The Beautiful American Word, Sure
by Delmore Schwartz (1913 – 1966)
The beautiful American word, Sure
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,
As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.
Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,
And hope for day when the whole world has that face:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.
Delmore Schwartz lived and died in New York City. In between were stints as student or adjunct professor in Madison, Wisconsin, Harvard and Syracuse University. New York city and his parents divorce loomed as a character in his stories and poetry, his sonnet 0 City, City a far cry from Wordsworth’s love affair with London. Schwartz seemed to bear New York on his shoulders, filling his mind with literature in its public libraries as a young man, surrounding him with artists and intellectuals and then he spit it out after having chewed on it sufficiently for 40 years. It is said that Schwartz paved the way for Saul Bellows to be Saul Bellows. If true, its damnable praise that his legacy was being an originality that allowed the next Jewish writer to prosper for excelling even further in defining the loneliness of trying to assimilate as an outsider into a nation of immigrants.
Schwartz was a man of brilliant intellect whose professional zenith peaked in his 20’s. He was touted by William Carlos Williams. He was an acquaintance if not friend of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Lowell penned a tribute or a curse in honor of him. Schwartz suffered the burdens of genius, mental illness, creativity, alcoholism and poverty. He died at the age of 53 of a heart attack. His body unclaimed by family and friends he had grown estranged from years before.
Schwartz writes with a clear voice, an impulse driven by a deep understanding of literature and a willingness to work within the confines of tradition to forge something new. The subjects of his poems were often stark. His sonnets a love song to words and and ideas more than people.
What to make of the first line and his association of the American-ness of the word ‘sure’? Schwartz was a first generation Romanian Jew, who grew up in respectable if not the upper middle class in New York City. That all changed in an instant when his father died suddenly at age 49. Apparently dying young was the one true inheritance his father passed on to his son. The ‘sureness’ of being American may have eluded Schwartz. And yet the freedoms that invention allowed were not lost on his awakening as an artist. For what was possible for him in America would have been impossible in the birth place of his parents.
by Delmore Schwartz
I follow thought and what the world announces
I lean to hear, and leaning too far over,
Fall, and babied by confusion, cover
Myself in drowse, too tired by such bounces.
But in sleep are dreams across zigzagging snow
Descending quietly and slow, like minutes,
And on this peace the soul again begins its
Rhetoric of desire, older than Jericho,
And rails once more, like birds of early morning
Urchinous on branches and like newsboys,
“Extra, this is the meaning of life,
Here is the real good, beyond all turning,”
Till night goes home, astonished by such cries,
I wake up, and, to feel superior, I laugh.