POETS Day! Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

This is one of those weekends where POETS Day gets lost in the wash. The first week of March Madness is a triumph of unproductivity. It’s not that the NCAA Tournament is so compelling that even non-basketball fans get into the excitement. It’s that basketball fans get so excited by it that they think it perfectly natural that people who don’t otherwise like the game would suddenly get swept up by the spectacle and those who don’t care realize that by pretending to care as much as basketball fans think they should they get to half ass it at work, take long lunches, use the copy machine to print endless personal documents, call their friends whenever they feel the urge, watch T.V. (television) on their phones at their desk, openly gamble, and leave early to catch the late afternoon game just like everyone else. Their bracket, chosen solely on the basis of which mascot is cuter, is just as likely as the fans’ to win a couple of hundred bucks too. So go do whatever. I don’t even think you have to ask to leave early. Go take a nap, hike a bit, marvel at how uncrowded places without walls of televisions are. Just be ready to talk about a blown call or an amazing comeback in one of the games you were supposedly watching. People will put the important-for-conversation clips on Twitter. As always, don’t let the weekend go by without a little verse. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday… even if everybody pissed off before Thursday’s tip off. If the basketball thing doesn’t spring you, there’s always St. Patrick’s Day to fall back on. Erin Roll Tide!


When Delmore Schwartz was twenty-five years old, he made a huge splash in New York intellectual circles with the publication of his first book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. The book, a collection of short stories and poems, was well spoken of by two of the time’s giants in Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. He was fresh and talented and people predicted a great deal from him, which he delivered for a while. When he died, it was three days before anyone identified the body. Friends said they hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. Alcohol, drug addiction, and insanity wore him down.

Among the themes he returns to in his work is lack of permanence and the passing of time, especially that things pass because they belong to time. His early life was not a happy one. His parents’, both Romanian Jewish immigrants, marriage was miserable. They split up when he was nine. His father died at age forty-nine when Schwartz was sixteen or seventeen. His most famous short story, the titular story from In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, is a fantasy where the protagonist watches his parents’ early life on screen at a movie theater and yells at them to change course. It’s a past that can’t be changed, and the watcher is dragged screaming from the theater. So much of his work focuses on coming to terms with what is done; that a moment is formed and gone and can never be relived.

In his poem “Father and Son” in a dialogue the father tells his son that time is death as it “dribbles from you, drop by drop.” while the son is skeptical. “But I thought time was full of promises.” The father warns the son that he will, as many do, try on guises to hide from his past and its wear on him, but it won’t work. In one of my favorite images he takes the phoenix, a symbol of rebirth and immortality, and recasts it as a prison that burns away your ability to affect your past and leaves you impotent and guilt ridden at each inescapable return:

Always the same self from the ashes of sleep
Returns with its memories, always, always,
The phoenix with eight hundred memories!

You’ll find the idea of wishful recasting of circumstances, an attempt to hide in mundane acts, and a surety that you are seen by disapproving eyes in “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses.” In “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” the poetic persona is once removed from events of the present that persist despite unaddressed history. He shifts a bit in “Summer Knowledge,” written in his later years. In the poem, summer knowledge is the knowledge that we build towards something and then diminish. The fruit ripens and then decays. For him the realization of what is to come rather than the happening is agony. Still he frames death in rebirth with summer knowledge as knowing that a height will be reached that seemingly changes over time to knowing how to perish: “First nature skilled and fulfilled, a new birth and a new death for / the new birth and the new morning, soaring and rising out of / the flames of turning October.” His guilt and dissatisfaction, eclipsed by his frustration to fix the past in service of altering his present, remain but he seems to make a separate peace with the natural process he sees himself a part of.

Today’s featured poem is “Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day.” I can’t speak to Delmore Schwartz’s entire body of work, but of the poems I’ve come across, this seems the best and most complete convergence of the themes I mentioned above. I should mention that there are poems Schwartz wrote that are not dripping with misery. He wrote extensively about the Jewish middle class and what he saw as the dichotomy of being the son of immigrants and an American. The literary critic Morris Dickstein wrote of his prose, “Schwartz’s best stories are either poker-faced satirical takes on the bohemians and outright failures of his generation, as in ‘The World Is a Wedding’ and ‘New Year’s Eve,’ or chronicles of the distressed lives of his parents’ generation, for whom the promise of American life has not panned out.” They aren’t all pining and stewing, but those that are are powerful and hard to read sometimes. His images are so brilliant that you want to thank him and wish him a happy moment but then you start to wonder if the imagery is a product of the misery and then you start to feel bad because for at least a moment you thought that his misery was worth your enjoyment of a poem and… it’s a whole thing.

In “Calmy We Walk…” we get motion as distraction, numbers as indicators of place that aren’t anchored to anything, named friends without background, predetermined becoming, and questions of identity as captured in time, as even if we could pinpoint who we were at a given time, that person is gone, burned away. We have to calmly accept that there is no permanence but frustration.

I wish he was a bit more structured, but as I said, his images are so brilliant.

Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day

Delmore Schwartz (1913 – 1966)

Calmly we walk through this April’s day,
Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away,
Between the worker and the millionaire
Number provides all distances,
It is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
Many great dears are taken away,
What will become of you and me
(This is the school in which we learn …)
Besides the photo and the memory?
(… that time is the fire in which we burn.)

(This is the school in which we learn …)
What is the self amid this blaze?
What am I now that I was then
Which I shall suffer and act again,
The theodicy I wrote in my high school days
Restored all life from infancy,
The children shouting are bright as they run
(This is the school in which they learn …)
Ravished entirely in their passing play!
(… that time is the fire in which they burn.)

Avid its rush, that reeling blaze!
Where is my father and Eleanor?
Not where are they now, dead seven years,
But what they were then?
No more? No more?
From Nineteen-Fourteen to the present day,
Bert Spira and Rhoda consume, consume
Not where they are now (where are they now?)
But what they were then, both beautiful;

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

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