Can ‘Once and for All’ Restore Delmore Schwartz to His Former Glory?

A new volume proves Delmore Schwartz could do it all.

A new collection of Delmore Schwartz’s poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, and letters arrives this week with a subterranean purpose. The stated aim of Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, out now from New Directions, comes from Craig Morgan Teicher’s editor’s note. Teicher, who surely isn’t lying, explains that “[i]t is my goal to offer in this single volume the best and most representative of Schwartz’s writing, much of it available for the first time in years, some of it published here for the first time.” This sounds admirable enough. And it should be noted that the double arrangement of “best” and “most representative” would be impossible with anything less than a seriously good and maybe great writer.

The hidden aim of the book comes a moment earlier, in an arch introduction from John Ashbery, who matriculated at Harvard when Schwartz taught there — but never took his classes and can’t remember why. Ashbery opens by explaining that Schwartz’s reputation is “sadly diminished from what it was at his beginnings in the late 1930s,” when his work was admired by Eliot, Stevens, and Auden, among many others. What happened? Well, Schwartz, after early success with In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, later attempted projects that were grandiose and contradictory. (See his long poem Genesis.) Also, his life ended in psychological bad health and substance abuse and paranoia, a state of affairs described in James Atlas’ Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet (1977), a biography that may have the rare distinction of being too good. As Ashbery points out, it has been difficult to cut through the image of Schwartz as a “self-destructive, paranoid artist,” to find something like Teicher’s “best” and “most representative” writer. Instead Schwartz is known as the guy who taught Lou Reed.

Still, many agree that the best Schwartz is the early poet Schwartz, and this is where Ashbery slyly intervenes, where Once and For All’s secret mission is whispered. Ashbery, at the end of his introduction, points out that “the critics were premature in condemning the late work of Picasso and Stravinsky,” Perhaps, he wonders, “Delmore will one day get a similar reprieve.” Maddeningly, he then claims that he will “leave it to you to decide” before confessing that “Summer Knowledge,” a late poem written while Schwartz was arguably on the decline, achieves “a new kind of telling… with an urgent bluntness of his own.” If John Ashbery thinks a book contains an overlooked mutation in American poetry, you’d better check it out.

Reading the volume myself, I began to wonder whether Schwartz — already a man reflective of his childhood unhappiness (never a sign of a healthy mind) — hadn’t been further cracked by the Great Depression. Both childhood and the depression are on display in his prose short fiction, which, after reading, I craved in novel form (rather than the fictional retelling of Schwartz life offered by his friend, Saul Bellow). “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” one of his most famous works,” tells the story of a child (Schwartz) who watches his parents’ early romance on a movie screen in a dream. When the child shouts at his parents (on-screen), “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you,” it’s hilarious, and it also signals a will to oblivion on Schwartz’s part. If his parents don’t date, he won’t exist.

The next story, “The World is a Wedding” — for me a revelation — opens with a paragraph that only gets darker and funnier the more times you read it:

In this life there are no beginnings but only departures entitled beginnings, wreathed in the formal emotions thought to be appropriate and often forced. Darkly rises each moment from the life which has been lived and which does not die, for each event lives in the heavy head forever, waiting to renew itself.

What follows is a story about a “circle of friends,” a mottle of young intellectuals in New York City reminiscent of a talkative 60s or 90s French film. With its ensemble of failures — for example: the hilariously vain and stupid playwright Rudyard, or his empathetic if self-pitying sister Laura (who can’t find a husband) — the story cross-sections its city and time better than most. And I think this is because of its admission that failure and discontentment are omnipresences in American intellectual life. That this brilliant paragraph on New York after the Depression also applies now should give us concern about our own mental states in the years ahead of us:

Once New York was the small handsome self-contained city of the merchant prince and the Dutch patroon’s great grandsons. And once it was the brownstone city ruled by the victors of the Civil War. Then the millions drawn or driven from Europe rooming houses. Now, in the year of the great depression, it is for each one what he wants it to be, if he has the money. If he has the money!…And if the luxuries of the sun and the sea are absent, if life in this city seems brittle as glass, every kind of vehicle here performs every kind of motion to take the citizen away from the city, if he has the money! The city in its very nature contains all of the means of departure as well as return.  Thus the city gives to the citizen a freedom from itself, and thus one might say that his is the capital of departure. But none of my friends will go away: they are bound to each other. They have too great a need of each other, and all are a part of the being of each.

Many times it occurred to me that Schwartz could be described as a dialectical writer, but only if all synthesis ends in oblivion. Whether in a poem, story, or play, he’ll begin with a moment of contemplation before swerving to eliminate the object of this contemplation entirely. Ashbery quotes from Schwartz’s “America! America!,” where a character named Shenandoah Fish moves from a lack of self-knowledge to the elimination of reality:

“I do not see myself. I do not know myself. I cannot look at myself truly.’ He turned from the looking-glass and said to himself…’No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and all the foolishness which the future will bring him.”

Similarly, in “The World is a Wedding,” a character named Jacob eliminates all of New York City after observing how expansive it is:

This is the moreness of which we are aware, no matter what we look upon. This moreness is the true being of the great city, so that, in a way, this city hardly exists. It certainly does not exist as does our family, our friends, and our neighborhood.

Yet again, in the poem “A Young Child and His Pregnant Mother,” a child becomes familiar with “all loss” after dropping a penny down a grate.

A city child knows this, hearing the subway’s
Rumor underground. Between the grate,

Dropping his penny, he learned out all loss,
The irretrievable cent of fate,

What mind could tolerate such violent movements from particular to total? The rest of the volume is just as disconcerting, impressive, and relevant. A critical essay on the isolation of the modern poet is more useful and subtle than today’s performative hatred of yesterday’s poetic monkishness. Another piece, on the working life of poets — “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World” — flows into a sampling of Schwartz’s letters, which often pretend not to ask for money while doing just that (especially of New Directions’ James Laughlin). A new image of Schwartz emerges, a relevant artist concerned with both the rise of the culture industry and the conditions of writers’ lives in the wake of the Great Depression. It’s a writer who could be reread today on those terms, during our moment of endless austerity.

But it’s the poem that Ashbery hints could be “a new kind of telling” in American poetry that steals the volume. “Summer Knowledge” defines its subject almost wholly by what it isn’t: “Summer knowledge is not the winter’s truth, the truth of fall, the autumn’s fruition, vision, and recognition.” And far from signaling a decline for Schwartz, it establishes a through line by defining its subject as a movement between opposites:

For, in a way, summer knowledge is not knowledge at all: it is
     Second nature, first nature fulfilled, a new birth and a new
     Death for rebirth, soaring and rising out of the flames of turning
     October, burning November, the towering and falling.
     Fires, growing more and more vivid and tall
In the consummation and the annihilation of the blaze of fall.

Summer knowledge is a ripening, the fulfillment of promise before it burns and withers. And for the 21st century Delmore Schwartz, it could mean a reputation momentarily restored to its fullest.