The Troubling Genius of Delmore

Delmore Schwartz, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1940s
Gertrude Buckman
Delmore Schwartz, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1940s

The myth of Delmore Schwartz is a variant on the myth of the visionary modern poet, at once preternaturally gifted yet unable to live in the world. This Romantic image starts, perhaps, with Thomas Chatterton, the eighteenth-century prodigy from Bristol who wrote counterfeit medieval texts and committed suicide at seventeen. It gained intensity in the life stories of John Keats and Percy Shelley, who both died in their twenties, and most spectacularly with the Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud, who made himself a seer through “the derangement of all the senses” before he stopped writing at twenty.

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness,” wrote William Wordsworth, a government functionary who in old age became poet laureate. Wordsworth’s stolid life didn’t fit his radical formula; still, his apothegm, which suggests that poets are fired at first by illumination but fly too close to the sun and flame out, took tenacious hold.

In the twentieth century in the United States, the mantle of maladjustment was taken up by any number of poets, among them a group of East Coast writers who came into their majority just before World War II. Delmore Schwartz called them “the class of 1930,” and besides him they included his younger compeers John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Lowell. (Their female counterparts Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and others lived their own various versions of the myth.) All would have troubled lives and die early or unnatural deaths. Eileen Simpson, who was Berryman’s first wife, wrote a shrewd, disabused, and moving memoir about them, Poets in Their Youth (1982), its title taken from Wordsworth’s couplet.

Delmore—“I never heard anybody call him ‘Schwartz,’” wrote his friend and occasional antagonist Dwight Macdonald—was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Romania. They soon separated and his father, a philandering real estate wheeler-dealer, moved west and died when Delmore was still in high school; he never received the inheritance due him. He inhaled the precariousness and the exhilaration of his parents’ situation. His old friend John Berryman says Delmore “sang” this Virgilian parody to him as a young man:

I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts

For his contemporary the critic Alfred Kazin, who shared a similar background, “to achieve success in life was a compulsion passed on from immigrant fathers to their sons. I was the first American child: their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.” Delmore thus exhibited both “chutzpah and social malaise,” as his second wife, Elizabeth Pollet, put it. “He and his friends assumed their own genius”—and others were quick to concur.1 Kazin told James…

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