Once and for All: The Best of Del­more Schwartz

Craig Mor­gan Teich­er, ed.; John Ash­bery, into.
  • Review
By – August 11, 2016

In 1938, New Direc­tions pub­lished Del­more Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties to wide crit­i­cal acclaim, the only gen­uine inno­va­tion we’ve had since Eliot and Pound,” accord­ing to Allen Tate, a doyen of mod­ern poet­ry of his day. Schwartz was 26 at the time, and hailed as a bril­liant wun­derkind. The book opened with his aston­ish­ing title sto­ry, intense lyric poems, a verse play, and a five-acter in blank verse with prose inter­ludes. From then through the 1970s, his poems appeared in every anthol­o­gy of Amer­i­can poet­ry. He was at the top of the lit­er­ary game long before the rep­u­ta­tion of friends Robert Low­ell, John Berry­man, and Ran­dall Jar­rell began to eclipse his.

Schwartz’s urban poet­ry was a pre­cur­sor to so-called con­fes­sion­al poet­ry,” though his work had a for­mal qual­i­ty: one group of lyrics, for exam­ple, were gath­ered under Poems in Imi­ta­tion of the Fugue. In 1959, Dou­ble­day pub­lished Select­ed Poems (19381958): Sum­mer Knowl­edge, which includ­ed much of the poet­ry from his ear­li­er works, as well as poems writ­ten since the dis­as­trous crit­i­cal recep­tion of Vaude­ville for a Princess in 1950. (Hugh Kenner’s attack in Poet­ry mag­a­zine prompt­ed edi­tor Karl Shapiro to com­mis­sion a gen­tler piece that he pub­lished as Two Views of Del­more Schwartz.”) The new pieces pub­lished in Select­ed Poems dif­fered great­ly In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties: state­ly dra­mat­ic mono­logues in Bib­li­cal and lit­er­ary voic­es, and long-lined poems, loos­er and more musi­cal, as in The King­dom of Poetry”:

The praise of poet­ry is like the clar­i­ty of the heights of the moun­tains.
The heights of poet­ry are like the exal­ta­tion of the moun­tains.
It is the con­sum­ma­tion of con­scious­ness in the coun­try of the morning!

While Schwartz was award­ed the pres­ti­gious Bollin­gen Prize that same year, his lit­er­ary for­tune was in decline, as was his per­son­al life, beset by man­ic depres­sive­ness, alco­hol, and bar­bi­tu­rates. In 1967, at age 52, his body lay uniden­ti­fied in the morgue for three days, inspir­ing Saul Bellow’s roman à clef Humboldt’s Gift.

Lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tions are noth­ing if not fick­le. Less than a year after Schwartz’s death, New Direc­tions brought out Select­ed Poems in paper­back: in con­tin­u­ous print for near­ly forty years now, the col­lec­tion has con­tin­ued to influ­ence mod­ern poets, reviv­ing inter­est in what first so com­pelled crit­ics like Allen Tate. Mean­while, in 1976 New Direc­tions brought out In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties and Oth­er Sto­ries, with a fore­word by Irv­ing Howe and intro­duc­tion by Schwartz’s biog­ra­ph­er, James Atlas; this edi­tion, too, has had mul­ti­ple print­ings, and was released anew in 2012, with an ecsta­t­ic pref­ace by the late Lou Reed.

How then does this new col­lec­tion, Once and for All, fit into Del­more Schwartz’s oeu­vre? Does it tru­ly rep­re­sent the best of his work? The book’s aim is to give a fuller view of Del­more Schwartz’s lit­er­ary endeav­ors by offer­ing up a selec­tion of poet­ry from Select­ed Poems, two verse plays, two sto­ries — includ­ing In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties,” which is wide­ly avail­able on the Inter­net, as is one of the two essays, The Voca­tion of the Poet in the Mod­ern World.” There are also a hand­ful of let­ters, and twen­ty pages from Gen­e­sis (1943),Schwartz’s book-length poem — a mod­ern com­pan­ion to Wordsworth’s Pre­lude, the growth of a poet’s mind. While Gen­e­sis had a respect­ful crit­i­cal recep­tion, it was most­ly from friends: as Once and for Alls edi­tor Craig Mor­gan Teich­er writes, the prose is often flat, slow, and sen­ti­men­tal.” So why include that which does not show Schwartz at his best?

Once and for All: The Best of Del­more Schwartz is a noble aim, but serves best an antecham­ber to the con­cert hall that Select­ed Poems and In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties and Oth­er Sto­ries have long delivered.

Relat­ed Content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

Discussion Questions