Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Mosaic

Robert Lowell Part 4

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 26 2014.

caroline

For the Union Dead

Lowell’s next book of original verse For the Union Dead (1964) was widely praised, particularly for its title poem, which invoked a poem by his friend Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” Lowell built upon the loose, personal style he had used in Life Studies. He wrote about a number of historical figures in “Lady Raleigh’s Lament,” “Caligula,” “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts”. He combined personal and public concerns in “Fall 1961” which addressed Lowell’s fear of nuclear war.

The title poem, “For the Union Dead,” is a 17-stanza eulogy to the white leader of the first all-black troop in the Union army. The narrative is a chain of associated images, beginning with a child’s view of the Boston aquarium, and moving to the tearing down of the aquarium and the building of car parks in sight of the statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was a colonel of the Union Army during the American Civil War. Shaw commanded the 54th Infantry from Massachusetts, the first all-black infantry. He was killed, along with many of his men, in the Second Battle at Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina in 1863. Shaw was related to Lowell.

robertgouldshawmemorial

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

The nation has entered an irreversible decline into crass commercialism.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

ForTheUnionDead

The Old Glory

In 1964, Lowell also wrote three, one-act plays that designed to be performed together as a trilogy. The first two parts, “Endecott the Red Cross” and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” were stage adaptations of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the third part, “Benito Cereno,” was a stage adaptation of a novella by Herman Melville. The Old Glory was produced off-Broadway in New York City in 1964, directed by Jonathan Miller who lived in the same building as Lowell at the time, witnessing one of his manic episodes . It won five Obie Awards in 1965 including an award for “Best American Play.” Most of the reviews were very positive but others have felt that Lowell merely reorganised the prose of Melville and Hawthorne rather that intensifying it into convincing poetry.

Near the Ocean

With Near the Ocean in 1967, Lowell returned to writing more formal, metered verse as well as loose translations. The best-known poem in this volume is “Waking Early Sunday Morning,”

No weekends for the gods now.  Wars

flicker, earth licks its open sores,

fresh breakage, fresh promotions, chance

assassinations, no advance.


Only man thinning out his kind

sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind

swipe of the pruner and his knife

busy about the tree of life …

 

Pity the planet, all joy gone

from this sweet volcanic cone;

peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war – until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.

 

This is now thought of as a key ‘political poem’ of the 1960s.

Notebook

During 1967 and 1968, Lowell experimented with a verse journal. In an “Afterthought”, he wrote: “This is not my diary, my confession, not a puritan’s too literal pornographic honesty, glad to share private embarrassment, and triumph. The time is a summer, an autumn, a winter, a spring, another summer; here the poem ends, except for turned-back bits of fall and winter 1968 … My plot rolls with the seasons. The separate poems and sections are opportunist and inspired by impulse. Accident threw up subjects, and the plot swallowed them–famished for human chances. I lean heavily to the rational, but am devoted to surrealism.”

Steven Gould Axelrod wrote that, Lowell was trying to achieve the balance of freedom and order, discontinuity and continuity, that he [had] observed in [Wallace] Stevens’s late long poems and in John Berryman’s Dream Songs”. He hoped to capture “an instant in which political and personal happenings interacted with a lifetime’s accumulation of memories, dreams, and knowledge.”

Caroline Blackwood

girl in bed

In 1970, Lowell left Elizabeth Hardwick for a new life in London with the British writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. Caroline Blackwood was a well-known figure in the literary world because of her journalism and her novels.

freud

She was also known for her high-profile marriages, first to the artist Lucian Freud, (that did not last long) then to the composer Israel Citkowitz. During the mid-1960s, Blackwood had an affair with Robert Silvers, a founder and co-editor of The New York Review of Books, who stayed close to the family thereafter. According to Blackwood’s daughter Ivana, both Silvers and Ivana suspected that Silvers was her biological father. On her deathbed, Blackwood revealed that Ivana’s biological father was the screenwriter Ivan Moffat, the grandson of actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

girl in a green dress, 1954

Her third husband Robert Lowell, described her as “a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers”. Her anxieties, alcohol-related illnesses, and late-night tirades exacerbated Lowell’s own mental problems. Their son, Sheridan, was born on 28 September 1971; and, after obtaining divorces from their respective spouses, Blackwood and Lowell were married on 21 October 1972.

Between 1970 and 1977, Lowell compounded the injury he had done to Hardwick by frantic shuffling between England and America, unable to decide which woman he wanted and needed.

 

caroline and children

History and For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin

Interacting with a lifetime of personal happenings did not always have happy consequences. The confessional mode could cause hurt and many questioned Lowell’s ethics. For Lizzie and Harriet, included poems that described the breakdown of his second marriage and contained poems that were supposed to be in the voices of his daughter, Harriet, and his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. The Dolphin (1973), which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, included poems about his daughter, his ex-wife, and his new wife Caroline Blackwood whom he had affectionately nicknamed “Dolphin.”

Many responses were negative. Lowell admitted to having incorporated (and altered) private letters from Hardwick into poems for The Dolphin. He compounded his crime by giving public readings of these poems. Elizabeth Bishop chided him privately, accusing him of “infinite mischief”. “Art just isn’t worth that much.” Adrienne Rich publicly criticized Lowell calling the poems “cruel and shallow.

Day by Day

Lowell published his last volume of poetry, Day by Day, in 1977, the year of his death. In May 1977, Lowell won the $10,000 National Medal for Literature awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and Day by Day won that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Anthony Hecht said that “[Day by Day was] a very touching, moving, gentle book, tinged with a sense of [Lowell’s] own pain and the pain [he’d] given to others.” In the final poem, “Epilogue,” Lowell reflects upon the “confessional” school of poetry with which his work was associated.

But sometimes everything I write

with the threadbare art of my eye

seems a snapshot,

lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,

heightened from life,

yet paralyzed by fact.

All’s misalliance.

Yet why not say what happened?

Helen Vendler wrote that critics who found the book a failure were disappointed because it was so different from any of his previous volumes. She wrote, “Now [Lowell] has ended [his career], in Day by Day, as a writer of disarming openness, exposing shame and uncertainty, offering almost no purchase to interpretation, and in his journal-keeping, abandoning conventional structure, whether rhetorical or logical. The poems drift from one focus to another; they avoid the histrionic; they sigh more often than they expostulate. They acknowledge exhaustion; they expect death.”

Death and Reputation

In 1977, Lowell died of a heart attack, reportedly clutching one of Lucian Freud’s portraits of Blackwood, in the back seat of a New York cab, on his way back to Elizabeth Hardwick.

Despite his crippling illness, which he knew caused him to hurt others as well as himself, Lowell was able to create a magnificent body of work, to become a revered public figure and to be loved on a personal level. He was invited to Kennedy’s inauguration and sent the President an inscribed copy of Life Studies. When JFK spoke to Lowell at the inauguration, he displayed a knowledge of his work. It was during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency that Lowell became a focus for protests against the war in Vietnam. Lowell publicly turned down an invitation from LBJ to attend an arts festival at the White House. It was a great embarrassment to Johnson when nearly every artist in the US rallied in support of Lowell.

mccarthy-let-us-begin-anew1

Seamus Heaney gave a memorial address for Lowell at St. Luke’s Church, Redcliffe Square, London on October 5, 1977. “He was and will remain a pattern for poets in his amphibious ability to plunge into the downward reptilian welter of the self and yet raise himself with whatever knowledge he gained there out on to the hard ledges of the historical present, which he then apprehended with refreshed insight and intensity”.

Robert Lowell Part 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

Robert Lowell Part 2

 

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 12 2014

 

Go South, Young Man

Charlotte told Merrill Moore to get her son committed to an institution. Moore suggested that Lowell take a leave of absence from Harvard and study with Moore’s friend, the poet-professor Allen Tate who was then living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University.tate and gordon

It was agreed that Lowell travel south with Moore in spring 1937. On arrival, Lowell asked Tate if he could live with him and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon,

gordon

and Tate joked that if he wanted to, Lowell could pitch a tent on Tate’s lawn; then Lowell bought a tent, set it up on Tate’s lawn, and lived in for two months. Lowell called the act “a terrible piece of youthful callousness”.

fugitves

After spending time with the Tates in Nashville (and attending some classes taught by John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt), Lowell decided to leave Harvard. When Tate and John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell went with them and majored in Classics. He shared accommodation with other ambitious young writers: Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in 1940.

Catholicism

Lowell had converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. This was partly in rebellion against his parents, partly under the influence of the work of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and French philosopher Étienne Gilson. Part of the reason for his conversion was his dark moods and what his first wife Jean Stafford (Anne Dick had faded out of the picture) called “fire-breathing righteousness.” Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. By the end of the forties, he would leave the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, his particular brand of Catholicism shaped the character of his first two published books of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

 

Jean Stafford

 stafford and lowell

Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford, blamed Catholicism for the failure of their marriage. Her own Catholicism was “light-hearted…though she had serious moments about it.” Some of her closest friends remained unaware of her conversion. For Lowell it became a round-the clock obsession.

Stafford was twenty-two when she met Robert Lowell. Her father was a writer of pulp westerns whose pen names were Ben Delight and Jack Wonder. He was also a religious fanatic. Jean was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and won a one-year fellowship to study philology at the University of Heidelberg from 1936 to 1937. She first met Lowell at a writers’ conference in Boulder and later stopped by at Kenyon to visit him. When he made his first proposal of marriage to her, she told him yes, if he bought her another drink. Obsessed, he followed her east. “He wants you more than anything else in his life,” a mutual friend informed her. “It makes me sick because he is an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”

In Boston, a drunken Lowell crashed his father’s car into a wall. Jean’s skull was badly fractured and her nose broken. Lowell tried to make his escape. They fined him $75 and took his licence. Lowell broke Jean’s nose again with a punch. She described her trauma in one of her best-known stories, “The Interior Castle,” and the disfigurement she suffered as a result was a turning point in her life. Nevertheless, on April 2nd of 1940, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford were married at St. Mark’s in New York.

From the beginning, there was little marital bliss. Jean’s intellect intimidated most of Lowell’s friends. She was the only person they knew who had read Proust and could quote it. Lowell’s parents, especially Charlotte, disapproved, but then, Charlotte disapproved of all of Bobby’s women. Before he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Lowell had set Jean up with an apartment and she received his trust fund allowance of $100 a month. She found this hard to live on and told Charlotte so. Predictably, Charlotte was not sympathetic: “I hope, Jean, for your own sake, as well as for Bobby’s that you will see in the present situation an opportunity for courage, selfdevelopment, and integrity of purpose”.

One wonders what Charlotte thought when Jean’s first novel, Boston Adventure, was a huge critical and commercial success. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month programme purchased and shipped thousands more to military personnel in Western Europe. The book made her enough money to buy outright a house called Damarascotta Mills in Maine. In October of 1945, Stafford wrote, “a house is really the only solution for anyone. And certainly for me, who desires to immobilize myself like an eternal vegetable.”

They entertained many guests at Damarascotta including Gertrude Buckman, ex-wife of Delmore Schwartz. Lowell and Buckman had an affair and talked of marriage. Stafford wrote about this in her short story “An Influx of Poets” in which Minnie Zumwalt is charming her way along the coast of Maine after her divorce from poet Jered Zumwalt. Buckman later recalled that at this time, Jean was drinking herself into stupor.

delmore and gertrude

Lowell and Stafford’s marriage ended in 1948 although they continued to correspond for many years. The following year he married the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick.

Stafford wrote two more novels but her real forte was the short story: her works were published in The New Yorker and many literary magazines. In 1950, she married Life magazine staff writer Oliver Jensen but they divorced after three years. She had a brief period of domestic happiness with her third husband, New Yorker regular AJ Liebling, but he died in 1963. After his death, she stopped writing fiction. For many years, Stafford suffered from alcoholism, depression, and pulmonary disease. By age sixty-three, she had almost stopped eating and died of cardiac arrest in 1979.

stafford

Conscientious Objector

At LSU Lowell taught introductory courses in English for one year before the US entered World War II. While at St Mark’s, Lowell had written in the school magazine: “…not only the good that [wars] bring outweighs the evil, but also that they are essential for the preservation of life in its highest form”.

Lowell had volunteered for military service but was rejected. However, when he was called up in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender. His conversion had strengthened his aversion to communism. He raised this point in a letter to Roosevelt and also condemned the Allied bombing of civilian populations.”Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids. This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news”.

He wrote to the President about “the betrayal of my country”. A major factor was the alliance with Stalin. He continued:”In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty”.

As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later described in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”

These are the tranquillized Fifties,

and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?   

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statement,

telling off the state and president, and then   

sat waiting sentence in the bull pen

beside a Negro boy with curlicues

of marijuana in his hair.

 

A Jehovah’s Witness

 

… pointed out the T-shirted back

of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,   

there piling towels on a rack,

or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full   

of things forbidden the common man:

a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American   

flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.   

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair—

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections….

 http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75186-news-detail-go-south-young-man.html

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Next week, Lowell’s first published book.

Robert Lowell Part 1

John Collins Bossidy wrote this Boston Toast:

And this is good old Boston,

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots

And the Cabots talk only to God.

 

The Lowells were “Boston Brahmins”, a term coined by physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr, in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly. The term Brahmin refers to the highest-ranking people in the Hindu caste system. In the US, it has been applied to the old, wealthy New England families of British Protestant origin, which were influential in the development of American institutions and culture. New England gentry believed that they were a people set apart by destiny to guide the American experiment.

The distinguished poet Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977), came from this aristocratic milieu and could trace his origins back to the Mayflower. As well as having a father who was a Lowell, he had a mother who was a Winslow, another Boston Brahmin family. His mother was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution and Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist theologian (about whom Lowell wrote in his poems including “Mr Edwards and the Spider”. Robert IV was related to poet Amy Lowell, whose great-grandfather and Robert Lowell’s great-great-grandfather were stepbrothers: that is, both were sons of Hon. John Lowell II, 1743-1802. Amy herself was herself the sister of astronomer Percival Lowell and Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Robert’s great-great uncle James Russell Lowell was among the first 19th Century American poets who rivalled the popularity of British poets.

young robert lowell

Unfortunately for Charlotte Winslow, and possibly for her son, she married into the wrong line of Lowells. The big money and big prestige was elsewhere. The line of the poet’s father had, since the 18th Century, been regarded as the pious poor relations. Robert’s father, known as “Bob”, seems to have been affable but self-effacing to the point of invisibility. In a draft autobiography, Robert wrote of his father: “He smiled and smiled in his photographs, just as he smiled and smiled in life. He would look into the faces of others as if he expected to see himself reflected in their eyes. He was a man who treated even himself with the caution and uncertainty of one who has forgotten a name, in this case his own”.

Despite being a Lowell, Bob had to work for a living. He was a low-ranking naval officer who had to move around the country and failed to win the respect of his superior officers, who resented what they imagined to be his inherited wealth. This was a small bequest from a Cousin Cassie, which, said Charlotte. “was not grand enough to corrupt us, but sufficient to prevent Bob being at the mercy of his salary”. Bob was no match for Charlotte’s growing dissatisfaction. Robert Lowell’s biographer, Ian Hamilton, refers to “her apparently unappeasable discontent”. She delighted in being condescending to Bob’s colleagues and enjoyed waiting for the doorbell to ring so that she could instruct the servants to tell the naval wives that she was not at home. When he retired from the navy, Bob took a job with Lever Brothers and Charlotte taunted: “Don’t you think Bob looks peaceful? They call him the undertaker at Lever Brothers. I think he is love with his soap vat”. He declined from job to job and Robert wrote of his father: “In his forties, Father’s soul went underground”. He recalls Wondering when he was ten, “Why doesn’t he fight back?” He saw his clashes with his mother as a kind of love play and a good training for the rhetoric of his writing.

Charlotte_Winslow_Lowell,_1915

“Anchors aweigh,” daddy boomed in his bathtub,

“Anchors aweigh”,

when Lever Brothers offered to pay

him double what the Navy paid.

I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid,

And cringed because Mother, new

Caps on all her teeth, was born anew

At forty. With seamanlike celerity

Father left the Navy,

And deeded Mother his property.

 

He was soon fired. Year after year,

he still hummed ”Anchors aweigh” in the tub-

whenever he left a job,

he bought a smarter car.

Father’s last employer

was Scudder, Stevens and Clark, Investment Advisers,

himself his only client.

 

Charlotte was only happy when in Boston, but, although their house was less than fifty yards from Louisburg Square, the home of the old elite, she said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency”. The Marlborough Street house was also close to Boston’s North End slums.

200px-Robert_Traill_Spence_Lowell_III_and_IV

This is the background that shaped the poet – and the manic-depressive that Lowell became. From an early age, he did fight back. As Hamilton puts it, “Lowell remained churlishly stoical, or was needling and argumentative…”. In the prose piece “91 Revere Street”, Lowell described his adolescent persona as: “Thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish”.

At his school, St Mark’s, he was bigger than other boys his age and regularly bloodied the noses of rivals like Bulldog Binney and Dopey Dan Parker. Early on in his life, Lowell acquired the nickname “Cal”. Schoolmate Frank Parker told the BBC that this came from Caligula – “the least popular Roman emperor with all the disgusting traits, the depravity”. However, Parker claims that Lowell was first called Caliban, after the subhuman son of the malevolent witch, Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Until the age of fifteen, Lowell was seen as a wild man, with dirty clothes, untied shoelaces and an intimidating d bulk. There were also fits of rage.

 

Another schoolmate, Blair Clark, noted that after fifteen, by an effort of will, Lowell “created himself as an intellect, as a creative spirit. It was astonishing to see such focus”. Lowell used to get into punch-ups. Now, he intimidated in a different way. He formed a small gang dedicated to discussing “the meaning of life”. Lowell rented a cottage at Nantucket for an intense period of self-improvement. Lowell set the reading programme for the group and even dictated what they ate. Clark later spoke of Lowell’s “brutal, childish” tyranny.

One of Lowell’s teachers at St Mark’s was Richard Eberhart, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Lowell felt a certain disdain for Eberhart (he called him Cousin Ghormley) but was impressed that one of his teachers actually knew IA Richards and William Empson. Lowell reported to Eberhart about the intellectual progress of the members of his gang. Some years later, Eberhart wrote a verse drama whose central figure was based on Lowell as a pupil. In the play, the schoolmaster advises the schoolboy: “Keep your feet on the ground, renounce the sky”. The college psychiatrist describes the boy as “mad”; “he eats toenails”; he is “rude, vain and gloomy and “talks with cryptic wit”; “Furthermore, I must point out that he is unclean”.

Charlotte wanted to “tidy up” her son and in 1935 consulted psychiatrist Merrill Moore, who was himself a poet on the fringes of the southern “Fugitive” group led by John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. However, the main plank of Charlotte’s tidying up project was to get her troublesome son into Harvard.

Harvard

Lowell did get into Harvard. While he was a freshman there, he asked Robert Frost for feedback on a long poem he had written on the Crusades. According to Lowell, Frost read a little of it, and said, “It goes on rather a bit, doesn’t it?” While at Harvard, he immersed himself in the poetry of Eliot, Pound and William Carlos Williams. This led to a marked improvement in the poetry he was writing, which became more direct and less mannered and clotted. However, after two years at Harvard, Lowell was unhappy.

In May 1936, he met Anne Tuckerman Dick and became engaged to her. There were reasons the Brahmins did not think this was good match, one of them being that she was 24 to Lowell’s 19. Her first meeting with Bob and Charlotte was uncomfortable for all involved. Anne described Lowell’s father: “He was like some kind of flabby Halloween pumpkin, long after Halloween, long after it had any point. And it had started to smell a little”. Tension over his proposed married to Anne led to Lowell punching his father to the ground.

In a later poem, he wrote:

In the Marlborough Street parlour

where oatmeal roughened

the ceiling as blue as the ocean –

I torpedoed my Father to the floor

how could he stand

without Mother’s helmsman hand?

 

Next week Lowell’s sojourn in the South

John Berryman Part 4 – Passionate Syntax

A version of this article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 30 2014 and Sunday September 7 2014

lastpic

Probably the last photograph taken of John Berryman

Life is All Transformation

john-berrymanYoung

John Berryman died on January 7, 1972. Three months later, Robert Lowell wrote: “He never stopped fighting and moving all his life; at first expert and derivative, later full-off output, more juice, more strange words on the page, more obscurity. I’m afraid I mistook it for forcing, when he came into his own. No voice now or persona sticks in my ear as his. It is poignant, abrasive, anguished, humorous”.

Edward Hirsch described Berryman’s style thus: “Berryman combined a passionate, disruptive syntax with an irreverent blend of highbrow and lowbrow dictions – part Shakespeare, part minstrel show, part baby talk. Who could have predicted such a salty, ostentatious and exaggerated comic style – or known that it would come to seem so intensely literary and inevitably American? Imagine Emily Dickinson crossed with Bessie Smith and Groucho Marx”.

An anonymous Times Literary Supplement reviewer saw Berryman’s style as “a living compromise between the way people speak and the outsize gestures that poetry traditionally demands”. Berryman wrote to his mother: “You lead the reader briskly in one direction, then you spin him around, or you sing him a lullaby and then you hit him on the head”. “Strange lives we lead…life is all transformation. We must not be glad, or sorry, to be part of it; but we can’t help being.”

Chair

Disrupted and Mended

Robert Lowell described Berryman’s mature style as “disrupted and mended”. The poem “Canto Amor” written in 1945 and dedicated to his first wife Eileen, describes disrupting and mending, harmony and disharmony in marriage:

Dream in a dream the heavy soul somewhere

struck suddenly & dark down to its knees.

A griffin sighs off in the orphic air.

 

If (Unknown Majesty) I not confess

praise for the wrack the rock the live sailor

under the blue sea, – yet I may you bless

always for her, in fear and joy for her

whose gesture summons ever when I grieve

me back and is my mage and minister.

25likeEllroy

Berryman developed a poetic technique, which combined disrupted syntax and strict, disciplined form. This conveys a sense of order and stability threatened by chaos. His life also was like that – much of his time, he seemed bent on inviting chaos. Despite his many personal failings, he managed to win the love of many attractive women. Berryman married three times and had three children. He married his third wife, Kate Donahue, in 1961. She was 22 and he was 46. Rather than settling down to enjoy domestic bliss, throughout his life he pursued other women compulsively and inappropriately.

hat and beard

The Epistemology of Loss

Death was always a dark shadow present for Berryman and death by suicide was a common theme in his life and his work. The official version of his father’s death was that it was suicide. When Berryman was bullied at school, he took revenge by lying in front of an oncoming train. His later view of suffering was akin to Nietzsche’s “joyful wisdom” or Yeats’s “tragic wisdom” – that which does not kill me makes me stronger.

Life is precarious and leads inevitably to death, with plenty of loss and suffering along the journey. In “The Ball Poem” written in 1942 Berryman uses a small incident to stand for the more momentous consequences of the epistemology of loss.

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.

What, what is he to do? I saw it go

Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then

Merrily over—there it is in the water!

No use to say ‘O there are other balls’:

An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy

As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down

All his young days into the harbour where

His ball went. I would not intrude on him,

A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now

He senses first responsibility

In a world of possessions. People will take balls,

Balls will be lost always, little boy,

And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.

He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,

The epistemology of loss, how to stand up

Knowing what every man must one day know

And most know many days, how to stand up

And gradually light returns to the street,

A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight.

Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark

Floor of the harbour . I am everywhere,

I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move

With all that move me, under the water

Or whistling, I am not a little boy.

 settee

Suicide and Phoenix

Berryman brought much suffering on himself by pursuing every activity with damaging intensity – drinking, smoking and womanizing, as well as writing and teaching. That intensity could be dissipated by the act of completion and he often avoided that deflation by leaving tasks uncompleted – his work on Shakespeare might have been groundbreaking if had finished it. He worked hard but left a lot unfinished. He fell out with Dwight McDonald for saying so. For every review he started, five or ten were not completed.

jane howard

Eileen Simpson wrote in her memoir Poets in their Youth that every New Year, he made ambitious resolutions, which were like “a magical rebirth”. He wrote in his diary in January 1940: “What is needed is suicide each year, the dead one then to phoenix into change”.

Berryman’s intense drive for transformation and rebirth is signified in his frequent changes of appearance. Look at a series of photographs, even taken over a short time, and they seem to be portraying different people. He wrote that the aim of poetry was the “reformation of the poet, as prayer does”.

minn

Saul Bellow was right to speak of Berryman’s inability to act like anyone else. He never managed to do the simple things like cook a meal, drive a car or read a bank statement. His record of broken arms, wrists, ankles, ribs and legs indicate that even climbing a flight of stairs might not always be successfully achieved. His friend Florence Campbell remembered him as “witty and sulky, entertaining and repelling, brilliantly gifted and more than a bit ridiculous”.

berrymanNYT

There was definitely something ridiculous about Berryman. I think I would have found his company tiresome and tiring as well as stimulating. The British poet Thom Gunn encouraged Philip Levine to do his Berryman impression. Levine recited a passage from Whitman in “John’s crazy, up–there screech”. “Gunn roared, saying I’d got it perfectly”, recalled Levine. Berryman was enraged and tried to put a Band-Aid on Levine’s mouth. Levine was big strong man who had worked in car manufacturing plants from the age of 14. Berryman had made ludicrous efforts to seduce Levine’s girl friend.

Self Destruction

Berryman had to leave his teaching post in Iowa after police were called when he defecated on the outside steps of his lodgings. He got a job at the University of Minnesota. Early on, Berryman developed a pattern of getting drunk at local bars, checking himself into the hospital and calling a cab in the morning when it was time to teach. “He would come to class sometimes shaking, and you could see that he’d had a hard night,” said Berryman’s friend and former student Judith Healey. “But he never lectured in a less than brilliant manner.”

After checking into alcohol rehabilitation once in 1969 and three times in 1970, Berryman experienced a sort of religious conversion in 1970. He considered Judaism, professed Catholicism, and wrote Recovery (1971), a vague autobiography about alcoholic rehabilitation. In his last years, Berryman started in Alcoholics Anonymous at the encouragement of a priest who led a therapy group.

Berryman’s daughters, Martha and Sarah were 10 years old and 7 months old, respectively, when their father died. They still live in Minnesota in the house Kate Donahue bought with Berryman.

In the end, the disruption could not be mended. On the morning of Jan. 7, 1972, Berryman lifted himself onto the railing of the Washington Avenue Bridge, waved to onlookers and jumped. He was 57 years old. Saul Bellow wrote of Berryman’s suicide: “At last, it must have seemed that he had used up all his resources… The cycle of resolution, reform and relapse had become a bad joke which could not continue”.

John Berryman Part Three:Berryman’s Irish Sojourn

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 24 2014.

ashtray

In the 1960s, Berryman started receiving a great deal of national attention from the press, from arts organizations, and even from the White House, which sent him an invitation to dine with President Lyndon B Johnson at a dinner in honour of General and Mrs Ne Win of Burma.

Berryman wrote to tell LBJ that he had not boycotted the event. The invitation arrived after the event and he could not have gone because he was living in Ireland on a Guggenheim Fellowship. With his wife Kate, who was of Irish origin, Berryman arrived at Cobh, my father’s birthplace, on September 1, 1966. He quickly adapted to Dublin life and pub culture. Ronnie Drew (whose singing voice has been described as sounding like coke being pushed under a door) of the Dubliners folk group became one of Berryman’s drinking buddies.

Dream Song 366


Chilled in this Irish pub I wish my loves

well, well to strangers, well to all his friends,

seven or so in number,

I forgive my enemies, especially two,

races his heart, as so much magnanimity,

can it all be true?

Mr Bones, you on a trip outside yourself.

Has you seen a medicine man? You sound will-like,

a testament & such.

Is you going? —Oh, I suffer from a strike

& a strike & three balls: I stand up for much,

Wordsworth & that sort of thing.

The pitcher dreamed. He threw a hazy curve,

I took it in my stride & out I struck,

lonesome Henry.

These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand

They are only meant to terrify & comfort

Lilac was found in his hand.

 John Berryman

Berryman wrote many Dream Songs during his Irish sojourn. He also managed to upset some Irishmen with his condescending manner and boorishness when drunk, which he often was. The Irish poet John Montague remembers Berryman in his book of essays The Figure in the Cave and describes a comic scene at a Dublin reading by Berryman when Patrick Kavanagh took offence at Berryman and went off in a huff.

Montague-Collected-Poems-cloth

Montague had met Berryman in 1954 when the Irish poet enrolled in Berryman’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Montague remembered seeing Berryman eating alone at the Jefferson Hotel, a copy of The Caine Mutiny open before him, “nervous, taut, arrogant, uneasy.” Berryman was offended at Montague mentioning Iowa, which he regarded as a territory of limbo.

kavanagh

Kavanagh was offended when Berryman mentioned Liam Miller of the Dolmen Press, whom he considered an enemy.

ronnie drew

Ronnie Drew objected to a member of the audience expressing his admiration too loudly and kept saying, “Shut up, John”. This confused John Berryman and John Montague.

Ballsbridge

During his Irish sojourn, Berryman was introduced to the actor John Hurt and was star-struck. Hurt, in turn was impressed by Berryman’s bravura recitations of his poems. Hurt commented: “That man has genius and it’s burning him up”.

withKate

Berryman was not impressed with the local poetic talent and some have accused Montague of inflating his own relationship with him.

All these poets!  Holy God!

Many are drunk & some are odd.  

What am I myself here doing

when I could be off & doing?

 

My near namesake, Philip Coleman, is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas programme His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder will be published in 2014.

 dream songs

In Dream Song 312 Berryman claimed he went to Ireland “have it out” with Yeats:

I have moved to Dublin to have it out with you,

majestic Shade.

Whatever about the impression Berryman made on Dublin, or the impression Dublin made on him, Berryman will be celebrated in Ireland on the centenary of his birth. A John Berryman Centenary Symposium is being organised by the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies in October 2014 at the Mater Dei Institute, Clonliffe Road, Drumcondra. Academics from all over the world will speak on topics such as The Metabolization of Tradition, Berryman, Boredom and Identity, Berryman’s Schwartz, Satanic pride: Berryman, Schwartz, and the Genesis of Love & Fame, The Pornography of Grief: John Berryman and the Language of Suffering. There will be a walk to Berryman’s lodgings in Ballsbridge. A symposium was held at Trinity College Dublin, in January 2002, to mark the 30th anniversary of Berryman’s death. The event was marked by the publication of a book of essays titled After Thirty Falls.

Perhaps he did want to exorcise the influence of Yeats. Despite the immense influence of Yeats on Berryman’s early work, he now believed that Yeats’s overweening ego had made him turn everything he came in contact with into a symbol and he understood “nothing about life”. He made a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave in Sligo.

Yeats on Cemetery Ridge

Would not have been scared, like you& me,

He would have been, before the bullet that was his,

Studying the movements of the birds

 

However, he wrote in his diary Dublin was “CHEAP; English spoken, [and it was] n[ea]r London & [the] continent”.

 

On New Year’s Day 1967, Berryman resolved to go through, at a rate of five a day, the 300 Dream Songs he had collected. Unfortunately, he fell and hurt his back so badly that Kate thought he had broken his spine. He denied that alcohol was the cause of the fall but he was particularly accident-prone, which must have been related to his drinking. He stuck to his schedule and hoped to finish the project by March. At the end of January, Kate had him committed to Grange Gorman, a gothic mental hospital. After a week, he begged her to get him out.

 

He placed his alter ego, Henry, in the hospital for some Dream Songs.

 

I love my doctor, I love too my nurse,

But I am glad to leave them, as now I do.

Too long it’s been

out of the world, away fr. whisk’, the curse

of Henry’s particular life, who has pulled thro’

too & again makes the scene…

 

At one point, he had nearly set fire to the place:

Henry walked the corridor in dark, drug-drunk, smoking

And dropt it & near-sighted cannot find.

Nurses will deal hell if the ward wakes, croaking

To smoke antic with flame…

 

A Alvarez (Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani repeatedly calls him “Tony Alvarez” even though most people know the poet and critic as Al Alvarez) came to Dublin to film Berryman reading his Songs and talking at the Ballsbridge house and Ryan’s pub. The BBC broadcast the programme on March 11 and Berryman was back in New York on April 24 when Sonnets was published.

Although he had become bored with Ireland, he told a friend that the Irish had received him “like Sam Johnson at the court of the Dauphin”. Ireland was a place, he said, “right on the edge of Europe…crawling with delicious people who all speak English and are blazing with self-respect”.

Critic Kenneth Connelly saw in the Dream Songs the influence of two celebrated Dubliners: “Henry, the catalytic character of his poem—as well as the way his story is told—are greatly beholden to James Joyce, probably by way of Samuel Beckett…. [However] diluted, the presiding concepts and techniques of Joyce and Beckett structure his entire vision and method.” Like Joyce, Berryman mingles high verbal sonority and childish humor, literary high style with dialect and colloquialisms.

The use of dialect can go horribly wrong.

Nothin very bad happen to me lately.

How you explain that? —I explain that, Mr Bones,

terms o’ your bafflin odd sobriety.

Sober as a man can get, no girls, no telephones,

what could happen bad to Mr Bones?

—If life is a handkerchief sandwich,

in a modesty of death I join my father

who dared so long agone leave me.

 

Kevin Young is a Black American poet who has produced an edition of John Berryman’s verse for the Library of America’s American Poets Project. Young wrote that Berryman’s “use of ‘black dialect’ is frustrating and even offensive at times, as many have noted, and deserves examination at length. Nonetheless, the poems are, in part, about an American light that is not as pure as we may wish; or whose purity may rely not just on success (the dream) but on failure (the song). Berryman allows us to admit our obsessions, both as writers and as Americans.“

Next week a summation of Berryman’s life and achievements.

John Berryman Part 2

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 17 2014

 

The Life

In the introduction to Dream Song, his 1990 biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani said: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”. Last week I hinted at the problems he encountered from an early age with his father’s suicide (or possibly, murder) his mother’s sexuality and the family’s peripatetic life.

School

Berryman was not happy at school – his condescending manner and self-pitying wimpiness caused him to be bullied and he got little sympathy from the teaching staff of South Kent in Connecticut. He eventually came to an accommodation with the bullies and the teachers and made some friends – engaging in some mild homosexual activity. Later he quickly ended a friendship when a young man told him he was in love with him. In his teens, he became interested in girls. In later life, this developed into compulsive womanising. He wrote for school publications and got high marks for English literature, although his work had a tendency to be too cold and calculating.

25likeEllroy

University

At Columbia, he read voraciously and became smitten with Milton’s Lycidas. In Mark Van Doren, he found an inspirational teacher and a good friend for life, although he had antagonistic relationships with other teachers. He had written poetry at South Kent but at university, he put aside the “morass of adolescent love verse” and tried verse forms like the double quatrain and couplets of uneven length. He communicated with Randall Jarrell.

with Beryl

England

His literary work was good enough for him to win a scholarship for two years at Clare College, Cambridge. When he arrived in London, he had the nerve to introduce himself to the Woolfs to ask them to publish his poetry. He sent a poem to Yeats and made friends with Auden. He had some drunken sessions with Dylan Thomas and upgraded his estimation of the Welshman’s poetry. Yeats invited Berryman to tea and Thomas tried to get him drunk beforehand. Berryman’s tutor at Cambridge was the distinguished Shakespearian scholar George Rylands. Berryman was surprised by how little English literary people knew about American literature. FR Leavis was to have been one of Berryman’s supervisors in his second year but declined when he sensed Berryman’s hostility to him.

Berryman was already worried by wild mood swings: “mental instability fits of terrifying gloom and loneliness and artistic despair alternating with irresponsible exultation”.

hat and beard

Back in the USA

When Berryman returned to the US, some of his friends, including Mark Van Doren, avoided him because of his irritating British affectations. Another aspect his friends found off-putting was his tendency to try to steal their girl friends. Poet WD Snodgrass said that the problem with Berryman was “as soon as he liked you he began making your life difficult by tampering in your love life and sometimes trying to tamper with your wife.” Berryman had no compunction about seducing his students. He tried to seduce them even in the presence of their very large and strong boyfriends. He persistently made drunken phone calls to female students. He spoke to a psychiatrist about his mother’s flamboyant sexuality and his own relationships with women.

withAnn

Columbia offered him a teaching job and he worked hard, sending poems to the quarterlies. Delmore Schwartz was then a rising star and poetry editor of The Partisan Review and wanted to publish some of Berryman’s poems. Schwartz was impressed by Berryman’s intelligence and vividness. He commented on the violence running through his poems. Berryman accepted an almost unpaid job as poetry editor of The Nation and persuaded Wallace Stevens to contribute a poem and even to go to the trouble of explaining some obscure lines.

withPaul

Berryman suffered from epileptic seizures, which his first wife Eileen had dismissed as his way of dealing with his mother. He had nightmares about hacking women’s bodies and leaving the pieces under various houses to be discovered. In 1948, he won the Shelley Memorial award for $650, which paid some bills and let him buy a bottle of Scotch, which he drank in one sitting. Throughout the rest of his life, he experienced countless drunken episodes, black-outs, wandering fugues, injuries, memory loss. He was violent to his wives on occasions.

Rather than facing his alcoholism, he blamed his mental condition on the way Americans mistreated their poets. Despite his brilliance as a lecturer, his reputation as a drunkard and a troublemaker was well known. He had insulted most of the department’s members and their wives and did not hide his disdain. In 1960, he began wetting the bed. Sometimes he was so drunk on the podium that he delivered the same lecture twice to the embarrassment of his students. Someone described him as “a painfully shy man” blinking “out through the mask of his beard”. Ralph Ross said “I concluded that the only John one could love was a John with 2 or 3 drinks in him, no more & no less, & such a John could not exist”.

The Dream Songs

Berryman put much of his life into the Dream Songs, which eventually amounted to 308 poems. Since 1955, he had been working on the sequence. In 1964, he published 77 Dream Songs. This volume was awarded the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The Academy of American Poets states that “the poems of 77 Dream Songs are characterized by their unusual syntax, mix of high and low diction, and virtuosic language.”This was followed in 1968 by His Toy, His Dream, His Rest. This book won both the National Book Award for Poetry and the Bollingen Prize in 1969.

The work follows the travails of a character named “Henry” who bears a striking resemblance to Berryman. “Henry has a hard time. People don’t like him, and he doesn’t like himself. In fact, he doesn’t even know what his name is. His name at one point seems to be Henry House, and at another point, it seems to be Henry Pussycat.” These poems establish “Henry” as an alienated, self-loathing, and self-conscious character. Berryman also establishes some of the themes that would continue to trouble Henry in later dream songs (like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide). Berryman references his father’s suicide as “a thing on Henry’s heart/ so heavy, if he had a hundred years/ & more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time/ Henry could not make good.”

“The volume was dedicated “to Mark Van Doren, and to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz.” Although many of the poems eulogize the deaths of Berryman’s poet/friends, more of these elegies (12 in total) are about Delmore Schwartz than any other poet.

In addition to the elegies, this volume also includes poems that document Henry/Berryman’s trip to Ireland, his experiences with fame, his problems with drugs and alcohol, and his problems with women.

Dream Song 14

 

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.   

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,   

we ourselves flash and yearn,

and moreover my mother told me as a boy   

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored   

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no   

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Peoples bore me,

literature bores me, especially great literature,   

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes   

as bad as achilles,

 

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.   

And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag   

and somehow a dog

has taken itself & its tail considerably away

into mountains or sea or sky, leaving            

behind: me, wag.

 

Contemporaries, including Elizabeth Bishop and Conrad Aiken were very impressed and wrote Berryman letters of congratulations on his achievement in the volume. Upon its publication, the book also received a positive review in The New York Times Book Review by the literary scholar Helen Vendler.

 

More about the dream songs and Berryman’s time in Ireland next week.        

The Brilliant Work and Difficult Life of John BerrymanPart One

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday August 10

john_berryman1288616578

Confessionalism

The school of “Confessional Poetry” was associated with several writers who redefined American poetry in the ’50s and ’60s. These included Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman, ‘Confessionalism’ is a style focusing on extreme moments of individual experience, the psyche, and personal trauma, including previously taboo subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, and suicide.

John Berryman incorporated much of his personal experience into his poems and his was an eventful life. The poet started out as John Allyn Smith Jr. He was born in Oklahoma where he was raised until the age of ten, and then submitted to a peripatetic existence. When Berryman was twelve years old, his father, John Allyn Smith Sr, shot himself. With the Florida land bust, suicide was not uncommon and Smith’s death did not grab the attention of the Tampa police. Much was made of Smith’s insomnia, depression and money worries, but nothing of his marital problems or the absence of powder burns. Ten weeks after her husband’s death, Martha Smith married John Angus Berryman, who had been her lover before Smith’s demise. The future poet took the new husband’s name and was taught to call him “Uncle Jack”. His mother took to calling herself “Jill”.

His father’s suicide (or murder?) left a mark on the poet.

Thought I much then of perforated daddy,

daddy boxed in & let down with strong straps,

when I my friends’ homes visited, with fathers

universal and intact

 

In his 1990 biography of Berryman, Dream Song, Paul Mariani wrote: “Much of what Berryman wrote about himself in his various autobiographical guises was brilliantly and highly original in its manner of saying. But it was also oblique, defeated, and – because of his long obsessions with alcohol, love, and fame – often, as he came himself to understand, delusory”.

After a long struggle with alcoholism and mental illness, Berryman threw himself off a bridge in 1972.

Early Work

berryman_john_photo_big

Berryman’s early work formed part of a volume entitled Five Young American Poets, published by New Directions in 1940. One of the other young poets included in the book was Randall Jarrell, whom I will discuss in future articles. New Directions published Berryman’s first book, entitled Poems, in 1942. His first mature book, The Dispossessed, appeared six years later, published by William Sloane Associates. Charles Thornbury recognised in this early work themes that would recur throughout Berryman’s work- the rite of reformation, cycles moving simultaneously to the alternations of day and night, desire and conception, the progression of the seasons, and the stages of youth and age.

Chair

The Dispossessed was not well-received. Randall Jarrell wrote, in The Nation, that Berryman was “a complicated, nervous, and intelligent [poet]” whose poetry in The Dispossessed was too derivative of WB Yeats. Berryman later said, “I didn’t want to be like Yeats; I wanted to be Yeats.”

The influence of Yeats is everywhere in the early work. Berryman also tried on the ill-fitting public persona of the WH Auden of the 1930s. Most of these socio-political poems are what Randall Jarrell called ”statues talking like a book”.

 

setee

In 1947, Berryman started an affair with a married woman named Chris while he was still married to his first wife, Eileen. He documented the affair with a sonnet sequence of over a hundred poems. This marked a major stage in his development, moving from a public rhetorical style to a more intimate, confessional, nervous voice. He refrained from publishing the Sonnets to Chris until 1967.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet

Berryman’s first major work was Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. The long title poem first appeared in Partisan Review in 1953 and the book was published in 1956. Berryman addressed the life of 17th century puritan American poet Anne Bradstreet, the first recognized poet of the American literary tradition, and combined her history with his own fantasies about her. Berryman told an interviewer in 1972: “The idea was not to take Anne Bradstreet as a poetess – I was not interested in that. I was interested in her as a pioneer heroine, a sort of mother to the artists and intellectuals who would follow her and play a large role in the development of the nation.”

Anne Bradstreet enjoyed a relatively privileged life in England. She was born in Northampton, in 1612, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, a steward of the Earl of Lincoln. Because of her family’s position, she grew up in cultured circumstances and was a well-educated woman for her time, tutored in history, several languages and literature. At the age of sixteen, she married Simon Bradstreet. At the age of eighteen, she, her husband, and her parents sailed with John Winthrop for the Puritan settlement at Massachusetts Bay. Her first book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, was published in England in 1650 by her brother-in-law without her knowledge. These first poems are sometimes candid and immediate, but more often they are conventional in style and on accepted topics — her love for husband, children, God. Later poems show a different attitude. Both Anne’s father and husband were later to serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

john-berrymanYoung

In Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, a series of fifty-seven, eight-line verses, Berryman comments on, converses with and courts Bradstreet and sometimes speaks as her. In section 31, Berryman has Bradstreet moving towards him:

 

–It is Spring’s New England. Pussy willows wedge

up in the wet. Milky crestings, fringed

yellow, in heaven, eyed

by the melting hand-in-hand or mere

desirers single, heavy-footed, rapt,

make surge poor human hearts. Venus is trapt—

the hefty pike shifts, sheer—

in Orion blazing. Warblings, odours, nudge to an edge-

 

Berryman employed an eight-line stanza of great flexibility, gravity and lightness. The poem took him five years to complete and demanded much from the reader but won plaudits from critics at the time and continued to win praise in later years. In 1989, Edward Hirsch observed, “the 57 stanzas of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet combine the concentration of an extended lyric with the erudition and amplitude of a historical novel.” Berryman’s friend Saul Bellow described the poem as “the equivalent of a 500-page psychological novel”.

Out of maize & air

your body’s made, and moves. I summon, see,

from the centuries it.”

 

Berryman makes Mistress Bradstreet a rebel speaking out against the constraints of gender and environment. The underlying subject is, as Berryman indicated later, ”the almost insuperable difficulty of writing high verse in a land that cared and cares so little for it.” The poem examines the tension between Bradstreet’s personal life and her artistic life, concluding in a spirit of fatalism. The work primarily examines creative repression, religious apostasy, and the temptation to adultery. Critic Luke Spencer focused on “Berryman’s intimate dialogue with Anne Bradstreet and the mutual sexual attraction”. Berryman tried to “colonise” and seduce a virtuous member of the Puritan community by turning her into his mistress. Berryman portrays her as rejecting both her husband and father and the Puritan deity that sanctions their view of life. The historical Bradstreet’s letters portray her as a model of devotion to her husband; members of her family encouraged her writing of poetry.

 

Among the most moving parts of Berryman’s work are about Bradstreet’s conflicts with her own sensuality and the struggle for religious faith and peace. Berryman finds Bradstreet’s value and meaning in her suffering.

 

Veiled my eyes, attending. How can it be I?   

Moist, with parted lips, I listen, wicked.   

I shake in the morning & retch.

Brood I do on myself naked.

A fading world I dust, with fingers new.

—I have earned the right to be alone with you.   

—What right can that be?

Convulsing, if you love, enough, like a sweet lie.

 

 

More about Berryman’s life next week and about his masterwork Dream Songs.

 

Delmore Schwartz Part 4

The Wound of Consciousness.

In his monumental survey Lives of the Poets Michael Schmidt wrote that Delmore Schwartz “of that generation” – Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, Roethke- “flowered exuberantly earliest and faded fastest”. “Not quite enough literary success and personal failure brought him down”.

The Golden Youth

shwartzsmaller

Memoirs about the thirties tend to emphasize Schwartz’s noble features and dignified gait. As a young poet, he resembled Boris Pasternak, who, as Marina Tsvetaeva said, looked like an Arab and his horse. Dwight McDonald described how, “his open, ardent manner and his large, dreaming eyes, sensitive mouth, and proud good looks as of a newly fledged eaglet, made in him seem younger.”Schwartz made a dramatic appearance on the literary scene in 1937, when he was 24 years old, by publishing his most striking creative achievement, the short story ”In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

indreams

James Atlas in his biography Life of an American Poet, describes Schwartz as an aesthete, an enraptured, theatrical young man who could quote ”the whole of any Garbo script at will,” and liked to perform all the parts of The Cocktail Party. Schwartz spoke quickly and emotionally, his words often running together. He was once clocked talking for eight hours straight. Dwight McDonald: “He was a master of the great American folk art of kidding, an impractical joker—words were his medium—outraging dignity and privacy, present company most definitely not excepted, pressing the attack until it reached a comic grandeur that had even the victim laughing.” He amused his friends at the White Horse Tavern with a dialogue in which he played both himself and T S Eliot.

Atlas

Dwight McDonald recalled that “There was a genial shimmer over Delmore’s talk—as the Irish say, he knew how to put a skin on it—generous, easy and, no matter how outrageously exaggerated, never envious or malicious; like Jove’s laughter. He was egoistic without vanity: he was curiously modest, or perhaps “detached” or “objective” might be better words, about himself and his extraordinary talents.”

Mental State

Levine

McDonald wrote that Delmore could take it as well as dish it out. However, his delusional jealousy and suspiciousness sharpened the edge of the malice with which he gossiped about the private lives of literary figures whom he never met as well as of his closest friends. He was described as having a habit of attributing Machiavellian motives to those closest to him. In later life, he engaged in endless litigation in a futile attempt to regain the family fortune. His stories are filled with frustrated characters whose poverty ruined their lives.

Schwartz was until his death almost continually employed as a professor at quality schools; his work constantly appeared in the Partisan Review and other prestigious organs; he won the big awards and was invited to deliver the big lectures. He was friends with all the right people. Despite erratic mental health, Schwartz managed to hold teaching jobs at Harvard (1940-1947), Princeton (1949-1950), Kenyon College (1950), Indiana University (1951), the University of Chicago (1954), and Syracuse University (1962-1965). He was editor (1943-1947) and associate editor (1947-1955) of the Partisan Review and poetry editor and film critic for the New Republic (1955-1957).

There has been speculation that, despite being married twice and fathering a child outside marriage, Delmore was a repressed homosexual who coped with a fear of same sex affinity by affecting virulent antagonism to “faggots”. On June 14, 1938, Schwartz married his high school sweetheart, Gertrude Buckman. The marriage ended in divorce in 1943. A reading of Schwartz’s letters of the period indicates that the paranoia that was to rule his life for more than twenty years had begun.

On June 10, 1949, Schwartz married the novelist Elizabeth Pollet. He constantly accused her of infidelity and “grand larceny”. She obtained a divorce in 1957. During the last months of the marriage, in 1956, Schwartz had an affair with Eleanor Goff, a dancer who lived in Greenwich Village. From this romance, it appears, Schwartz fathered his only child, a daughter.

noone should look that unhappy

By 1945, Schwartz was drinking heavily and taking large amounts of Nembutal to combat insomnia. He soon he added amphetamines to his diet. John Berryman was a much heavier drinker and was frequently admitted to mental wards because of blackouts and erratic behaviour. Berryman had said, after his first meeting with Delmore, that he had never liked “anyone better on first sight”. Nonetheless, Berryman professed to be shocked by Schwartz’s behaviour on occasions. In Dream Song, Paul Mariani’s biography of Berryman, there is the tale of the police releasing Delmore to Berryman’s custody, only for Schwartz to lash out and escape. Back at his hotel, Delmore threw his girlfriend out when she expressed admiration for Berryman’s poetry. Berryman wrote that Delmore was truly “in orbit”. In earlier years Berryman had to intervene when, at a party at Saul Bellow’s house, Delmore seemed to be about to become violent accusing Elizabeth Pollett of flirting with the novelist Ralph Ellison.

On 29 January 1963, while Berryman was teaching at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, he had a surprise visit from Schwartz, who had taken a taxi from Boston and kept it waiting while he talked. He kept hinting that Nelson Rockefeller had been plotting against him. He tried to persuade Berryman to give up his job at Brown and go to New York with him. Delmore was having difficulty putting sentences together.

later

Disapproving reviews of his sloppy translation of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer did not help his mental state. He continued to write reviews and critical essays of high quality well into the 1950s, but his powers as a poet and storywriter were gone by 1948, when the collection of stories called The World Is a Wedding appeared.

Critics

Dwight McDonald wrote a tribute in the New York Review of Books in 1966 after Delmore’s death. “In the fall of 1937, when Partisan Review was about to be revived as a non-Communist literary magazine, a writer with the unlikely name of Delmore Schwartz sent in a short story, ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, which I and my fellow editors had the sense to recognize as a masterpiece and to print in our first issue… 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.” In 1938, Schwartz published his first book, a collection of poetry and prose. Allen Tate praised the book as “the first real innovation that we’d had since Eliot and Pound.” Time compared Schwartz to Stendhal and Anton Chekhov. Schwartz was never able to equal this bravura performance, and he came to be haunted by his early success.

Way back in 1978, Robert Towers, reviewing Atlas’s biography in NYRB, was sniffy about Schwartz. “I doubt, however, that there will ever be a cult of Schwartz among persons other than the nostalgic members of his own generation, for…the amount of first-rate work which he left is too small to form a lasting pedestal for such a cult-figure”.

Towers writes: “It seems to me that the permanently valuable residue consists of five or six frequently anthologized poems (all written by 1938), one later poem (“Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon Along the Seine”), perhaps three short stories (“In Dreams…,” “America! America!” and “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life”), and a dozen or so reviews and critical articles.”

Death

“To know you is a calamity,” a college friend once told Delmore Schwartz–but not nearly as great a calamity as being him. Schwartz died at the age of 52 in New York City, where he had been living in a seedy hotel. In the pre-dawn hours of July 11 1966, Delmore, dressed in bathrobe and pyjamas, left his shabby apartment at the Columbia Hotel to put the garbage out, wandered onto another floor and had a heart attack. During the last years of his life, Schwartz was a solitary, dishevelled figure, penniless and virtually friendless, his body worn out by years of drug and alcohol abuse. His body lay unclaimed in the city morgue for several days until an obituary appeared in the New York Times.

Berryman wrote in one of his Dream Songs of a “solid block of agony” that consumed him. “I can’t get him out of my mind”. Berryman had seen terrible changes in Delmore who, as a young man had been filled with “surplus love” and had thrilled Berryman with his “electrical insight”.

Tributes

Since his death, Schwartz’s reputation has enjoyed a renaissance, the result of strong, posthumously published works and of depictions of his life in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and in James Atlas’ biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977).

Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included his second Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. This song is much more of a tribute to Schwartz than “European Son of Delmore Schwartz” on the first Velvet Underground album “. The lyrics of “My House” are about Reed’s relationship with Schwartz. In the song, Reed writes that Schwartz “was the first great man that I ever met”.

Delmore Schwartz had, wrote Alfred Kazin, “a feeling for literary honour, for the highest standards, that one can only call noble—he loved the nobility of example presented by the greatest writers of our century, and he wanted in this sense to be noble himself, a light unto the less talented…. So he suffered, unceasingly, because he had often to disappoint himself—because the world turned steadily more irrational and incomprehensible—because the effort of his intellectual will, of his superb intellectual culture, was not always enough to sustain him…. ”

 

headstone

 

Delmore Schwartz Part3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday July 6 2014

The Heavy Bear who Goes with Me

In this poem, Schwartz objectifies his own body as a separate entity:

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 one   

In love with candy, anger, and sleep,   

Crazy factotum, dishevelling all.

This separate entity is somewhat gross, something of a burden and an embarrassment. I am reminded of Yeats’s image of old age as a tin can tied to a dog’s tail. Schwartz uses as an epigraph a quotation from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: the withness of the body”

Whitehead speaks of the “withness of the body” and observes that in daily life our bodies are the immediate environment of our lives.  As children, we learn about this withness in joyful ways; in adults it causes suffering.  Man is a dual creature; consciousness gives him a sense of time and of “otherness,” but at the same time, he is an animal like other animals. Human consciousness exists within a body that demands the same kind of life-sustaining materials and is subject to the same kinds of appetites—for food, for physical comforts—as other, lower creatures. The accompanying bear

Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope   

Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.   

—The strutting show-off is terrified,   

Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,   

Trembles to think that his quivering meat   

Must finally wince to nothing at all.

 

There is no room for vanity here:

 

A caricature, a swollen shadow,

A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,   

Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,   

The secret life of belly and bone.

This bear is not even under control. With his grossness, he endangers the poet’s relationships:

Touches her grossly, although a word

Would bare my heart and make me clear,   

Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed   

Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,   

Amid the hundred million of his kind,   

The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

It is almost as if the body will not allow us to achieve what we really want.  No matter what our intentions, our aspirations, the body cannot travel in that direction. This is sad to read with the knowledge of Schwartz’s own inability to control his compulsions.

Themes

SchwartzDouble

The double or doppelganger is a recurring feature in literature – Dostoevsky’s The Double, The Victim by Schwartz’s friend Saul Bellow, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Stevenson. In fiction and folklore, a doppelgänger is a double of a living person and sometimes portrayed as a harbinger of bad luck. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person’s relative or friend portends illness or danger while seeing one’s own doppelgänger is said to be an omen of death. Heautoscopy is considered a possible explanation for doppelgänger phenomena. This is a term used in psychiatry and neurology for the reduplicative hallucination of “seeing one’s own body at a distance”. It can occur as a symptom in schizophrenia and epilepsy. The presence of the double causes conflict, as there can never be peaceful co-existence between a character and their second manifestation. In many instances where there is a double, it is the embodiment of a specific set of characteristics either that the original character desires to have, or a concentration of their worst characteristics, thus living up to the “evil twin” stigma.

SchwartzMirror

There are striking pictures of Schwartz looking in a mirror or as a double image. His protégé, Lou Reed, wrote a song called “I’ll Be your Mirror”.

loureeddelmoreschwartz_102612_620px

Schwartz is following in the doppelgänger tradition by dramatizing man’s dual nature. The only creature on earth possessing a sophisticated consciousness that gives him a moral sense and an understanding of the consequences of his actions, man is nevertheless compelled to exist in a material body that is really as much a part of him as is his higher intelligence. No matter how hard he tries, man is never able to separate his spiritual nature from his physical side.

Schwartz believed his name embodied a dualism. The surname is very Jewish and the forename a bit WASPy. There is a dichotomy between old world civility and new world philistinism, and generational differences between immigrants and their American-born offspring. Much of his work is about attempts to transcend what he saw as the inevitable disappointments and profound disillusionment of life.

There is also, as in Yeats, much about masks.

 

But tonight I am going to the masked ball,

Because it has occurred to me

That the masks are more true than the faces

Perhaps this too is poetry?

Now that I know that most falsehoods are true

Perhaps I can join the charade?

 

Schwartz often focused on middle-class New York immigrant families whose children are alienated both from their parents and from American culture and society. There is much talk of hope as well as despair.

How the false truths of the years of youth have passed!

Have passed at full speed like trains which never stopped

There where I stood and waited, hardly aware,

How little I knew, or which of them was the one

To mount and ride to hope or where true hope arrives.

The themes of separation and isolation run through Schwartz’s poetry and prose. The title piece of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and Other Stories (1938) is an account of an evening spent viewing a film about the narrator’s parents. Schwartz examines conflicts between the Jewish heritage and modern American culture. Jewish life in the United States is also the subject of The World Is a Wedding (1948), a short story collection that is a novella in ten sections. “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life” displays Schwartz’s interest in family relationships, the role of the artist, and feelings of alienation; “America! America!” focuses on a writer’s sense of isolation from his fellow New Yorkers, his family, and his Jewish heritage.

Delmore, although he was a Jewish writer immersed in Freud and Marx, was also interested in Christianity and there are strong Christian themes in his works. The inevitability of death was a common theme as were love, forgiveness and the inability to escape our past.

Summer knowledge is the knowledge of death as birth,

Of death as the soil of all abounding flowering flaring rebirth

 

He wrote memorable phrases about poetry and music.

For poetry is the sunlight of consciousness:

It is also the soil of the fruits of knowledge

In the orchards of being.

 

In his poem “Vivaldi”, he wrote:

 

This is the immortality of immortality

Deathless and present in the presence of the deathless present.

This is the grasped reality of reality, moving forward

Now and forever.

 

He was an essentially urban being being but could write about nature. The whole of the poem “A Little Morning Music” is quotable but here is a taste:

 

The birds in the first light twitter and whistle,

Chirp and seek, sipping and chortling – weakly, meekly, they speak and bubble

As cheerful as the cherry would, if it could speak when it is cherry ripe or cherry ripening.

 

Next week- Delmore’s decline and death.

 

 

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