Oct. 10, 2010

The Very Old

by Ted Kooser

The very old are forever
hurting themselves,

burning their fingers
on skillets, falling

loosely as trees
and breaking their hips

with muffled explosions of bone.
Down the block

they are wheeled in
out of our sight

for years at a time.
To make conversation,

the neighbors ask
if they are still alive.

Then, early one morning,
through our kitchen windows

we see them again,
first one and then another,

out in their gardens
on crutches and canes,

checking their gauges for rain.

"The Very Old" by Ted Kooser, from Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, born in a village in Parma, Italy (1813). He wrote a total of 26 operas, including Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871), and Falstaff (1893), and became one of the most popular opera composers of all time. Just before his death, he asked that the funeral be simple, and it was. But a crowd of 200,000 people gathered in absolute silence at the church and then followed the body to the burial site. Verdi said, "I don't intend to condemn the public; I allow its severity, I accept its whistles on condition that I'm not asked to be grateful for its applause."

It's the birthday of playwright, screenwriter and director Harold Pinter, born in East London (1930). When his play The Homecoming came out in 1965, Pinter said: "The hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it. [But] the great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had]. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified. ... There's no question that the play won on that occasion."

Pinter said: "You do have a leash, as a writer. You're holding a dog. The great excitement is to see what happens if you let the whole thing go. And the dog or the character really runs about, bites everyone in sight, jumps up trees, falls into lakes, gets wet, and you let that happen. That's the excitement of writing plays."

It's the birthday of Thelonious (Sphere) Monk, who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (1917), but grew up in New York City. He started piano lessons as a kid and by age 13, he had won the weekly amateur night contest at the Apollo Theater so many times that he was no longer allowed to compete. In the '40s he started making recordings, and in the '50s he came out with two of his most popular albums, Brilliant Corners and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. His most famous compositions include "Round About Midnight," "Straight No Chaser," "Blue Monk," and "Misterioso."

It's the birthday of the composer Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky in Parafianovo, Belarus (1903). He was a talented classical musician, educated at an elite conservatory, but his family fled Russia after the revolution and he ended up playing piano in cafes in Constantinople (now Istanbul). From there, his family rode steerage class on a ship to America, went through Ellis Island, and ended up in New York in 1921. There the teenage Dukelsky met George Gershwin, who was only a few years older, and the two became good friends. Dukelsky played Gershwin what he described as "an extremely cerebral piano sonata," and Gershwin, who was also trained in classical music, suggested this: "There's no money in that kind of stuff, and no heart in it, either. Try to write some real popular tunes — and don't be scared about going low-brow. They will open you up." He also suggested that Dukelsky shorten his name, like he himself had done — Gershowitz to Gershwin. So Vladimir Dukelsky came up with the name Vernon Duke, but he didn't use it for a while.

First, he went to Paris. There, he met and impressed the great ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Dukelsky wrote later about their first meeting: "'Ah, a good-looking boy,' he drawled. 'That in itself is most unusual. Composers are seldom good-looking; neither Stravinsky nor Prokofiev ever won any beauty prizes. How old are you?' I told him I was 20. 'That's encouraging, too. I don't like young men over 25.'" And so Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet, and he wrote Zephire et Flore, with sets by Georges Bracque, choreography by Léonide Massine, and costumes by Coco Chanel. It got a great reception, and Dukelsky was taken in by the not-quite-as-good-looking Stravinsky and Prokofiev. For a few years he divided his time between Paris, where he continued to write classical music, and London, where he wrote show tunes and used the name Vernon Duke. Then in 1929, he decided to go back to America, and he wrote some of the biggest hits of the 1930s — "April in Paris" (1932), "Autumn in New York" (1934), "I Can't Get Started" (1936), and "Taking a Chance on Love" (1940). And he wrote the music for the Broadway show and film Cabin in the Sky (1940). By that time, he had become an American citizen and officially changed his name to Vernon Duke.

He said, "Every dogma has its day, but good music lives forever."

It was on this day in 1940, early in the morning, that St. Paul's Cathedral was bombed during a German nighttime air raid on the city of London.

Historically, St. Paul's had been an unlucky piece of architecture. It was built on the site of a Roman temple to the goddess Diana, on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London. The first St. Paul's was dedicated in 604 A.D., by King Ethelbert, the first English king to become a Christian. That first church didn't last very long — it was destroyed by a fire, so a new one was built in its place around 680. That church made it a few hundred years, but was burned down by the Vikings and rebuilt in 962. In 1087, there was a big fire in London that took out a lot of the city, including St. Paul's number three.

For the fourth incarnation, an elaborate Gothic cathedral was built, with a spire of almost 500 feet — this was the church known as "Old St. Paul's." It wasn't completed until 1314. For a couple of hundred years it remained unharmed, one of the great cathedrals of Europe. It also became a London hub, a place to hang out and hear gossip, or to buy wares outside the church. But things deteriorated in the 16th century. Henry VIII ushered in his own brand of Christianity, the Church of England, and let most of the cathedrals and monasteries go to ruin. St. Paul's spire was struck by lightning, and no one did anything about it. During the English Civil War, the Parliamentary forces actually kept their horses in the Cathedral, and destroyed all the old documents. But after Oliver Cromwell died and the Commonwealth dissolved, the newly restored monarch, Charles II, decided that something had to be done about St. Paul's. He hired the architect Christopher Wren to restore the cathedral to its former glory.

But a couple of years later, in 1666, when construction was just beginning on St. Paul's — the building was covered with scaffolding — the Great Fire of London broke out, and the cathedral was burned to the ground once again. So for the fifth time, St. Paul's Cathedral was rebuilt from the ground up, under Christopher Wren's guidance.

And it was that version that was standing in 1940 when it was hit by bombs from the Luftwaffe, the German air force. The air raid on Britain was known as "the Blitz." It had begun in early September, and London was bombed almost daily for months — the Blitz didn't end until May of 1941, and during that time 48,000 Londoners were killed. In the early morning hours of this day in 1940, the dome of St. Paul's was hit by a bomb, but it was not damaged too badly. Throughout the Blitz, the huge cathedral that had been burnt to the ground so many times before stayed standing. That was almost certainly due to the dedication of a group of volunteer men and women who called themselves the St. Paul's Fire Watch. They had formed during World War I and came together again for World War II to make sure that every time a spark hit St. Paul's, even in the furthest corners or rafters, it would be put out. There were 300 members of the Fire Watch, and 40 of them guarded the cathedral every night.

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