Nov. 10, 2012

What Beethoven's Music Will Do To You

by Bill Holm

Listen long enough,
you'll go stone deaf,
your body grow squat
from eating only
fish and brown sausages
washed down with hock.
Christen your sister-in-law
Queen of the Night, then
take her to court. Break
all the piano's strings,
howl and mutter and brood.
It'll do you no good.
He already wrote this music,
made it into the mirror
that always shows you
the back side of yourself
that you only imagined before.
Now you'll want to write
King Lear, paint The Last Supper,
rebuild the Parthenon.
That's how it always goes—
nose to nose with magnitude.

"What Beethoven's Music Will Do To You" by Bill Holm, from Playing the Black Piano. © Milkweed Editions, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther (books by this author), born on this day in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483. He was a devout monk who frequently punished himself to atone for his sins, whipping himself or lying in the snow all night long. But he became disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. He finally decided that the answer was in the Bible itself, which said that salvation came from personal faith, not from participating in the Church and paying for indulgences. So he wrote up his attack of the Church and published his 95 Theses, and since the printing press had recently been invented, his theses were reproduced and read all over Europe.

Luther's ideas and his writing led to the Protestant Reformation. But toward the end of his life, he was so overwhelmed by the scope of the revolution he had caused that he stayed out of the limelight, at home in Germany, raising a family, gardening, and playing music.

Martin Luther said, "God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars."

On this day in 1969, the pioneering children's television program Sesame Street made its broadcast debut. Two years earlier, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney teamed up with the Carnegie Foundation to create a children's show that would harness the "addictive qualities of television" for a greater good. Early childhood education became their focus, and Sesame Street was the first program for kids that was a collaborative effort between educators, child psychologists, and artists.

Based in a fictional inner-city neighborhood, the show featured an integrated cast of characters and gave national exposure to Jim Hensen's Muppets. The producers made a point of highlighting diversity and inclusiveness, and their prominent roles for black actors and incorporation of foreign language vocabulary initially caused states like Mississippi's Board of Education to ban the show. Writers often wrote in adult humor and brought in guests like Stevie Wonder to encourage parents to watch with their children, and not simply use the show as a babysitter. Deaf and disabled actors were invited on. Even the Muppets themselves were of different colors and came from different walks of life. Bert and Ernie shared a neat basement apartment at 123 Sesame Street, and others, like Big Bird, made his nest in an abandoned lot by a trash dump, near his neighbor, Oscar the Grouch.

Many of the Muppet characters were designed to represent specific age groups and reflect their unique hopes and fears. Noticing children's ability to sing commercial jingles from memory, the writers built in musical and animated skits throughout the program that highlighted numbers and letters, repeating them throughout like commercials. Characters like the beat reporter Kermit the Frog and the globe- trotting foreign correspondent Grover encouraged children to expand their imaginations to the larger community.

Sesame Street has now been on public television for more than 40 years, with many generations of loyal listeners. Today, the show and its global outreach program, Sesame Workshops, bring the message of inclusiveness, respect, and friendship throughout the world, encouraging communities to adapt the show to their own cultural needs.

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay (books by this author), born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Field's, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way. It wasn't nearly as exciting as he thought it would be. He said, "No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation ... [but] I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times." In 1913, Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including The Tree of the Laughing Bells (1905) and Every Soul Is a Circus (1929).

It's the birthday of writer Neil Gaiman (books by this author), born in Portchester, England (1960). He writes serious comic books and turns them into graphic novels. Growing up in England, he knew what comic books were, but the comic books published in England weren't very exciting. One day, a friend of his father gave him a box of old DC and Marvel comic books from America, and he fell in love with them. He stayed up late every night, reading them by the light from the hallway.

He said, "The most important dreams, the most manipulable of cultural icons, are those that we received when we were too young to judge or analyze." He wanted to take those icons of his youth and write about them in a serious, literary way.

In 1987, DC Comics let Gaiman pick one of their old, failed comic book characters and revive him. Gaiman chose a character called the Sandman, who uses sleeping gas to catch criminals. Gaiman kept the name but changed everything else, turning the character into the god of both dreams and stories.

He chose different artists to draw the 75 issues, and he filled the series with references to myths, folklore, and literature, especially Shakespeare. In 1991, a single issue of The Sandman called "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became the first comic book to win the World Fantasy Award.

People like Stephen King and Norman Mailer became fans of the Sandman series, and it was also one of the first comic books to appeal to women. The 75 issues were collected and published in 10 volumes, the first of which was The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991). It launched the graphic novel as a serious art form.

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