On Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz, “the genius of the old partisan group” (Atlas 378) left his mark on a whole generation of poets and it is sad that this aspect of his is even less recognized than his poetic prowess (He has at least a Bollingen Prize to show for that, which makes it somehow hard to deny altogether). Lowell, whom we pegged earlier as one of the pioneers of Postmodernism, observed in interviews that he had “never met anyone who has somehow as much seeped into me”, Berryman revealed in similar interviews that he thought Schwartz was “the most underrated poet of the twentieth century” (both quotations: Atlas 378). Also, “[m]any of the new writers looked back to Delmore Schwartz [who] was known […] as a writer’s writer” (Ruland and Bradbury 336). Kenneth Koch went to Princeton in order to become a student of Schwartz’s (cf. Atlas 268) and John Ashbery notes that

of all the […] poets who have influenced me […] Schwartz is the one whose work is least known today and therefore the one most in need of elucidating for the benefit of anyone […] who might be interested in my work. (Ashbery 3)

Indeed, many elements of Ashbery’s poetry can surely be found in Schwartz’s work, but the most influential aspect of Schwartz’s poetry might well be his unconcern with dogma, without being downright rebellious in the way that Ginsberg was. Early Ashbery poems such as “Glazunoviana” or “The Grapevine” sound so Schwartzian in their structure and (postmodern) form that its easy to see the correspondence.

The poet who was most influenced by Schwartz was John Berryman, whose Dream Songs are a landmark of postmodern literature. “[T]he gullible Berryman” (Atlas 209) so admired Schwartz that he “became inarticulated in his presence and […] relied on Delmore’s advice in literary matters” (209); Schwartz was probably the first one who saw in Berryman’s early derivative poetry the promise of considerable talent, as he “did everything he could to promote [Berryman’s] reputation” (210). Additionally, the influence of Schwartz on individual poems “crucial to [Berryman’s] development” (Matterson 1) has been demonstrated satisfactorily (cf. Matterson 1ff.).

This takes us to the point where we have to consider the reasons for Delmore Schwartz’s bad standing today. If he was as influential and innovative as I claim, why is he not more famous today? Why do critics claim that “his best poetry was behind him after 1939” (Bauer, “The Figure of the Film Critic as Virile Poet”, 118), when Genesis was unwritten, as was most of the brilliant later poetry? There are several reasons for this. A particularly simple explanation might be that the rejection of Schwartz’s later poetry might be due to a reactionary strain in post-war criticism which had also tried to muffle or outright silence the poetry of the Beat poets (cf. Thurley 210f.); this reactionary strain represents a continuity of New Criticism. But Schwartz was also rejected by his friends and even by his admirers. Even as perceptive a critic as Jarrell denied the worth of Schwartz’s post-1939 poetry (cf. Travisano 20). This cannot be explained away with snobbishness.

The real problem was twofold. At first, Schwartz’s postmodernism was not a case of slight or subtle variation, it was a full shift. For this shift, however, “the taste and critical vocabulary […] had not yet been invented” (Kirsch 223) when Schwartz initiated the demise of his reputation with Genesis in 1943. The literary system had not changed with him, and the function of his post-modern aestetic was not able to unfold properly (cf. Tynjanov 439ff.), as it would’ve had twenty years later. Elizabeth Bishop could not help but call the late poetry of Schwartz “really bad” (Travisano 19). New Critical ideals even noticeably influenced the negative attitude towards the late poetry by Schwartz’s own biographer, James Atlas (cf. Bawer 147). Certainly, there are poets who made their way despite being marginalized by the literay world. These are those poets who establish alternative canons, such as Olson and the Black Mountain poets or the budding New York School of poets, which stared to form in the 1940’s, whereas Schwartz was not able to detach himself from mainstream criticism.

After the Middle Generation poets on the one hand, and experimental postmodernists on the other hand, had established themselves during the 1970’s in academic discourse, the way for a reevaluation of Schwartz was clear, but it never happened. When his new style finally fitted the literary system, it was too late. The trias of Berryman, Bellow and Atlas had already destroyed the basis for an unbiased evaluation of Schwartz’s poetry. The emerging canon of postmodern literature was partly dominated by confessional poetry (Which was and is easier palatable than Schwartz’s pioneering efforts in the 1940’s, as his poetry of that time is burdened by a grave, complicated language, whereas the easy, flowing lines of the late Lowell or Sexton can be understood easier and faster), and partly by experimental poetry, as we saw earlier. Schwartz’s poetry fits neither category. When, finally, in the 1980’s (cf. Huyssen 17f.) political aspects were becoming important factors for inclusion into the canon, Schwartz’s way into the canon was closed once and for all, on account of his blatant ignorance of all things political.
All of this meant that he had never a chance to be recognized as a poet of Postmodernism.

The themes of Schwartz’s poetry “are chiefly […] awe and abyss” (Ozick 12; italics hers). He writes with an intensity which became rare in modern poetry since Swinburne had lost his spark. ‘Awe’ and ‘abyss’ are fine descriptions of his work, they show why he was exceptional. He was filled with ‘awe’ of his literary forebears. Ford in particular has meticulously shown how indebted Schwartz was to the French modernist poets and Schwartz’s correspondence with the great modernist poets such as Pound, Stevens, Eliot and Auden showcases his deep admiration of their faculties (cf. Atlas 178 and elsewhere). Yet he evinced the abyss, too, in his work, the pessimism, the doubt that what he believed to be true was really right. He was one of the first to explore the possibilities of a poetry that breaks with modernist ideals. His courage to write the kind of revolutionary poetry he wrote, should be admired. But he failed, and the body of verse he left us is contradictory and uneven. It is hard to come to terms with this poet.

There are more problems than simply prevailing critical opinion. There is also the confusion about a definition of Postmodernism, which seems to change every time someone writes a book about it. In postmodernist poetry, the case is even more complicated, as even McHale, the author of one of the clearest and finest definitions of postmodern novels, surrendered to the difficulties of such a definition,. He conceded that he had not “been able to identify any ‘umbrella’-model capable of accomodating the full range of postmodernist features” (McHale, The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole, 251). The best accounts of postmodern poetry similarly shy away of ‘umbrella’-models, such as Lynn Kellers brilliant study. But this retreat into particulars just postpones the problem, in my understanding. However, the seeds of a theory of postmodern poetry have been planted in McHale’s approach to postmodern novels, where he uses a term of Jakobson, the change of dominant (cf. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 6ff.). It seems to me that this is a direction worth pursuing. A fellow Russian Formalist, Jurij Tynjanov, has proposed a theory of literary evolution, where the text, its elements and the literary system surrounding it form a cohesive unit. The question of how to evaluate literary evolution becomes a question of relation between the elements of the literary system.

To explain the changes from one set of relations in the literary system to another, you have to take into account not only stylistic changes, McHale’s échec demonstrated this sufficiently. You have to also take literary evaluations into account, not only criticism, but also the different types of canons and their functions within the system. You will have to be prepared to suspend the kind of schematic chronology inherent in the term ‘tradition’, so you can find changes and influences (See for instance Wilson’s account of the difficult relation between the work of Yeats and Delmore Schwartz, which defies critical wisdom on how tradition worked within Modernism) where you might not have expected them, for instance the autobiographically tinged poem of Schwartz’s in his first collection of poems. In such an approach one might demonstrate how the poetry of Wilbur, Olson or Creeley is, for all intents and porposes, modernist and the poetry of Schwartz postmodernist.

Thus, the gift of Delmore Schwartz to literature is threefold. One aspect are the texts themselves. The second aspect is the influence on many poets of Postmodernism, whereby he might have shaped the literary style we call postmodern. The third and last aspect is the potential gift of clarity: we might arrive at a better understanding of postmodernism and modernism if we try to understand Delmore Schwartz.

Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist? (Schwartz, Summer Knowledge, 228)


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