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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Number 202: Robert Lowell "To Delmore Schwartz"

To Delmore Schwartz

(Cambridge 1946)

We couldn't even keep the furnace lit!
Even when we had disconnected it,
the antiquated
refrigerator gurgled mustard gas
through your mustard-yellow house,
and spoiled our long maneuvered visit
from T.S. Eliot's brother, Henry Ware...

Your stuffed duck craned toward Harvard from my trunk:
its bill was a black whistle, and its brow
was high and thinner than a baby's thumb;
its webs were tough as toenails on its bough.
It was your first kill: you had rushed it home,
pickled in a tin wastebasket of rum–
it looked through us, as if it'd died dead drunk.
You must have propped its eyelids with a nail,
and yet it lived with us and met our stare,
Rabelaisian, lubricious, drugged. And there,
perched on my trunk and typing-table,
it cooled our universal
Angst a moment, Delmore. We drank and eyed
the chicken-hearted shadows of the world.
Underseas fellows, nobly mad,
we talked away our friends. "Let Joyce and Freud
the Masters of Joy,
be our guests here," you said. The room was filled
with cigarette smoke circling the paranoid,
inert gaze of Coleridge, back
from Malta – his eyes lost in flesh, lips baked and black.
Your tiger kitten, Oranges,
cartwheeled for joy in a ball of snarls.
You said:
"We poets in our youth begin in sadness;
thereof in the end come despondency and madness
Stalin has had two cerebral hemorrhages!"
The Charles
River was turning silver. In the ebb-
light of morning, we stuck
the duck
-'s web-
foot, like a candle, in a quart of gin we'd killed.

-- Robert Lowell

Hap Notes: Here we have Lowell reminiscing about his days with Schwartz at Harvard. Schwartz and Lowell had a "falling out" of sorts and were not close after their year or so in Cambridge (Massachusetts) and Lowell refers to this many times with rue in his personal letters to friends throughout his life. But, in this poem, written and published while Schwartz was still alive, Lowell fondly remembers their friendship and even possibly hopes to mend it.

The Wordsworth that Schwartz quotes in the poem is given a mournful twist by Schwartz. The verse in the poem, "Resolution and Independence", is actually "We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; /But thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Remember how Koch called Schwartz "that rueful man"?

Stalin had his cerebral hemorrhages in 1953, nine years after the experiences detailed in the poem. Not sure if Lowell is confused on the dates or making a point here. Remember that almost everything you unearth in Lowell's poetry was purposefully placed there. Of course, he was human, had own troubles with mental illness, and it could be a lapse of memory. Possible.

Lowell said that Schwartz introduced him to Freud and talked incessantly about him. We know from previous poems this week how attached Schwartz was to James Joyce.

The Coleridge picture, staring at the two poets, I cannot figure. I've put a few on the masthead. Coleridge went to Malta in 1804 for his health, he returned to England in 1806 (he took a side trip to Italy, too, but had a diplomatic position in Malta after he got there) sicker than when he'd left and completely addicted to opium (laudanum). Notice the duck's black beak and Coleridge's "baked" black lips.

Lowell's stanza structure (especially the second to last "-'s web-") is fascinating. I think he's making us pause as we read stuck/ the duck/-'s web-"/foot. It certainly slows it down, especially if you read it aloud. It's meant to be slightly amusing, especially the duck's almost lurid leer. It is stuck in his memory, this dead duck with the lubricious stare.

Lowell often associates "mustard yellow" with Schwartz and makes reference to a suit coat that Delmore owned in that color in a letter Lowell wrote later in life. Mustard gas was a weapon used on the soldiers in WWI. There are a few nails in this poem to consider, too.

Even Berryman commented on the charming kitten/cat, Oranges, that Delmore had with him. The poets liked the name. And there is the thought that nothing much really rhymes with "oranges," a literary joke of sorts.

It's a loony picture, this stuffed duck and Coleridge staring at these two brilliant, slightly mad, drinking poets. There's a good deal of symbolism going on with the career of Schwartz and the dead duck, too, pickled as Schwartz often was in his later years, in alcohol.

Lowell is saying something about, in addition to everything else, poets and their lives in this poem.

Here's where we've mentioned Lowell before:

and here:

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