“The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz,” Reviewed

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By Sohaib

Delmore Schwartz died in the early morning of July 11, 1966, in an ambulance on the way to Roosevelt Hospital. He’d been living alone in a seedy hotel near Times Square, reading compulsively and scribbling in the many notebooks that he kept during his last, itinerant years. At fifty-two, he was no longer the precocious young writer and critic—“blazing with insight, warm with gossip,” as his friend John Berryman described him—who had charmed poetry’s old masters and young upstarts alike. He was often drunk, paranoid, and deeply unwell; friends failed to recognize him in the street. Schwartz spent the hours before his death banging about his hotel room, then decided to take out the trash. He suffered a heart attack in the elevator, stumbled onto the hotel’s fourth floor, and lay on the ground for more than an hour, annoying other residents with his inarticulate cries. After he died, his body went unclaimed for days. In “Humboldt’s Gift” (1975), a novel memorializing Schwartz, Saul Bellow reflected on his friend’s sad end: “At the morgue there were no readers of modern poetry.”

Schwartz and his peers—a group of gifted, haunted poets that included Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke—often complained that they lived “in a period inhospitable to poetry.” Starting out after the innovations of modernism, these men found it hard to write in the shadow of Pound and Eliot, and hard, too, to write from within a burgeoning American empire, whose values were not their own. A second Lost Generation, they womanized, self-medicated with alcohol and amphetamines, and languished in university English departments, where they taught to pay the bills. Casting about for a distinct poetic identity, they imagined they’d someday find success. Berryman, in one of his Dream Songs, describes them waiting “for fame to descend / with a scarlet mantle & tell us who we were.”

More than any other poet of this generation, Schwartz wrestled with the challenge of writing poetry after Pound. He analyzed it in his criticism, identifying the forces that stymied modern poets (the waning of religion, the lack of an audience) and suggesting how they could forge ahead. Meanwhile, in his own work, he both imitated the poets he admired and questioned their most stringent dicta, particularly Eliot’s edict that poetry be “impersonal.” Obsessed with his unhappy childhood, and aware of the social and political significance of his life story, Schwartz made his great subject himself. In lyrics, in short fiction, and in his long autobiographical poem “Genesis,” he wrote about his parents’ fractious marriage, his earliest memories, his ancestors, his dreams. His deeply personal poetry anticipates the confessional turn of the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, although by the time that revolution came around, Schwartz was too broken to participate.

Indeed, though Schwartz was once praised ecstatically by leading critics of his time, he went missing from anthologies in the eighties, and is now better known for his dramatic life than for his verse dramas. “The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) seeks to change this. Edited by the poet Ben Mazer, who previously edited “The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz” (2019), the volume is the latest in a string of posthumous publications, each clamoring for our attention like ever more insistent knocks upon a door. In a brief introduction, Mazer calls Schwartz “a controversial poet who could elicit fierce criticism or the highest praise”; he was by turns allusive and intimate, philosophical and direct. He was also unmistakably important to American poetry, the missing link between the obscurity of “The Waste Land” and the forthright quality of Lowell’s “Life Studies.” Even if his poems didn’t always succeed, they served as inspiration to others. “I wanted to write. One line as good as yours,” Lou Reed, who was Schwartz’s student at Syracuse, once wrote. The emblematic tortured poet, Schwartz is worth reading not simply for what he achieved but for what he made possible.

Schwartz was born in Brooklyn in 1913, to Eastern European Jewish immigrants who saw America as the place where you could dream big. His charming father, Harry, made a small fortune in real estate; his mother, Rose, a great beauty, managed the home. The marriage was unhappy: Harry loved money, freedom, and women, and he often felt constrained by Rose’s demands. In 1923, he left the family for a glamorous life in Chicago; he died seven years later, after losing most of his fortune in the stock-market crash. Schwartz, who had anticipated inheriting his father’s money and taking his place among the American aristocracy, never got over the loss of this imagined future.

Living in shabby apartments with his younger brother and his perpetually unhappy mother, the preteen Schwartz turned to literature as an escape. He borrowed armfuls of books from the public library: O. Henry, Sinclair Lewis, Alexandre Dumas. A three-dollar copy of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” sparked an interest in poetry, but he didn’t become serious about the craft until college. (Schwartz started at the University of Wisconsin but, lacking sufficient funds for out-of-state tuition, transferred to New York University, where he earned a degree in philosophy.) On campus, he set himself a rigorous daily schedule that included reading Spinoza, listening to Bach, and studying at least one poem by Blake, Dante, or Milton. This apprenticeship likely accounts for the high rhetoric of his initial efforts, which sometimes sounded like they could have been written centuries earlier.

By the time he graduated from college, in 1935, Schwartz had come to see poetry as a calling. But he had also begun to write short fiction and essays, and his breakthrough was not in poetry but in prose. In the course of a summer weekend, he drafted a deft, moving short story called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” its title taken from Yeats. The story is set in a movie theatre in 1909, where the narrator views a silent film. He watches his parents, dressed in their finest, embark on a date to Coney Island, where they stroll the boardwalk and ride a merry-go-round before deciding, somewhat precipitously, to get married. As the date unfolds, the narrator grows increasingly distressed. He weeps, leaves the theatre for a spell, and then, after his father proposes, addresses the actors directly: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds. . . . Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” He’s reprimanded by the usher—“You can’t carry on like this”—then wakes up in his own bed, realizing that he’d viewed the film in a dream.

“In Dreams” wasn’t published until 1937, when it appeared as the lead piece in the first issue of the revived Partisan Review. (Schwartz, a natural networker, became the magazine’s poetry editor soon thereafter.) But Schwartz sensed early on that he’d accomplished something important. He’d landed on not one but two ideal narrative devices—the film and the dream—that allowed him to probe the most painful parts of his past while also distancing himself from them. Through the figure of the usher, Schwartz chides himself for being so invested in his parents’ story, even though this overinvestment is what inspired the story in the first place. The structural complexity of “In Dreams”—its multiple frame narratives and time lines—both refracts and amplifies its emotional force.

Cartoon by Liana Finck

Schwartz began doing something similar in his poems. In “Prothalamion” (1938), he revisited one of his most traumatic memories, an occasion when his mother, with young Delmore in tow, tracked down her husband at dinner with another woman and delivered a harangue:

Her spoken rage
Struck down the child of seven years
With shame for all three, with pity for
The helpless harried waiter, with anger for
The diners gazing, avid, and contempt,
And great disgust for every human being.

The memory is embedded in a poem about a promising marriage; as in the short story, Schwartz stages an encounter with the pain of his childhood and, at the same time, mediates it. In “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar,” a poem from the same period, he uses the image of a “bounding, unbroken ball” to link life in tsarist Russia, his father’s country of origin, to his own childhood in Brooklyn. The poem suggests that the individual is shaped by history in ways that he cannot see.

For Schwartz, the personal was always entwined with the social and the historical, and sometimes with the mythic. He described himself as the “poet of the Atlantic migration, that made America”; to write about his family of origin was to tell the story of a generation of Jewish immigrants and the nation they helped create. But his art also served therapeutic purposes—or so he hoped. An admirer of Freud’s work, he believed that only by revisiting his childhood, in poem after poem, could he come to understand himself. “When you look at any man, remember that you do not truly see him,” Schwartz wrote. “For he is his past and his past is unseen. . . . He carries his habits, which are his childhood, strapped to him like his wristwatch, beating.”

Schwartz’s first book, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” appeared in December, 1938, the same week that he turned twenty-five. It contained the short story about his parents as well as more than thirty lyrics and a verse play, a Marxist-Freudian take on Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” His peers were dazzled: Lowell thought him a “sensationally reasonable and gifted poet,” and Berryman, who taught composition with Schwartz at Harvard, started referring to his friend as “God.” The Old Guard was quite taken with the book, too: William Carlos Williams liked it, as did Wallace Stevens. Allen Tate offered arguably the most important words of praise, telling Schwartz, in a letter, that his work was “the first real innovation that we’ve had since Eliot and Pound.”

If the collection seemed to appeal to everyone, that was partly by design. Schwartz craved praise throughout his career, and even went so far as to orchestrate good reviews, telling his publisher which reviewers to solicit and which to avoid. (He referred to the latter as “my hated enemies.”) He was an innovator as well as a traditionalist; he fittingly called his lyrics “poems of experiment and imitation.” Sometimes the imitation was all too evident: the sonnet “O City, City” contains images—“six million souls” in a subway car, an office building that “rises to its tyranny”—that wouldn’t be out of place in “The Waste Land.” But Schwartz also engaged with ideas more than most lyricists did, deploying concepts from social theory and citing philosophers by name. In the poem “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave,” he sets up a tension between philosophy and physical experience, then resolves it by the poem’s end.

He works through a comparable tension in one of his best and most anthologized poems, “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” Channelling a theme from Yeats, Schwartz examines the conflict between the body’s appetites and the soul’s aspirations. The body is figured as a “heavy bear,” a “strutting show-off . . . bulging his pants,” who “trembles to think that his quivering meat / Must finally wince to nothing at all.” This is coarse language for a coarse being, and it’s contrasted, later in the poem, with the elegant expression of the soul’s desires. The bear

Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear

The soul’s longings are conveyed in lovely alliterative lines, linked by their end rhymes; the bear’s “gross” touch interrupts this pattern. The “bare” soul is neatly contrasted with the “bear” of the body, suggesting a duality that can be reconciled only in art.

Like Berryman and Dylan Thomas, Schwartz admired Yeats—he sent the dying poet a copy of his first book, hoping for a kind blurb—but he was even more influenced by Eliot. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the famous essay from 1919, Eliot exhorted his peers to view their work as part of a vital, ever-shifting literary tradition; the “mature” poet gives himself over to this tradition, recombines it, and arrives at an expression that is completely his own. Eliot challenged Wordsworth’s suggestion that poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For him, creation was not passive but active, and the emotions used in a poem need not be experienced by the poet himself. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality,” Eliot wrote. “The emotion of art is impersonal.”

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