Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stevens was "second rate"...but what about Delmore Schwartz?

Delmore Schwartz, a poet who is rarely read today or mentioned in discussions of American poetry, won the Bollingen Prize for 1959. It was announced on January 10, 1960, in New Haven, where the prize had settled (at Yale, that is) since the Pound controversy in 1949. Hard to believe DS was just 47 when he won, and indeed he was then the youngest Bollingen winner. He won it for his book Summer Knowledge (1959), which was an edition of selected poems. At the time he lived at 725 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, which is just across the street from my Jane.

Later, in a 1979 review, a poet named Timothy Jahns, reviewing Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz, wrote that for Schwartz "it was all downhill from 1938, though his contemporaries kept on praising him." The editor of that posthumous volume noted that he (the editor) had "rescued" the work in that book, a tacit admission that DS had already long ago faded from poetic view.

In a journal entry dated August 15, 1959, Schwartz pondered the poetic value of Wallace Stevens: "Stevens's incomparable discoveries--S. has some fine things of his own to say--grace & honesty & courage--a good second-rate poet--". In the same entry, he wrote: "It's time to cultivate resignation." (Was it a non-sequitur?)

After the Bollingen was announced, DS gave a reading at Yale, where he reunited with Cleanth Brooks. And back in New York, he lunched with Robert Penn Warren.

In a review of Summer Knowledge published in the Nation on June 11, 1960, M. L. Rosenthal put his finger on it: "It is easy to say what has always been wrong with Delmore Schwartz' poetry. Briefly, he has rarely been able to sustain a whole poem at the level of its beginning. No one else but Auden in this century has so many wonderful first lines." Examples he gives: "In the naked bed, in Plato's cave," "The beautiful American word, Sure," "A dog named Ego, the snowflakes as kisses." And could there be a more enticing title than In Dreams Begin Responsibilities with its surrealist hint? "Unfortunately," MLR continues, "it is hard to remember any larger movement" after such openings. Once in a while there is more in Schwartz's poems "than unrelieved confessional or cosmic blarneying," but not often enough.