Mar. 21, 2004


by Kenneth Koch

SUNDAY, 21 MARCH, 2004
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Poem: "Permanently," by Kenneth Koch, from Selected Poems, 1950-1982 (Vintage).


One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Each Sentence says one thing—for example, "Although it was a dark
   rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure
   and sweet expression on her face until the day I perish from the
   green, effective earth."
Or, "Will you please close the window, Andrew?"
Or, for example, "Thank you, the pink pot of flowers on the window
   sill has changed color recently to a light yellow, due to the heat from
   the boiler factory which exists nearby."

In the springtime the Sentences and the Nouns lay silently on the grass.
A lonely Conjunction here and there would call, "And! But!"
But the Adjective did not emerge.

As the adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat--
You have enchanted me with a single kiss
Which can never be undone
Until the destruction of language.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany (1685). He came from a family that had produced musicians for seven generations. Both his parents had died by the time he was ten, so he went to live with his older brother, a professional organist who taught him to play a variety of keyboard instruments. He went to the local music school, where he sang in the boys' choir, and by the time he was eighteen he got his first job as a church organist. While working at his first job, he often got in trouble for wandering off to nearby towns so that he could hear performances of other famous organ players. He had a short temper, and once got into a swordfight after calling one of the players in his orchestra a "nanny-goat bassoonist." Members of his congregation were annoyed by his habit of improvising while playing hymns, which made it difficult for people to sing along.

He eventually left his first job and spent several years traveling around Germany, giving performances and winning competitions. He developed a reputation as one of the best organists in the country. A prince at one of his performances was so impressed that he gave Bach a diamond ring from his own finger. Bach spent several years as the court organist at Weimar, and when he decided he wasn't happy and tried to resign, the Duke had him thrown into prison for four weeks. He eventually moved to Leipzig, where he worked as the city's director of church music for the rest of his life, and where he composed most of his major works. He earned a decent living in Leipzig, but he had a grueling workload. He had to write a cantata every month, so in order to get ahead of the deadlines, he wrote one every week for the first two years. In addition to serving as organist and musical director at church services, he had to teach a boys' class in Latin and music, and he was continually frustrated by his undisciplined students and the inexperienced musicians he had to work with.

Despite all his difficulties, he managed to compose some of his greatest works of music, including The Passion According to St. John (1723), The Passion According to St. Matthew (1729), Mass in B minor (1733), and the Goldberg Variations (1742). During his lifetime, almost no one appreciated his music. He was composing baroque music just as baroque music was going out of style, and people thought of him as hopelessly old-fashioned. When he died in 1750, he was hailed as a great virtuoso on the organ but nothing more.

In 1829, the composer Felix Mendelssohn staged a revival performance of The Passion According to St. Matthew, and Bach finally began to be recognized as a genius. Later, Robert Schumann helped to publish Bach's complete works, and people realized that even the stylistic exercises he wrote for his music students were complex and innovative.

Bach said, "Music . . . should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting."

It's the birthday of journalist, novelist, and memoirist Ved Mehta, born in Lahore, India, which is now part of Pakistan (1934). His father was a doctor who had been trained in England, and who became an important figure in India's public health service. When Mehta was four years old, he contracted meningitis and went blind. He spent the next ten years adjusting to his blindness, while all around him India was moving toward independence. Then, when he was fifteen, his father sent him to the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. In Arkansas, his teachers realized how smart he was, and they taught him to develop his touch and hearing, and especially his memory. He went on to college and eventually graduate school at Harvard, where he began to write his first book, the memoir Face to Face (1957), about his blindness and his journey from India to the United States. The book got great reviews, and after contributing a few articles to The New Yorker, he became a staff writer for the magazine.

He went on to write many books of fiction and non-fiction, but he's best known for his books of autobiography, including Walking the Indian Streets (1960), about his first trip to India after living in the United States for ten years, and The Ledge Between the Streams (1984), about his experience of India's independence and the formation of Pakistan. His most recent book is Dark Harbor: Building House and Home on an Enchanted Island (2003).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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