Dec. 9, 2006

Threepenny Opera

by George Bilgere

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Poem: "Threepenny Opera" by George Bilgere, from The Good Kiss. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Threepenny Opera

The elderly modern dance instructor
And his elderly wife are dancing
In top hats and tails, doing a Kurt Weill
Number as old as their marriage.

They've reached that age when the body
Is starting to wonder how it got here,
When it has become strange, even to itself,
And moves around uncertainly
As if looking for a lost pair of glasses.

They do not mean for what they're doing
To be a parody, but, of course, it is;
The word means something like
"To sing alongside," and it's just
Possible to see the lithe dark lovers
They used to be, singing just beyond
The penumbra of the spotlight.
When they tap dance and set
Their old skeletons clattering

Across the stage, the teenage boy
In front of me smiles and nudges his girlfriend
Who has reached the moment
Of her beauty that will keep everyone
On the edge of their seats
For the next two or three years.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton, (books by this author) born in London (1608). As a young man, he wanted to become a poet, and he wrote several shorter poems that are still read today, including "Lycidas," about a classmate who had drowned in a shipwreck in 1637. But before his career as a poet could really take off, England began to fall into a civil war. Over the course of several years, the king was eventually overthrown and a new form of government, known as the Commonwealth, was established, led by Oliver Cromwell.

It was a tumultuous time, and Milton responded by putting his poetry on hold and becoming a pamphleteer. He believed that the Commonwealth might give way to a new form of democracy, and he became an advocate for greater civil rights and religious liberty. He argued for the right to divorce, and he made one of the first comprehensive arguments for the freedom of the press.

By the time he was in his 40s, Milton had taken a job as a Latin secretary for the government, translating letters into Latin for international correspondence. He was struggling to raise his three daughters, and the eyesight that had been growing steadily worse his whole life had finally failed completely.

And things only got worse for Milton. In 1660, the Commonwealth dissolved, King Charles II was restored to the throne, and all the leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged. That summer, a warrant was issued for Milton's arrest, but he was kept in hiding by his friends. His pamphlets were publicly burned. He was eventually pardoned, but he became a kind of outcast, and people said that God had struck him blind for his sins against the king.

He was devastated by the restoration of the monarchy, but without a job, he finally had time to devote to his poetry again. So he started writing an epic poem in English that he'd long been thinking about, centered on the biblical story of Adam and Eve and humanity's fall from grace.

Because of his blindness, he wrote the poem by composing the verses in his head at night, and in the morning he would recite them to anyone near by that would take dictation. And when Paradise Lost appeared in print in 1667, Milton's contemporaries were astonished. People couldn't believe that a man generally thought of as a washed-up, outcast political journalist had written the greatest work of literature in a generation. Milton was 58 years old, and he'd finally become a famous poet.

It's the birthday of one of the people who helped invent the modern computer: Grace Hopper, born in New York City (1906). She began tinkering around with machines when she was seven years old, dismantling several alarm clocks around the house to see how they worked. She studied math and physics in college, and eventually got a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale.

Then World War II broke out, and Hopper wanted to serve her country. Her father had been an admiral in the Navy, so she applied to a division of the Navy called WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. They turned her down at first they said she was too old at 35, and that she didn't weigh enough, at 105 pounds. But she wouldn't give up, and they eventually accepted her. With her math skills, she was assigned to work on a machine that might help calculate the trajectory of bombs and rockets.

Hopper learned how to program that early computing machine, and wrote the first instruction manual for its use. And she went on to help write an early computer language known as COBOL — "Common Business-Oriented Language." She remained in the Navy, and eventually she became the first woman ever promoted to rear admiral.

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