Bernstein's Poetry & Letters

O-N-C-O-L-O-G-Y and Soap: “Acquiring Knowledge” by Leonard Bernstein, a Lifelong Learner

Learning is probably one’s most private affair…

In 1939, Leonard Bernstein graduated cum laude from Harvard University. As many recent college graduates do, he evidently spent a lot of time thinking about the value of education — what he’d learned, what he hadn’t, and what he still had left to discover.

Bernstein was a joyous lifelong learner who found teachable — and learnable — moments everywhere, regardless of whether or not he was technically a student at the time. Everything from a simple bar of soap to the complexity of cancer fed his desire to learn more, know more, understand more.

Here are two poems, written 51 years apart — at the very beginning of his professional life, and the final gasping end — that show Bernstein, always curious, always questing for answers, as the ‘student of everything’ he really was.

Bernstein around time of Harvard graduation, 1939. Inscribed to Helen Coates, Bernstein's piano teacher and later secretary. (Photographer unidentified, Library of Congress Music Division)
Bernstein around time of Harvard graduation, 1939. Inscribed to Bernstein’s piano teacher and later secretary: “To Helen Coates, a fine teacher and great friend. ~ Leonard Bernstein” (Photographer unidentified, Library of Congress Music Division. Courtesy: The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.)

An Acquiring Knowledge

I still remember, in the beginning, thinking,
That lvory Soap contained something to keep it from sinking.
But now that I’m grown I have learned – although never by rote-
That its being lighter than water’s what keeps it afloat.

Learning is here versus rounds, and teaching is worse.
One can be clear but lengthy, murky but terse.
People communicate badly, mumble and grone [sic].
Exception: in art. But art will not analyze soap.

Learning is probably one’s most private affair,
More intimate far than a bath, or saving one’s hair.
For example, I once knew some physics, through ardent endeavor;
But I know what I know about Ivory Soap forever.

Another example: with all the research in cancer,
No one has yet come up with a suitable answer.

(NOTE: The last couplet may be gladly omitted if it causes
sadness, and the sonnet will be missed by no one.)

1990: Bernstein Amends Couplet with “O-N-C-O-L-O-G-Y”

In 1990, his health worsened. Bernstein revisited his “1939 sonnet”, writing an acrostic addendum on the all-too-personal themes of battling illness and the side effects of treatments for cancer.

 

[The last couplet of a 1939 sonnet:
… with all the research in cancer,
No one has yet come up with a suitable answer.]

One-half century later, ye gods, this is true, still, and …

Never so true as now …

Click the images above to read Bernstein’s “o-n-c-o-l-o-g-y” poem, called “Three Days at Lenox Hill, Part I,” written June 13, 1990 in Massachusetts, or see text below.

Three Days at Lenox Hill

I

[The last couplet of a 1939 sonnet:
. . . with all the research in cancer,
No one has yet come up with a suitable answer.]

O ne-half century later, ye gods, this is true, still, and

N ever so true as now, with AIDS added, and the

C ommon cold still unsolved, and coyly elusive new viral strains

O f what used to tsked off as flu, or grippe,

L aryngitis, run-down condition (that kid always did have a weak chest).

O ver and over now it’s ovariectomies, metastases, the ubiquitous ballerina that answers to the name of

G alina Lymphoma, and KS and PCP, .  . . more and more names, numbers, initials, acronyms than have been known on earth until

Y esterday.

13 June 1990

About this content

Poems by Leonard Bernstein used by permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved.

Archival photos courtesy of the Library of Congress Music Division.

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