[Recited with marvelous computerly flair and feeling. The future of poetry? I think not!]
Since this is Delmore Schwartz week (to “the sacred memory” of whom, by the way, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, the second volume of The Dream Songs, is partially dedicated), let’s look at another of the guest of honor’s poems. But first, a glance at the Dream Song triggering today’s rumination. “The world is gradually becoming a place / where I do not care to be anymore”. Not much to unpack there. Another statement “glimmering” in depression, I’m afraid. What follows is also blunt and uncomplicated, a plain memory and unadorned lament. Schwartz was once “gift strong”, had earned exceptionally high praise from writers and critics for his early work, and was personally admired by many for what apparently was an engaging and compelling conversational style. (It really does help one’s career to develop fluent party skills. This holds for all occupations.) Mental illness took him out, but it was abetted to a great degree by what seems to have been most mid-century poets’ demon of choice: Ethanol.
So how about we check out “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day”?
Oh, now this is a lovely poem! The first time I’ve read it. Here we are, dropped into a New York City park someplace, in 1937. I think I would have liked the 30s if it wasn’t for, you know, the Depression. Black coffee and corned beef hash at the counter of a local corner diner. Everyone wears a great hat and dresses up to go outside. If it’s new, it’s Art Deco. Except for the occasional spray of bullets from gangsters’ Tommy guns, much more isolated than today, the streets are safe and people are talky and friendly. The cars are gorgeous and you can work on them yourself, and plastic hasn’t come into widespread use yet. Boys play marbles a lot and ride bikes with comfy balloon tires, and look up there! It’s the Graf Zeppelin! And don’t even talk to me about those streamliner steam locomotives chugging across the countryside, pushing glorious masses of smoke and steam into the air. It makes me sad that something so magnificent—powerful and beautiful at once, symbols of pride—could have ever even existed. Here’s what a streamline locomotive really means: You can make a great steam locomotive, sure, with 6-foot driver wheels, a boiler 30-feet long, and it’s pretty damn impressive through its sheer technological might. But keep all that, and not only engineer it, but design it as well, and now your locomotive means something more: It means we care about the perception of the public. We acknowledge a responsibility: If we make something, we make it not only functional, but we make it beautiful, because we respect the people who ride behind it and watch it roll past their communities. We care about what they think; public aesthetics are worth investing in, and we will not tolerate anything less of the machine into which we invest so much of our time and energy, our sense of self-worth, and our public service.
But I digress. I went and got all rosy there. Even without the Depression, the thirties had their dark side too. Back to the poem. It’s controlled by the refrain, “This is the school in which we learn…this is the fire in which we burn.” Watching the activity of the city swirling, both observations and memories, the speaker wonders how his perception of his selfhood fits into both the masses of people swirling before him, but time as well. They all have their perceptions of their selves, and they all change through time—they learn and grow, their bodies age and decay, the technological and social landscapes that influence their lives evolve as well, and those landscapes will never be the same again. Me, I’m the same person I was at 7, when I had this still-wonderful experience of riding my bike around the forbidden other side of the block and feeling the world open up in a marvelous adventure of discovery. I carried that to Europe in my twenties and felt it again as each new French town and cathedral hove into view from the train window. Since then I’ve earned four degrees, embarked on a career, a marriage, parenthood, more travels into strange new societies and unfamiliar new ecosystems. Merely riding my bike around the block will never bring me that sense of opening again, yet something important that sprouted that first time stays with me, the same emotion but arising from new forms. I know the world is infinitely bigger than I will ever be, so I know that the newness and discovery will always remain inexhaustible. My memory plays a critical role in that awareness. Yet, time will eventually burn it out. My body will hold me back until my discoveries get smaller and smaller. But—when I hobble out to the garden one last time on the morning just before my heart finally grinds to a stop later that afternoon and I discover my last fresh violet, I’ll remember the thrill of seeing Paris for the first time, and I’ll know that while Paris encompasses a hundred million blossoms just as complex and vivid, and museums overflowing with art works that were the very apotheosis of the careers of many thousands of the world’s greatest artists, and architecture just as necessary, and street performers, wine and croissants, gorgeous women in stylish clothes kissing their lovers by the riverbank, perfumes wafting around the corners of tiled Metro stations where Spanish guitar masters play their classic hand-crafted instruments for coins, and feel privileged to enrich our days—I’ll have that first bike ride at hand, and the thrill of being in Paris, and Budapest, and the day my son was born, the mountain I climbed, and all else, at hand, and I’ll have it all again in a violet. I won’t care what comes next. It won’t matter. Memory fills and inspirits our moments, yet only the now-instant’s burning purple ever really matters.