Delmore Schwartz vs. Delmore Schwartz
Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Craig Morgan Teicher.
New Directions. $17.95.
Delmore Schwartz (1913–1966) lay dying of a heart attack in the hallway of a sleazy midtown Manhattan hotel for at least an hour before an ambulance was called around 4:00 a.m.; his body then lay in the morgue unclaimed for two days. The judgment of his contemporaries and students on this early casualty of the confessional generation could serve as a snapshot of blighted promise. “The American Auden,” boasted James Laughlin. Or, no, “the new Hart Crane,” proposed Dwight MacDonald. “He was tortured, beyond what a man might be,” avowed John Berryman. “The two sides of his face were different one from the other and reflected, he thought, a split in his personality,” reported Eileen Simpson. “One vowel bedevilled by seven consonants,” quoth Lowell. “You were the greatest man I ever met,” Lou Reed effused.
John Ashbery was neither contemporary nor student of Schwartz, but “admired his poetry even before coming to the university” where Schwartz occasionally taught — Harvard — and writes now, in his introduction to this newest selection: “The bulk of his work is unpublished and probably unpublishable.” Between his Partisan Review debut in 1937 and winning the Bollingen Prize in 1959, Delmore Schwartz wrote poems, stories, criticism, and verse plays. His attempted epic, Genesis, might have been the longest American poem in existence if he had finished it; after two hundred pages, the protagonist Hershey Green had only reached the age of seven. Hefty volumes of letters and notebooks were published posthumously. In his last days, according to his biographer James Atlas, “he sat in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library filling one notebook after another with incomprehensible novels.”
A friend half-jokes to me: “For that generation, it wasn’t that you couldn’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but that you couldn’t write poetry after T.S. Eliot.” If Eliot encapsulated the spirit of the 1910s and twenties, the shift that occurred in the thirties (Auden’s “low dishonest decade”) would have to be accounted for by a new voice — and, ambitiously, Delmore Schwartz wanted to be it. But Schwartz basically had one story in him — his own — and he was setting himself against a towering figure who championed “impersonality” as the way to enter into the Tradition:
We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.
Both men had studied philosophy at Harvard and left without taking a degree, but there the similarities ended. Schwartz was a first-generation Jew whose parents came to Brooklyn from Romania. Eliot was from St. Louis gentry, migrating back to the Mother Country and high Anglicanism.
Schwartz’s idealism about literature was such that these provincial distinctions weren’t supposed to matter deeply. Schwartz loved Joyce too, and Yeats, and Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and believed in High Modernism’s cosmopolitan vision. Yet over the years, he felt the immigrant Jewish experience was his subject matter, and his preoccupation with his parents’ story was nourished by his discovery of Freud. According to friend and editor William Barrett, “Freud was a disaster for Delmore.” The “family romance” explained everything, and his work became increasingly indebted to working out this schema in his own upbringing. Meanwhile, it also gave sanction to his competitive instincts toward his literary fathers; his obsession with being the next Eliot soured into a plan to unmask the man’s high-minded poems and expose their sexual secrets. It is only one of Schwartz’s unfinished projects, like his abandoned translations of Heinrich Heine, of which there was a reputed fifteen hundred pages once, and a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which he may not have begun at all. But he was capable of writing many versions of his own origin story, beginning with his first published fiction — now we would call it autofiction — “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (a title cribbed from Yeats). In this story, he narrates, in present tense, the story of his parents’ courtship as it unfolds on an imaginary movie screen. As his father tearfully proposes, his son stands up in the darkened theater and shouts at his parents: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”
The mismatched couple casts its shadow over the poet’s life, recounted also in the failed epic, Genesis, and the verse play, Shenandoah, and the stories of The World Is a Wedding. Rose Schwartz impulsively used a windfall to fund an operation to reverse her infertility, betting that a child would rope in her straying husband. The arrival of the infant, though, only served to prolong a humiliating union. The curse that began in the womb was cemented in the social covenant of his very name — Delmore, a clumsy attempt at assimilationism. The poet would continually parody it in such alter egos as “Hershey Green” and “Shenandoah Fish.” Between the injury of his birth and the insult of his name, the stage was set for infinite grievance.
When I was a teenager self-tutored with thrift-store copies of midcentury literature anthologies, I could count on seeing “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave,” “The Beautiful American Word, Sure,” “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers,” and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” in any table of contents. According to his 1977 biography by James Atlas, “by 1947, he was the most widely anthologized poet of his generation.” He was also highly visible as a poetry editor and critic for publications like The Nation, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, and Partisan Review (then in its heyday — he was one of its discoveries and superstars). John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell would surpass him for originality and scope: by 1985, Helen Vendler did not see fit to include him in The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry. David Lehman’s massive 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry quirkily opts for three rather more obscure poems, and a glance at Rita Dove’s contents for the recent Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry reveals the most representative Schwartz poem, “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” Here’s the first stanza:
The heavy bear who goes with me,A manifold honey to smear his face,Clumsy and lumbering here and there,The central ton of every place,The hungry beating brutish oneIn love with candy, anger, and sleep,Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,Climbs the building, kicks the football,Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
Many of these early poems mimic Eliot’s vers libre — the iambs lilting now toward tetrameter, now pentameter — in a mode we call Prufrockian: the queasy monologue of the young (male, of course) intellectual in a world of aggressive physicality. “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” is one long loose reprise of “Preludes”:
Hearing the milkman’s chop,His striving up the stair, the bottle’s chink,I rose from bed, lit a cigarette,And walked to the window. The stony streetDisplayed the stillness in which buildings stand,The street-lamp’s vigil and the horse’s patience.The winter sky’s pure capitalTurned me back to bed with exhausted eyes.
What set Schwartz apart was a charisma in his short lyrics — a flair for phrasing, imagery, peacocking titles. In “Far Rockaway,” he writes, “The radiant soda of the seashore fashions / Fun, foam, and freedom.” In “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar,” “In history’s pity and terror / The child is Aeneas again; // Troy is in the nursery, / The rocking horse is on fire.” Unlike Eliot, Schwartz often tapped the sentiment laden in childhood and animal metaphors — witness not only “Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers” but “A Dog Named Ego, the Snowflakes as Kisses.” The tenor shaded from irony and anxiety into sorrow and disappointment. Thus he could seem equally vulnerable and ambitious, childlike and erudite. This paradox was even more appealing in person than on the page. In person, he could seem pathologically shy and reclusive — or, per Bellow, a charismatic (and good-looking) “Mozart of conversation.” Eileen Simpson’s warm recollection averred, “Unlike many brilliant talkers Delmore was also eager to listen, and had a flattering way of quoting what one had said on another occasion as if it had been a brilliant insight or extremely witty.” This was during the days when her husband, John Berryman, unpublished and unknown, would announce to her “with his crooked grin, ‘I’m off to Cambridge, to show my new poem to God.’” Meaning Delmore.
How the Orpheus at the heart of American letters by 1947 washed up on the floor of that sleazy hotel on July 11, 1966 is the subject of James Atlas’s Delmore Schwartz. Atlas is exemplary in having made economical use of only 379 pages to tell of the wunderkind’s decay into pills, booze, breakdowns, spousal abuse, divorces, poison-pen letters, arrests, hospitalizations, and lawsuits. Yet in the half-century since the British critic Al Alvarez championed, then eulogized, “the new poetry” — the confessionals — the idealism sustaining poetry as a vocation has been upstaged by melodrama. One might well wonder if there is a correlation. Biographies of poets now tend to serve a purpose much like the conductor who came staggering through my halted subway car on the morning of September 11, 2001: “People are dead, folks. Go home and hug your children.” Did you think you would write beautiful, immortal verses? “People are dead, folks.” Did you think literature was a higher calling that would bestow meaning on existence? “Go home and hug your children.” Perhaps you might merely become famous, well-off, and get laid a lot? In his last years, Schwartz had girls like houris lining up to take care of his sorry alcoholic ass, and it still didn’t matter. He wrote almost nothing after his mid-forties, held forth at White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas met his demise (beware those Mozartian talkers!), and died alone. It’s all the more painful to recall what Simpson wrote of Schwartz and Berryman in their twenties: “The two men, who drank little at that time, talked about alcoholism as if it were a rare disease, like dengue fever.”
Schwartz had a long relationship with James Laughlin despite the rancor that bloomed from his late paranoid schizophrenia (like the ignominious lawsuit titled “Case of Delmore Schwartz versus Hilton Kramer, Elizabeth Pollett, James Laughlin, Marshall Best, Saul Bellow, The Living Theatre, William Styron, Perry Miller, Harry Levin ... ”). New Directions has faithfully kept him in print. This new and more varied selection of poetry and prose is presented by Craig Morgan Teicher with the aforementioned introduction by Ashbery, revamping the selection that was reissued in 2004 with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick. Now we can read excerpts from Genesis, which has been unavailable for decades; a selection of his criticism; and some sixteen letters in addition to a wide sampling of poems early and late, two verse plays, and two short stories.
This approach, however, emphatically does not make the book a “best of.” Teicher’s editing reflects our less idealized expectations of literature, and what he has given us is more like a career retrospective, a griffin. Much of the later poetry is disastrously bad. (Ashbery: “The late poetry does seem to lack the electric compressions and simplifications that animate his early writing, tending toward bald assertiveness.”) Genesis is excerpted not because it’s good; Teicher admits it was his “least successful work” but “this work was central to his conception of himself as a person and a writer.” I can understand the interest in Genesis, but on the whole, putting too much mediocre work in — for the sake of an idea, the idea of Delmore’s “conception of himself” — meant leaving some better things out — obviously, more stories.
Perhaps what was needed was a critical edition, but there is no scholarly apparatus, such as a chronology; no dates are given at all, anywhere, except for the letters. There is no contextualization for the letters either, and Atlas quotes much livelier correspondence that left me feeling Teicher missed an opportunity to showcase the poet’s personal charm. “The World Is a Wedding” is a novella that bears some explanation — only after I read Atlas did it make sense as a bitter parody of Paul Goodman’s intellectual circle. A biographical-critical essay would have helped fill out some details of an oeuvre that is closely tied to the life. It would also have placed Schwartz critically at the head of a very long era of confessionalism; one we’re still in (per “autofiction”).
My greatest disappointment, though, is in the selection of criticism. Again, dates would have helped. The general abstract, manifesto-like quality of two of the essays — “The Isolation of Modern Poetry” and “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World” — hardly accords with his reputation as the prodigy who took on Yvor Winters, W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, as well as Hemingway and Faulkner and Dos Passos. A draft of Schwartz’s introduction to his T.S. Eliot book caps off this section of prose. All three pieces show a writer with as strong a sense of vocation as it is possible to have, anxious at the decline of literature in the esteem of the culture at large. It was this aspect of Schwartz that gave him his tragic dimension in Bellow’s roman-a-clef, Humboldt’s Gift. What matters is writing well.
In effect nothing will change. Schwartz’s legacy remains his early work, especially the philosophical lyrics, in single lines and images, carbonated, éblouissant: “And the light sways forward / On the self-destroying waves.” “The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.” “When in the white bed all things are made.” Do we even care about philosophical lyric anymore? Its disinterested beauty, its abstraction from sociological piffle? Ashbery’s brilliant reading of the language in those poems makes the only case there can be for Schwartz’s importance. If one reads poetry, as Dickinson and Housman and Yeats claimed to, for the shiver or the shaving cut, then Schwartz at his brief best can provide that. If one wants a portrait of a milieu, his stories provide that too. If one wants his tortured psyche and a taste of how badly a talented man can write, this can be found as well. What each of these is worth, respectively, fewer people these days seem to know or care.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...