Apr. 1, 2007


by Anthony Hecht

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Poem: "Despair" by Anthony Hecht, from Collected Later Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Sadness. The moist gray shawls of drifting sea-fog,
Salting scrub pine, drenching the cranberry bogs,
Erasing all but foreground, making a ghost
Of anyone who walks softly away;
And the faint, penitent psalmody of the ocean.

Gloom. It appears among the winter mountains
On rainy days. Or the tiled walls of the subway
In caged and aging light, in the steel scream
And echoing vault of the departing train,
The vacant platform, the yellow destitute silence.

But despair is another matter. Midafternoon
Washes the worn bank of a dry arroyo,
Its ocher crevices, unrelieved rusts,
Where a startled lizard pauses, nervous, exposed
To the full glare of relentless marigold sunshine.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is April Fools' Day, a holiday celebrating practical jokes of all kinds. The British collection of folk wisdom known as Poor Robin's Almanac (1662) says: "The first of April, some do say, Is set apart for All Fools' Day."

One theory about the origin of April Fools' Day is that it started in France in 1582. Up until then, New Year's Day was celebrated on April 1st, but when Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year's Day was moved to January 1st. At the time, news of such things traveled slowly, and it took many years for everyone to get up to speed. People who continued to celebrate New Years on April 1st came to be known as April Fools.

John Updike said, "Looking foolish does the spirit good."

It's the birthday of playwright Edmond Rostand, (books by this author) born in Marseilles, France (1868). He's best known as the author of the play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), about a dashing, brave and romantic man who is able to compose sonnets while engaged in a sword fight, but who also has the largest nose anyone has ever seen. Because of his huge nose, he decides he can never win over the love of his life, Roxanne.

It's the birthday of the pianist and composer Sergey Rachmaninoff, born in Novgorod, Russia (1873). He was a tall, imposing man and his hands were so big they could span an interval of 13 keys on the piano. He went on to become a big success, as a composer and a performer, after he debuted his Prelude in C-sharp Minor in 1892. The piece was so popular that audiences requested that he play it for the rest of his life.

He escaped from Russia just before the Revolution, and spent most of the rest of his life in the United States. When Vladimir Horowitz arrived in New York City, the two pianists sealed their friendship by going down into the basement of Steinway and Sons and playing Rachmaninoff's own Third Piano Concerto (1909). Horowitz played the solo part on one piano, and Rachmaninoff the orchestra reduction on another.

Rachmaninoff was in the middle of writing his famous Second Piano Concerto (1901) when his first symphony received a lukewarm response. He stopped writing music for three years, during which he felt as though he was like a man who had suffered a stroke, losing the use of his head and hands. He was able to overcome his nervous breakdown by visiting a psychiatrist, who cured Rachmaninoff by repeating the following line to him each time they met: "You will write your Concerto. ... You will work with great facility. ... The Concerto will be of excellent quality."

It's the birthday of novelist Francine Prose, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1947). She's the author of Judah the Pious (1973), Hungry Hearts (1983), and Bigfoot Dreams (1987). Her most recent book is Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006).

Francine Prose said, "For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolations along with us on the bus."

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




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