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Delmore Schwartz (1913–1966)

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. There were also contributions from Wallace Stevens, Edmund Wilson, Agee, Trilling, Picasso, Farrell, Mary McCarthy, and William Troy—we tried to make it a “strong” issue, for obvious tactical reasons—but I think Delmore’s story deserved its primacy. 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.

I think it is the year 1909 [it begins]. I feel as if I were in a moving-picture theatre, the long arms of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen. It is a silent picture, as if an old Biograph one, in which the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, and one flash succeeds another with sudden jumps, and the actors, too, seem to jump about, walking too fast. The shots are full of rays and dots, as if it had been raining when the picture is photographed. The light is bad.

The movie is about his parents’ courtship, mostly an excursion to Coney Island that ends in a disastrous quarrel, a clash of temperaments, and obstinacies, that is all the more ominous because the causes are so trivial. As he watches this banal home movie that tells more than it means to, the author becomes more and more upset, weeping at first (“There, there young man,” an old lady sitting next to him says, patting his shoulder, “all of this is only a movie, only a movie”), and then shouting warnings, to the scandal of the audience, at the images of his parents-to-be as they flicker on their unalterable course across the screen: “Don’t do it! It’s not too late to change your mind, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous…. Don’t they know what they are doing? Why doesn’t my mother go after my father and beg him not to be angry?…. Doesn’t my father know what he is doing?” The story ends with his being ejected by the usher (“hurrying down the aisle with his flashlight”) and his waking up “into the bleak winter morning of my twenty-first birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.” An original literary idea that works imaginatively, I think, and that combines the freest, most specific self-revelation with a form that controls the expression of these deep, personal fears partly by “distancing” them in time and medium—a movie is just what suits—and partly by a classical concision—the story is only seven pages long—in which every word counts, as in the opening paragraph quoted above. This unusual combination of expressive candor and tight form is characteristic of Delmore’s poetry in general—we were surprised to find, though we shouldn’t have been, that he was a poet also, and essentially.

What curious dresses all men wear!
The walker you met in a brown study,
The President smug in rotogravure,
The mannequin, the bathing beauty.

The bubble-dancer, the deep-sea diver,
The bureaucrat, the adulterer,
Hide private parts which I disclose
To those who know what a poem knows.

So he wrote in the copy of his first book (New Directions, 1938) he gave me—the verses haven’t been printed, so far as I know—and so it was with his work, the private disclosure and the public form, concealment on one level but all the more revealing on another, that of art, or of “those who know what a poem knows.”

DELMORE WAS TWENTY-FOUR that year, but 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. We took to each other right away. We were alike: New Yorkers by birth and upbringing, restless, impatient, fond of argument, pushing ideas as far as they would go, and farther, assuming that talk was not necessarily, or intimately, related to action so that we could say almost anything to each other without hurt feelings, or bloody noses, and urban (though not urbane) types to whom “the country” was like the moon, interesting but alien and a little scary. We also found each other exotic. Delmore was always ironic about my Yale-gentile background—we were both middle-class so that wasn’t involved—which struck him as picturesque but slightly primitive; while I couldn’t understand what seemed to me his obsession with his Jewish childhood. Sometimes I felt like a teacher—I was only seven years older but that was a big gap at our ages—dealing with a bright student whose affection was greater than his respect. But most of the time, in the almost thirty years I knew him, we were equals, friends, and I can’t think of anyone who gave himself in friendship more generously and whose conversation, and companionship, I enjoyed more.

There was always something doing when Delmore was around. He was a great talker and he never held back, no hedging around with small talk and cautious civilities, unpacking his mind instantly like one of those Armenian peddlers who used to come to our summer house in New Jersey and who would have their enormous cardboard suitcases unstrapped and displaying their treasures of lace and linen before my mother could get the door shut. 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. An intellectual equivalent of the Borsch Circuit tummler, or stirrer-upper, his wide mouth grinning, his speedy, raucous New York voice running up and down the scale of sarcasm, invective, desperate rationality, gasping ridicule, his nervous hands clutching his head in despair at the obtuseness of his antagonist or flung wide in triumphant demonstration or stabbing the air with a minatory forefinger. And he could take it as well as dish it out. I can’t remember him irritated by the most drastic counter-attack; indeed he seemed to welcome direct onslaughts on himself and his ideas like a skillful swordsman who knows he can deflect the thrust. In more placid talk, he was even more impressive, quick on the uptake, bringing to bear on the point a richness of reference and of imagination. He was a conversationalist, not a monologist, his style of discourse being dialectical, depending on the other person, or persons, to stimulate him to his greatest reaches. He was both witty and humorous, the shrewd wisecrack slipped into the interstices of an argument like a quick knife thrust, and also the expansive comic “turn,” like one of Mark Twain’s leisurely, endlessly climaxing anecdotes, which left us both breathless with laughter as Delmore, with objections or additions from me—he welcomed interruptions, as a clever speaker welcomes hecklers, converting them to his own use and making them part of his improvisation—built up one of his realistic fantasies about an audience with T. S. Eliot, or the minutely characterized variations in the reactions of mutual friends to the James family plot in Mount Auburn cemetery or some other item in the tour of Cambridge he took them on while he was teaching at Harvard. These set pieces were as detailed as a Dutch genre painting, he seemed to have total recall, and while I suspected many of the details were invented, and sometimes when I had been present knew they were (or was Delmore just a better observer?), the general effect was always so true to life that it was extremely funny.

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. Even in his darkening later years, when paranoia was more and more spreading in his mind, his delusions were not of grandeur. He thought he was persecuted but not because of any imagined pre-eminence on his part; rather did he seem to see himself as the victim, merely, of powerful people—the Rockefellers figured prominently, for reasons as ingeniously complicated as they were tenuous—who were sending out rays from the Empire State Building to damage his poor brain, so superior to those of his fancied persecutors, and yet so vulnerable.

FOR ALL THE EXUBERANCE and even violence with which he expressed himself—an emotional, not a physical violence, it should be noted; even when he came to denounce at last most of his old friends, including me, no blows were struck, so far as I know—Delmore’s was a remarkably reasonable mind, immune to the passions and prejudices of our period. He was not a joiner. Although he didn’t hesitate to throw in with us on Partisan Review, first as a contributor, then as an editor, at a time when there was some risk in taking an anti-Communist stand, he seemed to feel no need for any political commitment as a writer, at least I can’t recall his signing any of my manifestoes or joining any of my committees. And although he was very conscious of his Jewish family background and returned to it constantly in his work—he was one of the first of the Jewish school that has now succeeded the Southern school—his attitude toward it was sometimes tender and sometimes ironical but never chauvinistic. Even after the war and the death camps he never made me feel uncomfortable as a goy, he could even discuss the Arab refugee question without undue excitement, and if he poked fun at my gentile-ity, he also mocked his own Jewishness, beginning with his name: he used to say he had been named after a Pullman car or a Riverside Drive apartment house, making endless fun of the discrepancy between his first and last names, as in his long narrative poem about a hero named Shenandoah Fish.

In this detachment from ideological fashion, Delmore resembled James Agee, another inspired talker, though tending more toward the monological than the dialectical mode. There are other similarities: both combined, in a way unique in my generation, an extraordinary talent for writing, the sheer gift of technique, in prose and poetry, with an intellectual passion, and a capacity for dealing with ideas, even to the point of writing a good deal of excellent criticism—Agee’s movie reviews are now well known, it might be interesting to collect Delmore’s reviews, in The New Republic and elsewhere, of films, TV, and books—that is not usual in our “creative” writers today. Both died youngish of heart attacks, and both had a positive genius for self-destruction. The gap between what they might have done and what they actually realized in their work is heart-breaking. “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight/And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough/That sometime grew within this learned man.”

At Delmore’s funeral, M. L. Rosenthal, of New York University, read one of his later poems:

All of the fruits had fallen,
The bears had fallen asleep,
And the pears were useless and soft
Like used hopes, under the starlight’s
Small knowledge, scattered aloft
In a glittering senseless drift:
The jackals of remorse in a cage
Drugged beyond mirth and rage.

Then, then, the dark hour flowered!
Under the silence, immense
And empty as far-off seas,
I wished for the innocence
Of my stars and my stones and my trees
All the brutality and inner sense
A dog and a bird possess,
The dog who barked at the moon
As an enemy’s white fang,
The bird that thrashed up the bush
And soared to soar as it sang,
A being all present as touch,
Free of the future and past
—Until, in the dim window glass,
The fog or cloud of my face
Showed me my fear at last!

POETRY IS A DANGEROUS OCCUPATION in this country, as the biographers of too many of our best twentieth-century poets show, from Ezra Pound on, including the recent deaths of Randall Jarrell and Theodore Roethke. This is not a new thing. Writing of our first major poet, Baudelaire often seems to be describing the subject of this memoir:

His conversation deserves particular mention. The first time that I asked an American about it, he laughed a good deal and said: “His talk is not at all consecutive.” After some explanation I understood that Poe made long digressions in the world of ideas, like a mathematician making demonstrations for advanced students…. It seems that Poe was not at all difficult about his audience. He cared little whether his listeners were able to understand his tenuous abstractions, or to admire the glorious conceptions which incessantly illuminated the dark sky of his mind. He would sit down in a tavern, beside some dirty scapegrace, and would gravely explain to him the grand outlines of his terrible book, Eureka…. No man ever freed himself more completely from the rules of society, or bothered himself less about passerby…. In Paris, in Germany, he would have found friends who could easily have understood and comforted him; in America he had to fight for his bread. Thus his drunkenness and his nomadic habits are readily explained. He went through life as if through a Sahara desert, and changed his residence like an Arab…. For Poe the United States was nothing more than a vast prison which he traversed with the feverish agitation of a being made to breathe a sweeter air.

No, the American climate is still not suited for poets. “Dazzling a young and unformed country by his mind,” Baudelaire writes, “Poe was fated to become a most unhappy writer. Rancors were aroused, solitude settled around him.” Our country is middle-aged but still unformed and, granting that in both poets psychological difficulties were also important, still I cannot but see Delmore, too, as “a being made to breathe a sweeter air.” He found it mostly among the young; “Delmore was a regular Pied Piper,” one of his students said to me after the funeral, where the attendance was sharply divided between the very young and the very middle-aged, one of the two limousines that went to the cemetery being filled with students who had known him at Syracuse University or in one of the Village bars he frequented. “I suppose that by the time the war is over, we will be outmoded characters, even such a Yale man as you,” he wrote to me in 1942 from Harvard, groaning about “forty Freshman themes a week to correct,” but adding: “If you come to one of my classes, you will see how far I am from the Genteel Tradition and with what shameless gestures I seek to find the post-war soul.” His search continued to the very end; he was always a good teacher, in or out of the classroom, open to the young. For what made Delmore—nobody thinks of him as anything but “Delmore”—precious was his candor, his invincible innocence (like the Catholics’ “invincible ignorance”), his uncalculating generosity of response—all that Meyer Schapiro in his poem finely calls “his ever-resurgent hopes of light.”

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