Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Delmore Schwartz

Randall Jarrell Part One

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 8 2015

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The most heartbreaking English poet of his generation. Robert Lowell’s tribute to Randall Jarrell

I have been writing about a group of American poets who knew each other, competed with each other, and supported each other. I had a loose title for this series: The Mad Poets Society. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke all had problems with alcohol and mental illness which made their lives often shambolic and difficult. At first glance, Randall Jarrell might not seem to fit into this category. He controlled his appetites more successfully than his friends did, avoiding their kind of public dramas; he eschewed alcohol and, most of the time, adultery. He was handsome, charming, witty, got on well with children and generally inspired affection and respect.

Nevertheless, in 1963, the year of Roethke’s death, Jarrell’s behaviour changed, probably because of what he himself called torschlusspanik (door-closing panic) – the metaphor I myself use for this is the realisation that the years left in one’s tank are rapidly diminishing. As he approached his fiftieth birthday, Jarrell started worrying deeply about his age. After JFK’s assassination, he spent days in front of the TV, weeping uncontrollably. Medication made him manic; a change of medication made him depressive. Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965. It may have been  suicide.

Early Life

Jarrell is sometimes thought of as a “Southern” writer, although he did not think of himself as such. True, he was born in Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, and spent portions of his childhood there. However, the family moved to Los Angeles in 1915 and he preferred California. After his parents separated, Jarrell’s mother took him back in 1924 to Nashville, where she had some prosperous relatives. Jarrell later told his wife Mary that in Nashville he was “covered in relatives”. He spent a lot of time in Nashville Carnegie Library where he said he regularly read “half his weight” in a week. “No matter how little time I had left, there were never enough books to fill it – I lived on the ragged edge of having nothing to read.”  In 1926, he returned to California to live with his father’s parents but went back to Nashville in 1927.

In 1932, Jarrell graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he studied with Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Although he was influenced by the poetics of this group known as “The Fugitives” or “The Agrarians”, he was not interested in their conservative politics or their ‘Southern’ cultural ideas.

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Early Work

Blood for a Stranger, his first book of poetry was published in the same year that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, 1942. His early poetry is influenced, as was Berryman’s and Roethke’s, by WH Auden. It is apocalyptic, surreal, and lacks the wit and humour that Jarrell displayed in person. He came into his own with the works he wrote after joining the army. He soon transferred to the army to work as a control tower operator.   His second book of poems, Little Friend, dealt with fears and moral struggles of young soldiers.

Although he did not see active service, the war and military service prompted him to think at an early age about death.

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War Poetry

“Losses”

When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying—no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

 

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions—
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school—
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals,

When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’

They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.

 

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;

But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,

And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?

We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’

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War takes inexperienced young men and often kills them. There are shifting viewpoints in the poem but the narrator himself has nothing but high school with which to compare the huge monstrosity of war. He has losses without having had the time to have many gains. He does not have time for heroism and does not understand what sacrifice is or why it is him who is making it. I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch22; when he claims someone is trying to kill him he is categorised as paranoid. But of course someone is trying to kill him – this is war. When you cannot see your enemy, it is a peculiar, seemingly mad, idea that this stranger is trying to shoot down your plane and hurt you when you have never met him. Also in Catch 22, every time a pilot completes his quota of missions the quota is raised. The flyers must be haunted by the knowledge that the more missions they undertake, the greater the possibility of being shot down. Their lives are being used up like commodities. Because of 21st century technology, the bombing attacks on Iraq seemed as unreal as video games. Even in World War II, bombing civilians was impersonal. The cities down below are as artificial as targets in a training exercise. All over the world today, civilians live in fear of death by remote control by terrorist suicide bombers or IEDs.

In her book The Body in Pain, literary critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry wrote: ““It has often been observed that war is exceptional in human experience for sanctioning the act of killing, the act that all nations regard in peacetime as ‘criminal’. This accurate observation acknowledges that the act  of killing, motivated by care ‘for the nation’, is a deconstruction of the state as it ordinarily manifests itself in the body. That is, he consents to perform (for the country) the act that would in peacetime expose his unpoliticalness and place him outside the moral space of the nation. ..He undoes the learning in his body as radically as he would if he were suddenly required to abandon the  upright posture and move on four limbs as in his pre-civilized infancy. .. Because his act of killing  does not itself contain civilization in its interior, the fact that it is being done for a particular civilization, the referent for his act, is re-established and carried by the appended  assertion (either verbalized or materialized as in the uniform), ‘for my country’.”

In Jarrell’s poem, as the point of view becomes blurred, the pilot’s own death becomes as unreal as the deaths of those foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) down below.

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

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Another war poem appeared in so many anthologies that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a mere five lines about the dangerous occupation of a B-17 gunner whose job entailed hanging upside down in a plexiglass sphere to engage enemies attacking the plane.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

The distinguished American critic Helen Vendler wrote about this: “The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother?” The gunner wakes at birth, a cowering damp animal whose only purpose in living is to die for the state while sent out to  kill for the state. His  inconsequential life is compressed into five lines by skilful manipulation of time. The state shows its gratitude by impersonally hosing his bloody remains from the turret.

Jarrell’s people wake with a dark knowledge of their own death and an awareness of being helplessly trapped  by mighty forces. This kind of helpless frustration is  symbolized by  the separation of mother from child, or in the depiction of the  mother as the killer of the child. The murderous mother is identified with the state.

I will explore later the common theme running through Jarrell’s work of the fate of individuals oppressed by  institutions.

 

Theodore Roethke Part 3

This article appeared in The Nation newspaper on Sunday December 28 2014.

 

His voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.

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Roethke always maintained that poems were better heard than silently read on the page. He himself was a rambunctious performer of his own work on the stage. Fellow poet Stanley Kunitz described one such performance. “He had a high fever, and backstage he was jittery, sweating copiously from every pore as he guzzled champagne by the bottle. On stage, for the first portion of his program he clowned and hammed incorrigibly, weaving, gyrating, dancing, shrugging his shoulders, muttering to himself intermittently, and now and then making curiously flipper-like or foetal gestures with his hands. But gradually, as the evening wore on, he settled into a straight dramatic style that was enormously effective and moving. When he came to the new ‘mad’ sequence, particularly the poem that begins, ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see,’ his voice rang out with such an overwhelming roll of noble anguish that many in the audience wept.”

The Waking

Another performer, jazz singer Kurt Elling, has set Roethke’s poem “The Waking “ to music and has often included it in his live performances. Another performing Kurt, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, quotes from the poem in his novel Slaughterhouse 5.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcuUAxinEUs

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   

God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do   

To you and me; so take the lively air,   

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   

What falls away is always. And is near.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

This poem lends itself to music because it is a villanelle, a fixed form of five tercets and a quatrain. There is a blending of sound, tone, movement, and recurring motifs. Use of the villanelle heightens the overall impression of confusion as the speaker wavers, drowsily disorientated, between night and day. Key phrases are repeated in a circular motion and the echoing rhyme scheme lends itself to song.

 

Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. In this poem, Roethke shuffles through layers of experience and consciousness, through hyper-alert sleep to musing on the nature of awareness and being. The poet recognises the limits of human logic. We think by feeling. What role does fate play in what you feel and where you will go? Are you awake or sleeping? It is an in-between world where opposites meet and merge to create new entities.

 

A Muse Called Beatrice.

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The collection named The Waking was published in 1953 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.In 1953, Roethke married one of his former Bennington students, Beatrice O’Connell, and he wrote many love poems to her. “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.” As I wrote last week, these love poems are not just evocations of feelings about his wife. The loved one is at the centre of the physical universe and the poet communes with the elements and the natural universe through her. Through her, his vision is transformed. Like Dante’s Beatrice, her guidance brings the poet to a revelation of the Divine. He never denies the physical nature of the love relationship but sees it also as the occasion for a breakthrough in the spiritual order. His love for her sharpens his sense of participation in the life of all creation as she merges with all natural things.

 

“Words for the Wind” was written during their honeymoon at WH Auden’s villa in Ischia.

 

Love, love, a lily’s my care,

She’s sweeter than a tree.

Loving, I use the air

Most lovingly: I breathe;

Mad in the wind I wear

Myself as I should be,

All’s even with the odd,

My brother the vine is glad.

 

There is an echo of St Francis of Assisi in that “brother”. His love for Beatrice brings him in harmony with the cosmos and also establishes an internal equilibrium. His previously divided self is made whole through a woman who is a creature of spiritual and mythological significance as well as being physical and sexual.

 

Being myself, I sing

The soul’s immediate joy.

Light, light, where’s my repose?

A wind wreathes round a tree.

A thing is done: a thing

Body and spirit know

When I do what she does:

Creaturely creature, she!—

I kiss her moving mouth,

Her swart hilarious skin;

She breaks my breath in half;

She frolicks like a beast;

And I dance round and round,

A fond and foolish man,

And see and suffer myself

In another being, at last.

 

A Fond and Foolish Man

 

Unfortunately, Beatrice could not completely make Roethke whole or exorcise his demons. It is not easy to make a living as a poet and Roethke had to depend on teaching jobs to make ends meet. His students testified that he was a brilliant teacher of poetry but he did not get any assurance of academic tenure until he took up a post at the University of Washington in 1947. It would be wise to keep his mental problems quiet but he was a loud gregarious bear of a man.

 

My working title for this series of articles on a generation of American poets was “Mad Poets Society”. Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Roethke knew each other well and had similar problems. Jarrell to a lesser extent perhaps, but they all had problems with mental health and alcohol. They all knew Dylan Thomas also who succumbed at an early age.

 

In his biography of Berryman, Paul Mariani paints a harrowing picture of his subject’s abuse of alcohol and his mental breakdowns. Mariani is perhaps a little partisan when he states: “if Berryman’s behaviour was unsteady, it was stolid compared Roethke’s”. He does describe a Christmas party held by Edmund Wilson. Roethke arrive “aggressively sober” with several friends. When Wilson introduced him to Berryman, he pretended he had never heard of him. Roethke flirted with the female guests and then insisted that Wilson leave the party and come and read his poems. When Wilson demurred, Roethke grabbed Wilson’s jowls and said he was all “blubber”. Wilson called Roethke a half-baked Bacchus and asked him to leave. As he was being propelled to the door someone tried to introduce him to a psychiatrist who was just arriving. The man reached out to shake his hand. Roethke thought he was about to be restrained and committed and punched the man.

 

As a young man, he was humiliated by breakdowns that continued to afflict him throughout his life. It might have been some consolation to him that he was a member of fellowship of mad poets and lost children that included Kit Smart, John Clare and William Blake, with each of whom he was able to identify and echo.

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More about Roethke’s health, death and posthumous reputation next week

 

 

Theodore Roethke Part 1

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday November 30 2014

 

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The Poet, a larger-than-life-size figure, balanced on the edge of excess. John Montague.

A reader encountering Theodore Roethke’s poetry for the first time might initially be reminded of other poets. Descriptions of animals as in “The Lizard” are reminiscent of DH Lawrence.

He too has eaten well-

I can see that by the distended pulsing middle;

And his world and mine are the same,

The Mediterranean sun shining on us equally.

 

In “What Can I Tell my Bones”, he reminds me of Whitman:

 

The wind rocks with my wish; the rain shields me;

I live in light’s extreme; I stretch in all directions;

Sometimes I think I’m several.

 

There are elements of Blake. “Once More, the Round”:

 

What’s greater, Pebble or Pond?
What can be known? The Unknown.
My true self runs toward a Hill
More! O More! visible.

Now I adore my life
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf,
With the Fish, the questing Snail,
And the Eye altering All;
And I dance with William Blake
For love, for Love’s sake;

And everything comes to One,
As we dance on, dance on, dance on.

 

“The Pike” prefigures Ted Hughes, although Roethke’s approach to nature does not succumb to the self-parody that Hughes sometimes achieves.

I lean and love these manifold shapes,

Until, out from a dark cove,

From beyond the end of a mossy log,

With one sinuous ripple, then a rush,

A thrashing up of the whole pool,

The pike strikes.

 

Unlike John Berryman, Roethke did not fight against the influence of Yeats – he revelled in it. In “The Dying Man”, In memoriam W.B. Yeats, Roethke deliberately adopts the Yeatsian manner and mood to probe the extremes of perception and knowledge that the self may attain.

The edges of the summit still appal

When we brood on the dead or the beloved;

Nor can imagination do it all

In this last place of light: he dares to live

Who stops being a bird, yet beats his wings

Against the immense immeasurable emptiness of things.

 

I will examine Roethke’s main themes in more detail later but, in brief, Roethke’s work is characterised by its introspective examination of the self, rhythm and natural imagery. His recurring theme is the correspondence between the poet’s inner life and the life of nature, the similarities between his human life – his spiritual evolution and search for psychic identity-   and that of plants.

Life

The poet was born Theodore Huebner Roethke in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, owners of a   25 acre greenhouse, which his parents ran with his Uncle Charlie. He drew inspiration from his childhood experiences of working in the family business. Roethke wrote of his poetry: “The greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

From “The Rose”:

And I think of roses, roses,

White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,

And my father standing astride the cement benches,

Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells, and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, only a child, out
of myself.

What need for heaven, then,

With that man, and those roses?

 

He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, “a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber,” as he described it years later in a 1953 BBC interview: “I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested”

Roethke’s father died from cancer in 1923 and in the same year, his Uncle Charlie committed suicide. Roethke graduated magna cum laude at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1925. Resisting family pressure to pursue a legal career, he dropped out of law school after one semester and, from 1929 to 1931, took graduate courses at the University of Michigan and the Harvard Graduate School, where he worked closely with the poet Robert Hillyer.

The Depression forced Roethke to leave Harvard and he took up a teaching career at Lafayette College. He was able to meet established poets like Louise Bogan (with whom he had an affair) and Stanley Kunitz.

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In 1935, Roethke suffered the first of his recurring bouts of mental illness. He also taught at Pennsylvania State University and published his work in such prestigious journals as Poetry, the New Republic, the Saturday Review, and Sewanee Review. He brought out his first volume of verse, Open House, in 1941.His last teaching position was at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest. His students included James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, Jack Gilbert, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner. Roethke’s poetry influenced Sylvia Plath so much that when she submitted “Poem for a Birthday” to Poetry magazine, the editors rejected it because it displayed “too imposing a debt to Roethke.”

In 1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student whom he met while teaching at Bennington . She ensured the posthumous publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field, as well as a book of his collected children’s verse, Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures, in 1973.

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He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, and he won the annual National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1959 for Words for the Wind and posthumously in 1965 for The Far Field. In 1959, he won the Bollingen Prize. In 2012, a US postage stamp pictured him as one of ten great 20th Century American poets.

Open House (1941)

In his first book, Open House, Roethke reflected the battle within his consciousness between his spiritual aspirations and his sensual desires. WH Auden deemed Open House “completely successful.” Elizabeth Drew wrote that “his poems have a controlled grace of movement and his images the utmost precision; while in the expression of a kind of gnomic wisdom which is peculiar to him as he attains an austerity of contemplation and a pared, spare strictness of language very unusual in poets of today.”

My secrets cry aloud.

I have no need for tongue.

My heart keeps open house,

My doors are widely swung.

An epic of the eyes

My love, with no disguise.


My truths are all foreknown,

This anguish self-revealed.

I’m naked to the bone,

With nakedness my shield.

Myself is what I wear:

I keep the spirit spare.


The anger will endure,

The deed will speak the truth

In language strict and pure.

I stop the lying mouth:

Rage warps my clearest cry

To witless agony.

 

He describes the transition of the seasons in “The Light Comes Brighter”:

The light comes brighter form the east; the caw
Of restive crows is sharper on the ear
A walker at the river’s edge may hear
A cannon crack announce an early thaw.

The sun cuts deep into the heavy drift,
Though still guarded snow is winter-sealed,
At bridgeheads buckled ice begins to shift,
The river overflows the level field.

Once more the trees assume familiar shapes,
As branches loose last vestiges of snow.
The water stored in narrow pools escapes
In rivulets; the cold roots stir below.

Soon field and wood will wear an April look,
The frost be gone, for green is breaking now;
The ovenbird will match the vocal brook,
The young fruit swell upon the pear-tree bough.

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene.
The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,
Will turn its private substance into green,
And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

Mind and nature are bound by laws and enjoy a common awakening and nature yields an analogy with human existence.

Roethke knew Schwartz, Berryman and Lowell and his work sometimes has elements of the “confessional”. However, he does not identify with the “urban” themes developed by such contemporaries. In The New Poets (1967), ML Rosenthal wrote:

“For the most part Roethke had no subject apart from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age – unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self- echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.”

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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,

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37696.jpg

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/thumb/epaper-images/37706.jpg

 

Next week, Lowell’s first published book.

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.        

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.

 

 

Delmore Schwartz Part Two

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 29 2014.

 

Last week, I gave an introduction to the life and literary reputation of the American poet, short story writer and, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). This week, I will attempt a close analysis of a single poem by Schwartz.

 

Schwartz on Seurat

Georges_Seurat_-_Un_dimanche_après-midi_à_l'Île_de_la_Grande_Jatte

 

My favourite poem by Delmore Schwartz is “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”, written in 1959, in which the poet examines Georges Seurat’s pointillist painting. The painting is usually referred to as A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting was also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George. The painting shows members of all social classes mingling in the sun and participating in various Sunday afternoon leisure activities. It took Seurat two years to complete this ten foot-wide painting, much of which time he spent in the park sketching in preparation for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago – which explains Schwartz’s reference in his poem to:

 

Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine has gone away,

Has gone to Chicago: near Lake Michigan,

All of his flowers shine in monumental stillness fulfilled.

And yet it abides elsewhere and everywhere where images

Delight the eye and heart, and become the desirable, the admirable,

the willed

Icons of purified consciousness.

 

Schwartz dedicates the poem to Meyer and Lillian Schapiro. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was an American art historian known for forging dynamic new art historical methodologies that incorporated an interdisciplinary approach, engaging other scholars, philosophers, and artists, to the study of works of art. Although an active Marxist, Schapiro was an expert on early Christian art. Schapiro was interested in the social, political, and the material construction of art works. He spent his entire career at Columbia, where he knew Schwartz.

 

The full text of the poem can be read online:

 

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/citi/resources/423.pdf

 

 

Sunday is traditionally a day for Christians to do their worship. Perhaps it can also be a day for non-Christians and atheists to celebrate something. Wallace Stevens, in his poem “Sunday Morning”, stripped away Christian delusions in shimmering, flamboyant, rococo language.

 

 

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

 

Those whom Schwartz sees in Seurat’s painting are enjoying “The comforts of the sun” and enjoying the freedom, albeit temporary, of a day off from quotidian cares.

 

They are looking at hope itself, under the sun, free from the teething

anxiety, the gnawing nervousness

Which wastes so many days and years of consciousness.

 

Schwartz seems to be asking: Is there a higher power, though? Is there a deus outside the frame of this picture?

 

 

The one who beholds them, beholding the gold and green

Of summer’s Sunday is himself unseen. This is because he is

Dedicated radiance, supreme concentration, fanatically threading

The beads, needles and eyes -at once- of vividness and permanence.

He is a saint of Sunday in the open air, a fanatic disciplined

By passion, courage, passion, skill, compassion, love: the love of life

and the love of light as one, under the sun, with the love of life.

 

There is permanence in the stasis caught in the frame, a permanence that defies the anicca we actually experience in real life outside the picture.

 

A little girl holds to her mother’s arm

As if it were a permanent genuine certainty:

Her broad-brimmed hat is blue and white, blue like the river, like the

sailboats white,

And her face and her look have all the bland innocence,

Open and far from fear as cherubims playing harpsichords.

 

This is the celebration of contemplation,

This is the conversion of experience to pure attention,

Here is the holiness of all the little things

Offered to us, discovered for us, transformed into the vividest con-

 

Schwartz refers to “supreme concentration”. Is there a hint there of a supreme being? WH Auden and Iris Murdoch both referred to the act of concentration, of paying attention, as being akin to prayer. Buddhism explores the concept of “mindfulness”. Concentrating on writing a poem can seem like praying. Reading a poem in an analytical way can be like praying. Schwartz examines Seurat’s picture in a prayer-like manner and suspects prayer-like qualities in the demeanour of the people in the painting.

 

 

If you look long enough at anything

It will become extremely interesting;

If you look very long at anything

It will become rich, manifold, fascinating:

If you can look at anything for long enough,

You will rejoice in the miracle of love,

You will possess and be blessed by the marvellous blinding radiance

of love, you will be radiance.

A prayer, a pledge of grace or gratitude

A devout offering to the god of summer, Sunday and plenitude.

The Sunday people are looking at hope itself.

 

Is the deus Seurat himself, the artist, the artificer?

 

 

An infinite variety within a simple frame:

Countless variations upon a single theme!

 

Schwartz uses internal rhymes and repetitions to create a mantra-like chant. Seurat is at once painter, poet, architect, and alchemist:

 

 

The alchemist points his magical wand to describe and hold the Sun-

day’s gold,

Mixing his small alloys for long and long

Because he wants to hold the warm leisure and pleasure of the holiday

Within the fiery blaze and passionate patience of his gaze and mind

Now and forever: O happy, happy throng,

It is forever Sunday, summer, free: you are forever warm

Within his little seeds, his small black grains,

He builds and holds the power and the luxury

With which the summer Sunday serenely reigns.

 

Seurat’s technique was to use tiny juxtaposed dots of multi-coloured paint allow the viewer’s eye to blend colors optically, rather than having the colours physically blended on the canvas. Meyer Schapiro had written about the painting and had described Seurat’s technique as being like an alchemist’s. An alchemist transmutes the mundane into the wonderful; an artist uses gross material or plain words to create the numinous.

 

Although God or the painter threaded permanence into the picture in the frame, the painter himself did not enjoy permanence; Seurat died at the age of 31. The cause of his death is uncertain, variously attributed to a form of meningitis, pneumonia, infectious angina, and diphtheria. His son died two weeks later.

 

the painter who at twenty-five

Hardly suspects that in six years he will no longer be alive!

-His marvellous little marbles, beads, or molecules

Begin as points which the alchemy’s magic transforms

Into diamonds of blossoming radiance, possessing and blessing the

visual:

For look how the sun shines anew and newly, transfixed

By his passionate obsession with serenity

As he transforms the sunlight into the substance of pewter, glittering,

poised and grave, vivid as butter,

In glowing solidity, changeless, a gift, lifted to immortality.

 

Perhaps the painter does live on, despite his early death, in the beauty he created in his work. To quote Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” again: “Death is the mother of beauty”.

 

This is the nervous reality of time and time’s fire which turns

Whatever is into another thing, continually altering and changing all

identity, as time’s great fire burns (aspiring, flying and dying),

So that all things arise and fall, living, leaping and fading, falling, like

flames aspiring, flowering, flying and dying-

Within the uncontrollable blaze of time and of history:

Hence Seurat seeks within the cave of his gaze and mind to find

A permanent monument to Sunday’s simple delight; seeks deathless

joy through the eye’s immortality;

Strives patiently and passionately to surpass the fickle erratic quality

of living reality.

In emulation of the fullness of Nature maturing and enduring and

toiling with the chaos of actuality.

 

At the end of the poem, Schwartz acknowledges the sense of escapism that art allows, and also the poignancy of the fact that it is impossible really to enter the world of the painting. This is the final line of the poem:

 

They all stretch out their hands to me: but they are too far away!

 

Next week, I will analyse some more of Schwartz’s poetry and discuss themes that run through his work.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

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