No one else can take a bath for you

Mark Ford

  • The ego is always at the wheel by Delmore Schwartz
    Carcanet, 146 pp, £6.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 85635 702 2
  • A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler
    Carcanet, 191 pp, £10.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 85635 699 9

Like Tristram Shandy, Delmore Schwartz so hated his name that he sometimes used to attribute all of his misfortunes to it. It was an obsession he enjoyed feeding: he would invent ridiculous sources for it – a delicatessen, a Pullman railroad car, a Tammany Hall club – while in his stories and poems he would always inflict on his leading character, who was always himself, a name exotic or absurd, half old-time Jewish and half Hollywood – Shenandoah Fish, Hershey Green, Cornelius Schmidt. In his best verse play, Shenandoah, he even features himself looking back on his own naming ceremony twenty-five years earlier. When his mother, Elsie Fish, decides on Shenandoah, he breaks out Macbeth-like:

Now it is done and quickly done. I am undone:
This is the crucial crime ...

Lowell, too, in a sonnet on Schwartz’s unhappy last years, saw his name as an essential part of the problem:

Your dream had humour, then its genius thickened,
you grew thick and helpless, your lines were variants,
unlike and alike, Delmore, – your name, Schwartz,
one vowel bedevilled by seven consonants ...

Schwartz’s sense of his uniqueness had nothing in common with Lowell’s type of lordly self-belief, nor with the obsessive thirst for fame that motivated a poet like John Berryman. His literary career is often compared pityingly with their astute professionalism, as if, authentic poète maudit though he was, he never quite got the marketing right. Certainly he never managed to create out of his sufferings the suspense of a suicide-note released in tantalising instalments that builds up so much of the fascination of their worlds. He lacked their immaculate sense of dramatic timing, the ability to fashion from private neuroses the neat black comic tale. And he had grander visions for poetry as well, wanting it to digest and advance all culture, the works of Marx and Freud, Aristotle and Beethoven. (These four, plus a mysterious unknown fifth who was probably originally Kant, are the ghosts with whom he exchanges thoughts on a production of Coriolanus in his long poem of that name.) Schwartz had absolute faith in the tenets of high Modernism, and, initially anyway, worshipped Eliot and Yeats almost as gods. This was a common dilemma for American poets of that generation: Berryman might be said to have spent the first half of his career freeing himself from his idols, while remaining eager to joke about the process:

I didn’t want my next poem to be exactly like Yeats
or exactly like Auden
since in that case where the hell was I?
but what instead did I want it to sound like?

Schwartz made his mark just before the Second World War when Modernism was at its most popular, and it was in this tradition that Allen Tate saw his first book, In dreams begin responsibilities, when it came out in 1938, hailing it as ‘beyond any doubt the first real innovation we’ve had since Eliot and Pound’. This book established Schwartz as the nearest thing American poetry has had to an infant prodigy, although it didn’t happen spontaneously. Schwartz manoeuvred endlessly behind the lines in the months preceding the publication date of 12 December (four days after his 25th birthday), amassing for full-page promotional ads approving quotes from Tate, Stevens, MacNeice, R.P. Blackmur, Ransom, Philip Rahv, Auden, Mark Van Doren, Philip Wheelwright and Dudley Fitts. The ‘American Auden’ label that was to haunt him later in life as the most damning evidence of his unfulfilled promise was in fact part of the New Directions blurb, though it meant that Auden’s own advance copy had to be politicly sent without its jacket.

It is unfortunate, really, that Schwartz has filtered into the general public’s consciousness more because of the outstanding copy his life has proved for other writers than because of his own work. Saul Bellow’s superb roman à clef, Humboldt’s Gift (1975), was modelled loosely on his relations with Schwartz in the late Forties and early Fifties, and – his first book after winning the Nobel Prize – was a colossal seller. By now, most of those who knew him best have had their say. There are essays from many of the old Partisan crowd, Dwight Macdonald, Irving Howe, William Barrett, Philip Rahv; a compassionate reminiscence from Harry Levin, who was much abused by Schwartz when they were neighbours in Cambridge in 1940; there are Lowell’s elegies and Berryman’s Dreamsongs, and even an awkward commemoration on his The Blue Mask album (1982) from Lou Reed, a student of Schwartz’s at Syracuse in the early Sixties. And James Atlas’s sensitive biography, published in 1977, provides an exhilarating mass of circumstantial evidence about Schwartz’s day-to-day existence.

But the best introduction to his achievement remains his extraordinary first book. He really was onto something, though it’s difficult even now to say exactly what:

In the naked bed, in Plato’s cave.
Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall,
Carpenters hammered under the shaded window,
Wind troubled the window curtains all night long,
A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding,
Their freights covered, as usual.
The ceiling lightened again, the slanting diagram
Slid slowly forth.
                Hearing the milkman’s chop.
His striving up the stair, the bottle’s chink,
I rose from bed, lit a cigarette.
And walked to the window ...

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