Monday Dec. 22, 2014

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What is this life is, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

“Leisure” by William Henry Davies. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany, in 1858. His full name was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini. Music was the family business: the Puccinis had served as musical directors to the Cathedral of San Martino for 200 years by the time young Giacomo came along. His first job, when he came of age, was as the cathedral organist. When he was 18, he attended a performance of Verdi’s opera Aida, and he was captivated. He began his operatic studies in 1880. His friends helped him produce his first one-act opera, Le villi, in Milan four years later.

Puccini began an affair with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, and eventually the lovers fled Lucca for Milan. They had a son, Antonio, and married in 1904, after Gemignani’s husband died. Elvira was a passionate woman and prone to jealous rages. She suspected Puccini of sleeping with their young housemaid, and she ran the girl out of the house, threatening to kill her. The girl committed suicide; an autopsy revealed that she was still a virgin, and her family sued the Puccinis for calumny, causing a scandal of operatic proportions.

Puccini’s most famous operas — Madama Butterfly (1904), Tosca (1900), and La Bohème (1896) — all feature a common theme, namely “He who has lived for love, has died for love.” He writes of women who are devoted to their lovers to the point of their own destruction. He never finished his last opera, Turandot; Puccini died of complications from the treatment of throat cancer in 1924. Another composer, Franco Alfano, later wrote the last two scenes based on Puccini’s sketches. When Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere of Turandot in 1926, he stopped the orchestra at Puccini’s final notes, saying, “Here the opera finishes, because at this point the Maestro died.”

It’s the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (books by this author), born in Head Tide, Maine (1869), and among whose most celebrated works are the stories “Richard Cory” (1897) and “Miniver Cheevy” (1910).

It’s the birthday of Kenneth Rexroth (1905) (books by this author), the American poet who published more than 50 collections, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956).

Rexroth was orphaned at 14, expelled from high school not long after, and began publishing in magazines by the age of 15. He hitchhiked around the country and Europe, backpacking in the wilderness and frequenting literary salons and lectures while simultaneously teaching himself several languages.

Rexroth and his first wife, the painter Andrée Schafer, moved to San Francisco in 1927. Rexroth was one of the first to bring Eastern mysticism and ecological awareness into poetry. He read poetry with jazz musicians, had a radio show on KPFA, and wrote a regular column for the Saturday Review. And he was a patron of the Beats when they arrived in San Francisco in the mid-Fifties. On October 7, 1955, Rexroth organized the legendary Six Gallery Reading, the postcard for which promised “Six poets at the Six Gallery ... Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry ... Charming event.”

It was at this charming event that Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was introduced to the literary world. As Ginsberg read, the audience erupted with appreciation and, by the end, Rexroth and everyone else in the gallery was in tears. The night came to be called the birth of the San Francisco Renaissance, and Kenneth Rexroth “the father of the Frisco poetry scene.”

Kenneth Rexroth said: “I’ve never understood why I’m [considered] a member of the avant-garde. ... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life.”

It was on this day in 1946 that George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Reynolds News: “Christmas is for me simply a nuisance. The mob supports it as a carnival of mendacity, gluttony, and drunkenness. Fifty years ago, I invented a society for the abolition of Christmas. So far I am the only member. That is all I have to say on the subject.” An editor rebutted: “Mr. Shaw’s campaign has met with serious obstacles. The public read his books and went to his plays, but they read Dickens, too. They couldn’t be made to stop singing carols, lighting up Christmas trees, making presents, and feeling more than usually amiable toward their relatives, friends, and the world in general. Many of them paid attention to Mr. Shaw’s ideas about other things, including vegetarianism and Fabian socialism, but they would not pay attention to his ideas about Christmas. His failure is as apparent to him as it is to the rest of us.” Perhaps the editor’s sentiments had been inspired by a new film that had premiered just a few days before: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

On this date in 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, a physics professor in Bavaria, took the very first X-ray image of the human body. His first image, which he called a “röntgenogram,” was of his wife’s hand. Röntgen’s X-ray used 1,500 times the dosage of radiation used by modern machines, and it took 90 minutes of exposure to get the full effect. When Mrs. Röntgen saw the skeletal image, she exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” It was an exciting breakthrough; now, the structures of the human body could be seen without surgery! Within a year, the first hospital — the Glasgow Royal Infirmary — had set up a radiology department. Doctors and scientists X-rayed everything: a penny in a child’s throat, a needle in a woman’s hand, kidney stones, bone fractures, fragments of shrapnel. It took years before people made the connection between frequent exposure to X-rays and higher rates of cancer.

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