Apr. 10, 2003

Tin Ear

by Peter Schmitt

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Poem: "Tin Ear," by Peter Schmitt from Country Airport (Copper Beech Press).

Tin Ear

We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher's ear passing by
our ten-and eleven-year-old mouths
open to some song now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the corner of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through "Happy Birthday," creating
a diversion-all lest I send
the collective pitch
careening headlong into dissonance.
It's only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio's off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I'm ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Pulitzer, born in Budapest, Hungary (1847). In 1864, he sailed to the United States, where the Civil War was being fought. After the war was over, he and a friend went to a railroad ticket office, threw down all the money they had between them, and asked for tickets to as far West as their money would take them. Their destination turned out to be Saint Louis, where Pulitzer became a reporter and then a state legislator. He later moved to New York City and bought the New York World newspaper. He said, "There is room in this great and growing city for a journal that is not only cheap but bright, not only bright but large, not only large but truly democratic -- dedicated to the cause of the people rather than that of purse potentates -- devoted more to the news of the New than the Old World; that will expose all fraud and sham; fight all public evils and abuses; that will serve and battle for the people with earnest sincerity." With his profits he endowed the Columbia School of Journalism as well as the annual Pulitzer prizes for journalism, literature, drama, music.

It's the birthday of David Halberstam, born in the Bronx borough of New York City (1934). He is the author of many best-selling non-fiction books including The Powers That Be (1979), and The Reckoning (1986), but his first major success was The Best and the Brightest (1972), which attempted to trace how the United States got involved in the war in Vietnam.

It's the birthday of Lewis (Lew) Wallace, born in Crawfordsville, Indiana (1827). A General in the Civil War, he's best known as the author of the novel Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ (1880). Critic Carl Van Doren credited the popularity of Ben Hur with breaking through rural America's moral opposition to the novel as a literary form, creating a far larger audience for future writers. For decades, it was outsold by only the Bible.

It's the birthday of English writer, essayist, philosopher and critic William Hazlitt, born in Maidstone, England (1778). He said, "When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest." His father was a Unitarian minister who created controversy by preaching against the Church of England. He later wrote: "It was my misfortune (perhaps) to be bred up among Dissenters, who look with too jaundiced an eye at others, and set too high a value on their own peculiar pretensions."

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). His mother was a teacher and his father was a salesman for the American Oak Leather Company. After college he decided to join the Peace Corps in 1963. He later said, "I had thought of responsibilities I did not want -- marriage seemed too permanent, grad school too hard, and the army too brutal." Theroux is best known for his novel, The Mosquito Coast (1981), and for his travel books, and for The Old Patagonian Express (1979). He once said, "Travel is glamorous only in retrospect."

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