Sunday Aug. 23, 2015

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Mozart at Seventeen

I’d done it again: locked out of my car
that evening after the concert.
No friendly red salute as I flicked the unlock icon.

No keys and my stupid car remained indifferent
while I made the dreaded phone call
to my husband with the news

and could he come to the rescue.
The only bright thing that night was the symphony
Mozart composed at seventeen,

the year his father brought him to Vienna
to seek a position in the court of Empress Maria Theresa.
Only Salieri had won the keys to the court

and there was nothing for Amadeus.
So what does he do?
He attends the symphonies of Haydn,

glorious and inventive,
and over a period of weeks produces a music
filled with restless, angular melodies,

the oboe and flute freed into colorful bursts
that force the violins to yield. Only in the andante
does he settle into more introverted passions.

He was a teenager after all, destined
to trump Salieri, some say even Haydn.
Though he doesn’t know this at the time.

Maybe suspects it, so that three centuries later
as I was walking towards my car one evening
after a concert, fishing for my keys,

Mozart seemed to whisper: In clarity lies the serene.

“Mozart at Seventeen” by Claire Keyes from What Diamonds Can Do. © Cherry Grove Collections, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of humorist Will Cuppy (books by this author), born in Auburn, Indiana (1884). He spent seven years as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, before he finally dropped out and moved to New York City. He wrote advertising copy and tried to write a play, but it didn't work out. He decided that the big city was too distracting for him, so he moved to Jones Beach Island, off the south shore of Long Island. For eight years, he lived in a shack made of tarpaper, clapboard, and tin, which he called "Tottering-on-the-Brink." The only other people living on the island were members of the Coast Guard, who invited him to dinner, patched his roof, and rowed him to the mainland on the rare occasions when he had to go into the city. The Jones Beach State Park expanded and forced Cuppy out of his shack, so he moved back to Manhattan and published How to be a Hermit (1929), which was a best-seller — it went through six printings in four months. In it, he wrote: "'A hermit is simply a person to whom civilization has failed to adjust itself."

Newfound fame and a life in Greenwich Village didn't change Cuppy's hermitic habits. He researched and wrote at night and slept during the day, he ordered food delivered to him, and he talked only occasionally to other people, mostly via letters. He was a prolific writer — he wrote essays for The New Yorker, and reviewed mysteries and crime fiction in his column "Mystery and Adventure" for the New York Herald Tribune — he read and reviewed more than 4,000 novels throughout his career. His essays were published in books like How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931) and How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

As Cuppy got older, he became more and more isolated, and depressed. His health deteriorated, he felt like he was being replaced by younger journalists, and he became estranged from one of his oldest friends. In 1949, he received notice that he would be evicted from the apartment where he had lived ever since he left Jones Beach Island. He committed suicide before he could be evicted. The following year, his book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950) was published posthumously, and it spent more than four months on the New York Times best-seller list.

Cuppy said: "Intelligence is the capacity to know what we are doing and instinct is just instinct. The results are about the same."

It's the birthday of writer Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author), born in Garnett, Kansas (1868). He spent most of his childhood on his grandparents' farm near Petersburg, Illinois. He grew up surrounded by extended family — his grandparents took him to church, and his uncle took him on adventures.

Masters worked as a lawyer in Chicago, sharing a law practice with Clarence Darrow, the attorney who went on to defend high school science teacher John Scopes in the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. His real dream was to be a poet. He published a few poems, and a friend sent him Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, little poems about daily life in ancient Greece. Masters was inspired to write his own version — small poems about ordinary life in rural Illinois. The result was Spoon River Anthology (1915), in which more than 200 dead citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River recount their lives. It was so successful, he was able to give up law and devote himself full time to writing poetry.

One of the epitaphs is "Fiddler Jones":
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind's in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to "Toor-a-Loor."
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill — only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle —
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®