one can aspire.  I found the lives of these two men to be an inspiration to strive towards excellence.

There was also, I felt, a theme emerging which I know will be a through-line in the remainder of my reading: beware of the shifting sands of politics.  Both men are essentially destroyed by the capricious nature of the divine right of kings, which seems to have been especially capricious in times of capricious divinity.  That may sound like a dig against antiquity, but I will reveal my opinion that I feel much the same way about the prevailing directions of religious devotion in my own time and country.

Both men shared the experience of aligning themselves with a political position that eventually led to their respective deaths.  I suppose this could be taken in a number of ways.  I could see this suggesting the path of political forbearance.  I could also see this suggesting the nobility of staying true to one's cause even unto death.  Not knowing any political leaders personally and having zero interest in politics, my interest in this thought experiment seemed theoretical on the surface.  But I think that these lessons transfer on a micro-scale.  Politics touch all of our interpersonal interactions, be it in our workplace, our churches, or even our homes.  I am not talking exclusively about political ideology, but also about the teetering balances of power found anywhere power is available.  I think one of the major lessons from the lives of the noble ancients is to let truth and virtue be your leader and even if you find yourself on the business end of a vial of poison, you will be exactly where you are supposed to be.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Let's All Write Bouts-rimés: Poem the Final- Judy

Way back before the Pleistocene Epoch, back in the haziest mists of time, I started a project where I would work through Ron Padgett's book A Handbook of Poetic Forms.  The project was to write a poem for every form represented in the text.  I got through the end of the letter 'B.'

To be fair, I never willfully stopped doing the project and, therefore, in my own mind was still doing the project.  However, I think it was about a year ago when I first mentioned the Bouts-rimés topic.  I received a great deal of response from people who wanted me to write a poem using their list of rhyming words and, being a softie, I chose to attempt to write one for everyone who participated.  Then, time continued to march on.  I wrote a few and, a few months later, wrote a few more.  And then...

So, I intended to write the remaining poems and then continue the project, but found that one of the remaining two (I think) has disappeared.  I knew the book in which I had placed the list, but it was no longer in that book.  That was my friend Kari's list of suggestions.  I apologize, but we are moving on.  If I find that list in the future, I will write the poem and post it, but for now I have written a poem for Judy's list.  After this, we move on to other forms.

For some reason, I kept thinking of Flashman when meditating on these sets of rhymes and decided to pick the narrative voice of a man fleeing from serving his country in battle.

Called from the comfort of my duvet
to Her Majesty's service in parts near Bombay.
Patriotic sentiment precludes a "no way."
I packed my essentials and fled in dismay
with a rucksack of Talisker and set for croquet.
Took discretion for valor, then took the highway
in hopes from my duty that road would convey
my heart and my hind where they might be okay
lest on some far battleground they should decay.
My hope for a future rose like a soufflé.
All duty to country I felt I've prepaid
by ensuring my life for a henceforth of todays.
Laying low, unobserved, on outlaying roadways,
I'd be better employed sniffing future bouquets.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Paul Mathers on Ray Bradbury

Once a week, I pull a topic that someone has sent me out of a hat at random.  I then make a video of me speaking on that topic.  This week's topic: Ray Bradbury's Relevance Today: