Delmore Schwartz Part 1
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
On the fly-leaf of my dog-eared copy of Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, I have noted “Oxford, December 1968”. That means that I bought the book just two years after the poet’s sad death. In that same year, I would have become familiar with the first album by the Velvet Underground on which Lou Reed pays tribute to his friend and mentor in the song “European Son of Delmore Schwartz”.
Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913. His parents, Harry and Rose, were immigrants from Romania, part of the first great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Delmore grew up in a drab apartment in Washington Heights, which he shared with his mother and his younger brother. His father was only reliable in the pursuit of his own pleasure, although he managed to accumulate a good deal of wealth from his dealings in the real estate business. When Delmore was only six, his parents woke him one night with the demand that he choose between them. They divorced. Delmore’s mother was hysterically self-dramatizing, and more than a little mad. Rose Schwartz threatened to kill herself when Delmore “abandoned” her in order to marry Gertrude Buckman; she also told her younger son that he would have been better off in Buchenwald than married to his non-Jewish wife. When Harry died at the age of 49 in 1930, Delmore only inherited a small amount of his money because of the shady dealings of the executor of the estate.
This was the emotional manure from which grew a young man of startling good looks who had read Blake, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and Hart Crane by his mid-teens and all the philosophers by the time he was twenty. Teachers who read Schwartz’s early writing encouraged him to develop his talents. As a teenager, he began to identify with the European avant-garde.
He made his parents’ disastrous marriage the subject of his most famous short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (a quotation from his hero WB Yeats), which was published in 1937 in the first issue of Partisan Review. Dwight McDonald believed that “It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.”
Boundless Ambition at Mosaic
While at New York University, Schwartz and a group of fellow students founded Mosaic, a literary magazine devoted to Marxist aesthetics. Norman Macleod, R.P. Blackmur, and William Carlos Williams were among the prominent poets and critics who had their work published in Mosaic. As editor, Schwartz used the publication as a vehicle to air his own critical opinions. His essays earned the attention of the New York literary community. William Barrett, whom he met in 1933, when they were both twenty, remembered him as “the most magical human being I have ever known”. Philip Rahv, of Partisan Review, described the “boundless ambition that was part of the precocity that never left him,” of “his singular personal charm and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech”. The New York literary world was eager to welcome this “newly fledged eaglet,” as Dwight Macdonald later called him. Schwartz won the extravagant praise not only of the New York intelligentsia but also of such commanding voices of the day as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren and Wallace Stevens. His precocious early poems prefigured the flowering of the powerful generation of poets who came to the fore in the ’40s—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman – of whom I will write in future weeks.
One of the earliest tributes to Schwartz came from Schwartz’s friend, another mad poet, Robert Lowell, who published the poem “To Delmore Schwartz” in 1959.
Lowell, reminisced in his poetry collection, Life Studies, about the time that the two poets lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946, writing that they were “underseas fellows, nobly mad,/ we talked away our friends.”
In 1968, Schwartz’s friend and peer, fellow poet, John Berryman, dedicated his book His Toy, His Dream, His Rest “to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz,” including 12 elegiac poems about Schwartz in the book. In “Dream Song #149,” Berryman wrote of Schwartz:
In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref
and grief too astray for tears.
(Tref — is the Yiddish word for food that does not conform with the Jewish dietary laws)
Schwartz, who was then a professor at the University of Syracuse, taught Lou Reed in the early 1960s. Reed remembered Schwartz reading from Finnegans Wake and sayingthere “were few things better than to devote one’s life to Joyce.” Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included a Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. In the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, Lou Reed published a short prose tribute to Schwartz entitled “O Delmore How I Miss You.” In the piece, Reed quotes and references a number of Schwartz’s short stories and poems including “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “The World is a Wedding,” and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” “O Delmore How I Miss You” was re-published as the preface to the New Directions 2012 reissue of Schwartz’s posthumously published story collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
My friend and teacher occupies a spare room
He’s dead, at peace at last the wandering Jew
Other friends had put stones on his grave
He was the first great man that I had ever met
Sylvia and I got out our Ouija Board
To dial a spirit, across the room it soared
We were happy and amazed at what we saw
Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore
Delmore, I missed all your funny ways
I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said
My Dedalus to your Bloom, was such a perfect wit
And to find you in my house makes things perfect
“Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn’t finished reading—liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried”.
Schwartz occupied an important slot as an intellectual, a modernist, and a Jew. He was historically important as a precursor, as a man whose work provided a tantalizing hint of the rich material, which other Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow worked so effectively. The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) was based on Schwartz and revived interest in his career and provided further evidence of his insight into the conflicts associated with Jewish-American identity.
David Lehman: “It is hard not to see Schwartz as an emblematic figure, capable of stirring us in his ravings no less than in his brilliant and original literary creations, meant to reproach and admonish us with the purity and grandeur of his aspirations as well as with the unbanished image of his demise.”
Photographs show that Schwartz was a handsome man but he went into a sad decline. He descended into madness and alcohol and became dishevelled and embarrassing. He drank frequently at the White Horse Tavern, and spent his time sitting in parks. His friends deserted him. In the summer of 1966, a penniless Schwartz checked into the Times Square hotel, perhaps to focus on his writing.
In the pages of this Mosaic, Wimal Dissanayake has expertly guided us through the thought and works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Delmore Schwartz wrote a poem called Hölderlin:
Now as before do you not hear their voices
Serene in the midst of their rejoicing
Chanting to those who have hopes and make choices
Clear as the birds in the thick summer foliage:
It is! It is!
We are! We are!
Clearly, as if they were us, and not us,
Hidden like the future, distant as the stars,
Having no more meaning than the fullness of music,
Chanting from the pure peaks where success,
Effort and desire are meaningless,
Surpassed at last in the joy of joy,
Chanting at last the blue’s last view:
It is! It is!
This is eternity! Eternity is now!
My favourite Delmore poem is Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine, which is a poetic evocation and reflection upon Seurat’s pointillist painting.
Next week I will analyse that poem and look at Delmore Schwartz’s poetry and themes in more detail.