Delmore Schwartz's poems are like salt flicked on the world

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Delmore Schwartz's poems are like salt flicked on the world
A new omnibus compiles the poet’s books and unpublished work, including his two-part autobiographical masterpiece, “Genesis.”

by Dwight Garner

NEW YORK, NY.- Come with me, down the rabbit hole that is the life and work of Brooklyn-born poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-66). There are two primary portals into Delmore World. Neither involves his own verse. Reading about Schwartz is more invigorating than reading him, or so I have long thought. He was so intense and unbuttoned that he inspired two of the best books of the second half of the 20th century.

The first portal is James Atlas’ 1977 biography, “Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet.” Atlas’ book has more drama and critical insight than seven or eight typical American literary biographies. I would be hard-pressed to name a better one written in the past 50 years, in terms of its style-to-substance ratio and the fat it gets into the pan.

Atlas follows Schwartz, the bumptious son of Jewish Romanian immigrants, through his alienated childhood and into his early work in the 1930s, when he was considered America’s Auden, the most promising poet of his generation. He captures Schwartz’s downtown Manhattan milieu, long before bohemia became a tourist attraction, and his friendships with Alfred Kazin, John Berryman, Philip Rahv, Robert Lowell and others.

Delmore! He had ardent nostrils; he was photographed by Vogue; he was slovenly and grand; he had read everything; he outtalked the most indefatigable talkers. “Cosmopolitan, radical, at home with Rilke, Trotsky, Pound,” Atlas writes, “he was the very embodiment of the New York intelligentsia.”

Schwartz never fulfilled his early promise. The highway he was on became a path and then a dense forest. He staggered into delusions and writer’s block and insomnia and lawsuits and DUIs and fantasies of revenge and (oh, no!) the saggy parts of rural New Jersey. His tragedy is underscored by the fact that he is best known today for one Bartlett’s-ready quotation: “Even paranoids have real enemies.”

Atlas was lucky that Schwartz left carnage in his wake. The biography is a rolling dessert cart of anecdote. Returning from a party at sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s house, where he had admired the erotic art, Schwartz was observed skipping through flower beds, singing and shouting “pistils and stamens!” He abruptly ended a long discussion of socialism with critic R.P. Blackmur by pushing him into the fireplace. And so on.

I felt the impact of Atlas’ book personally. More than 20 years ago — two dogs ago, at any rate — I signed a contract to write a biography of a different American writer of Schwartz’s generation. I never wrote that book, for a slew of reasons. But what really sunk me, early on, was reading Atlas’ book for research and understanding in my bones that I could never write anything so good.

The second portal is Saul Bellow’s novel, “Humboldt’s Gift,” which was inspired by his messy friendship with Schwartz. They had taught at Princeton at the same time. The novel won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize. (“It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates,” chortles the Schwartz character, Humboldt, about the Pulitzers.) Bellow captured Schwartz’s pugilistic conversational manner:

“To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine.”

Schwartz punched other egos down the way a baker does dough, as if to redistribute the intellectual yeast and allow for an improved rise.

A new book, “The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz,” lets us see this rumpled prodigy fresh. Though his reputation has dimmed, Schwartz has not vanished from bookshelves. The independent publishing house New Directions has loyally kept the flame lit. Its founder, James Laughlin, was Schwartz’s friend and early champion. In return, Schwartz wrote him crazy letters and tapped him for loans.

This collection prints the five full-length books Schwartz published during his lifetime. These include his much disputed translation of Rimbaud’s “Season in Hell.” (Schwartz’s French was limited, and he was criticized for his errors, but the translation was beloved by some.) Much of this material has been out of print for decades. This volume, edited by Ben Mazer, also includes a good deal of previously unpublished work.

I’m going to skip over the bulk of this material. Schwartz’s poems, especially the later ones, are dated. They groan under a freight of leaden rhymes and — Schwartz had a capacious mind — showy philosophical and literary references, spillover from the overstocked pantry that was his mind. A beachcomber will find things to admire but will return with only a small sack of sea glass and bright but mostly broken treasures.

There is something more important to talk about. Unearthed here is Schwartz’s masterpiece, a two-part autobiographical poem in free verse, “Genesis,” which he worked on for more than a decade. It’s so squirming and alive that it will, I suspect, be the rock upon which future considerations of Schwartz will stand. It should be reissued as a stand-alone volume. It’s the sort of book — it presages and compacts the soulfulness of Kazin’s memoirs, Lowell’s confessional verse and Berryman’s melancholy playfulness and irony — that you want to have in portable form. It should not be lost inside a huge collection, as if it were a handgun or a vibrator in the bottom drawer of a chifforobe.

Schwartz published “Genesis: Book 1” in 1943 to mixed reviews, but Atlas shrewdly calls it “the most significant poem of the age.” It has long been out of print. Even tattered copies sell online for more than $1,000, Mazer writes. “Genesis: Book 2,” which is even stronger, has never been published, except in excerpts. Together these volumes take up 300 pages, the molten core of this book.

Schwartz disliked the orotundity of his first name. (His parents thought “Delmore” sounded American.) Lowell noted, in one poem, that Schwartz’s last name was a handful, too, “one vowel bedeviled by seven consonants.” Schwartz tended to give his protagonists unusual names as well. The young hero of “Genesis” is named Hershey, after the candy bar. His surname is Green.

Book 1 takes Hershey up to the age of 7. Book 2 follows him into late adolescence. Future books in the series were considered but not pursued.

The effect of this long and Freudian poem, packed with nostalgic self-plunder, is sweeping and powerful. It gives us family history and an account of Hershey’s parents’ fractured marriage, along with antic personal observation — he is the “Atlantic boy” and “history’s orphan,” emerging puking and squalling from the lower middle class, for whom circumcision is done “with the knife that reached across 5,000 years from Palestine.” Kindergarten is a “Congress of thirty Ids, like a convention/Of a small radical party.” He discovers antisemitism.

Schwartz was one of the great writers about New York City. To young Hershey, the upthrust of office buildings makes Manhattan “look like a monstrous warship,/A dreadnaught!” He describes Long Island as nudging into North America “like an ocean liner coming from Europe.”

Hershey is attended by a Greek chorus of history’s ghosts. The grown poet in him, swinging for the rafters, is allowed to peek through. He speaks for “Genesis” writ large when he says:

Thus now I’ll flick the salt of intellect

Upon all things, the critical salt which makes

All qualities most vivid and acute.

There is a superb moment in Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel “A Fan’s Notes” — it is one of the great scenes in American literature — when the narrator meditates on literary fandom and his own overweening admiration for critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson had once written that he was “stranded” in America. Exley’s hero feels an overpowering urge to drive to Wilson’s house in upstate New York, knock on his door and shout: “Eddie, baby! I too am stranded!”

What is so winning about Schwartz at his best, and especially in “Genesis,” is that he is the sort of writer who collapses the difference between a cultivated intellect like Wilson’s and the mind of someone like Exley’s narrator, a literate but excitable and unpretentious embracer of life. Delmore, baby! We’re all stranded!

Publication Notes:

‘The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz’

Edited by Ben Mazer

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

699 pages. $50.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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