Jan. 27, 2004


by Galway Kinnell

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Poem: "Prayer," by Galway Kinnell, from A New Selected Poems (Mariner Books).


Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1302, the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri was exiled from Florence for his political sympathies. Dante was a leading supporter of the white Guelph party, which was opposed to extreme papal power. When the black Guelph party seized power in Florence in 1302, they immediately expelled Dante from the city. He spent the next two decades wandering from place to place in northern and central Italy, estranged from his wife and kids and often living in poverty. His only solace during his exile was writing. He wrote his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, an epic poem about a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Just before his death, his children visited him in Ravenna; it was the first time he had seen them since he left Florence almost twenty years ago.

It's the birthday of composer Jerome Kern, born in New York City (1885). He wrote songs for over 100 shows and movies, but he's best known for writing the music to the 1927 musical Show Boat. He grew up playing the piano, but his father wanted Kern to join him in the retail business. One day when he was sixteen, he had too much to drink and accidentally ordered 200 pianos instead of two. He nearly bankrupted his father, and they both agreed that he would be better off pursuing a career in music.

In 1914, he had his first big Broadway success with The Girl from Utah. At the time, most Broadway shows were musical "revues" composed of a series of songs that had little in common with each other. Kern began writing more sophisticated musicals with coherent stories and interesting characters. His greatest success was Show Boat, which he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II. It's about a group of actors whose work is disrupted when authorities try to stop a woman of mixed heritage from performing. It contains some of Kern's most well known songs, including "Ol' Man River."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Cheshire, England (1832). As a child, he created magazines full of poems, stories and drawings to entertain his brothers and sisters. He received a degree in mathematics at Oxford and stayed there as a faculty member on the condition that he would enter the clergy and remain single. He lectured and wrote books on mathematics, and he took up photography as a serious hobby at a time when most people thought of it as more of a curiosity than an art form.

When he was 24 years old, a new dean arrived at Carroll's church, and brought his three daughters, Lorina Charlotte, Edith and Alice. Carroll befriended the three girls and began spending a lot of time with them. In July of 1862, while floating in a rowboat on a pond, he came up with the story of a girl's adventures in a magical underground world, and told it to the three girls. Carroll always remembered the day he invented Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Late in his life he wrote, "I can call it up almost as clearly as if it were yesterday—the cloudless blue above, the watery mirror below, the boat drifting idly on its way, the tinkle of the drops that fell from the oars, as they waved so sleepily to and fro, and (the one bright gleam of life in all the slumberous scene) the three eager faces, hungry for news of fairy-land ..." Alice begged him to write the stories down, and a few months later, he did, partly because he thought it had a good chance to sell a lot of copies. The book was illustrated by a well-known cartoonist named John Tenniel, and it was published in 1865. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, along with its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, became one of the most popular children's books in the world.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland begins:
"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do ... when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable in that ... but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again."

Many biographers have made out Carroll to be a shy, awkward recluse who was only comfortable around young girls—but he was actually charming and sociable. Even though he never married, many of his friends were young women, and he wrote several love poems to them. He loved to hold dinner parties, and even made detailed charts of where his guests sat at the table and what they had to eat. He often went to the theater and to art exhibitions, and he took an extensive tour of Russia with his friend. He also wrote about 97,000 letters in his lifetime, as well as a pamphlet called "Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing." He once said, "I'm beginning to think that the proper definition of 'Man' is 'an animal that writes letters.' " By the end of his life he was something of a celebrity, and he grew tired of all the admirers and autograph hunters who wanted to meet him.

It's the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in Salzburg, Austria (1756). His whole life was devoted to music. He was a child prodigy: by the time he was five he could perform difficult pieces on both piano and violin. He wrote his first symphony before the age of ten. Mozart's father quit his job so he could take him and his sister all around western Europe. They played for dukes and duchesses, and kings and queens, often giving two performances per day, each one two or three hours long. Mozart could play whatever piece of music was put in front of him, and he performed tricks like playing the piano with a piece of cloth covering his fingers so that he couldn't see the keyboard. It was like a traveling circus: people came more for the spectacle than the music. An English newspaper began a story, "The greatest Prodigy that Human Nature has to boast of is the Little German boy WOLFGANG MOZART."

Mozart made a name for himself as a composer when he was in his teens. He wrote dozens of sonatas, concertos, and symphonies—but his great ambition was to write operas. He wrote some of the most popular operas of all time, including The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and The Magic Flute (1791).

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