Another in the line of meditations/lamentations on the passing away of Delmore Schwartz. This was written on the occasion of a memorial service at NYU in 1966. Here’s a good line: “Young poets are ridiculous, and rare.” Whether it’s a valid observation or not that they’re rare, they’re certainly ridiculous, especially in the corporate autocracy we’ve allowed to flourish. Where young poets reject servitude to profit to enlist in servitude to an art, they establish lives as ridiculous paupers—unless they land a teaching position and then their lives aren’t so spectacularly pointless. But the corporation never sees the point, in fact is constitutionally unable to see it, which elicits its immediate contempt, so through the application of its influence and power those teaching positions are being systematically choked off. This matters because Schwartz seems to have achieved a reputation as a kind of noteworthy failure. On one hand there is the mental disintegration typical of poets of his generation (it’s maybe an exaggeration, but B. lists them in DS 153, for tomorrow, and we know that Lowell, whom he exempts, and himself, eventually joined themselves to the list). So Schwartz might be a failure of his own accord, but others see his failure having been imposed upon him by America itself, who failed him by not providing the intellectual and cultural environment that should have allowed a genius of his caliber to thrive. It didn’t, because corporate values, so much in the ascendant in American culture, hold the arts in contempt unless they somehow pay—only then are they celebrated in the mainstream. (Be honest: Is J.K. Rowling, in general in the US, admired more for the inventiveness of the Harry Potter series or for the fact that she’s the first ever billionaire writer?) When Delmore Schwartz died, the literati in power at the moment swelled in an anguished public lamentation, and of course Berryman was one of the leaders of that groundswell with this series of Dream Songs. The assessment of his life and career follows what became a standard two-part narrative: Young, charming, talented genius wins early acclaim and success (part one) then spirals into obscurity through mental illness and the predations of demon rum (part the second). This is Berryman’s take all the way. Somebody more recently (Catherine Fitzpatrick) is arguing that “important sections of Schwartz's work succeed in creating a ‘poetry of failure’ which mimes the collapse of the attempt to conjure beauty into existence with words.” She claims that critical preoccupation with “strength” or “acclaim” cause critics to miss the importance of Schwartz’s work, which thus calls “these categories of critical judgment” into question. Maybe there’s something circular about this reasoning, but I love the not-so-veiled judgment of patriarchal values, where poets and critics—whom one presumes should know better—adopt the values of patriarchy and the corporation (strength and acclaim), integrating them into the critical discourse, which ultimately is self-destructive. Except I would argue that they’re not deliberately destroying themselves so much as unwittingly adopting the language, attitudes and values of the corporation that very much wants them destroyed. All it takes is a little bit of patriarchal corruption from a handful of highly paid institutional star critics and we’re off. Berryman isn’t necessarily exempt; we see some pretty patriarchal, sexist, racist, stuff from him at times, and the historical norms of his moment don’t seem enough to let him off the hook.
It’s an unusually chilly morning for June 1st, with temperatures in the 50s, so I’m game for something less sunny to kick off the heart-and-soul month of the summer, an engagement with the poetry of failure. This is “Baudelaire” by Delmore Schwartz.
This is as good an example of the poetry of failure as one could possibly imagine! The narrator is shackled by choice to an art, with “voices” having been cultivated that once started never stop. This is the state of being that the artist hopes for, and it is hard-won, through enormous concentration and effort. But because of the expectations of cultural norms which don’t give the slightest damn for voices if they can’t be monetized, and which won’t monetize them, the poet is faced with an empty bank account and the intrusion of courts into his life, which degrade him in all ways, both societal and artistic The result is a threat to what might otherwise sustain him: “Debts and inquietude persist and weaken me.” This is not a declaration of strength at all; quite the opposite. He is “impotent,” “terrified,” “bored,” “paralyzed.” The poem ends on a request for money, from a mother who in some ways loves and is sympathetic to her son (he wouldn’t be able to write this letter otherwise), but who also resides in the camp of societal, corporate, financial orthodoxy. “You are always armed to stone me” he claims, an acknowledgement of her position within a contemptuous orthodoxy.
Why the title? Charles Baudelaire was the great, complex, profound French poet, and it would not be accurate to reduce him too much, but there are two ways to connect him with Schwartz’s poem. One is to note that “Baudelaire” invokes Satan, which the poet Baudelaire does all the time. It’s not direct: He was not some Satan worshipper (I don’t think). Satan and evil are metaphors for the discontents of modern society, where the sustaining virtues of society have been drained out or co-opted by modern life, and yes, the predations and demands of industrial capitalism. So Baudelaire’s real demon is boredom (actually the more complex and more sophisticated concept of ennui). Here’s the perfect statement of it in Baudelaire’s “Spleen II” (scroll down for the translation):
So it’s obvious that the title for Schwartz’s “Baudelaire” is perfectly apt: He’s doing something similar to what Baudelaire does in “Spleen II”, though Baudelaire is farther gone. The inscription over Dante’s characterization of Hell is “Abandon Hope All Who Enter”, and Baudelaire has very much abandoned hope in “Spleen II.” Schwartz is still struggling. But they’re in essentially the same place, cast there by the demands of their art, at the insistence of the culture that despises the thing that they must value above all else because they’ve lost the ability to choose. This is Modernity.