In 1983, the Quarterly Review of Literature celebrated its fortieth anniversary by publishing a book of writings by and about David Schubert, a little-known poet whom both the editors, Theodore and Renée Karol Weiss, had known during the 1930s. I contributed a short essay to the collection, in which I made the remark: “To sit down for a little while and reread some of Schubert’s rare and poignant verse is like opening a window in a room that had become stuffy without one’s realizing it.”1
Recently as I was writing about Schubert, almost by chance I came across a letter from William Carlos Williams to Theodore Weiss which was not included in the Schubert memorial volume. Williams wrote,
Many thanks for the Schubert poems, they are first rate—more than that, far more. They are among the few poems I read that belong in the new anthology—where neither Eliot nor, I am afraid, Pound belong. I wish I could get up that anthology where the rails are polished silver they are so clear in the sunlight I should provide. There is, you know, a physically new poetry which almost no one as yet has sensed. Schubert is a nova in that sky. I hope I am not using hyperbole to excess. You know how it is when someone opens a window on a stuffy room.2
Needless to say, I was quite delighted and surprised to find that Dr. Williams and I had hit on the same phrase to describe the effect Schubert’s poetry had for us, or rather that I had fortuitously used the same expression some forty years after Williams. And not just because it seemed to justify my having chosen an important occasion such as a lecture in the Norton series at Harvard to talk about a poet whom almost nobody has ever heard of. It also seemed a kind of justification for the theme of these lectures,3 which I began by calling “The Other Tradition,” and, when that began to sound a little pompous, backed down and decided to name “Another Tradition,” then finally and more accurately, “Other Traditions.” It shores up my feeling that the poets (and of course this could apply to people in any line of endeavor) who become known and are remembered and put in anthologies are there as much from happenstance as intrinsic merit.
Perhaps it is a little truer of poets than of others because poetry is a somewhat neglected art to begin with; it has trouble making its way in the best of circumstances, and there are not too many judges monitoring the situation to make sure each one gets what he or she deserves. Poems get lost more easily than paintings do; even their authors tend to forget them in drawers or sometimes destroy them in a fit of rage, as Schubert in fact did with a large body of his work, including a novel whose first sentence alone survives: “Outside it was Tuesday.”
I myself enjoy Schubert more than Pound or Eliot, and it’s a relief to have an authority of the stature of Williams to back me up. For we believe in what survives; that which falls by the wayside, for whatever reason, cannot interest us. Schubert didn’t help matters by going insane and alienating the few people who knew and believed in his poetry; he was constantly dogged by bad luck. But things could so easily have been different. He wrote during the Great Depression, when every poet, indeed everybody, was having a hard time. Had he managed to hang on to life a little longer (he died from tuberculosis in 1946 at the age of thirty-three) he surely, with the help of Dr. Williams and others who admired him, including Robert Frost, James Laughlin, and Morton Dauwen Zabel, would have found his audience, perhaps would even have been recognized as an American Arthur Rimbaud or Osip Mandelstam, as I think he deserves to be.
Not much is known about Schubert’s early life; his wife said that he always refused to talk about it. He was born in Brooklyn in 1913 but grew up in Detroit. His parents were very poor. When he was about twelve, his father abandoned the family, and his mother committed suicide soon after; apparently Schubert discovered her body when he came home from school. He, his sister, and his brother were then raised by various relatives. The biographical note on him in the New Directions volume Five Young American Poets for 1941 states that he was homeless from the age of fifteen, supporting himself by selling newspapers and working as a busboy, soda jerk, farm hand, and at various other jobs. One thinks of the lines from his poem “No Title,” which Frank O’Hara quoted in his poem “For David Schubert”: “I stood there on 42nd Street and/Eighth Avenue. I stood there with two/Nickels.”
Schubert attended Boys High School in Brooklyn, where he was an excellent student; at sixteen, he received a full scholarship to Amherst College. His strange personality both impressed and exasperated his teachers there, who included Robert Frost and the poet John Theobald. (According to Judith Schubert, his widow, Frost supported Schubert for a while with a stipend of three dollars a week.) One of Schubert’s teachers, Theodore Baird, remembers that “already as a freshman he was experimenting with language, playing with words, turning them round, letting them slide off into other meanings…. David Schubert had only one language, the one he was exploring with such inward delight, and he used it for all occasions, whether writing a poem or a history paper or a botany quiz.” Dropped from Amherst, reinstated thanks to special pleading from his teachers, and ultimately dropped again, Schubert ignored his studies and worked almost constantly on his poetry.
Meanwhile, he had met the woman he would eventually marry, on a country road in the Berkshires. Judith Schubert, née Ehre, recalls their meeting:
Molly and I were sitting on a Monterey, Massachusetts lawn, on a very hot August day in 1932, munching the berries we had gathered, while we tried to hitch a ride back to our inn. Neither of us noticed the figure that emerged from the house behind the trees until we heard the crackling of leaves made by the moccasined feet of the young man who approached us; he sat down on a rock a little distance away. About five feet eight, and very slender, his tan corduroy jacket, brown slacks and dark blue shirt open at the throat were far from outlandish. Probably it was his enigmatic smile, and the way he looked through us with his extraordinarily large dark blue eyes, that suggested some non-being from a Tennyson idyll.
David wrote about their fateful interview in a (for him) remarkably direct poem called “Monterey”:
The hills were lush
With rain and youth. I did
What chores were my portion
In the shack I shared with two friends.
It was to be for us
A landmark in our lives, a moment
When we were tired out, when
We didn’t have anything else to
Do. What a home and parents should
She came with a friend,
Calling, on the road. She was
Dissatisfied with her lodging.
One of us met them on the
Road, invited them in for lunch.
I loved her not
For herself, but for myself. She
Was, of girls imagined, one.
I am a rugged individualist;
I did not tarry or pretend.
After an on-again, off-again courtship, they were married in 1934.
During the 1930s, they lived in a picturesque garret in Brooklyn Heights overlooking New York Harbor. David eventually got a degree from City College and held various jobs, but the couple were mainly supported by Judith’s salary as a schoolteacher. They became friends with the poets Theodore Weiss, Ben Belitt, Horace Gregory, and Marya Zaturenska, as well as the painter Mark Rothko. In the mid-1930s, David began to publish his poetry in such magazines as The Nation, Partisan Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review; in 1936, he was awarded Poetry magazine’s Jeannette Sewell Davis Prize for a young poet. But mental illness had set in, and with it the deterioration of the Schuberts’ marriage. Sometimes David would disappear, penniless, for days or weeks.
Early in 1943, after a particularly violent scene, Judith felt she was no longer safe living with him; she left, and it was at that point that David destroyed all his papers (which Judith would later spend years trying to piece back together) as well as a painting Rothko had given them. After several weeks, he turned up in a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where he had gone, he said, “to see Archibald MacLeish and get into the navy.” Judith managed to get him transferred to Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains, where he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Eventually he was transferred to a hospital in Central Islip, Long Island, where he died of tuberculosis on April 1, 1946. Judith remarried after his death. In 1961, after numerous rejections from publishers, she managed to publish his collection Initial A with Macmillan. The poems in that volume were reprinted with many previously unpublished ones, as well as letters, critical essays, and biographical reminiscences, in the 1983 Quarterly Review of Literature collection, which is called David Schubert: Works and Days.
Wallace Stevens, whom Schubert admired, wrote that “poetry must resist the intelligence/almost successfully.” Much of Schubert’s poetry stretches that “almost” almost to the snapping point, and in doing so manages to render itself immune to critical analysis or even paraphrase. How then does one discuss Schubert, or, more precisely, how does one talk about him to an audience of whom few will likely have read his work? Not, I think, in the way of Irvin Ehrenpreis, who contributed the longest essay to Works and Days. Auden’s Caliban speaks of “the academic fields to be guarded with umbrella and learned periodical against the trespass of any unqualified stranger not a whit less jealously than the game-preserve is protected from the poacher by the unamiable shotgun,” and it is from this secure vantage point that Ehrenpreis proceeds to construe these ultimately unconstruable poems, identifying their mysterious contents, supplying autobiographical contexts which are arguable to say the least, locating Schubert’s bare pedestal in the sculpture garden of twentieth-century poetry, and sending him on his way with the recommendation: “It is time we saluted the poet as a rightful heir of Stevens, Eliot, and Crane.”4 Rachel Hadas, herself a fine poet, has written what is to date the most intelligent essay on Schubert, a review of Works and Days in Parnassus, and she rightly takes this conclusion to task:
Despite undisputed echoes of these poets in Schubert’s work, the truest and most helpful way to praise him is not to jimmy his name into a Great Tradition. Instead we should try to grasp and convey his most immediate and most enduring legacy; the strange originality of his poetry.5
Let’s try to do that then, with and without Ehrenpreis’s academic measuring tools and not losing sight of Hadas’s important caveats. Ehrenpreis has chosen several poems of Schubert that represent major stages in his career, the first being “Kind Valentine,” which launched his career with the prize from Poetry and is also one of the most beautiful poems he ever wrote:
She hugs a white rose to her heart—
The petals flare—in her breath blown;
She’ll catch the fruit on her death day—
The flower rooted in the bone.
The face at evening comes for love;
Reeds in the river meet below.
She sleeps small child, her face a tear;
The dream comes in with stars to go
Into the window, feigning snow.
This is the book that no one knows.
The paper wall holds mythic oaks,
Behind the oaks a castle grows.
Over the door, and over her
(She dies! she wakes!) the steeds gallop.
The child stirs, hits the dumb air, weeps,
Afraid of night’s long loving-cup.
Into yourself, live, Joanne!
And count the buttons—how they run
To doctor, red chief, lady’s man!
Most softly pass, on the stairs down,
The stranger in your evening gown.
Hearing white, inside your grief,
An insane laughter up the roof.
O little wind, come in with dawn—
It is your shadow on the lawn.
Break the pot! and let carnations—
Smell them! they’re the very first.
Break the sky and let come magic
Rain! Let earth come pseudo-tragic
Head, break! is broken. Dream, so small,
Come in to her. O little child,
Dance on squills where the winds run wild.
The candles rise in the warm night
Back and forth, the tide is bright.
Slowly, slowly, the waves retreat
Under her wish and under feet.
And over tight breath, tighter eyes,
The mirror ebbs, it ebbs and flows.
And the intern, the driver, speed
To gangrene! But—who knows—suppose
He was beside her! Please, star-bright,
First I see, while in the night
A soft-voiced, like a tear, guitar—
It calls a palm coast from afar.
And oh, so far the stars were there
For him to hang upon her hair
Like the white rose he gave, white hot,
While the low sobbing band—it wept
Violets and forget-me-nots.
Hadas says that Ehrenpreis “tells us more than we need to know, quite possibly more than is there (‘Joanne as a sad child, then as a girl dangerously in love, next as a psychotic mourning the loss of her mysterious lover, and so as a suicide and last as a corpse’).” She goes on, “None of all this touches upon what makes this startling poem unique: its rhythmic verve, bouncing pace, and magical blend of tones, declamatory and elegiac, hysterical and tender, all at once. The diction teeters on the brink of camp, yet manages to be moving anyway.” Elsewhere she mentions that “many of Schubert’s poems seem to consist of slivers gracefully or haphazardly fitted together. Such fragments rarely combine to form a larger structure or texture: images, rhythms, narrative stance, and syntax keep shifting, but most strikingly slippery is tone.”
We know from Schubert’s widow that he was a chain smoker and was always writing down fragments of poetry in the matchbooks he carried with him, which he would later incorporate into his poems. The typical Schubert poem has the appearance of something smashed, not too painstakingly put back together again, and finally contemplated with both remorse and amusement. In this, it resembles many of the elements of his life: his marriage, his failed attempts at education and employment, his inability to connect with people who were trying to help him. (Judith Schubert reported that Frost would willingly have provided him with both financial and critical help in his later, desperate years, but that Schubert was too proud to ask for it.)
The fragments here are like pieces of life, quick and articulate no matter how grotesquely reassembled. “Kind Valentine” seems to me not a poem about the stages of life awaiting a young girl, but an address to a girl who is slipping in and out of dreams by a poet similarly afflicted. Much of its effect comes from slight dislocations of grammar, so that one’s expectations are constantly kept off balance. For example: “This is the book that no one knows./The paper wall holds mythic oaks,/Behind the oaks a castle grows.” (Is this an allusion perhaps to the growing castle in August Strindberg’s Dream Play, whose subject is the failure of communication between men and gods?) And then: “Over the door, and over her/(She dies! She wakes!) the steeds gallop.” We might expect the steeds to gallop through the door and over her, but dreams, nightmares no doubt in this case, have their own rules of dimension and perspective and their own inscrutable reasons for having them. In any case, the steeds’ disorderly and hence disturbing arrival in the room foreshadows the quite possibly sinister nature of the contents of “night’s long loving-cup.” The poet then commands Joanne to live “into yourself.”
In a letter to Ben Belitt, Schubert wrote: “Frost once said to me that—a poet—his arms can go out—like this—or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world”; perhaps Schubert feels at this point that Joanne will cover the world most effectively by living “into” herself. The rest of the stanza, in which Joanne is told to count buttons to the tune of a childish rhyme and then pass down the stairs and onto the lawn, hearing “an insane laughter up the roof”—here again the phrase is slightly askew, as though the laughter were coming from someone not on the roof but perhaps wedged under it and who was insane enough to set the roof slightly ajar so as to be audible to someone on the ground below—the rest seems to me, pace Ehrenpreis, not a further stage in Joanne’s maturing into a girl dangerously in love but merely an extension of the dream, which is plotless like all dreams. Although Joanne in counting buttons is to think successively of “doctor, red chief, lady’s man,” all possible suitors, there is a real confusion in the next lines—“Most softly pass, on the stairs down,/The stranger in your evening gown”—as to who is wearing the evening gown: Joanne herself as a child or later on as a young woman; another woman who might be her rival for the suitors’ attentions; one of the suitors, even; or—such is the unaccountability of dreams—an amalgam of all three.
The first line of the next stanza is an uncompleted thought, the figure of rhetoric called aposiopesis, of which the classic example is Neptune’s “Quos ego” warning to the winds in the Aeneid. “Break the pot! and let carnations—/Smell them! they’re the very first.” Why break the pot in order to smell the carnations? Let them do what? And why are they the very first? We don’t think of them as a seasonal flower, like the violets and forget-me-nots in the last stanza, but rather as something from the florist’s, a first corsage for the girl from a suitor, perhaps, but why the breakage? Something to do with the sacrifice of virginity in order to gain ecstasy? Again, none of this quite adds up, and, in the way of a Schubert poem, it shouldn’t: what we are left with is a bouquet of many layered, splintered meanings, to be clasped but never fully understood. As Ehrenpreis says, “‘Kind Valentine’ is a splendid accomplishment—compact, obscure, and dramatic,” though this is perhaps the only place in his critical writing where obscurity is equated with splendor. Hadas is closer when she says that “what Schubert’s best poems capture is the texture of thought itself—ragged, rapid, dancing zigzag from likeness to question and from wish to intention.” She says elsewhere: “Schubert is no surrealist; he is poignantly aware that communication cannot be complete and feels the strains between language and meaning as sad or ominous.” Surrealism, in abandoning itself to the unconscious, can never accurately reflect experience in which both the conscious and the unconscious play a role: this realization on Schubert’s part is indeed one of his unique strengths.
I’d like to look at another of Schubert’s poems, a short one and for me his most beautiful:
He came from the mountains into this
Garden. Welcome, sir, all that I have is yours.
He came from the mountains, he spied
The kind shade. He sate with me under the oak tree.
What have you done in the mountains, sir,
Besides hunting the white deer all day?
In the mountains I hunted and I plotted
Your garden’s destruction and ruin.
In the mountains I hunted a similitude
To obtain your trusting mood.
Therefore I slay you as
You dream of the friendship I bear.
Said the man from the mountains the mountains
Who came to visit me here.
But I shall, as I look only upward
My star being set in the mountains,
Said the man, the man from the mountains,
See only the fair garden that I murdered here
Said the man the man from the mountains.
Ehrenpreis believes that this is a poem about Schubert’s cruel father; since Ehrenpreis knew Judith Schubert well, it’s possible that this could be a reading of it, though to do so seems akin to arguing about the identity of the third murderer in Macbeth. And why, anyway, should there be but one reading? Once after a poetry reading, I was asked one of those un-questions that people ask poets: “Do you make up your ideas or do they just come to you?” I was so busy wishing I knew the answer that I forgot to ask why both couldn’t be the case, and several other things as well. “The Visitor” could as well be a parable of Eden, of Christ accepting the inevitability of martyrdom, or it could be only a story whose meaning is self-contained. The splendor of the landscape and the terribleness of the act remind me of Rimbaud, who was one of Schubert’s favorite poets, and also of Lautréamont, whom he may not have known.
But the central axis of ambiguity is Schubert’s own. The man slays the poet as the latter dreams of the friendship he thought the man bore him. But the murderer suffers perhaps a worse destiny: he will look only upward since his star is set (note the ambiguity of the verb: the star is both fixed and falling) in the mountains. Yet he is fated to see not the star, but instead the fair earthly garden that he murdered down here. Father, friend, or stranger, he is doomed to commit his murder and suffer for it, as his victim is doomed to submit. Though there are confessions in the poems—one way of holding on to life was through them—there is much more besides, which disqualifies Schubert as a “confessional poet.” Long before that unfortunate term existed, he made the case against the genre succinctly in a letter to Ben Belitt. “About Crane—what I meant when I said that about ‘being cheated’ was this: I hate to feel that a poetry is so inextricably tied up with the tragedy of the poet that it cannot lead its own life.”
I’d like to end by presenting three poems of Schubert’s which give a little more of his range, his humor, as in the first one which is called “The Mark”; then as a painter of heaven- or hell-inflected urban landscapes in the poems “Peter and Mother,” which could be an evocation of his childhood in Detroit, and “The Happy Traveller,” which reminds me of Rochester (“this pleasant, conventional city”), where I spent part of my childhood at the same time as the newly married David and Judith (who was born there) were living a few blocks away. I will end with a brief note on poetry, the only one Schubert wrote, which prefaced the selection of his poems in Five Young American Poets.
Sad as the rain am I now that God has
Graded me with a B___; in his class,
I loved the recess, studied the window.
Is it my fault who built me that way? Yet
Even God must suffer at his mistakes.
Why did he lie? Or didn’t he know
Who promised me, that of phoenixes, I
Was not to be cremated, but a Glory.
A B___ hurts; it isn’t even
A mediocrity; not an A standing there
On its own legs, a smart man; but
A curved Greek, pliant and polite,
Think of the sinuous bosom
Of a C, which sees all, and feigns
Indifference! An open mind is a C, a good
American, friendly, someone you can talk with. A D
On the other hand, stands for
Damn you! Who
Can survive its scurrilous echo?
And E is like an eel, squashy, squishy—
But mud in your eye whichever way you look at it.
As for the sacred excommunication’s
F—final is it, finalities
Beyond the grave. And like the question why,
Haunting the victim in his tabula rasa.
Peter and Mother
“A hand is writing these lines
On your eyes for journeys
You’ll never start for. They’re
Transparencies. Wear rubbers
And you will be wise.”
In dreams initial A and in the parlor
The chandelier was bright with small toy tears;
At evening the door opened on clematis
And his mother with a shawl ran down the years
To meet someone with an empty lunch-box.
As they returned across the lot—
He listened—in her head was truth
Hansel and Gretel and a bar
Of sweetest song.
Where the word
Is shadow of the deed and hard
Upon it like first crocuses
In snow…”grow up and be
My tenement house, my brick building!”
This paper representation imperfectly made,
Be like words at a railway station still
Speaking though the train has gone—
The pity strong enough
To tear the four walls down, scatter the children,
The picture of the cow on the wall
Grazing an indifferent pasture.
Talking her trite ghost, the smell
Of lilac is fainter and fainter;
Thinking her worn face is like a face
A whiteness on the brush of some eternal painter.
And always growing farther, trying to hear
Something that was never expressed very
Her journey ended that was hidden
In the blindness of his naive skin.
THE HAPPY TRAVELLER
Farewell, O zinnias, tall as teetotalers,
And thou, proud petunias, pastel windows of joy,
Also to you, noble tree trunks, by name
Elm, with your dark bark in the dark rain, couchant
Like comfortable elephants. And you
Mailbox colored robin’s egg blue on the poor
House, shy, set back (a poor gentleman but
Irreproachable), with your shutter’s robin’s egg
Green. You, street, striated with rain like a new penny,
And houses planted by arbor-vitae trees,
By miniature pines that lean against you for
Support—Hail and farewell!
And I, outside in the rain, look inside
These elms whose branches tip and touch
The slant roof, slain by the four fireplaces
Where life, slowly, life is conventional
In a sheer seersucker dress, with blue eyes,
A red ribbon in her pale hair, eats a sundae,
Glances at the young man.
O city whose lives
Gather their accumulation of days
Carefully as well-kept lawns.
Past the proud apartment
Houses, fat as a fat money bag. I wish that I
Might stay in this pleasant, conventional
City, as I study a sturdy clover
Bent back by a dewdrop of rain. But then
From the corner of a mood like Les Sylphides,
Impossible, romantic as certain moons
In certain atmospheres, then you called me
From the corner of the street. And,
Like buttercups, like invitations:
A SHORT ESSAY ON POETRY
A poet who observes his own poetry ends up, in spite of it, by finding nothing to observe, just as a man who pays too much attention to the way he walks, finds his legs walking off from under him. Nevertheless, poets must sometimes look at themselves in order to remember what they are risking. What I see as poetry is a sample of the human scene, its incurably acute melancholia redeemed only by affection. This sample of endurance is innocent and gay: the music of the vowel and consonant is the happy-go-lucky echo of time itself. Without this music there is simply no poem. It borrows further gayety by contrast with the burden it carries—for this exquisite lilt, this dance of sound, must be married to a responsible intelligence before there can occur the poem. Naturally, they are one: meanings and music, metaphor and thought. In the course of poetry’s career, perhaps new awarenesses are discovered, really new awarenesses and not verbal combinations brought together in any old way. This rather unimportant novelty is sometimes a play of possibility and sometimes a genuinely new insight: like Tristram Shandy, they add something to this Fragment of Life.
October 5, 2000
John Ashbery, “Schubert’s Unfinished,” in David Schubert: Works and Days, edited by Theodore Weiss and Renée Karol Weiss (QRL, 1983), p. 308. ↩
Letter from William Carlos Williams to Theodore Weiss, July 16, 1946; reprinted by permission of Theodore Weiss. ↩
The Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, 1990. ↩
Irvin Ehrenpreis, “Homage to Schubert the Poet,” in David Schubert: Works and Days, p. 321. ↩
Rachel Hadas, “Eloquence, Inhabited and Uninhabited,” Parnassus, Fall/Winter 1984, p. 139. ↩