Oct. 24, 2003

Listening to Her Practice: My Middle Daughter, on the Edge of Adolescence, Learns to Play the Saxoph

by Barbara Crooker

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Poem: "Listening to Her Practice: My Middle Daughter, on the Edge of Adolescence, Learns to Play the Saxophone," by Barbara Crooker, from Ordinary Life (ByLine Press).

Listening to Her Practice: My Middle Daughter, on the Edge of Adolescence, Learns to Play the Saxophone

Her hair, that halo of red gold curls,
has thickened, coarsened,
lost its baby fineness,
and the sweet smell of childhood
that clung to her clothes
has just about vanished.
Now she's getting moody,
moaning about her hair,
clothes that aren't the right brands,
boys that tease.
She clicks over the saxophone keys
with gritty fingernails polished in pink pearl,
grass stains on the knees
of her sister's old designer jeans.
She's gone from sounding like the smoke detector
through Old MacDonald and Jingle Bells.
Soon she'll master these keys,
turn notes into liquid gold,
wail that reedy brass.
Soon, she'll be a woman.
She's gonna learn to play the blues.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1929, the U.S. Stock Market crashed. The day became known as "Black Thursday." Around 13 million stocks were sold off in one day. By the next Tuesday, the market had lost almost 26 billion dollars of value. Banks failed, individual investors lost their savings, and the Great Depression began in America.

It's the birthday of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, the Netherlands (1632). He perfected the microscope, and was the first person to observe bacteria. Leeuwenhoek was not a trained scientist; he studied to be a draper's assistant in Amsterdam. He became a draper and haberdasher, and eventually took an administrative job in the government. He devoted all of his spare time to his hobby, grinding glass lenses and making microscopes. Over his lifetime, he ground over 400 lenses, and built many microscopes, using techniques that he kept secret. He used his own microscopes to become the first person to observe bacteria and protozoa, which he called "animalcules." He was also the first to see red blood cells. One of his most important contributions was his research on fleas. He was able to explain how insects breed, because he could, for the first time, see their tiny eggs. He argued against the popular theory of spontaneous generation, which said that the tiniest insects could be generated from thin air.

It's the birthday of poet Denise Levertov, born in Ilford, Essex, England (1923). Her mother was Welsh, and her father was a Russian Jew who became an Anglican priest. She was educated at home, and took ballet lessons and wrote poetry from an early age. When she was twelve, she wrote a poem that she sent to T. S. Eliot. He wrote her back. Even though she lost the letter, she remembered that he advised her to read poetry in a foreign language, and to keep on writing. During World War II, she served in the volunteer land army on a dairy farm and a garden, and then trained as a nurse. After the war, she decided to put that training to use, and she became a professional nurse. In 1951, Levertov wrote a fan letter to fellow poet William Carlos Williams. This began a long friendship and professional relationship. She said that he was one of the most important influences on her poetic style. They corresponded for years about poets, poetry, and other matters. Over seventy of their letters were published in 1998 as The Letters of Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart, born in New York City (1904). He worked on Broadway plays and musicals with Irving Berlin, George Kaufman, and Lerner and Loewe. He first fell in love with Broadway as a young boy, when his Aunt Kate would check him out of school and take him to Thursday matinees. He later called these trips "the beginning of a lifelong infection." Over the course of his career, Hart worked on some of the most well-known and beloved musicals in Broadway history, including My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960). When he came onstage opening night to introduce Camelot, he announced: "Camelot is lovely. Camelot is going to be glorious. Camelot is long. You're going to be a lot older when you get out of here tonight." The play's first performance ran four and a half hours, and ended at 1:00 AM. Hart eventually made drastic cuts to the show, and it became a hit.

Hart wrote with humor, but his personal life was often less bright. He suffered from long and repeated bouts of depression. One time he had a nervous breakdown right before the opening of one of his plays. His illness became national news. He isolated himself and slowly recovered, later calling this period his "siege." Even during this worst period of depression, however, he continued to write. He worked with Kaufman on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can't Take It With You (1936). The play was set in a living room where an eccentric family spends its time writing plays, playing the xylophone, making candy, and collecting snakes. In addition to writing Broadway plays, Hart also wrote for Hollywood, often with MGM. He wrote A Star Is Born (1954) for Judy Garland, and he wrote the script for Hans Christian Anderson (1952), a musical about the life and work of the famous Danish fairy-tale author. Moss Hart said, "All the mistakes I ever made were when I wanted to say 'no' and said 'yes'."

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