Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: TS Eliot

Randall Jarrell Part 2

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 15 2015. 

The totalitarianism of everyday life.

RJKittenMJ

John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1937 for Kenyon College in Ohio. Jarrell followed him and taught English at Kenyon for two years, sharing a dormitory with other writers who went on to gain some esteem: Robie McCauley, Peter Taylor,  and Robert Lowell. Jarrell went on to teach at the University of Texas at Austin from 1939 to 1942, where he began to publish acerbic and witty literary criticism and where he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, whom he married in 1940. In 1942, he left the university to join the United States Army Air Force.

After the war Jarrell spent a year as literary editor of the Nation, (not the one edited by that other poet Malinda Seneviratne) to whose pages he attracted poems and reviews from many of the best writers in America and England. His own critical pieces were acidly cutting. John Berryman joked with his wife Eileen that many people were holding on to their poems and praying for Jarrell’s early death rather than risk having their work shredded by his acerbic wit.

Jarrell was uncomfortable with urban life and claimed to hate New York’s crowds, the high cost of living, and status-conscious sociability and conformity. He left for the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina where, as an associate professor of English, he taught modern poetry and “imaginative writing.” He also taught at Sarah Lawrence College, which he would later make use of as a model for the mythical Benton College in his satiric novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954).

In his war poems, Jarrell wrote about the individual being absorbed into the machine that was the army. Army training turned boys into interchangeable parts. In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” he wrote

 

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

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

 

In “Prisoners” he wrote  about captives loading and unloading as they,

 

look unexpectingly

At the big guard, dark in his khaki, at the dust

of the blazing plain,

At the running or crawling soldiers in their soiled

and shapeless green.

 

The prisoners, the guards, the soldiers- they are all,

In their way, being trained.

From these moments, repeated forever, our own

new world will be made.

 

 

Conformity

 

Karl Shapiro’s eulogy for Jarrell said: “our army never melted away…Our poetry, from the forties on, records the helplessness we felt in the face of the impersonal character of the age”.

 

Jarrell  wrote in a review that “when one considers the mechanism of the contemporary states – from the advertising agencies that turn out their principles to the aircraft factories that turn out their practice” one despairs. There were a number of writers mining a similar theme. David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, traces the evolution of society from a tradition-directed culture, to a culture that was “other -directed”.

 

Hannah Arendt

 

 

 

young hannah

 

Jarrell met Hannah Arendt in 1946 and the two became close friends. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism  was published in 1951 but Jarrell would have been already familiar with her ideas as she had published essays in The Nation. Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.

Jarrell wrote to Arendt telling her that she was his closest possible ally. She reciprocated by writing about Jarrell: “Whatever I know of English poetry, and perhaps of the genius of the language, I owe to him”.

She had written an essay about French Existentialism in The Nation in 1946. In it, she described how the existentialists tried to disentangle people from institutions, from attitudes that cause a man “to think of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honour, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function.” It was possible resist conformity: “We can rise above specialization and philistinism of all sorts to the extent that we learn how to exercise our taste freely”.

In her reporting of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the phenomenon of Eichmann. She raised the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions and inaction.

Institutions and Identity

In  1951, in an essay called “The Obscurity of the Poet”, Jarrell wrote: “The truth that all men are politically equal, the recognition of the injustice of fictitious differences, becomes a belief in the fictitiousness of differences, a conviction that it is reaction or snobbishness or Fascism to believe that any individual differences of real importance can exist”.

As Stephen Burt wrote:”Jarrell’s poetry, criticism and fiction tried to imagine ways to save private life, individual experience. Jarrell’s defences of individuality against institutional or professional interests thus cast themselves a defences of taste”.

It was not just the big corporations that smothered individuality – the academy also corporatized  and imposed conformity and it did so even through the study of literature. Academic critics such as Kenneth Burke, Northrop Frye and IA Richards had an ambition to systematise literary criticism. TS Eliot also argued for a view of the literary that excluded the personal. Jarrell wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1935 “the majority of my tendencies are not at all Eliotish and didactic”. Allen Tate warned in 1940 in an essay called “The Present Function of Criticism “professional ‘educationists’ and… sociologists…have taught the present generation that…the greatest thing is as adjustment to Society (not to a good society). Jarrell feared that Tate’s idea of a good society was one governed by elite professionals like Allen Tate.

This could be a dry sort of argument but Jarrell writes with emotional force about “the specialisation, the dividing into categories, of people’s unlucky lives”. His own criticism is far from that he describes as seemingly written ”by a syndicate of encyclopaedias for an audience of Business Machines. It is not only bad or mediocre, it is dull;  it is, often, an astonishingly graceless, joyless, humourless, long-winded, niggling, blinkered, methodical, self-important, cliché-ridden, prestige obsessed, almost autonomous criticism”.

There is no shortage of such prose in 2015. It is being excreted on a daily basis, not just from universities but from government and business and NGOs. What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose. Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

Jarrell was trenchant about Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 book The Armed Vision. According to Jarrell Hyman’s ideal critic would “resemble one of those robots you meet in science fiction stories, with a microscope for one eye, a telescope for the other, and the mechanical brain at Harvard for a heart”.

Jarrell wrote only one novel, Pictures from an Institution. Stephen Burt calls it “the most Arendtian of Jarrell’s productions” because it dates from the time of Randall Jarrell and Hannah Arendt’s closest friendship and deals with their shared concerns about “the social”. He kept successive drafts of his novel in a binder she had given him, left over from when she was working on Origins of Totalitarianism.

This does not mean that the novel is dreary and doomy. I have been re-reading it and find myself laughing out loud on every page. More about Pictures from an Institution next week.

Recommended further reading: Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H Pritchard and Randall Jarrell and his Age by Stephen Burt.

 

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

 

Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot  to  put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.

 

 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson

johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”

 

‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.

 

Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.

How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.

The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”

 

So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.

leather bottle

When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.

 

I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.

London_National_Film_Theatre

I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.

 

Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).

blackheath-and-the-clarendon

It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I  saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.

Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.

The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.

griswold

London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.

London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.

Alex_Lebedev

 

To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.

Half-Moon-Putney

My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.

Iain Sinclair on the south bank of the river Thames, London, Britain - 26 Aug 2011

Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.

 

 

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 Part 1

shwartzsmaller

 

On the fly-leaf of my dog-eared copy of Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, I have noted “Oxford, December 1968”. That means that I bought the book just two years after the poet’s sad death. In that same year, I would have become familiar with the first album by the Velvet Underground on which Lou Reed pays tribute to his friend and mentor in the song “European Son of Delmore Schwartz”.

summer knowledge

Early Life

Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913. His parents, Harry and Rose, were immigrants from Romania, part of the first great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Delmore grew up in a drab apartment in Washington Heights, which he shared with his mother and his younger brother. His father was only reliable in the pursuit of his own pleasure, although he managed to accumulate a good deal of wealth from his dealings in the real estate business. When Delmore was only six, his parents woke him one night with the demand that he choose between them. They divorced. Delmore’s mother was hysterically self-dramatizing, and more than a little mad. Rose Schwartz threatened to kill herself when Delmore “abandoned” her in order to marry Gertrude Buckman; she also told her younger son that he would have been better off in Buchenwald than married to his non-Jewish wife. When Harry died at the age of 49 in 1930, Delmore only inherited a small amount of his money because of the shady dealings of the executor of the estate.

This was the emotional manure from which grew a young man of startling good looks who had read Blake, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and Hart Crane by his mid-teens and all the philosophers by the time he was twenty. Teachers who read Schwartz’s early writing encouraged him to develop his talents. As a teenager, he began to identify with the European avant-garde.

He made his parents’ disastrous marriage the subject of his most famous short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (a quotation from his hero WB Yeats), which was published in 1937 in the first issue of Partisan Review. Dwight McDonald believed that “It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.”

indreams

Boundless Ambition at Mosaic

While at New York University, Schwartz and a group of fellow students founded Mosaic, a literary magazine devoted to Marxist aesthetics. Norman Macleod, R.P. Blackmur, and William Carlos Williams were among the prominent poets and critics who had their work published in Mosaic. As editor, Schwartz used the publication as a vehicle to air his own critical opinions. His essays earned the attention of the New York literary community. William Barrett, whom he met in 1933, when they were both twenty, remembered him as “the most magical human being I have ever known”. Philip Rahv, of Partisan Review, described the “boundless ambition that was part of the precocity that never left him,” of “his singular personal charm and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech”. The New York literary world was eager to welcome this “newly fledged eaglet,” as Dwight Macdonald later called him. Schwartz won the extravagant praise not only of the New York intelligentsia but also of such commanding voices of the day as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren and Wallace Stevens. His precocious early poems prefigured the flowering of the powerful generation of poets who came to the fore in the ’40s—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman – of whom I will write in future weeks.

Robert Lowell

One of the earliest tributes to Schwartz came from Schwartz’s friend, another mad poet, Robert Lowell, who published the poem “To Delmore Schwartz” in 1959.

Lowell, reminisced in his poetry collection, Life Studies, about the time that the two poets lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946, writing that they were “underseas fellows, nobly mad,/ we talked away our friends.”

John Berryman

In 1968, Schwartz’s friend and peer, fellow poet, John Berryman, dedicated his book His Toy, His Dream, His Rest “to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz,” including 12 elegiac poems about Schwartz in the book. In “Dream Song #149,” Berryman wrote of Schwartz:

In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual

blazing with insight, warm with gossip

thro’ all our Harvard years

when both of us were just becoming known

I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref

and grief too astray for tears.

 

(Tref — is the Yiddish word for food that does not conform with the Jewish dietary laws)

 

Lou Reed

lou reed

Schwartz, who was then a professor at the University of Syracuse, taught Lou Reed in the early 1960s. Reed remembered Schwartz reading from Finnegans Wake and sayingthere “were few things better than to devote one’s life to Joyce.” Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included a Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. In the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, Lou Reed published a short prose tribute to Schwartz entitled “O Delmore How I Miss You.” In the piece, Reed quotes and references a number of Schwartz’s short stories and poems including “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “The World is a Wedding,” and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” “O Delmore How I Miss You” was re-published as the preface to the New Directions 2012 reissue of Schwartz’s posthumously published story collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

Reed wrote:

 

My friend and teacher occupies a spare room

He’s dead, at peace at last the wandering Jew

Other friends had put stones on his grave

He was the first great man that I had ever met

Sylvia and I got out our Ouija Board

To dial a spirit, across the room it soared

We were happy and amazed at what we saw

Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore

Delmore, I missed all your funny ways

I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said

My Dedalus to your Bloom, was such a perfect wit

And to find you in my house makes things perfect

 

“Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn’t finished reading—liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried”.

Historical Precursor

Schwartz occupied an important slot as an intellectual, a modernist, and a Jew. He was historically important as a precursor, as a man whose work provided a tantalizing hint of the rich material, which other Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow worked so effectively. The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) was based on Schwartz and revived interest in his career and provided further evidence of his insight into the conflicts associated with Jewish-American identity.

David Lehman: “It is hard not to see Schwartz as an emblematic figure, capable of stirring us in his ravings no less than in his brilliant and original literary creations, meant to reproach and admonish us with the purity and grandeur of his aspirations as well as with the unbanished image of his demise.”

Photographs show that Schwartz was a handsome man but he went into a sad decline. He descended into madness and alcohol and became dishevelled and embarrassing. He drank frequently at the White Horse Tavern, and spent his time sitting in parks. His friends deserted him. In the summer of 1966, a penniless Schwartz checked into the Times Square hotel, perhaps to focus on his writing.

In the pages of this Mosaic, Wimal Dissanayake has expertly guided us through the thought and works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Delmore Schwartz wrote a poem called Hölderlin:

Now as before do you not hear their voices

Serene in the midst of their rejoicing

Chanting to those who have hopes and make choices

Clear as the birds in the thick summer foliage:

It is! It is!

We are! We are!

Clearly, as if they were us, and not us,

Hidden like the future, distant as the stars,

Having no more meaning than the fullness of music,

Chanting from the pure peaks where success,

Effort and desire are meaningless,

Surpassed at last in the joy of joy,

Chanting at last the blue’s last view:

It is! It is!

This is eternity! Eternity is now!

 

My favourite Delmore poem is Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine, which is a poetic evocation and reflection upon Seurat’s pointillist painting.

Next week I will analyse that poem and look at Delmore Schwartz’s poetry and themes in more detail.

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