Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017

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Lives of the Great Composers

Herr Bruckner often wandered into church
to join the mourners at a funeral.
The relatives of Berlioz were horrified.
“Such harmony,” quoth Shakespeare, “is in
immortal souls …. We cannot hear it.” But
the radio is playing, and outside
rain splashes to the pavement. Now and then
the broadcast fails. On nights like these Schumann
would watch the lightning streak his windowpanes.

Outside the rain is falling on the pavement.
A scrap of paper tumbles down the street.
On rainy evenings Schumann jotted down
his melodies on windowpanes. “Such harmony!
We cannot hear it.” The radio goes off and on.
At the rehearsal Gustav Holst exclaimed,
“I’m sick of music, especially my own!”
The relatives of Berlioz were horrified.
Haydn’s wife used music to line pastry pans.

On rainy nights the ghost of Mendelssohn
brought melodies for Schumann to compose.
“Such harmony is in immortal souls ….
We cannot hear it.” One could suppose
Herr Bruckner would have smiled. At Tegernsee
the peasants stood to hear young Paganini play,
but here there’s lightning, and the thunder rolls.
The radio goes off and on. The rain
falls to the pavement like applause.

A scrap of paper tumbles down the street.
On rainy evenings Schumann would look out
and scribble on the windows of his cell.
“Such harmony.” Cars splash out in the rain.
The relatives of Berlioz were horrified
to see the horses break from the cortege
and gallop with his casket to the grave.
Liszt wept to hear old Paganini play.
Haydn’s wife used music to line pastry pans.

“Lives of the Great Composers” by Dana Gioia from 99 Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Harvey Kurtzman (1924) (books by this author), cartoonist and creator of MAD Magazine. Born in Brooklyn, Kurtzman started drawing comics at a young age and sent, in his words, “very bad” drawings to Walt Disney hoping to get hired. He had a eureka moment when he discovered college humor magazines and realized he wanted to write in that style.

Kurtzman started MAD in 1952 as a comic book, and it switched to a magazine format in 1955. The magazine satirized other comics, like Archie and Superman, and American politics and culture in general. Every subject was fair game for criticism: advertising, the sexual revolution, Democrats, and Republicans. Critics see the magazine as a forerunner for much of American satire that came after it, including The Simpsons, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Art Spiegelman, the writer of the graphic novel Maus, said, “The message MAD had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.’”

Kurtzman saw an early-20th-century dentist’s ad showing a gap-toothed boy proclaiming the wonders of novocaine and used it as the inspiration for a drawing of a goofy, red-headed boy with the caption: “What — me worry?” The character later took the name Alfred E. Newman and became the mascot, and the most recognizable image, of MAD.

Harvey Kurtzman left MAD in 1956 and went on to found two magazines, Trump and Humbug, which both failed. He wrote a satire of The Jungle Book, which, for a book of comics, was unique for its attempt to write only to an adult audience. He edited the magazine Help! which employed both Gloria Steinem and the future Monty Python member, Terry Gilliam. (Gilliam named the character of a harsh boss after Kurtzman in his sci-fi dystopian film Brazil.) He went on to write a risqué comic strip for Playboy — Hugh Hefner admired his work and had gone in with Kurtzman on one of his failed magazines.

Kurtzman also drew comics of WWII, which depicted Japanese and German soldiers more sympathetically and showed the horrors of war more realistically than other comics would dare to. For example, he once dramatized the drowning of an enemy soldier in seven panels, drawing out the scene to give a reader the sense of disgust a real person would feel in that situation. There was no triumph in Kurtzman’s comics about war; the Allies may have won, but he wanted the reader to understand the ugliness of war, no matter what side you were on.

Kurtzman and his wife, Adele, had three daughters and one son. Their son had autism, and Kurtzman volunteered with special-needs kids in his community. He was able to spend a lot of time with his kids because his cartooning allowed him to work from home. Despite his sharp wit, he tended to come off as serious in person. And despite his cutting criticism of authority figures, he had a demure personality. Someone once described him as “a beagle who is too polite to mention that someone is standing on his tail.” He died of cancer in 1993 at 68 years old.

Today is the anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany. The two countries had been divided since the end of World War II. The most visible sign of this division was the Berlin Wall that divided the former capital for 28 years.

It’s the birthday of historian George Bancroft (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1800), known as “The Father of American History” for his 10-volume History of the United States, published between 1834 and 1874.

It’s the birthday of author Thomas Clayton Wolfe (books by this author), born in Asheville, North Carolina (1900). His childhood in the boardinghouse at 48 Spruce Street colored his work and influenced the rest of his life. Wolfe’s father drank heavily and his mother was ahead of her time as a successful female real estate speculator. His reminiscences of his life in Asheville were so frank and realistic that Look Homeward, Angel was banned from Asheville’s public library for over seven years. Look Homeward, Angel is the story of Eugene Gant, a sensitive, intelligent boy growing up in a small Southern mountain city. Wolfe, who was a teacher, left his job after the success of the novel and continued writing. In New York City, he met Aline Bernstein, a successful set and costume designer in the New York theater, and they began a passionate and turbulent love affair. She was almost 20 years older than Wolfe, married, and the mother of two grown children. With the aid of Mrs. Bernstein, he was able to continue his writing in New York.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Gore Vidal (books by this author), born Eugene Luther Vidal, in West Point, New York (1925). He’s the author of many novels, including Washington, D.C. (1967) and Duluth: A Novel (1983). His essays were collected as United States: Essays, 1952–1992 (1992). Vidal said, “Style is knowing who you are, what to say, and not giving a damn.”

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