Jan. 27, 2012

Don't Look Back

by Kay Ryan

This is not
a problem
for the neckless.
Fish cannot
swivel their heads
to check
on their fry;
no one expects
this. They are
torpedoes of
compact capsules
that rely
on the odds
for survival,
unfollowed by
the exact and modest
number of goslings
the S-necked
goose is—
who if she
looks back
acknowledges losses
and if she does not
also loses.

"Don't Look Back" by Kay Ryan, from Say Uncle. © Grove Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in Salzburg, Austria (1756). He only lived for 35 years but he started his career early — a child prodigy from a family of musicians. He toured all over Europe, and wrote his first opera at age 11.

Mozart died at the age of 35 in mysterious circumstances. There is a popular image of him as poor and miserable, working on a funeral requiem as he was dying. But overall, his final year was a good and productive one. He was living in Vienna. He was still getting commissions. He didn't have a lot of money in the year 1791, but then again, he rarely did — he and his wife, Constanze, never seemed able to live on what Mozart made.

It was a busy year. In the first months of 1791, he wrote dance music for the winter balls at the court and the Piano Concerto No. 27. In the summer, a messenger came, asking Mozart to write a requiem for his patron, Count Franz von Walsegg who had lost his wife and wanted to commission a requiem in her honor.

He was working on the opera La Clemenza di Tito to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold as King of Bohemia. It premiered in early September. Three weeks later, his opera The Magic Flute opened in Vienna, and was a big hit. In October, he finished Clarinet Concerto in A. Then a cantata for his Freemason lodge, which he directed himself on November 18th. Finally, he put all his energy toward the Requiem, but just after the performance of his cantata, he became extremely ill. He had a fever, and his whole body was swollen. He continued writing the Requiem right up until his death, which was only two weeks after he became sick. No one knows what Mozart's illness was, and there are dozens of theories: rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, endocarditis, syphilis, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, and poisoning. He died on December 5th, 1791 and was buried in a mass, unmarked grave, a common practice for the middle-class of Vienna.

Mozart said, "Music, in even the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear but always remain a source of pleasure."

It's the birthday of the writer whom Mark Twain called "the stillest and shyest full-grown man I have ever met." That's Lewis Carroll (books by this author), born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in Daresbury, England (1832). He went to Oxford, was gifted at math, graduated with honors, and stayed at the college as a teacher for the rest of his life. He didn't really like teaching. But it earned him a living, and he thought of it as a temporary endeavor while he worked on becoming famous as an artist of some sort. Carroll wrote poems and short stories, and took photographs, and then one day in 1856, he took three little girls, Ina, Edith, and Alice on a boating trip down the river, and told them the story that became Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Six years later, he published its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871).

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show