Commentary Magazine


On "Delmore"

To the Editor:

William Barrett’s tender memoir of his old friend Delmore Schwartz [“Delmore,” September 1974] is one for which many of us will be grateful. But it ends on a note so bleak as to be misleading about Delmore’s beautiful survival as a poet. Surely it is not enough to stress that great story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which was Delmore’s astonishing debut. His narrative dramas were failures, as Mr. Barrett says. But his last collection of lyrics, Summer Knowledge, is full of wonderful things. The nobility of language, the learning behind the language, the intellectual emotion, above all the old, brave, still undefeated sense of the artist as humanity’s agonist—how these things move me (and so many writers 1 know) every time one turns back to the great elegy on Shakespeare, “Gold Morning, Sweet Prince,” which ends:

Gold morning, sweet prince, black
    night has always descended and has
       always ended.
Gold morning, prince of Avon, sov-
     ereign and king
Of reality, hope, and speech, may
     all the angels sing
With all the sweetness and all the
     truth with which you sang of
       anything and everything.

Since all too little is written about this important poet, permit me to quote some words from an essay-memoir that I published when Delmore died in 1966. I said that with all his mental suffering, Delmore

did not have the saving grace of madness that so many great poets have had and need to have. He was never lost enough in that private dream, that seeming unreality, that can become to the eye of genius the only “real world” of Blake—the world of pure imagination. . . .

The first thing that strikes me as I go through his work again is how extraordinarily controlled and intellectual it all is, how respectful of classical good sense and traditional logic. . . . He was an example ol the anxiety that can afflict the individual who respects too much the rationality of the world.

This respect for the rationality of the world” was Delmore’s most beautifully Jewish quality. He was indeed a Jew, and he suffered for it, as so many brilliant and original, creative Jewish thinkers have, precisely because he persisted, in the face of everything, in thinking the world rational and persuadable by reason, art, and truth. So he became a victim of his own trust in reason, art, and truth. He could not have given these up and have remained the artist and Jew that he was. Delmore’s poems have already survived his own suffering. They will live and live.

Alfred Kazin
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

. . . Whatever Delmore Schwartz’s personal faults and/or problems may have been—. . .—he nevertheless maintained throughout his career, and at some cost, a passionate gift for self-awareness. (One thinks of poems like “Once and For All” or of that omnipresent eye in “Starlight Like Intuition Pierced the Twelve.”) The only moment in which William Barrett’s article comes alive at all is the moment in which Delmore Schwartz suddenly seizes upon a chance phrase, “vessels of wrath,” and—sees himself in it: “‘Yes,’ he said quietly, ‘I’m such a vessel of wrath.’” An example of the kind of highly accurate—and far from flattering—self-appraisal which is typical of Schwartz’s best work and which is altogether missing from this article. . . .

Jack Foley
Oakland. California

_____________

 

To the Editor:

It doesn’t follow that because George Bernard Shaw’s comment that he had thrown his mother into the struggle for life is a witticism, William Barrett’s comment that Paul Goodman threw his sister Alice into the struggle for life is true.

Goodman went through the free New York City school system, the way so many of us did, with family support. Nobody thrown so far.

Goodman graduated from City College in 1931, and was supporting himself at the University of Chicago by 1936. During those five years, he worked most assiduously, most productively, did some of his finest writing. He also earned modest sums of money writing summaries mostly of French novels for possible screen use at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where Alice worked. Small amounts of money went a long way with Paul, and together with little moneys for published work, paid for a good share of his needs.

Alice had this job with MGM; she and Paul shared an apartment, it was their home. Alice was the main breadwinner, Paul was writing quite demonically—it is called work—making small money, in line with the society’s pay standards. They needed and depended on one another, they were very much part of one another’s lives; the notion of an exploitative situation is wrong, inaccurate. Alice doesn’t join Shaw’s mother in this dramatic heave into the life struggle.

Meyer Liben
New York City

_____________

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