CINEMA AND POETRY: A REVIEW OF THE UNCOLLECTED DELMORE SCHWARTZ, BEN MAZER, EDITOR

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I began to think about a whole lot of things as I was finishing Ben Mazer’s introduction to The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz, just published by Arrowsmith Press.

How does a poet exist in an unpublished, uncollected, or unnoticed state?

How much does the critical and editorial apparatus impact how society apprehends a poet?

Ben Mazer—and hopefully, very soon, many more—will be answering these questions as they pertain to the wonderful, but increasingly neglected writer, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966).

I was thinking about the cinema, the modern poet as movie-lover, and how this might contribute to the “uncollected” reality of Delmore Schwartz—an author editors and publishers have never known quite what to do with.

Delmore Schwartz burst upon the world in 1937, by way of the Partisan Review crowd in New York City.

Ben Mazer, born in New York City, and raised in Cambridge (Delmore attended Harvard) and a splendid poet himself, is also a daring and sleuth-like editor: Mazer’s ‘Uncollected Schwartz” is a gem.

Mazer’s well-researched work features various genres: poem, story, essay, review, symposium memoir. Which is nice, because Schwartz excelled at them all.

But is this the problem of Delmore Schwartz’s reputation?  “Various genres?”

The poets America loves generally don’t get involved in other aspects of writing.

Where are the essays of W.S Merwin, the plays of Robert Frost, the criticism of Emily Dickinson, the novels of T.S. Eliot, the short stories of Ezra Pound?  No, somehow it diminishes the poet to not be, in terms of output, a poet.  The occasional essay on poetry is allowed, but that’s it.

Schwartz, the writer of variety, is like Poe, in this regard.

But even as Poe worked in, and even invented, or furthered, a number of genres, the 19th century Virginian—limited critically by the “macabre” label—stuck mostly to short pieces—and Poe mostly finished, thankfully, what he started; the single exception, a play.

Schwartz abandoned what seems like hundreds of writing projects.  A prodigy lauded early in his career, winning praise for a short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Schwartz became bogged down in overly ambitious attempts at the long and unwieldy—a pity, for this modern talent should have followed Poe’s advice: the complexity of modernity requires brevity.

Schwartz didn’t use Poe as a guiding star. Both writers shared a certain quixotic arrogance; Poe obeyed form as a writer; Schwartz often did not, and ended up without an epidermis.

Looking back, Schwartz was best, by far, as a short story writer—as good as anyone in the 20th century—but his splendid efforts in this genre, strangely, seem to have only added to a literary reputation of promise followed by insanity, failure and waste.

No one, including Schwartz himself, wished Schwartz to be pegged as a writer of short fiction. The fiction world doesn’t always know what to do with poets, especially the ones who enter as poets first, fiction writers second. Had the order been reversed, Schwartz might have enjoyed a greater social stability.

Schwartz had two sides:

1. the doubtful, sentimental, highly emotional, poet

2. the crass, witty, profoundly wise, and pitiless, critic.

Fiction allowed these two sides to often mingle and shine.

Literary essays allowed Delmore Schwartz insights to peek out.  I’m not a big fan of High Modernism, but when Delmore writes on Stevens, Eliot, Auden, I feel a certain pride. Delmore’s intelligence as a critic is stunning.

Schwartz drowned in modernist self-pity, focused too much on the contemporary in his essays, and wasted too much time on long poems.

Otherwise, there was no stopping Mr. Delmore Schwartz.

One could argue Schwartz is a major poet. But poetry was a disturbing, and not really a friendly, medium for him.

The acerbic, joking, philosophy, the impatient, stuttering, thin-skinned, reflective, doubting, self-pity—all these things which the complex torrent of Delmore Schwartz was—freely articulated in poetry of the loose and modern manner, resulted more often than not, in opportunity by a genius missed.

The moderns who encouraged him were the “modern” moderns, the ones who turned their backs on Poe and everything before Rimbaud, and who liked the idea of residing in 1922 and nowhere else. The obscure heft of Joyce and Pound were unfortunately touchstones for New York City’s highly introspective genius, one who passionately saw through Pound, the person, and rejected him. Rimbaud began it all for the “modern” moderns, and so it’s not at all surprising Schwartz found himself, as a yet lauded and reputed poetic prodigy, hurrying into print a translation of Rimbaud, an imaginative English version of the Frenchman’s “Season in Hell”—almost universally ridiculed in the press for its translation errors; and as the bad reviews came in, the nervous prodigy’s honeymoon was over. Schwartz already had a personality that doubted. He didn’t universally like everyone, and he was not universally liked. When his reputation took a hit, it was pretty bad.

As we advance into the early middle of the 21st century, High Modernism is due for a hard look; well, at least it may help us understand and revive Delmore Schwartz.

Delmore’s survey of Wallace Stevens is the best thing, for my money, in Ben Mazer’s The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz. The mind of Delmore Schwartz is a treasure—without a doubt, this is the singular fact I have come away with in my recent acquaintance of the author who died at 52 alone, in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

Did cinema kill poetry? Schwartz’s guilty pleasure was going to the movies.

Poetry came apart, losing its lyric, leather-bound anthology, fireside, charm, somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, and for Schwartz this was always a good thing, because he belonged to his time, and he sums up the existence of Stevens as an “art for art’s sake” poet—almost ruefully, almost pejoratively—as due to “industrialism.”  The Wordsworthian whine, which didn’t stop with Modernism: the machine produces sorrow.

Stevens, according to Schwartz, is an “Art-man.” The poetry of Stevens smoothly and matter-of-factly occupies the museum, the concert hall, the ivory tower seminar room, the library, the poetry reading. Stevens is for Art, as opposed to the “life” of “disorder,” “presided over by the business man and the Philistine…”

Schwartz acknowledges the danger of this attitude, claiming it inhibited poets of the “Art-man” school in the late 19th century, but Delmore allows Stevens a triumph in it, for going, with a certain amount of intelligent self-consciousness, all in with it. Down with “industrialism.” Up with Wallace Stevens.

The reason cinema is so important for Delmore Schwartz—his break-out short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” literally takes place in a cinema as the protagonist watches a “movie” of his parents prior to his birth—is manifold.

Schwartz’s youth coincided with film taking its place as a form of entertainment and art—but which was it? Poetry was losing out to other distractions, and cinema was one.

Film was a guilty, time-wasting pleasure for a poet like Schwartz, but it was a vital connection to “philistine life,” too. Schwartz was not Stevens, and cinema was one central reason: poetry for Stevens was purely aesthetic; Schwartz belongs more to the news-reel voice-over, the screen play, the drama, realistic but flickering, the movie of the peanut-crunching crowd. The hard-nosed, factual, aspect of film represented an important antidote to Schwartz’s morbid, fatalist, autobiographical nature.

The fatalism of film—a memory captured, to never be escaped—seen through his autobiographical obsession—his family divorce drama seeps into almost everything he wrote—underpins his iconic story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

Fortunately, Schwartz cared too much about people (his writing is very social) to be overly distracted by the horrors of “industrialism.”

Schwartz, who deeply admired Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, had a love-hate relationship with all the art movements around him—with a stammering, clumsy, combative, social persona, mixing uneasily with his genius, he couldn’t be as intellectually independent as he should have been; his “connections” in the intellectual circles of the John Crowe Ransom’s Kenyon Review, the Partisan Review, and Harvard, where he met Laughlin, the editor of New Directions, were all important to him, more than he realized, or wanted to admit, and so the natural, original, impetuous, lonely greatness that was Schwartz kept trailing after the divided, humiliated, tortured, social animal that was Schwartz.  He unconsciously attempted to resolve this by uncritically admiring the aesthetic writings of his contemporaries (saving his critical energy for gossip towards them as individuals) and so the poet he was meant to be was colored, like the dyer’s hand, by much of the inferior work of his time.

His genius, in the fiction and the essays, mostly won out. In his poetry, it mostly did not. He absolutely nails Stevens in a manner which is fully sympathetic, but manages to diminish him, which is only proper, since Schwartz was, it seems to me, the wisest of his circle (a judgment I am well aware will not be taken seriously because  “High” Modernism is to this day, yet overrated, and due to the reputation of “crazy” Delmore Schwartz).

“A Note on the Nature of Art,” the second essay in Mazer’s collection, is first-rate in a perfectly logical manner; it patiently explains the difference between the “expressive” and the “critical-expressive” and doesn’t allow social reality to roll over aesthetic reality, which it will do, unless the critic is familiar with Aristotle and common sense—which Delmore happily was.

The essays are 30 pages of the book; putting aside the poems, of which there are 15 pages—the best one, I think, is “Sonnet,” published in 1950 in the Kenyon Review—we have an excellent 20 page story, and a 5 page memory on his Jewishness, also good; the essays occupy the bulk of what is excellent, as well as the story and the small prose memoir, proving once again, at least for me, that we should not look to Schwartz’s poetry as the best example of his work.

For me, as way of quick example, “the worms of fear spread veined” and “but the elation and celebration of the motions/of energy everywhere,” from two different poems, reside as things scattered on the surface; these quotes don’t feel integrated wholly into their poems—too much of his poetry features interesting parts which are not quite fused; there is a unconnected quality which I don’t meet in the prose, and which curtails my enjoyment of the verse. The longer poem, “Dr. Levy,” which Mazer cites for especial praise in his introduction, has emotional sincerity, but it feels more like a short play of not-quite-realized profundity, than a truly realized poem.

True, some of the poems in this volume are high school poems—ironically, there is one on Poe.  Schwartz didn’t care for him.  In his introduction to his long, prose poem, Genesis, Schwartz says he will write like a modern; he will not write like Swinburne—which of course means Poe.

The story in the volume, “An Argument in 1934” is wonderful; the lucid presentation of three, young, intellectual friends, interacting socially, is sensitive, highly observant, and subtle, without being busy or overbearing, and the theme: realism triumphing over the intellectually abstract, is expressed through both dialogue and action in a clear and poignant manner.

This review is not meant to devalue Schwartz as a poet; I just think his fiction is superlative. Profound. Funny. Timeless.

And this is good news: Ben Mazer is set to edit more Delmore Schwartz—the Collected Poems has been green-lighted by FSG, which is very exciting, indeed.

Hopefully “The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz” will be the start of a Delmore Renaissance.

I’ll close by quoting “Under Forty” from a symposium published by the Contemporary Jewish Record:

The contrast between the authority of the public school teachers and the weakness of the Hebrew school teacher is one which makes the child wonder what reason can justify the emphasis upon Jewishness. I remember my own extreme admiration for the rabbi who spoke to us on Sundays. It seemed to me that he could prove or disprove anything, and that he could find profound meaning in any story or incident. But I took this to be a personal gift; he was a very wise man; he seemed more intelligent than any of the teachers in public school. But then I merely wondered why he limited himself to what we then called temple, and I had no way of knowing that his dialectical and interpretative skills were an inheritance.

 

*******

The Scarriet editors, Salem MA 11/14/19

 

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