Poetry Review: “The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz” — A Necessary and Welcome Gift

By Jim Kates

Let’s hope that this book will provide an overdue and well deserved third act for the poetry of one of the 20th century’s poetic masters.

The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, Edited by Ben Mazer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 750 pages, $50.

In bringing out The Collected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, editor Ben Mazer has given the 21st century a necessary and welcome gift. The book is comprehensive enough to set the poet’s work, with its flaws and brilliance, in full perspective.

Delmore Schwartz has a lot to answer for. As the 20th-century zayde of confessional and “identity” poetry, his work has spawned more than two generations of followers; however, I suspect that all too many of the newest generation are ignorant of their literary ancestry. The Collected Poems is an exuberant archive where they will find their roots.

And they will discover that Schwartz is not only a forerunner. His poetry is both deep and rich, not only informed by his own life (“Schwartz’s work, both published and unpublished, is almost wholly autobiographical,” wrote his biographer James Atlas), but profoundly steeped in world literature, including a mastery of a mighty iambic line that goes back as far at least to Christopher Marlowe:


Let me revive my passions, far from this,

Although as relevant to the agonist,

Let me go off upon a candid cadenza,

Running through memories as shuffling cards:

Branded by parents with identity,

(Mama and Papa who with private parts

Most irresponsibly began this crise.)

I sailed the seven seas, I saw the Czar,

Millions of mighty men sang through my soul,

The stars stretched out senseless as alphabets,

I thought the world was anybody’s fun!


For the past few decades, Schwartz has been known mostly by one or two obsessively anthologized earlier poems, “The heavy bear who goes with me” and “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave.” More recently, not even by these. Whether the intimidatingly brick-y 600 pages of Collected Poems will draw in new readers, or whether it will just satisfy those who already are familiar with Schwartz’s verse, I don’t know. But the volume should be more than a resource, because it’s a damned good read. (In fact, I am having trouble writing this review because I keep interrupting myself to go back to read more and more — did I mention that there are more than 600 pages?)

The centerpiece of this collection is an ambitious, meticulous fictionalized autobiography and family epic, Genesis: Book One, mingling tight choral passages with longer excursive lines that often elaborate the most banal of family history in Scriptural cadences:


But when September came, more money was due on the mortgage, and Jack Green

promised to come home, if she would move from the red-brick house,

And sign the agreement, which permitted him to sell the house at a profit,

And Eva Green consented, although she but half-believed Jack Green’s promise

to return,

And Jack Green himself did not know what the truth was, for he was full of tiredness

of another evening lady.


Genesis: Book One was poorly received when it was published, perhaps because it was too close to its generation’s lived experience, too rooted in its Jewish ethnicity, or just too pretentious. The world Schwartz chronicled and slightly fictionalized was partly my mother’s, too. Born four months before the poet, not only did she grow up on the same streets as Schwartz, but for a while lived on the very same block as him. The culture he portrays in Genesis was a culture that many of that generation, like my mother, tried as hard as possible to leave behind. Looked at a generation or two later, Schwartz’s vision is a revelation. Genesis: Book Two, partly excerpted in this collection, was never fully realized.

Genesis is framed by poems early and late. The variety and richness of these pieces, especially the later ones, some of them previously unpublished, make them difficult to summarize or even talk about. Whether Schwartz was engaging with his contemporary Robert Frost:


All woulds were promises he kept

Throughout the night when others slept:

Now that he knows all that he did not know,

His wood is holy . . .


Or with William Shakespeare:


That time of year you may in me behold

When Christmas trees are blazing on the walk


He was always in generous conversation and correspondence with Scripture, literary tradition, and his own soul:


… For the mind, like Rome, contains

Catacombs, aqueducts, amphitheatres, palaces,

Churches and equestrian statues, fallen, broken or soiled.

The mind possesses and is possessed by all the ruins

Of every haunted, hunted generation’s celebration.


Schwartz more than once quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “there are no second acts in American life.” Having prolonged his own first act as long as possible, Schwartz is said to have lost traction late in his own existence, although the posthumously and previously unpublished poems presented in The Collected Poems seem to tell against this. Let’s hope that this book will provide an overdue and well deserved third act for the poetry of one of the 20th century’s poetic masters.

More on Schwartz: The Arts Fuse‘s Matt Hanson reviews 2017’s Once and For All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz

J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book of poetry is Places of Permanent Shade (Accents Publishing) and his newest translation is Sixty Years Selected Poems: 1957-2017, the works of the Russian poet Mikhail Yeryomin.

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