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Delmore Schwartz: “Error’s Fecundity”

Review by Jack Foley

Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz
edited by Craig Morgan Teicher
forward by John Ashbery
New Directions, 2016

[S]o many of [my students] made the same errors that, in a way, they were no longer errors. Moreover, the longer I thought about some of the errors, the more they seemed to be possible enlargements of meaning and association which might be creative.
—Delmore Schwartz on the concept of “fruitful error” in “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World.”

error’s fecundity
—Delmore Schwartz, Genesis: Book I

Since Delmore Schwartz’s death in 1966 at the age of 52, his ghost has shown considerable signs of stirring—in Saul Bellows’ novel, Humboldt’s Gift (1975), in James Atlas’s widely-read biography, Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977), and in various other more recent books. Schwartz appears as a character in John Berryman’s Dream Songs and in the memoirs of some of his friends: William Barrett’s The Truants and William Phillips’ A Partisan View. Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth came out in 1982. During the 80s and 90s, many Schwartz titles appeared or reappeared: the Selected Essays was reissued in paperback in 1980; the Letters of Delmore Schwartz came out in 1984. Poet Robert Phillips (Schwartz’s literary executor since the death of Dwight MacDonald) not only edited the Letters but was responsible for various other volumes as well: Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz (1979); The Ego is Always at the Wheel (1986); and Shenandoah and Other Verse Plays (1992).

The latest entry in the attempt to establish Delmore Schwartz as a major American poet is the New Directions anthology, Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, edited by Craig Morgan Teicher, with a foreword by John Ashbery. The book is a wild ride through Schwartz’s productions and includes stories, published poetry, critical essays, unpublished poems, “verse drama,” and letters. (The last of the latter—and the concluding piece in the book—is a letter Schwartz wrote to his landlady, Mrs. Odell; the poet is complaining about what he regards as an unjust increase in his rent: “The only reason you give for your incredible demands, ‘excessive damages,’ has no basis in fact whatever. There are no excessive damages whatever: there are no damages.”)

An interesting aspect of Once and for All is its inclusion of selections from Delmore Schwartz’s celebrated “failure,” Genesis: Book I. The editor describes Genesis: Book I as “Schwartz’s most ambitious and least successful work. A sprawling book-length poem interspersed with narrative prose, it was intended…to tell Schwartz’s life story, and by extension, the story of European Jews in America…[Schwartz] thought the poem would make him immortal…[A]lmost none of this book has been available since its initial printing in 1943.”

If not quite career destroying, Genesis: Book I was far from the success Schwartz hoped it would be, and there was no Genesis: Book II. Following the lead of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts and even more of Pound’s Cantos (“These many crowded about me, with shouting”—ghosts, as in Schwartz’s poem), Genesis: Book I maps mind as an area of many conflicting voices—though editor Teicher complains that “the ghosts…are often unbelievable or downright silly.” Teicher’s selection of passages does not include the poem’s powerful conclusion.

Few would deny the brilliance of Schwartz’s famous story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” written in 1935 (when the author was in his twenties) and again in print as the opening selection of Once and for All. Robert Leiter, writing in The Hudson Review in 1985, calls the story a “certifiable masterpiece” but goes on to claim that “for the rest of his brief life…Schwartz wrote variations on this one story, with less and less technical expertise each time out.” Many would agree with Leiter. Still, if Schwartz’s reputation is nothing like what it once was, it has by no means died out, as this “best of” volume indicates. This fact is particularly interesting given the nature of his work. The question he raises again and again is: “What is the nature of the illumination present in a work of art?” In his essay, “The Isolation of Modern Poetry,” Schwartz asserts that “the only life available to the poet as a man of culture has been the cultivation of his own sensibility.” But what is the nature of this “sensibility”? If we grant that art is some sort of “mirror,” that it necessarily gives us an image of the “self”—whatever the “self” may be—we may still ask what sort of image it gives, what sort of “knowing” it involves.

The title of Schwartz’s selected poems is his term for the particular kind of “knowledge” generated by art: “summer knowledge,” knowledge which is necessarily brief and limited—occurring only during the summer—but nevertheless full of the intense pleasure which summer promises. The phrase is also—at least potentially—a contradiction in terms: summer is that time when we don’t go to school and so don’t “learn” anything: no “knowledge” in the summer. It is “vacation” time, a time of “pleasure,” not “knowledge.” “In a way,” Schwartz remarks in the title poem, “summer knowledge is not knowledge at all.”

The potential contradiction allows us to enter more deeply into Schwartz’s work. We might say of him what Hans-Georg Gadamer said in Philosophical Hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger: “He pursued the intrinsic and indissoluable interinvolvement of authenticity and inauthenticity, of truth and error, and the concealment that is essential to and accompanies every disclosure….”

It was in the strength of such paradoxical illumination—the interpenetration of “blindness” and “insight,” as Paul de Man once put it—that Delmore Schwartz lived out his career. Few poets have been so committed to art as self-consciousness; few poets have understood so clearly that self-consciousness is necessarily shot through with fantasy and fiction.


“In the celebrated selection of his poems published in 1959 under the title Summer Knowledge,” wrote James Atlas in Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, “Delmore chose to devote over a hundred pages to haphazard, euphonious, virtually incomprehensible effusions.”

This judgment seems to me as repellant now as it did when I first read it in 1977. One cannot help but ask why Mr. Atlas made such a judgment upon a group of poems which I believe to be as strong as or stronger than anything in Delmore Schwartz’s early career. “But too many of them,” Atlas goes on, “are empty symphonies of sound; while not without a peculiar beauty, they verge on being devoid of any sense whatsoever.”

What sort of “sense” can be made of these poems, these “virtually incomprehensible effusions”? In his foreword to Once and for All, John Ashbery questions Atlas’s judgment only in the mildest way:

The late poetry does seem to lack the electric compressions and simplifications that animate his early writing, tending toward bald assertiveness. James Atlas calls it “haphazard, euphonious, virtually incomprehensible effusions…imitative of Hopkins, Yeats, Shelley.” And he may be right. Yet there is something there, perhaps indeed the ruin of a great poet, but perhaps something more. It turns out that critics were premature in condemning the late work of Picasso and Stravinsky; perhaps Delmore will one day get a similar reprieve.

Schwartz himself boldly placed the newer poems in direct juxtaposition to the older, famous ones. “The second half of the book,” he writes in his “Author’s Note,” “consists of poems written in the past five years.” The famous poems are all included, of course, but the title of the volume—which is also the title of the second half—suggests his intention to emphasize the new. “Summer knowledge,” he writes in the title poem,

is the knowledge of death as birth,
Of death as the soil of all abounding flowering flaring rebirth.

A passage from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft) is relevant here:

Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time,…compels us philosophers to descend into our ultimate depths…[F]rom such abysses, from such severe sickness, also from the sickness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more child-like and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before. 1/

James Atlas’s book gives ample evidence of Schwartz’s problems with “the sickness of severe suspicion”—one remembers the poet’s famous remark, “Even paranoids have real enemies”—but Nietzsche’s emphasis, like Schwartz’s, is on joy. The word “joy” echoes throughout Summer Knowledge, bringing to mind not only Nietzsche but a Romantic tradition which would include Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Beethoven, all of whom saw “joy” as an emotion central to their work. Schwartz’s “‘I Am Cherry Alive,’ the Little Girl Sang” hints at the nature of that joy:

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new….”

One of the strongest—and most obviously autobiographical—of the later poems is “Once and for All,” the opening of “The Phoenix Choir” section of Summer Knowledge and the title poem of the “best of” volume. This is the entire poem:

Once, when I was a boy,
Apollo summoned me
To be apprenticed to the endless summer of light and consciousness,
And thus to become and be what poets often have been,
A shepherd of being, a riding master of being, holding the sun-god’s
horses, leading his sheep, training his eagles,
Directing the constellations to their stations, and to each grace of
But the goat-god, piping and dancing, speaking an unknown tongue
or the language of the magician,
Sang from the darkness or rose from the underground, whence arise
Love and love’s drunkenness, love and birth, love and death, death
and rebirth
Which are the beginning of the phoenix festivals, the tragic plays in
celebration of Dionysus,
And in mourning for his drunken and fallen princes, the singers and
sinners, fallen because they are, in the end,
Drunken with pride, blinded by joy.

And I followed Dionysus, forgetting Apollo. I followed him far too
long until I was wrong and chanted:
“One cannot serve both gods. One must choose to win and lose.”
But I was wrong and when I knew how I was wrong I knew
What, in a way, I had known all along:
This was the new world, here I belonged, here I was wrong because
Here every tragedy has a happy ending, and any error may be
A fabulous discovery of America, of the opulence hidden in the dark
depths and glittering heights of reality.

The word “all” appears again and again in Summer Knowledge—“I see a great Sky, Moon and Stars, and ALL,” says Schwartz’s Swift—and it points to what Schwartz considered to be a particularly American concern. Behind Schwartz’s “all” is Emerson’s famous “transparent eyeball” passage in “Nature”—“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”—and Melville’s remarks about “whiteness” in Moby Dick: “whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors…a colorless, all color….” Schwartz himself writes of Jeremiah Dickson in “The True-Blue American,”

Jeremiah Dickson was a true-blue American,
For he was a little boy who understood America, for he felt that he must
Think about everything; because that’s all there is to think about….

Yet, however American and autobiographical “Once and for All” may be, the opening lines are nevertheless a paraphrase of the opening of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem, “Da ich ein Knabe war” (“Da ich ein Knable war, / Rettet’ ein Gott mich oft / Vom Geschrei und der Rute der Menschen…”). Indeed, in one section of Schwartz’s very American Summer Knowledge the poet speaks in the voices of various European writers: Sterne, Swift, Hölderlin, and Baudelaire.

Schwartz’s translation of Hölderlin is not the only European reference in “Once and for All.” Apollo and Dionysus suggest Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and the word “constellations” brings to mind Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, in which “UNE CONSTELLATION” is a prominent feature. In addition, the phrases “shepherd of being” and “master of being” are taken from Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” a translation of which can be found in Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, a book edited by Schwartz’s friend, William Barrett.

In Heidegger’s essay, however, the phrases are opposed to one another, as they are not in Schwartz’s poem. In “Once and for All,” as in the structure of the entire volume, antitheses—old poems vs. new poems, Europeans vs. Americans, translations vs. confessions—are at once asserted and denied; like the book as a whole, the poem is a kind of battleground in which the central “antithesis” of Schwartz’s career is rehashed, brought up from the dark to be understood: his “tragic fall,” the shift in his role from public, Apollonian poet to Dionysian poet of the abyss, the poet who sings “from the darkness”—from what Schwartz once referred to paradoxically as “famous obscurity” (“The Isolation of the Modern Poet”).

For Schwartz it is only the “light” of poetry which can illuminate that darkness, and the mode of “knowledge” for which the entire book is striving, its peculiar mode of consciousness, is intimately bound up with the power of poetry to create states of transformation—reversals of “knowledge”—which might be called “Edenic.” In “The Kingdom of Poetry” Schwartz writes,

[Poetry] transforms the water into wine at each marriage in Cana of Galilee…
a history of poetry would be a history of joy…

For poetry is like light, and it is light…
For poetry is the sunlight of consciousness:
It is also the soil of the fruits of knowledge
In the orchards of being…

“The Kingdom of Poetry” bears a slight, probably deliberate stylistic resemblance to “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart, another “mad,” alcoholic poet. (Like all the poems in the second section of Summer Knowledge, it also offers a liberation from the Audenesque manner of early poems like “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day.”) For Schwartz, it is precisely the poet’s “visionary” power, his power of “seeing,” which enables him, like the painter Seurat, to flood his “darkness” with light, to name even the most horrific aspects of the self with lightness, gaiety, joy. Again from “The Kingdom of Poetry”:

This is like light.
This is light,
Useful as light, as charming and
as enchanting

(Schwartz’s surname, as Robert Lowell knew when he wrote “To Delmore Schwartz,” means “black, dark, swarthy, gloomy, dismal”—the opposite of “light.”)

Like the survival of the child in “I Am Cherry Alive,” what Schwartz calls in “Once and for All” “the endless summer of light and consciousness” is, it seems, capable of sustaining him even amid the “tragic plays” of his life. Indeed, even the most catastrophic of his “errors”—the word unites Freud, with his psychology of “errors,” and Columbus, who “erroneously” discovered America—may be, in this realm, the occasion of a “fabulous discovery.”

Schwartz is rather harsh on Columbus in his playful piece, “Kilroy’s Carnival.” “The discoverer of America…was incompetent and hallucinated,” he writes,

Was Columbus capable of guiding a lily cup from one end to another of a moving railroad coach?…[T]he new world was discovered through hallucination.

In “Once and for All,” however, the poet seems to be denying the very possibility of error, writing a poem about a principle which declares itself “once and for all” and which works itself out no matter what the poet may do, no matter how “wrong” he may be.

Yet: doing and error, the poet’s being “wrong,” are the substance of the poem.

“Once and for All” is not what this paper is—an abstract consideration of themes—but a story, indeed a life story, a narrative which begins when the protagonist is a boy (“a true-blue American”) and whose central action is a temptation and a fall: “And I followed Dionysus, forgetting Apollo.” As such, the poem is, like any narrative, a manifestation of time, a presentation of something which can happen only in time: a wrong choice, a tragic error. (At the appearance of Dionysus the poem significantly shifts from the word “and” to the word “or.”)

And yet, to describe the poem as a “story” is to leave something out: the poem. Set against this “narrative,” this presentation of time, is a continual emphasis upon structure and completion—often upon the mere structure and completion of a list. The long lines, the continual pile-up of phrases, the constant sense of rhetorical balancing and phrasing (“A shepherd of being, a riding-master of being, holding… leading…training…”), the unmistakable resonance of the poem’s rhyming—all these are devices to distract us from getting on with the story. And the primary way they distract us is by making “stories” of their own, for a story—a beginning, a middle and an end—is nothing but a structure among other structures, and “Once and for All” presents us with a plenitude of such structures: rhyme, balances, antitheses, etc.

A poet who writes,

A shepherd of being, a riding master of being, holding the sun-god’s
horses, leading his sheep, training his eagles,
Directing the constellations to their stations,

is not interested in presenting his “story” in the most concise manner possible but in pausing, embellishing, exploring side-issues. Set against the very flow of time, against the “story” of our lives—indeed, against the area in which we act and make decisions—is the poet’s continuing, moment-by-moment ability to order his experience, to embellish it, to find structure and coherence in it. From this point of view we are within the exalted area of Schwartz’s homage to the painter, Seurat, “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine.” We are in the realm of “vision,” of the peculiar “reality”—to use the last word of “Once and for All”—of artistic creativity:

Seurat seeks within the cave of his gaze and mind to find
a permanent monument to Sunday’s simple delight; seeks deathless
joy through the eye’s immortality;
Strives patiently and passionately to surpass the fickle erratic quality
of living reality.

The poet, Schwartz writes in his essay, “The Vocation of the Poet,” “unites things, meanings, attitudes, feelings, through the power, prowess and benediction of words, and in this way he is a priest who performs a ceremony of marriage each time he composes a poem.” In “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine,” Seurat “seeks deathless joy through the eye’s immortality.”

Yet in “Once and for All” the artist is not described as “seeing” anything; he does not enjoy “the eye’s immortality”: rather, he is specifically “blinded by joy.” Indeed, the very last word of “Once and for All,” the word “reality”—qualified in the Seurat poem by the words “fickle” and “erratic”—is the one word which most fully calls the poem into question. The realm of James Atlas’s biography of Delmore Schwartz is very much the realm of “reality,” and in it we read “stories” which are exactly the opposite of the one I have just told: “For years now, Delmore had been subjecting Elizabeth to what could only be called a reign of terror”; “it was out of sheer desperation that he concentrated on such matters as the New Jersey house”; “Delmore still enjoyed brief periods of approximate sanity.”

“Once and for All” clearly contains autobiographical elements, but I would argue that the word “reality” is at the conclusion of the poem because it is precisely “reality” that the poem is not. As we enter into Schwartz’s work, the autobiographical elements tend to disappear, to vanish, to transmute themselves. To become—what? An image of longing, a wish. Again from “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine”:

Can we not…hear
The voice of Kafka, forever sad, in despair’s sickness trying to say:
“Flaubert was right: Ils sont dans le vrai!
Without forbears, without marriage, without heirs,
Yet with a wild longing for forbears, marriage, and heirs:
They all stretch out their hands to me: but they are too far away!”

(“Here every tragedy has a happy ending….”) 2/

It seems to me that the “joy” which Delmore Schwartz attempts to name in Summer Knowledge is fundamentally the joy of esthetic illusion (“blinded by joy”), the joy of a continual capacity to uphold a strong fiction against the ever-deepening erosions of reality. At its furthest limits it is the joy of madness. “An artist worth his salt,” wrote Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “is permanently separated from ordinary reality…we all know…the constant unrealness of his innermost being….” It is precisely the pain and joy of unreality—one might indeed speak of it as a “dream”—that Schwartz is expressing again and again in these late poems, and we look for it in vain throughout Mr. Atlas’s long chronicle of events because it is in no way “in” the artist’s life but only behind it, above it, transmuting it, at odds with it, thrusting him again and again into the nothingness of “mental activity,” into the singular void which signifies the onslaught of “poetic creation.”

For Delmore Schwartz, the poet, like the “true-blue American,” must “Think about everything.” “Every point of view,” he writes in the “Author’s Note,” “every kind of knowledge and every kind of experience is limited and ignorant….” Yet it is precisely such “limitation” and “ignorance”—the word is the negation of “knowledge”—which accounts for the coherence of any individual poem. What does a poem’s “coherence” depend upon if not the poet's ability to discard and balance various points of view? It is not possible for any individual poem to “Think about everything,” but, as we shall see in a moment, it is possible for a poem to maintain the fiction that one is thinking about everything. But, from this point of view, it is precisely “knowledge”—the awareness that one is maintaining a fiction—that the poet is trying to avoid.

I realize that I am tottering on the brink of paradox and contradiction here, but it seems to me that the joy of Summer Knowledge is fundamentally the joy of a “knowing” which is not a knowing (despite the poet’s assertion that “I knew”) but is essentially a will towards fiction or belief which, under the guise of “knowledge,” maintains itself against all the various hazards of unbelief, against the mind’s own overwhelming tendencies to annihilate fictions, as in “Psyche Pleads with Cupid”:

My sisters taunt and torment me. They say
I have invented a religion, a superstition, a deity
To hide the love of a monster or monstrous usages
Nursed by love’s absence, love’s unquelled desire…
And think of me
As one who is very strange, as one possessed
By lunacy, or by a dream dispossessed….

Though “Once and for All” presents itself as a kind of autobiography, its autobiographical elements are finally nothing more than the mask of a will to inclusion, a determination, embodied by the word “and,” to “think about everything”: “I knew…This was the new world…the dark depths and glittering heights of reality.” By the conclusion of the poem, the contradictions represented by Apollo (“glittering heights”) and Dionysus (“dark depths”) have been joined together, perceived as aspects of a larger whole (“reality”). The implied image is of course the path of the sun, which passes through both “dark depths” and “glittering heights”; and like the sun the poet explores—“dis-covers”—everything.

From this point of view, Apollo and Dionysus are no longer mighty contradictions which it is necessary for the poet to choose between (“‘One cannot serve both gods. One must choose to win and lose’”) but merely individual moments in the poet’s continuing exploration of “everything,” of “reality.” From this point of view too, the poem tends constantly, as do so many of the poems in Summer Knowledge, to become a list, and its true movement is not so much towards a confrontation with the primary events of Schwartz’s life as it is towards the overcoming of any event or word which threatens to limit his will: words such as or, but, wrong, choose. For Schwartz it may be that self-consciousness begins with the painful perception of a radical discontinuity of selves—a perception which gives rise to the necessity of “choice”: “Once, when I was a boy…But…”; Apollo vs. Dionysus. The poem then functions as a way to heal or evade the very discontinuity which gave birth to it.

In the opening lines, “Once and for All” places us within the once-upon-a-time of a story, but it soon moves away from that impulse and offers us a list instead: a “shepherd of being, a riding master of being, holding the sun-god’s horses,” etc. Similarly, the appearance of Dionysus is accompanied by the threat of “but” and “or”—words which imply the necessity of choice—but in the very next lines Dionysus too is assimilated to the poem’s tendency to make lists, and there is a renewed emphasis on “and”: “Love and love’s drunkenness, love and birth, love and death, death and rebirth.” And so on throughout the poem. Beneath the poem’s surface drama of “choice” is the continual tendency of each of its sentences to become a list, which is to say, a vehicle by which it is possible, through sheer enumeration, to “think about everything.”

And the implications of list-making do not end there.

If the events of the poet’s life are nothing but the elements of a list, then they are all equal, nothing can cancel anything else, and even the most intense of oppositions can inhabit the same space. This is the basis of many of the themes and stylistic strategies in Summer Knowledge, and we will see a little later some of the implications of such a vision. (Schwartz writes in “The Kingdom of Poetry” that “Poetry is an everlasting Ark, / An omnibus containing, bearing and begetting all the mind’s animals.” Note again the word “all.”) For the moment, however, it is enough to notice that such a vision is essentially (and deeply) self-deceptive: it is in effect an “error.” The shift from Apollonian to Dionysian poet is the central event of Schwartz’s life and not merely one event among others. Like so much else in the poem, Schwartz’s “vision” places us firmly in the realm of illusion. It is, in fact, precisely the poem’s unerring sense of illusion—its ability to assimilate or distort any experience which threatens to contradict it into its own illusory projection—that is a sign of its strength. While it clearly projects us into the “real life” of Delmore Schwartz—his guilt, his problems with alcoholism, his shifts of allegiance from friend to friend—it nevertheless gains its strength from a contrary movement, from the poet’s desire to assert that the central event of his life was something different from what it was, and it is not surprising that a good historian and biographer like Mr. Atlas should find such poetry to be “virtually incomprehensible.” Indeed, it would seem that the poems themselves are declaring that language—or at least poetic language—is fundamentally deceptive, against biography, on the side of the lie. “The art of poetry makes it possible to say: Pandemonium,” writes Schwartz in “The Kingdom of Poetry.” And again, from the same poem: “poetry invented the unicorn, the centaur and the phoenix”—each of them an animal which is simultaneously fabulous and unreal. (Cf. “the phoenix festivals, the tragic plays in celebration of Dionysus….”)


And yet: the will to illusion itself is saturated with autobiography.

At the conclusion of Genesis: Book I, the book-length “failure” and clear anticipation of Roots Schwartz published in 1943, there is a scene which has great bearing on the concerns of this paper, though it is not included in the selections presented in Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz. Hershey Green’s father is (like America) “discovered”—in a roadhouse, “trapped while dining with a whore.” Holding Hershey “with a grasp which hurt his hand,” the boy’s mother, Eva,

moved to [the father’s] table,
Turned to the rest of the long dining-room, the head-
waiter beside her, helplessly polite,
Begging her to sit down, and cried out and spoke aloud
Her passionate righteous anger, inspired and shouting
phrases she had read in the Hearst papers about divorce cases,
Pointed to Hershey, his hand still clutched in hers, his
joy at seeing his father destroyed at that moment,
Shouted to the diners on the mezzanine floor that her
husband had left her and her children to dine with a whore!
And no one was able to stop her until her rage had been

Now, this is the climactic scene of the book—the entire movement from the Old World to the New has culminated in just this moment—and my commentary here can scarcely do it justice. Yet perhaps the most important thing to notice about the scene is that though Schwartz has an enormous amount of sympathy for his father (“And yet admired most of all his father’s poise and dignity”), he never makes the least suggestion that his mother is “wrong” to do what she does. He speaks of her “passionate righteous anger,” calls her “inspired,” and has a commentator remark that

matrimony is a ground for her,
The sacred nature of the family
Enforced by feelings of the polity,
Grew from the deepest source, the actual child.

It seems that the movement from the Old World to the New—present in “Once and for All” as the shift from Dionysus and Apollo to “the new world”—has involved an enormous dependence upon the solidarity of the family, upon the family’s “sacred nature.” And yet, in the climactic scene of the book, this family is suddenly, and in public—disintegrated. The event becomes the very center of the child’s being: “‘This hideous scene presents the biggest Truth, / Man’s Nature is this being-in-the-world’”; “‘Childhood was ended here! Or innocence’”; “‘This is before and in all images.’”

Yet, “hideous” as it is, the scene also involves “a certain joy”:

“…here you learned to cry aloud your life!”

“Your mother’s oratory will abide,
“The growing fusing boy takes it all in,
The strong divinities, this vision of himself
Surrounded by many relationships and little else….”

The scene is in fact, as still another commentator says, the moment of the birth of the super-ego (with all of the super-ego’s awareness of the past), the moment of the child’s emergence into adulthood:

Here is the Super-Ego wholly grown,
Upon your temples it will live forever!”

Yet, as the echoes of Walt Whitman might suggest—one thinks especially of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” another poem about separation, “fusing,” and the emergence of a child into adulthood—there is something more to the passage as well. (Heidegger’s “Dasein” is of course also present in the phrase “being-in-the-world.”) Discussing the beginnings of the super-ego in his essay, “Dissection of the Personality,” Freud writes, “I formed the idea that the separation of the observing agency from the rest of the ego might be a regular feature of the ego’s structure.” Schwartz is presenting us with just such a moment here, a moment in which a portion of the ego violently breaks away and takes on the function of observation and criticism, and he is presenting that moment through the figures of his parents.

As the child watches—and the child is the site in which this transformation takes place—his mother takes on the role of super-ego, his father the role of ego. The vindictive and condemning mother (referred to as both Medea and Clytemnestra), the condemned father, even the witnesses, the diners (Freud’s notion of the super-ego arose from his observations of patients with delusions of being watched) are becoming figures in a psychodrama, no longer persons but aspects of a history of the mind: “the growing fusing boy takes it all in.” (Again, the poet “unites things, meanings, attitudes, feelings, through the power, prowess and benediction of words, and in this way he is a priest who performs a ceremony of marriage each time he composes a poem.”)

Yet it is precisely the appalling awareness of separation which has given rise to the intense emotion of the scene. By internalizing the figures of father, mother and child—“fusing” them into different aspects of a single mind—the poet is necessarily moving them towards unity, though it is a unity in which they are no longer persons but only personifications: abstractions, figures of the mind. As “persons” they remain separated. In effect, the very internalization of the family which supposedly marks the beginning of the child’s authentic growth—indeed, of his very awareness of “being-in-the-world”—is itself the result of a strong wish that his parents not be separated, a wish which cannot be realized in the world but only approximated in the relationships of the poet’s mind to itself. But such an area—the area of the mind’s relationship to itself—is precisely the area of fiction, and the whole (literally) traumatic incident throws us back once again onto the issues raised by “Once and for All.”

Indeed, “Once and for All” can be seen as still another version of the incident in Genesis: Book I, which, Schwartz admits, repeats itself again and again. The two gods, Apollo, who is traditionally associated with justice, and Dionysus, whom Schwartz associates with “love” (“Love and love’s drunkenness, love and death,” etc.) are from this point of view versions of Hershey Green’s parents—embodiments of the mother’s sense of justice and the father’s desire for sexual liberty. (Cf. the contradictory conclusion of “Jacob”: “Love is unjust; justice is loveless.”) As in the passage from Genesis: Book I, we are confronted with Greek tragedy, with the word “joy,” with an appalling sense of separation, with the word “all” (“takes it all in”), and with the terrifying necessity of “choice” (“One must choose to win and lose”).

And yet, there is an important difference. The concluding lines of “Once and for All” are an affirmation of one of Delmore Schwartz’s most important themes: the theme of the American Dream. “The American Dream,” he writes in his essay, “The Fiction of Ernest Hemingway,” “converts the pursuit of happiness into the guarantee of a happy ending”; it is “a source of illusion and hope….” What Eva Green is discovering at the conclusion of Genesis: Book I—which deals with the American Dream in ways too complicated to be fully considered here—is precisely the “reality” of America and not the “dream”: “This hideous scene presents the biggest Truth.” For Schwartz, divorce, separation, and the breaking up of families are characteristic of the “reality” of the New World, not of the Old.

And yet, as the poet knew very well when he wrote “The Foggy, Foggy Blue”—

the only only wrong in all my song
Was the view that I knew what was true—

such a “reality” is itself only one “view” among others. As he writes in the “Author’s Note” to Summer Knowledge, “Every point of view, every kind of knowledge and every kind of experience is limited and ignorant….” The very fact that Schwartz presents Eva Green’s view as “the biggest Truth” is not so much an indication of the nature of reality as it is an indication of the intensity of his desire to avoid the limited and ignorant aspect of any experience: as such it is fundamentally a wish, a product of the essential violence of poetic perception, of the poet’s irrepressible thrust towards illusion, though it is an illusion which extends its roots into the deepest experiences of his being: “I see a great Sky, Moon and Stars, and ALL.” Like “Once and for All,” the concluding episode of Genesis: Book I projects us into a vertiginous area in which illusion and reality come into constant contact, and the intense longing behind all these poems, located as they are in the gulf between reality and fiction, is the longing to avoid precisely that sense of separation which the mind cannot help acknowledging again and again. It is a longing which inhabits even the sounds and structures of the poems in Summer Knowledge: lines such as

Love and love’s drunkenness, love and birth, love and death, death
and rebirth,

And I followed Dionysus, forgetting Apollo. I followed him far too
long until I was wrong and chanted,

Seeking with serene belief and undivided certainty, love’s miracles,
tender, or thrashing, or thrashing towards tenderness boldly

are attempts to hold together in a single breath-unit contradictions and tensions which, if allowed to meet head-on, would explode the line into disintegration.

No matter where one looks in Schwartz’s work one sees the same elements asserting themselves again and again (“once and for all”). Whether the contradictions are presented as mother and father, Apollo and Dionysus, Europe and America, or simply as the diverse, conflicting sounds of the poem, we are constantly in the presence of a mind which continually generates the most intense of oppositions but which, at the same time, attempts by an act of poetic will (or fictionalizing) to reduce those oppositions to silence. As Schwartz begins to write—and despite the autobiographical nature of much of his subject matter—he enters into an area of intensity and illusion. His poems and stories are therefore not the realistic documents Mr. Atlas would like them to be (at one point Atlas suggests that the “veracity” of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was “attested” by the poet’s mother!) but are essentially expressions of what Hannah Arendt called in “What is Freedom?” “a will which is broken in itself, which wills and wills-not at the same time” (my italics). One might call this will a will which errs. Arendt traces its genealogy back to St. Paul and Romans 7:19: “For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.” But the genealogy may be pushed back even further. Doesn’t it describe exactly the situation of Sophocles’ Oedipus—a central figure for Delmore Schwartz? It is in a kind of “emptiness,” an abyss of consciousness which is irredeemably neither one thing nor another, that Schwartz’s work takes place.


“Wonderland is nothing but a game of cards, after all.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, “Alice in Wonderland,” TV Guide (1/16/82)

I suggested above that Schwartz’s abyss of consciousness might be called the realm of fiction, a realm which at once promises and denies material substantiality (“reality”) to the poet’s imaginings. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (“erroneously” quoting Yeats, who actually wrote, “In dreams begins responsibility”) is the title of Schwartz’s first major work. One sees the same elements again and again in these poems: “the dream of knowledge,” “summer knowledge,” “‘Is it a dream?’ I asked.” “When the work of interpretation has been completed,” wrote Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, “we perceive that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish.” The work of Delmore Schwartz is a testimony to the extent to which dream substance, wish substance—born as it is not out of the absolute but out of the obsessional longings of our histories—penetrates and permeates the world. The realm of “reality” is also the realm of time, a subject which obsesses Schwartz. Indeed, despite the idyllic implications of the word “summer,” “summer” is by definition a time word, and while the artist can to some degree “transcend” time in his immersion in dream substance, time (which is also “reality,” which is also “knowledge”) nevertheless announces itself with relentless fury:

Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
(“Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day”)

Such testimony is hardly peculiar to Schwartz—we may find it in one of his favorite books, Finnegans Wake—but Schwartz’s genuine claim to our attention lies in the intensity and complexity with which such awareness is present in his work. Again and again he returns us to a place he calls “the new world”; to a person who is at once innocent and guilty, “wrong” and “right”; to the realm of the “true-blue American” who is also (and necessarily) the “would-be Hungarian”; to the whirl-a-gig of exile and home; to the always elusive and ever-present “child” of consciousness—the mind’s continuing and endlessly-renewed capacity to deceive and reveal, a capacity Schwartz symbolized by the many “children” who appeared in his work. We see this capacity in the “poor boy” and the “little girl,” figures whom his deepest experiences of the world forced him to imagine and re-imagine again and again:

Behold how this poor boy, who wished so passionately to be Hungarian
Suffered and knew the fate of being American.
Whether on Ellis Island, Plymouth Rock,
Or in the secret places of the mind and heart….
(“The Would-Be Hungarian”)

Delmore Schwartz’s poetry will not allow us to stand still. Rather, it forces us to enter a whirlpool of powerful, contradictory forces which are never resolved. You may be “paranoid”—with all that implies. But “even paranoids have real enemies.”

Finally, we don’t need a volume demonstrating the “best” of Delmore Schwartz. We have that in the collection the poet himself edited: it is made up in equal parts of autobiography and longing. Though Delmore Schwartz’s short stories and criticism are certainly of interest, it is the poetry that really matters. (In Once and for All we have to wade through seventy-six pages of prose—including a story William Barrett described as “dull, unless you know the people”—before we arrive at a poem.) We don’t need more Delmore Schwartz books. What we need is a better understanding of what Schwartz actually accomplished. Sad, mad, and glittering ruin that he was, it was his genuine triumph in Summer Knowledge to pull together a monument to his divided, fictionalizing, truth-seeking, evasive, fabulous sense of awareness—to his greedy, ever glistening consciousness. 3/ In his delusory illumination he sought to become aware of everything—of all. “Even to this fact,” he wrote upon discovering that a local barbershop was closed for a holiday, “some significance can be attached.”

for Liz Leyh


1. Translator Walter Kaufmann comments on Nietzsche’s title, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft:

What Nietzsche himself wanted the title to convey was that serious thinking does not have to be stodgy, heavy, dusty, or, in one word, Teutonic. The German Wissenschaft does not bring to mind only—perhaps not even primarily—the natural sciences but any serious, disciplined, rigorous quest for knowledge…

It was in Provence that modern European poetry was born. William IX, Count of Poitiers around 1100 A.D., is said to be the poet whose verses are the oldest surviving lyrics in a modern European language. He was followed by other, greater troubadours of which the most famous are probably Bertran de Born (1140-1215) and Arnaut Daniel, his contemporary. Both are encountered in Dante’s Inferno (Cantos 28f.); Bertran de Born is also the hero of two remarkable German poems, one by Ludwig Uhland, the other by Heinrich Heine. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) all but destroyed the culture of the troubadours; but in the fourteenth century the gai saber or gaia sciensa was still cultivated in the Provence by lesser poets; and under “gay” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1955) duly lists “The gay science (=Pr[ovençal] gai saber): the art of poetry.”

Schwartz’s phrase “summer knowledge” is a kind of equivalent to gai saber. In this context, Schwartz may have meant the phrase to designate—in an oblique way—“the art of poetry.”

2. In his essay, “The Grapes of Crisis,” Schwartz writes,

When Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, was made into a play and produced on Broadway and soon proved to be a failure, William Dean Howells told Mrs. Wharton that what the American public wanted was a tragedy with a happy ending.

It is worth noting that, in the context of Greek tragedy, the word “blinded” suggests Sophocles’ Oedipus: the tribulations of the god-possessed man. In “The Isolation of Modern Poetry” Schwartz quotes from Werner Jaeger’s Paideia:

After the state organized the dramatic performances held at the festival of Dionysus, tragedy more and more evoked the interest and participation of the entire people…Its power over them was so vast that they held it responsible for the spirit of the whole state…it is no exaggeration to say that the tragic festival was the climax of the city’s life.

In “Once and for All” tragedy appears as the opposite of what it was to the Greeks: it is an indication not of “the spirit of the whole state” but of “the poet’s conscious experience of the isolation of culture from the rest of society.” The poet is precisely not Oedipus, though he may be subject to the “Oedipus complex”: “there was no room in the increasing industrialization of society for such a monster as the cultivated man; a man’s taste for literature had at best nothing to do with most of the activities which constituted daily life in an industrial society…the artist feels at home nowhere and he suffers from an intense longing to be normal and bourgeois himself.”

3. From “The World is a Wedding”: “For what he wanted and what satisfied him was the activity of his own mind. This need and satisfaction kept him from becoming truly interested in other human beings, although he sought them out all the time. He was like a travelling virtuoso who performs brilliant set-pieces and departs before coming to know his listeners.”

Author Note: This essay is published simultaneously in Poetry Flash (San Francisco), edited by Joyce Johnson.

Jack Foley is a widely published San Francisco poet and critic. Foley’s recent, monumental Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line 1940-2005 has received international attention and is recognized as an important compedium of California poetry. He lives in Oakland, Ca and June 5, 2010 was proclaimed “Jack Foley Day” in Berkley.

This review appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22