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Friday, July 1, 2011

Number 203: Delmore Schwartz "Tired And Unhappy, You Think Of Houses"

Tired And Unhappy, You Think Of Houses

Tired and unhappy, you think of houses
Soft-carpeted and warm in the December evening,
While snow’s white pieces fall past the window,
And the orange firelight leaps.
A young girl sings
That song of Gluck where Orpheus pleads with Death;
Her elders watch, nodding their happiness
To see time fresh again in her self-conscious eyes:
The servants bring in the coffee, the children go to bed,
Elder and younger yawn and go to bed,
The coals fade and glow, rose and ashen,
It is time to shake yourself! and break this
Banal dream, and turn your head
Where the underground is charged, where the weight
Of the lean building is seen,
Where close in the subway rush, anonymous
In the audience, well-dressed or mean,
So many surround you, ringing your fate,
Caught in an anger exact as a machine!

--Delmore Schwartz

Hap Notes: Well we've been talking around him and about him and now we get to him. Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) as we have seen from our previous three poems, had an enormous influence on most everyone who met him. Saul Bellow based his Pulitzer Prize winning Humbolt's Gift on his relationship with Schwartz. Singer-songwriter Lou Reed studied under Schwartz at Syracuse University and has written various tribute songs to him. He was a larger than life talent but life doesn't like you to be too much larger than it is and it can quickly diminish your size. So it was with the extraordinary gifts of Schwartz.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, his parents were ill-suited to each other and fought constantly, often in public, until they divorced when Schwartz was nine. His experience of his parent's relationship is reflected in the short story that catapulted him to fame, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (the story retains its brilliance and is well worth your reading.) Schwartz went to the University of Wisconsin and Columbia before getting his degree at New York University. He then went to Harvard and did graduate work studying philosophy with Alfred North Whitehead, which is kind of a "wow."

After that famous short story was published, the critical acclaim for it was overwhelming. He was hired as a lecturer at Harvard and edited The Partisan Review and The New Republic. He was hailed as a new Stendahl or Chekov as a writer and as a new voice to compare with Pound and Eliot in his verse. He was brilliant and it was well-deserved but this kind of thing is bound to go to a person's head and also be the source of a great deal of pressure to constantly perform with brilliance. His philosophy background gave his work remarkable depth and yet Schwartz often argued that poetry should be understandable and not too willfully obscure. Of course, what Schwartz found understandable and what an average reader found understandable are two very different things and the rift is made more so with the passing years and what passes for education these days (when did education become a place for vocational training and not a place for learning how to think? Okay, I'll put away the soapbox.)

Part of Schwartz's failure to keep up with his brilliant start was due to mental illness, part of it to alcoholism (which often is how people with mental illness try to cure themselves or, at least, make them feel better. This, however, rarely works and it certainly did not with Schwartz.)

Towards the end of his life Schwartz "held court" at the White Horse Tavern in New York City where he would regale his listeners with passages read aloud from Finnegan's Wake. He was a great fan of James Joyce. He isolated himself in seedy hotels, wrote a little, drank much and he died of a heart attack in an elevator in the Columbia Hotel. I believe I've mentioned before that he was so isolated that it took a couple of days for his body to be claimed at the morgue.

The critic Alfred Kazin wrote for the New Republic with Schwartz and recalled his animated face, his early brilliance, his anguish, his belief in the works of culture- of philosophers and poets. He was both introspective and effuse. He was a bright flame who turned inevitably into a dying ember. He was ever a brilliant conversationalist but became bitter and as Koch says, "rueful." Kazin said that when one visited him later in his life, "You could not leave him without hating yourself."

In today's poem we see Schwartz contrasting the old world culture with the modern world. The poet envisions a time that was at once somewhat cultured and yet he realizes his vision of it is a bit trite. There is youth in the room and satisfaction. He contrasts this with the contemporary world. It's a vivid dream. There is much more to the poem than this. Think, also, of what the poet is saying about the world in relationship to himself. What kind of person thinks of houses like this one? You remember we talked about Orpheus, yes? We will talk about Schwartz more this year, I'm sure.

I could not find the Gluck aria he mentions but I'm almost sure he means this one:
The old record is particularly effective for conveying the mood of the poem.
But of course, here's the great Maria Callas doing the same piece:
which I add just because Callas is a favorite of mine. She always brings tears to my eyes.

Here's a good Schwartz quote: "There is no genuine place for the poet in modern life."

You can find more Schwartz here:

As an added treat, here is his translation of "Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rilke which we talked about last week. He calls it

Archaic Bust of Apollo

(After Rilke)

We cannot know the indescribable face
Where the eyes like apples ripened. Even so,
His torso has a candelabra's glow,
His gaze, contained as in a mirror's grace,

Shines within it. Otherwise his breast
Would not be dazzling. Nor would you recognize
The smile that moves along his curving thighs,
There where love's strength is caught within its nest.

This stone would not be broken, but intact
Beneath the shoulders' flowing cataract,
Nor would it glisten like a stallion's hide,

Brimming with radiance from every side
As a star sparkles. Now it is dawn once more.
All places scrutinize you. You must be reborn.

-- Ranier Maria Rilke (translated by Delmore Schwartz)

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