May 23, 2007

To His Piano

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "To His Piano" by Howard Nemerov. Used with permission of Margaret Nemerov. (buy now)

To His Piano

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,
Ready to think the fingerings of thought,
You but a scant year older than I am
With my expectant mother expecting maybe
An infant prodigy among her stars
But getting only little me instead–

To see you standing there for six decades
Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and
The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,
As well as all those years of silence and
The stumbling beginnings the children made,
Who would believe the twenty tons of stress
Your gilded frame's kept stretched out all this while?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Thomas Hood (books by this author), born in London (1799). He wrote, "'Lives' of great men oft remind us as we o'er their pages turn, / That we too many leave behind us – / Letters that we ought to burn."

It's the birthday of the playwright, poet, and novelist Pär Lagerkvist (books by this author), born in Växjö, Sweden (1891). He's best known for his novel Barabbas (1950), about the thief pardoned by Pontius Pilate at the time of Jesus' crucifixion.

It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon (books by this author), born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947). She published poetry about everyday life in books such as The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986) and Let Evening Come (1990). Then in the early 1990s, her husband was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was given a one-in-three chance of survival. Kenyon helped him through surgery and treatment, and his cancer went into remission. But then Kenyon was diagnosed with cancer herself. She spent the last days of her life working on her last collection, Otherwise (1996).

It's the birthday of the man who gave us a system of classifying and naming all the living things on the planet, Carolus Linnaeus (books by this author), born in Råshult, Sweden (1707). He was born at a time when human beings named plants and animals in a variety of ways, usually based on what they looked like: names like Queen Anne's Lace, ghost orchid, and sword fish. But these names were always local. Even within a single country, like England, a plant could be called by half a dozen different names by different groups of people.

Linnaeus was a botanist, and it was his goal to help import new plants to Sweden to help improve the economy. In order to keep everything straight, he developed a naming system based in Latin, so that he and his students would always know what they were talking about. He put each specimen into a large group called a genus and a smaller subgroup called a species, and this became the binomial naming system, which he published in his book Systema Naturae (1758).

Biologists found his naming system extremely useful. His ideas made him famous around the world, and scientists as well as kings and queens sent him plants and animals as gifts for his garden and zoo. Catherine the Great of Russia sent him flower seeds. The crowned prince of Sweden gave him a North American raccoon.

But Linnaeus had little success importing new crops into Sweden. The tea plants his students sent home all died. Coffee did not make it. Neither did ginger or cardamom or cotton or coconuts. In fact, rhubarb was one of the only new plants that took hold. Late in his life, Linnaeus said that the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement.

But today, we remember Linnaeus for his contribution to taxonomy. His system of naming living things has been modified, but the basic idea behind it has endured for 250 years. When he published his first taxonomy of plants in 1758, Linnaeus listed the 4,400 species of plants known to science at that time. Today, his system has been used to name more than 1.5 million species. We have Linnaeus to thank for the idea behind all those names, including our own name: Homo sapiens.

It's the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1910). She was one of the first writers to write books specifically for children who were just beginning to learn language.

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. She eventually began to write books for children based on her research, and in 1938 she became the editor of a publishing house called William R. Scott & Company, which specialized in new children's literature.

Margaret Wise Brown helped make children's books profitable, because she understood that children experience books as sensual objects. She invested in high-quality color illustrations, and she printed her books on strong paper with durable bindings, so that children could grab, squeeze, and bite their books the way they did with all their toys. And then, in 1947, she published her own book, Goodnight Moon.

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn't sell as well as some of Brown's other books in its first year. But parents began to recommend the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990, the total number of copies sold was more than 4 million.

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