Pianists trace their descent from one teacher to another back through the gloomy decades to a Liszt or a Czerny. Playing piano is a skill that becomes an art, writing an art that becomes a skill. I spent my early years at Yale wandering through Jacksonian America and, still a sophomore, taking grad courses in probability and game theory—I planned, until the bombing of Cambodia, to take a Ph.D. in the coils of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Arrow’s Theorem. Privately I entertained an imprudent desire to become a poet, filling holes in my schedule with poetry workshops when I could have taken courses with one of the most incandescent English faculties ever assembled. Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, Richard Ellmann, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, John Hersey, R. W. B. Lewis, and Maynard Mack do not exhaust the list.

As an...


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