My Clumsiness Each Time I Try To Dance

Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost

Rome

By Joachim du Bellay
Translated by Ezra Pound 
 

O thou newcomer who seek’st Rome in Rome
And find’st in Rome no thing thou canst call Roman;
Arches worn old and palaces made common
Rome’s name alone within these walls keeps home.

Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.

Rome that art Rome’s one sole last monument,
Rome that alone hast conquered Rome the town,
Tiber alone, transient and seaward bent,

Remains of Rome. O world, thou unconstant mime!
That which stands firm in thee Time batters down,
And that which fleeteth doth outrun swift Time

Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.

Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,

Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.


Despite Lowell’s embrace of the true southern hospitality showed him by Tate, Warren and Ransom, Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. Though even he was a bit taken aback by the privileged life he grew up in and retained as an adult through his family’s Bostonian wealth, status and power, he never hesitated to embrace the safety net it provided.   There are the penniless loonies, like Pound, who get by in part through their eccentricity.  And then there are the wealthy eccentrics, who are tolerated because they have fuck you walking around money.   They can be as crazy as they want, and their community will accept it, because there is an unspoken bond among families, schools and businesses that are so intertwined in their community, that they have mutually decided its better to accept a few nut bars of their own choosing, as long as they can pay their bar tab and afford expensive psychiatrists and luxury mental hospitals in times of recovery when substance abuse gets out of control.  The field of psychiatry and the big business of treating mental illness and substance abuse largely evolved to serve the wealthy in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.  During the hay day of Lowell’s drinking in the 1940’s, there was an acceptance of heavy drinking that was part of the culture within which he associated that covered up real insanity, with a ready excuse of bad behavior by individuals as  “just having had a few too many with the boys.”

Lowell had burned enough bridges in Boston with school mates, his father, and the upper crust of Bostonian society, that as a young adult and then throughout the rest of his life, he made New York more his adopted northern home.   He would spend long periods in New York, in between stints at various Universities, including one triumphant return to Harvard, and travel abroad.  Schwartz, who also came from money, but saw his inheritance squandered by a corrupt executor of his father’s estate, who died suddenly at age 49, was taken aback by the level of wealth and servants in Lowell’s parent’s household.  He was also shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism that ran through the banter between Lowell and his parents during “pleasant” dining room conversation when he and Lowell would visit. 

Schwartz and Lowell were good friends, who palled around together in New York City in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when Lowell was in residence or visiting, during the high point in Schwartz’s career, when his books and poetry were being praised by Tate, Warren and others.  But writing careers are like chess games, there is an opening, a mid-game, and for the best, an end-game.  Schwartz had a clever opening and the start of a solid mid-game, but alcoholism and mental illness wore away his talents and opportunities, until even his brilliant conversational skills weren’t enough to keep his friends visiting him at his favorite bars in New York City.  He died penniless in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City at age 52.

Lowell’s dark side was in full display early in his marriage with Stafford.   There was a sense of obligation, from the car crash, that instantly began to erode its underpinnings and by 1945, Lowell was finding other female companionship to his liking better, if not for sex, at least for its pleasant diversion of company.  For someone known as a bit of prude, who didn’t counter rough talk and sex jokes among his male companions,  Lowell was unabashed in going through a series of lovers and female companions in the end stages of his marriage to Stafford.   By 1946 serious negotiations were ongoing between the two of them around dissolution through Lowell’s lawyer on what would be the financial alimony paid to Stafford in a divorce so that it could be finalized.  During this time from 1945 to 1948, Lowell and Stafford were married in name only.  Lowell used this time to travel, live in New York and then in 1947 and 1948, as the divorce was finalized, take on a position in Washington D. C. as a consultant to the Library of Congress, the post that would eventually be renamed as the position of United States Poet Laureate.   

It was during this time that Lowell lived in Washington, D. C. that he began visiting Ezra Pound in prison, who was being held on charges of treason at the Chestnut Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast D.C.  Lowell, no stranger to mental institutions, though ones far nicer in creature comforts than St. Elizabeths, began visiting Pound for weekly conversations on poetry and literature. Lowell had always been fascinated by Pound. Lowell first contacted Pound via letter his freshmen year at College.  Pound, always a generous mentor and critic and fan of younger poets, had written back and so it is not surprising that Lowell seized this opportunity to further their friendship.

I am hopeful both men found solace in the acceptance of each other’s humanity.  As someone who is having to come to grips with the depths of his own demons, I can appreciate the generosity and dangers these types of friendships represent.  Friendships like Lowell had with both Schwartz and Pound, were the totality of their beings was not hidden, both the power of their artistic expression, the brilliance of their intellects and the brokenness of their souls, are on full display and tolerated, as friends, is a rare thing to find.   And I would hope, all three were the better for it, even if not spared from the best and the worst each brought to those relationships and their own lives.


Why Do You Write An Endless History

by Delmore Schwartz

“Why when you write do you most frequently
Look in your heart and stare at it both first
And last, half agonized by what you see
And half bemused, seeking what is accursed
Or blessed in the past? And what demand
Is gratified?” I answered, hesitant
And slow: “Because I wish to understand
The causes of each great and small event

Choosen, or like thrown dice, an accident,
-My clumsiness each time I try to dance,
My mother’s anger when I wore long pants,
Thus, as the light renews each incident,
My friends are free of guilt or I am free
Of self-accused responsibility.

The Dark Accidents Of Strange Identity

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The Rumor and The Whir of Unborn Wings

by Delmore Schwartz

Some girl serene, some girl whose being is
Affection, and in love with natural things,
In whom like summer like a choir sings,
Yet with a statue’s white celebrities
Although the city falls.  Golden and sleek,
Spontaneous and strong, quickend and one
To wake for joy, the mother of a son
Who climbs with conscious laughter every peak!

But I know well the party rush, the black
Rapids of feeling falling tot a bride,
Trapped in the present and the body’s lack,
Long reasons’s new hat quickly thrown aside,
And soon a child rising and toiling like me
With the dark accidents of strange identity.

 

At a Solemn Musick. (Recorded at the National Poetry Festival, 1962)


O City, City

by Delmore Schwartz

To live between terms, to live where death
has his loud picture in the subway ride,
Being amid six million souls, their breath
An empty song suppressed on every side,
Where the sliding auto’s catastrophe
Is a gust past the curb, where numb and high
The office building rises to its tyranny,
Is our anguished diminution until we die.

Whence, if ever, shall come the actuality
Of a voice speaking the mind’s knowing,
The sunlight bright on the green windowshade,
And the self articulate, affectionate, and flowing,
Ease, warmth, light, the utter showing,
When in the white bed all things are made.

 

 

God Forbid I Look Behind

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The Only Ghost I Ever Saw

by Emily Dickinson

The only ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin, –so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird,
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

Hi conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient, —
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind
Since that appalling day!

 


I attended a performance of Amal and the Night Visitors this weekend with James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis.   A simple tale, an operetta set to motion as a ballet, that reminds us that our lives change for the better when we open the door to the stranger and welcome them inside.  I agree with Delmore Schwartz.  Let Angels be the judge of dogs and children.  Some people believe babies are born with all the knowledge of the world, childhood is unlearning what they already know. Dogs are born with similar knowledge.  They are born trusting.  And in companionship they learn to magnify that trust or it diminishes, depending on the person in their charge.  To howl and dance out our souls sounds like a good plan for dogs, children and adults.

 


Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children are Strangers

by Delmore Schwartz

Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.

Tell us, Freud, can it be that lovely children
Have merely ugly dreams of natural functions?
And you, too, Wordsworth, are children truly
Clouded with glory, learned in dark Nature?
The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,
The child who credits dreams and fears the dark,
Know more and less than you: they know full well
Nor dream nor childhood answer questions well:
You too are strangers, children are Shakespearean.

Regard the child, regard the animal,
Welcome strangers, but study daily things,
Knowing that heaven and hell surround us,
But this, this which we say before we’re sorry,
This which we live behind our unseen faces,
Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.

This Is The Meaning of Life

Delmore Schwartz
Delmore Schwartz in New York City

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.


Sonnet

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.