Canons & Fugues Well-Tempered Clavier
The essay and poetry on this page
© 2003 Timothy A. Smith






Caravels

We honor him, the navigator who
at one time dared to sail forever west,
compelling us to shape another view
of that horizon. But seldom do we solve
the puzzlement of sailor men who best
reveal the myth round which we still revolve.

"Flat earth" we say to mock their simple tales
of dragons and antipodes in lands
that sank their fleet corsairs and caravels.
Implying latitudes where none should go,
we ply the evidence we understand;
It was a myth, we say, that mired them so.

But hope, not surety, sailed them out of sight,
for the Admiral who followed not the shore
but setting sun, or moon and stars by night,
had bid them look beyond the way things seem,
toward what mired men admire more,
on caravels of mystery and dream.

Wind Mountain, Wa 9/10/02
as in Romantic's Quarterly
Double Helix

The eye of heaven scans the universe and sees,
    in swirling vortices of drains,
the violence of summer hurricanes
    and spiral galaxies.

From the nadir of his spiral, the poet Job decrees
    who is the Maker of the Bear,
Orion nebula, the Lion's lair,
    and clustered Pleiades.

The Chambered Nautilus, rejoicing in its whorl
    of mathematical perfection,
assembles every telescoping section
    glazed in mother-of-pearl.

We say its ratio is golden and divine,
    intuiting divinity
in oak-leaf ivy, holly, tusks of ivory,
    and cones of knotty pine.

We sense it, too, in puzzles of our own conceit:
    Stradivari violins
and Roman aqueducts upon their shins
    of pozzolan concrete.

A staircase in Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe,
    connects the choir to Magdalena:
"It is the miracle of our novena,"
    so the sisters say.

So too is double-helixed DNA reborn,
    quiescent, in the dormant sphere
of the lily bulb that sleeps to reappear
    with joy on Easter morn.

Our father Jacob laid his head upon a stone
    and dreamed of Cherubim nearby,
climbing coiled ladders to the sky,
    to God upon his throne.

Ezekiel caught a fleeting glimpse of heaven's height
    upon concentric wheels of fire,
soaring higher, forever soaring higher,
    as bright as chrysolite.

Flagstaff, spring '02
Boomerang

Upon return it flies another path
unlike the curve it followed to the height;
    how clever is the warp, how slight
    the crookedness that gives the lath
                a rounded flight.

Well might the engineer of such a thing
                have understood
    the eccentricity of wood,
intuiting the camber of a wing
    to mirror cosmic orbiting.

Knowing that what goes around will come
    in ways the seer can't discern,
    he tells a proverb: "cast your bread
upon the waters, after many days
                it will return."

Yet always it arouses great surprise
    to see the flailing staff arise
and hover like a kestrel overhead
    or pterodactyl risen from
                its fossil bed.

    If heinous deeds will haunt a man
        but good deserves another,
beauty is not random but exact,
nor is it true that kindness to a brother
        is a senseless act.

The architect designs what may redound
        unto the common good,
but every hunter over time has found
    that hardly must he throw the wood
        to make it come around.

Neskowin, August '02
Scholars

I.

How knowingly the wise professor sits
mid rank on rank of his associates,
by rite obliged to seasonal displays
of fanning tails and strutting resumes.

Like peahens round the cock they congregate
when he betrays that glorious urge to mate.
Regaling colors of academies
and the magisterium of their degrees,
they float as on a cloud of demigods
that speaketh not, except in knowing nods.

II.

The graduates, arrayed of gabardine
in rows like rivets on some great machine,
upon their cue obediently heft
a thousand tassels right to left.

How well they mold themselves to folding chairs
while honors are conferred on millionaires,
and now, eternally, they too advance,
in wave on wave of Pomp and Circumstance,
to clutch, with fulsome praise from Academe,
the vellum ensigns of their self-esteem.

Wind Mountain, Wa 9/30/02
How Boysenberries Say Goodbye

Mrs. Beal's berries share the bees
with trumpet vines along the garden wall.
Her boysenberries, summer berries all,
reserve a corner by the apple trees.
In season, raspberries beside the gate
come in; the short come early, tall come late.

Its odd, however, toward the end of fall,
how every berry bears another crop
as if confused about the time to stop.
Or maybe these, the tastiest of all,
are how her boysenberries say goodbye
with one more small delight before they die.

Wind Mountain, Sept. '02
Mornings at the Beal's

We gather on the east porch one by one
like salamanders waiting for the sun
and sip Colombian coffee till we're lost
in Dostoevski, Chesterton and Frost.

The mountain spring, now dwindled to a seep,
recharges overnight enough to keep
the dusky huckleberries in supply
and rhododendrons pointing to the sky.

A swirling cloud of finches makes a pass
in rising rhythms cross the brittle grass;
in unison they seem to choreograph
their winnowing of ripened seed from chaff.

The wind, you say, has quite a different sound
in willow boughs that nearly sweep the ground
than in the firs beyond the garden walls;
the one's a brook, the other waterfalls.

Last evening's rain has grown a of crop moles
who've punched the lawn with half a dozen holes.
Supposing what the BB gun is for,
we keep it cocked and handy by the door.

What of the berries that you picked at dawn?
Sorry, Cherrios, I say, they're gone.
Where yesterday we harvested a crate,
I found but only six, and those I ate.

Slowly sunlight filters through the trees
upon the ridge. We've no priorities
today as yet; a distant church bell peals,
but seems we worship better at Beal's.

Wind Mountain, October '02
A Small Remorse

The first of winter, when it's weathered well,
is like a child who's torn between a horse
and Bengal tiger on a carrousel
when, for a spell,
                                there is a small remorse.

With the first snow comes a tentative embrace,
neither frozen as one might expect,
nor cozy as a flannel pillowcase
or warming fireplace
                                where two collect.

Inevitably, what in March we wore
like a soiled shirt or muddy overshoes,
returns as if a jilted paramour
whose tapping on the door
                                we can't refuse.

With no choice but to let the rascal in,
we pause to find a creditable reason,
then remember where he's lately been
and welcome, once again,
                                another season.

Wind Mountain, September '02

Clayton's Crop

When Clay had logged a quarter of his land,
he paid three quarters of his mortgage down
and smiled at jaded critics who had planned
to halt the private logging near his town.

'Now why'd you cut those trees?'
                           one critic panned.

'For money,' Clay, a quiet man from Maine,
in short replied. Now shortly Clayton's stand,
with but another year or two of rain,
will ready once again.
                           The critics scoff
and on their legal pads conspire,
while Clay, by now who's paid his mortgage off,
is planning how, in short, he will retire.

Wind Mountain, October '02
Remembering Frank Davids

The man who found the hidden spring
that keeps our garden in supply
seems almost fictional sometimes,
a ghost who loves to hover by
the faucets and the fountain heads
that keep the beans and broccoli green.
It's odd the presence one can feel
of one whose face he's never seen.

Was he like me, the day he hunted
for a pliant willow switch
and stepped the meadow to the ridge,
unsure if willows really witch?
Sometimes I wonder of the cistern
he enduringly designed
and built upon the water's source
(a source I have, as yet, to find).

Providing for his garden so,
must he have hoped, as would have I,
enough to find enough a flow
to guard one's own from going dry,
or had he hope for gardens hence
a hundred years, or maybe more?
It haunts me now to think he would
have hunted, then, for such a store.

Home Valley, October '02
St. John of the Cross
a lo divino

With doubt and without doubt,
and darkness round about,
in passion I burn out.

My soul has rid the strife
of worldly goods and station
by my elevation
to a raptured life
in God my sure foundation.
So shall I decree
what hope I have about
and yet my soul shall see
with doubt and without doubt.

Though moiling shadows blight
and mar this mortal state,
my sin is not too great
if, by the faintest light,
I dwell 'neath heaven's gate.
Desiring such a goal,
I wander blindly out
in brokenness of soul
and darkness round about.

Thy work of loving favor,
once I came to see,
transformed the whole of me,
though good or bad, one flavor,
drawing all to Thee.
Rekindled by Thy spark,
I feel Thee all about
consuming all the dark;
in passion I burn out.

translation T. A. Smith
Home Valley, Oct. '02
Ballad No. 6: Of Simeon
San Juan de la Cruz

In these and other prayers
his time had nearly passed,
and every passing year
the fervor held him fast
as the old Man Simeon's
desire had burned away
in pleading God to grant
his wish to see the day.
For this the Holy Spirit
spoke of what should be,
and told the ancient man
that death he would not see
until he'd seen the life
descend from Heaven's hold
and in his very arms
the very God enfold.
    Then, having held Him fast
    He would be held at last.

translation T. A. Smith
Home Valley, Oct. '02
A Short Benediction

"It is enough," said Simeon
who gained his peace by letting go.

Alsea River, June '03

Near the Lightning Tree

Saturday, snowshoeing near the lightning tree, I startled a yearling elk who did not bolt. We stood for twenty minutes, fifty feet apace, eyeing each other. Suspecting that she would not move, I inched closer, gradually cutting the distance by half. My attitude was that of a hunter, and I imagined having a bow and arrow, being stealthy, and, like my ancestors, slaying this creature for food.

In awhile it occurred to me that she would not flee because she could not.  So I looked again, and saw that her right hip was crushed.  Her mangled leg, dangled enough only to keep from dragging.  Then I realized that she was afraid, and my attitude was transformed from prowess to compassion.  I became sad for her, and me.  Sad for imagining the doing of what could only have been done in consequence of her sadness.  Of her fear.

               Flagstaff, February '08

In Praise of Wilbur's Opposites

The opposite of no is yes,
Unless the "know" is mindfulness;
Wherein its opposite is not
Remembering what you forgot.

                       ***
Synonyms are words that mean
the same, like "mid" and "in between."
Define a synonym and you will get
The opposite of opposite.

                       ***
A "peer" is someone, just like you,
Who does the work you like to do;
Unless you've struck in him some fear
That makes your equal not appear.

                       ***
A train, if it's upon a track,
Can take you to Detroit and back.
Which means, the opposite of train
Can neither go nor come again,
But sits immovable, afar,
Like a skyscraper or the North Star,
Unless, that is, you hang your hopes
On spyglasses and telescopes;
In which case "train" is pointing it,
And aimlessness its opposite.

                       ***
What is the opposite of true?
"False!" Of course, I knew you knew.
Which means that "false" is true, and not
Quite the opposite that we had thought!

                       ***
Disturb an elf and you will see,
The opposite of "elf" is "flee"
(Backwards, that is, and minus one "e").

           Flagstaff, May '08

By Design

In concert, Amish women quilt
a pattern, perfectly aware
that mid the Tumbling Blocks they'll sew
     a humble square.

Because the Lord alone is perfect,
they will purposefully pleat
a modest flaw and, by design,
   deny conceit.

             Wind Mountain, July. '02

Kama Sutra

They who've read it through
     are few;
its technically bizarre,
     and far
from tedious, routine
     (between
athletics on a trampoline,
and calisthenics croix de guerres),
insures proficient love affairs
     are few and far between.

             Wind Mountain, June. '02

Copenhagen's Cat

     Willis built a boat,
     a streamlined catamaran;
he dreamt of sailing it from San Diego
     to Japan.

     The day that he retired,
     ten years ago last May,
he bought the plans, completing them the year
     he passed away.

     They got a giant crane
     to lift it from his yard,
across the neighbor's pool and truck it down
     the boulevard

     to a slip that he'd maintained
     for years at Marina del Rey
where all his friends had gathered deckside
     for a grand buffet.

     As per his last request
     (to give the ship a name,
then, like his fearsome Danish ancestors,
     set sail, aflame),

     his grieving widow smashed
     an excellent Bordeaux,
and christened Mr. Copenhagen's cat
     the Fjölmó.

     But, fire marshals having
     disapproved display,
the party, joie de vivre, consumed martinis
     and flambé

     while gazing westward.  They
     imagined him to sea
like Douglas, in "The Vikings," mourned by Curtis
     and by Leigh.

           Flagstaff, May '02
           as in Romantic's Quarterly

How Uncle Izzy Lost His Leg

Children marveling at his rigid knee
would rap their knuckles hard and wait to see
if Uncle Iz might wink, or whine and blurt
     how much the knock had really hurt.

Braver kids would spy on him at night
to catch old Izzy propping it upright;
whereafter he would fold his hands and pray:
     'Dear Lord, don't let it run away.'

Sometimes Uncle Isidore would staple
what he'd not forgotten to his maple;
later he'd retrieve it, with a 'Haw'
     and a heave upon a hammer's claw.

Not infrequently old Iz would whittle
names from Anzio then, burning little
piles of shavings from his shin, he'd feign
     the most excruciating pain.

As time carved up his slowly dimming fear,
Izzy whittled each receding year
so that, when he passed in '91,
     amazingly, the leg was gone.

Although he'd hinted cannibals 'n such,
neither they who'd pressed him overmuch,
nor they who loved old Izzy best, could peg  
     exactly how he lost his leg.

           Flagstaff, Nov. '01

Poor Will

Chuck-will's-widow hides herself offstage:
a creature seldom seen, but often heard
at dusk (more so than any other bird)
amid the chicory and saxifrage.

'Poor Will, poor Will,' she evermore intones
a memory that one could not profess
more tellingly, with more serene noblesse,
in synonyms or brooding homophones.

           Flagstaff, May '02
           as in Romantic's Quarterly

Lobster Thermidor

As I waited for an open table
at Ivar's Acres of Clams,
a nervous harlequin duck
plopped into the lake below
with her downy brood of ducklings
floating like Styrofoam cups,
too merrily strung, in her wake.
"Qua qua," she said, and they followed.

As I reflected on nature's bounty,
a seagull dove upon them
with predacious speed
and a strident Scree, scree.
The frantic mother tried
in vain to protect her children.
"Qua," she cried, erupting
in a pillow fight of feathers.

But the gull caught her straggler
whom it swallowed, head first,
the webbing of its tiny feet
trembling momentarily
before it disappeared
down the ravenous creature's gullet.
I reflected on these things
in a reverie, surreal and calm.

"Sir, your table is ready."
Her voice acquaints me again
with the world of silverware
and water glasses clinking
against a muted backdrop
of earnest conversations.
Tantalizing aromas waft
from each table and dish.

Our special is, she says:
a magret de canard aux crepes
with angel shrimp scampi
in a shallot marmalade
daubed with cepe mushrooms
and flanked by carrot shreds.
In the end, I settle for
the lobster thermidor.

                    Seattle, '02

Two Sentences for Spring

Winter's demise
is heralded by crocus
blooms that love to catch us
by surprise

before the sun
has chased away the chill
to rouse each daffodil
one by one.

Having missed us
through the frosty nights,
they tell the paperwhites
and pale narcissus:

"Defer your bow
till phlox adorns the wall
and cherry blossoms fall;
it's our turn now."

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '02

Inferno

Alighieri's allegory orbits round
     to Bolgia three of Circle eight,
where sycophantic priests await their fate
     suspended upside down.

His purgatory is comedic and divine
     in which the circle is complete;
searing oil of unction blisters feet
     of those who sell God's wine.

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '02

McLean's War

  1. Bull Run

In May of eighteen sixty-one
P. Beauregard amasses
Confederates and rifled guns
in regions of Manassas.

The brigadier trots round about
to fortify the plain,
and mount an earthenwork redoubt
next door to Wil McLean.

At noon Pierre has Wil prepare
a pottage and a brew.
But Federals observe him there,
lob cannonballs into the air,
one tumbles down the chimney where
it fizzles in the stew.

  1. Appomattox

His barn reduced to bomb debris,
and fearful as a church mouse,
McLean removes his family
to Appomattox Courthouse

where, in eighteen sixty-five,
(by odd coincidence)
when Generals Lee and Grant arrive
at Wil's new residence,

fatigued, worn out, and battled-scarred,
to end the war with honor,
McLean avers it's no canard:
"Because of Lee and Beauregard,
the war began in my front yard
and ended in my parlor."

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '02

Ugh

Neanderthal, the first to utter "Ugh,"
promptly makes of it an adjective
to signify, and loathe, an ugly bug
which he, begrudgingly, allows to live.

But adjectival ugh did not suffice,
Neanderthal decided with a frown.
He found that, with an ordinary splice,
ugh could make a somewhat proper noun.

"Ugly made me do it," he demurred.       
Cynics, bothered by this wretched blurb,
expounded very ugly on the word,
causing ugh to modify a verb.

Attributing to ugly all they hate,
(object of a panicked preposition),
ugly foes began to litigate;
to rid the world of ugh, their only mission.

Alleging ugh invited transitives
to badly uglyize the moral grammar,
for having dressed in split infinitives,
they sentenced ugh, forever, to the slammer.

                    Flagstaff, Feb. '02

Fishy

A politician panders for a buck,
and loaded lobbyists acquire a deal.
The battered voter feels that he's been stuck
between a blowfish and electric eel.
         In politics, the citizen has found
         that fishy makes democracy go round.

An auto salesman chewing big cigars,
and fabricating lineages of wrecks,
swears the single owner of his cars
(an older lady) kept them up to specs.
         Stuck between a squid and simple sucker,
         fishy gets the dupe to buy a chucker.

Mendacious lawyers wave a teeny glove,
and pantomime a made-for-TV skit.
The prosperous impenitent will shove
what doesn't fit, the jury must acquit.
         "Jellyfish attorney," victims scoff;
         "fishy got the shifty fellow off."

Polling data here and there exist
that show, when average people think of fishy,
congressmen (and women) top the list,
with auto salesmen making many twitchy.
      A lawyer ranks a bit above a cod,
      hammerhead and slimy gastropod.

                    Flagstaff, Feb. '02

Dr. Guillotine's Machine

The Jacobins, not despising plots,
but loathing deference the king accords
to wellborn gentlemen to die by swords,
but fiends by hangman’s knots or grim garrotes,
     request the humanist, one Dr. Guillotine,
     now to devise a more egalitarian means.

The doctor's swift and painless new device
becomes the symbol for a reign of terror
ending reigns of Louis and of Robespierre;
even necks of wives and mistresses would slice.
     If Louis’ right to kill had made him justly feared,
     then Guillotine’s machines would be still more revered.

For that device amending homicide,
when used to slay the nobleman or queen,
political offenses did demean,
but murder make (and rape) more dignified.
     Jacobin equality of execution
     martyrs murderers but murders nobler men.

The stigma is removed.  Gravity
applies an equal weight of sharpened blade
to innocents as to the most depraved.
Who then should hide his face in shame to die
     when that which pays society’s most heinous debt
     is that which lopped the head from Antoinette?

The right of kings before the guillotines
had been considered moral and divine.
The means that slew the regency of man
to govern in God’s name, acquired then
     the mien of gods: like that of ghastly guillotines,
     honoring not human beings but dull machines.

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '01

What Am I?

I’ve a frog that will not croak
and a neck you cannot choke,
with a scroll that can’t be read,
and a nut without a thread.

Though my back is rather stout,
stuck to ribs around a bout,
I’ve no arms or shapely legs,
only stumpy little pegs.

With a figure like an eight
you would think that I should rate
a very young and handsome beau;
but, instead, all that I know

is the stroking of a flail
from a stallion’s severed tail
cross the gut strung up my middle.
What’s the answer to my riddle?

                    Flagstaff, Jan. '02

Snow Geese

But for a moment
I am the wind
upon whose wings
they chase the night
by twilight down the dawn.

My eyes are theirs
that sweep the skies
all-knowing, wise,
casting to a drowning fire
what is not mine to give;

belonging to the atmospheres,
traversing trackless night,
not lost with vagabonds
who know their way by shouts.

I journey to a poem they know
that long ago began
but fathoms not its end;
surprised and terrified by beauty
rounding every bend.

I stalk with drakes a sunrise
that wakes on tongues of light
to search the soul in flight
and vie against the wind
on which proud seekers fly
propelled by purposes
more powerful than them.

                    Flagstaff, Dec. 2000

In Praise of Donne

Boundless John,
When you were born
On Bread Street, 1572,
The wary world was unaware
You would yourself
In metered rhyme outdo.
Who is the bread of verse
But you?

Martyr John, by ‘91,
You had foregone
The oath of Henry,
To your Catholic Christ
Remaining true.
But, Pseudo-Martyr,
Why did you in 1610
That heretic outdo
And hie apostate too?

Melancholy John,
Love’s Alchemist,
How could one paraphrase,
Or might one better write:
‘Tis not the bodies marry,
but the minds.  So, lovers dream
A rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming
Summer's night.’

What if such a scene
Would close the play,
Or such a finish
End the flight;
Would such a sunset
Terminate the day,
Or sighs and tears return,
Spit in your face so bright?
Galling questions you survey
In Holy Sonnets repartee.

Elder John, in 1631,
When three-person’d Deity
Had battered, thralled,
And set you free,
And you, like a usurped town
Betrothed unto the enemy;
Did God the Trinity
Your sin of fear deplore?

Or

When God had Donne,
Had you not done?
Had John still more?

                    Flagstaff, 2000

J. S. Bach Meets the Philosopher King
a pantoum

“Gentlemen, Old Bach has arrived.”
(Frederick the Great, Potsdam, 1747)

Dedication:

Honoring Saxony’s favorite son:
Johann Sebastian (Thuringian of note),
Offering to Frederick, whose conquering gun
Would master the Saxons by cannonic art.

Enigma:

Johann Sebastian, Thuringian of note,
When royals of Potsdam invited to play,
Would master the Saxons by canonic art,
Availing himself of fame to parlay.                

When royals of Potsdam invited to play,
The Philosopher King would ponder all night; 
Availing himself of fame to parlay                
In a Musical Offering.  So recondite,

The Philosopher King would ponder all night,
Deciphering clues that ‘Old Bach’ had composed
In a Musical Offering, so recondite,
Great homage by counterpoint shrewdly exposed.

Deciphering clues that ‘Old Bach’ had composed
To muddle the brains of musicians and scholars,
Great homage, by counterpoint, shrewdly exposed, 
Worth a purse full of Prussian Pfennigs and Thalers.

To muddle the brains of musicians and scholars,
Offering to Frederick, whose conquering gun
Worth a purse full of Prussian Pfennigs and Thalers
Honoring Saxony’s favorite son.

                    Flagstaff, Apr. '01

Joaquin Rodrigo

You, lover of Aranjuez, who
By dash of Phrygian tetrachords
And fluid trills returns strangers
To Iberia, as if to home.
Compose something sforzando
Whose silence follows rasqueado
On six strings rendered
To heart-shattering resolutions
Slithering down brooding stairs
Severing soul from soul.
If you had brought no other light
Into a sightless world,
Your agony of loss would hold
Endless throes of torment
If but by silence
And not sound.

                    Flagstaff, 2000

St. Sebastian

Our subject is
St. Sebastian Bach,
Apostle of invention,
For whom there is no answer.

Arnold Schoenberg

inversional symmetries
pirouette pathogenic
beneath microscopes
of formalist critique

amoebocytes amuck
they flagellate the mind
even as haploid gametes
unite z-complements

dividing and multiplying
collectively compounding
operations of series forms
subset structures

and all-interval tetrachords
invariant combinatorial
fractals of the prevenient
Grundgestalt

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '01

Anton Webern

Brevity
Reverberates
     Simplicity
     Reveals
         B   R   E   V
         R   E   V   E
         E   V   E   R
         V   E   R   B
     Reveals
     Simplicity
Reverberates
Brevity

                    Flagstaff, Mar. '01

Sacred Relics

Relics of the nineteenth century rot!
Sigmund Freud, upon your lusty couch,
psychoanalyze the Marxist dream.
Who, in the wake of Darwin’s Beagle,
sailed the bloodiest of seas?
See you now the horror
rendered by your dialectical machine?
Are we but gears
without immortal souls?
Whose fixation drove the beast
to eat its fingers like neurotic monkeys
in a cage.


Metaphor, Mystery, and
the Music of J. S. Bach

|Meerschaum & Metaphor|Machines & Magic|
|Meaninglessness & Madness|Mystery & the Music of Bach|

It feels like I've always loved poetry and the music of J. S. Bach. Imagine my surprise once to discover that Johann Sebastian was also a poet. Obviously the man must have had an affinity for poetry because he set so much of it to music. But more than liking it, Bach actually wrote a verse or two. Here is a sample from the Bach Reader (Norton, 1966 p. 98). [note]

Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker
        from the Second Little Clavier Book
        for Anna Magdalena Bach

How oft it happens when one's smoking:
The stopper's missing from its shelf,
And one goes with one's finger poking
Into the bowl and burns oneself.
If in the pipe such pain doth dwell,
How hot must be the pains of Hell.

Thus o'er my pipe, in contemplation
Of such things, I can constantly
Indulge in fruitful meditation,
And so, puffing contentedly,
On land, on sea, at home, abroad,
I smoke my pipe and worship God.

Meerschaum and Metaphor     

Years before I discovered that Bach was a poet, my daughter brought me a nice briar pipe from Prague. Since then I've taken to collecting antique Meerschaums, the most prized material for making pipe bowls. Meerschaum is a rare, naturally occurring, silicate of magnesium that can be intricately carved. The best Meerschaum comes from a four square mile area in Turkey. The German word Meerschaum means "sea foam": Meer for "sea" + Schaum for "foam." What attracted me to Meerschaum was not the smoking (I don't) but the art. I loved the ornate carvings and wide variety of subjects. I have one pipe that when right side up is a lion and upside-down is an elephant with the pipe stem being the animal's trunk!

Now I'll bet that you are wondering where I'm going with this. What does poetry have to do with Meerschaum pipes and the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier? Oddly, there are connections. The first is personal; I like poetry, pipes, and fugues, and so did J. S. Bach. Another is metaphorical; the English translation of the word Bach is "brook." Connect this with Meerschaum and one can understand what Beethoven meant when he exclaimed, "Not Bach but Meer should be his name." Not brook but sea! Ah, the unfathomable Bach: as deep and as wide as the ocean!

How does one attempt to fathom the unfathomable? One way is by metaphor. It was in the poet Richard Wilbur that I learned any time we say that something can be likened to something else (and most things can), we have made a metaphor. In so doing, we acknowledge that the creation is diverse, but more importantly that much of it is fundamentally alike (a critical ingredient missing in the chatter about diversity in academe).

The metaphor connects more so than it divides. Bach is not a brook but an ocean! The purpose of metaphor is to move us emotionally. That is why metaphor is stock in trade for poets. The metaphor helps us to realize that we are sentient beings who share certain needs, desires, temptations, emotions, disappointments and ambitions. This uniting is deeper than that which classifies and separates by superficial and immutable characteristics. The latter is usually trivial, the former is often profound. So if Bach, a dead white male Protestant Saxon, has nothing to say to me, then none of us has anything to say to each other. But if he is an ocean, then we have more in common with each other than some might think.

Another purpose of the metaphor is to move us from the known to the unknown. This is also the challenge of the educator. There are many ways to be a good teacher. But the best teaching is poetic. I am quite certain of this. It is my firm belief that everything we know we have come to know metaphorically. In fact, I am very close to believing that there can be no meaning if not connected to another. One pattern intersecting with another, seemingly unrelated, creates a new strand in the web that radiates in a growing spiral of connections--Hofstadter's Eternal Golden Braid. This implies two corollaries: all meaning is metaphorical and has been generated from the same source. Any time a teacher says, "It is like this..." he is a poet. Once the snowball of metaphor has begun to roll, it will grow into an avalanche of meaning. The method? Identifying and connecting patterns.

This is especially true in music theory, a discipline that is mostly about finding patterns. Learning music theory is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. First we find corners, the easiest to identify. Then we move to more defined objects, looking for forms. We might assemble two or three--a barn and a windmill, or an oak tree--but still not have made the connection between them. In my family, when one finds the missing piece he inserts it, taps it three times and whispers, "major connection!" So it is that when my students grasp the relationship between the leading tone and chords of dominant function, their eyes light up and I think, "major connection!" The last part of the puzzle is the sky--all about filling in gaps. Atmospheric methodologies like those of Schoenberg or Schenker require other pieces of the puzzle first to be in place.

Machines and Magic     

Technology presents opportunities, but also tough challenges to poetic teaching. It may surprise some to learn that although I've devoted much of my career to emerging technology, I am one of its skeptics. Machines are good at spreading out the pieces of the puzzle, but not at connecting them. This takes intuition and common sense. Although there has been a mighty effort to create artificial intelligence, it is difficult and perhaps impossible. Machines have no innate sense, for example, that when you're hot you are not cold, or when you're here you're not there, or when you are depressed you don't laugh. Machines cannot make sense of Lord Byron's, "She walks in beauty, like the night."

But I'm less concerned with what technology can or cannot do, than with its challenge to personhood. It is increasingly difficult to be a person, and see others as persons, in a culture of machines. The unrelenting determinism of the sciences has drummed into the psyche that we ourselves are machines. Our brains are biochemical switches; that's all. The machine says that it is not necessary for me to speak these words in your presence: with eye contact, voice inflections and physical gestures to emphasize how fervently I believe them. The machine does not recognize that in being with you, I communicate more than words: you are important to me; I value your friendship, and enjoy being near. In the words of Ken Meyers, "The transcript of our conversation is often less important than how closely we stood." So one problem is that machines don't understand our need for bodies--they do not have them. Accordingly, I've deliberately avoided the metaphor of fugue as "machine." The word appears nowhere in these analyses. The closest I have come to likening the fugue to a machine is in a comparison of the a-minor fugue with the Cog movie. Here I emphasize the intelligence behind the design rather than the gizmo itself. If anything, the fugue is more human than machine.

If technology has no common sense or physical presence, it also conceals an allure to accrue power, waste time and be destructive. I shall explain by quoting Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It must have been in Chesterton that I was introduced to the occult roots of technology. With magic, and to a certain extent technology, the object is to bring the world into conformity with one's own self interest. Both are about exercising control. In the dark ages the purpose of magic was to control the cosmos: the elements, nature, other people. Today we call it technology and have set out to conquer cancer, bandwidth, and Bin Laden. Although it's difficult to comprehend that there is a spiritual dimension to this, there surely is. If we can explain and control everything, then what need have we to enter into that which is bigger than us, something like a Bach fugue?

Growing up as I did among stone-age cultures in the Amazon basin I was well acquainted with the spiritual dimension of magic. Among the Shuar, if somebody became ill the Shaman would drink a narcotic, fall into a trance, and dream of the one who "caused" the illness. Relatives would then hunt and kill that person and shrink his head. By displaying the shrunken head at the doorposts of their houses, they hoped to ward off further sickness. They thought that magic would control their environment, but the magic controlled them. It was destroying them. Regrettably we too are entranced by the tyranny of magic: cellular phones, the Internet, TV, drugs, email. How often they control us, urgently demanding attention in a world of shrinking quiet.

Another reason for my skepticism is that precious time is too easily wasted; I find it increasingly difficult to get anything done. Perhaps this was the secret behind Bach's prodigious output, he took time to think: Thus o'er my pipe, in contemplation, I constantly indulge in fruitful meditation. At the beginning of my sabbatical I removed myself from the intrusions of non-essential technology. I needed not to answer a hundred emails a day, or to be entertained by the war on terror. Ironically my project during this time was to develop material for the Internet! So it cannot be that I think technology should be avoided--I am not a Luddite. But our application of it should be measured and thoughtful.

My attitude has been that if there is going to be an Internet the information should be accurate and presented in an engaging, transparent, and inviting way. Further, it should pedagogically sound. Here I intend for sound to imply a double meaning. I cannot overemphasize the importance of graphics and sound in the teaching of music. Everything we have learned about music we have done so by studying scores (graphics) and listening (sound). The metaphors arrive in the connections made between the two: this sound and that symbol belong together. To that end, the Internet could be a beneficial "magic." What better way to integrate scores and sound for large numbers of people? We should not use it, however, to toot the bells and whistles but to better understand whom we are in relation to others. More to my point, we should be concerned that so much of our media lack metaphorical dimension. They are full of information but short on the vital connections that make it mean anything. They are magical, but sometimes trivial and meaningless.

Meaninglessness and Madness     

Loss of meaning is the curse of modernity. We are losing it because many in the academy, especially in the humanities, have abandoned standards of quality. "Good" has become a bad word, and the old-fashioned ideal of universal good is passé. Standards of quality are assumed to be constructs that exist to perpetuate power and victimize certain classes. Meaning is also lost when technology separates us from each other. We're in danger of losing the value of being "with." We are obsessed with control, and occasionally terrified to realize that we are really not very much in control. This realization pushes itself to the surface when we are faced with tragedies like September 11 or so-called "acts of God." We sometimes abuse technology to fill our lives with information or entertainment, or costly but ineffectual medical procedures, in order to suppress the realization of our ultimate loss of control--our own mortality.

I believe that I am again about to be influenced by Chesterton, for it was he who observed (Orthodoxy) that proportionately more scientists and mathematicians have gone mad than have poets. This he suggested was because the former were troubled by the realization of how much they could not explain. While Cowper did go mad, it was not because he was a poet, but a Calvinist. It disturbed him that he could not be sure if he was one of God's elect.

If love for religion drove Cowper insane, it was hatred of it that caused Nietzsche to gaze into the abyss. This plus apparent self-loathing inspired him to write, "In Bach there is still too much crude Christianity, crude Germanism, crude scholasticism; he stands on the threshold of modern European music, but he looks back from there to the Middle Ages." One might dismiss Nietzsche for the neuro-syphilitic madman he became, did not his influence still prompt a periodic gazing upon the academic navel, which regrettably (for some) is found to be amazingly attached to the cord of Greek and Judeo-Christian thought.

So now, instead of sharpening their minds on Plato's Dialogues or Augustine's Confessions, or the Constitution of the United States, freshmen rehash what they already know in colloquia on Ishmael or The Color of Water (nice reads for this decade--next will it be Harry Potter?) while chief academic officers opine that the sumptuous feast of standard university coursework has become, for the minority, a meager repast. Faculties are conciliated by the knowledge that they are not to blame (they have performed exactly as trained) and assured that they can be retrained--the fad words are "educated" or "reinvented." In old age they who cut their teeth on Bach can surely gum their way through Bob Marley. The drumbeat to diversify the curriculum is punctuated by periodic reminders that Europe is the size of a nickel, therefore presumably worth as much. The fallacy of this statement came to me in Grand Canyon where I once arrived at Lonetree with an empty canteen. On the Canyon's scale Lonetree is smaller than a pea. But it had water.

Mystery and the Music of Bach     

There are two pathways out of this madness. The first one follows tradition. When we cannot find a way forward it is sometimes helpful to retrace where we've been. "Tradition," wrote Chesterton, "means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death" (Orthodoxy). Rightly or wrongly, tradition would tell Nietzsche that what we need is more Christianity, more Germanism, more scholasticism, and more looking back to the Middle Ages. To be sure, we need more Bach and less of Nietzsche.

The second path follows Mystery--the opposite of magic. I refer here to what Chesterton called "mysticism in its noblest sense...as it existed in St. John, and Plato, and Paraceleus...not an exceptionally dark and secret thing, but an exceptionally luminous and open thing...too clear for most of us to comprehend, and too obvious for most of us to see" (The Mystery of Mystics). Contrasted with new age mysticism "in which monsters become natural, and grasses supernatural," this is an "all-embracing mystery" where "all differences between Shakespeare and a toadstool sink into relative insignificance, for both Shakespeare and the toadstool exist and neither know why." This mystery knows that we cannot control every aspect of our existence, much less that of others. It understands that there are forces bigger than us and before which our most ingenious tools are toothpicks.

The mystery of which Chesterton wrote is artistic and essentially religious in its values and beliefs. Bach was such a mystic. One cannot hear the c-sharp minor and b minor fugues of Book I, and the f-sharp minor fugue of Book II without coming to terms with this fact. As a mystic, he understood the connectedness of all things. He could, after all, smoke his pipe and worship God, a conception of liturgy that is utterly foreign to my experience. Yet it helps us to sense that Bach drew the line between sacred and profane, if at all, in daring ways.

So the mystic acknowledges that there are many things that cannot, even should not, be explained. Some connections cannot be made--or at least we cannot make them. Some connections have been made for us, and the challenge is to accept and trust them. The mystic has no difficulty with the idea that not all art is about Hegelian dichotomies and power relationships between men and women, rich and poor, black and white. There are dimensions to a Bach fugue, the art of Monet, and the poetry of Auden, that resist analysis. These ought not to be deconstructed, but enjoyed.

Bach's fugues have provided grist for countless analyses since his disciple, Marpurg, first attempted to mill them into systematic form. Far from having been reduced, the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier remain the bread and butter of keyboardists and music theorists today. Why? They are so profound, so transcendent, that traditional methods often seem to be completely inadequate. How many times can one point out the structural elements--subject, countersubject, stretto--and utterly overlook the fugue's deeper beauty. Such analyses are like attempting to magnify the Gettysburg address, perhaps the greatest oration in the English language, by diagramming each of its sentences. While it is certainly helpful to know the fugue's structure (if for no other reason than to begin a dialogue about why it is good and beautiful), its beauty and goodness far transcend the naming of its parts. Again I wonder why?

Once more I believe that the answer may be found in metaphor. The fugue continues to intrigue us because it is, in essence, metaphorical. It is a tonal analogue for what exists. Its processes of invention and development are analogous to what we perceive in the universe: the grain of wheat that grows into a golden sea, the frond that becomes a towering Sequoia, the elements that bond themselves in complex molecules, and the fissure of lava that becomes a mountain. The fugue exists in time, like my grandson who resembles my grandfather after whom he was named. The fugue is mysterious in how it parallels the world of intangible things: a symbolic system like math or language. We know that Bach himself considered the fugue to be a form of rhetoric, which, as practiced in the eighteenth century, closely resembled what we call logic.

It was in a state of near reverence that I embarked upon this study of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I was comfortable with the realization that there would be much that I could not teach. Music is her own teacher. As for what could be taught, I determined to use metaphor. So I began each analysis with a question, "This fugue is like...?" That question is answered by this study in: a butterfly, the big bang, boomerang, polyphonic novel, DNA, Möbius strip, building blocks, a dialogue, Palladio villa, fractal, the epic poetry of Dante and Milton, Rube Goldberg contraption, Amish quilt, Balanchine choreography, Monet poplar, Kandinsky painting, a watch, a logo, Cranach's altarpiece, Sagan's Golden Record, a wave, a flock of geese, and medicine for the soul. For those who prefer the orthodox methods, there are Schenkerian and harmonic analyses as well. For Hofstadter fans I have included units on Gödel and Turing, and quantum mechanics. If philosophy is your interest, consider the fugue contra nihilism and nominalism.

Because I knew that I would be losing myself to magic--the controlled world of computer programming--I sought to nurture the mystical side (and keep from going mad) by writing and translating poetry. When the wizards of how to synchronize sound with score, or the idiotic circumstances of my personal failures, would begin to overwhelm me, I would take a deep breath, climb Wind Mountain, or take a walk on the beach at Neskowin, and write. These poems and others are integral to this project--as integral as the technology itself. The one was mystery, the other magic. I hope that you enjoy both.

***

Note: The first four stanzas of the six-stanza work follow. The evidence for Bach's authorship is circumstantial; it appears in Anna Magdalena's notebook, a collection that includes works by others. Conclusive evidence that Bach wrote poetry can be found in a poetic dedication that accompanies his first Partita (1726).

Whene'er I take my pipe and stuff it
And smoke to pass the time away,
My thoughts, as I sit there and puff it,
Dwell on a picture sad and gray:
It teaches me that very like
Am I myself unto my pipe.

Like me, this pipe so fragrant burning
Is made of naught but earth and clay;
To earth I too shall be returning.
It falls and, ere I'd think to say,
It breaks in two before my eyes;
In store for me a like fate lies.

No stain the pipe's hue yet doth darken;
It remains white. Thus do I know
That when to death's call I must harken
My body, too, all pale will grow.
To black beneath the sod 'twil turn,
Likewise the pipe, if oft it burn.

Or when the pipe is fairly glowing,
Behold then, instantaneously,
The smoke off into thin air going,
Till naught but ash is left to see.
Man's fame likewise away will burn
And unto dust his body turn.

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