Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Notes on Delmore Schwartz (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 here 

Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz in 1938.

"as were it sentenced to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim by that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" (Finnegans Wake, p. 120)

That ideal reader of Finnegans Wake, as described by Joyce in the above quote, could very well have ended up being the great poet from New York City, Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), who read the Wake voraciously and also suffered from terrible insomnia. He developed an addiction to sleeping pills and alcohol as ways to settle himself down to go to sleep. It didn't help much as his mind was too active, he was known to stay up all night reading through stacks of books. 

In Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift (1975) where the main character Humboldt is based on Delmore Schwartz, there's a memorable scene in which the narrator spends the night at Humboldt's farmhouse in New Jersey. Deep into the night, Humboldt goes off on one of his brilliant and eclectic monologues about art, culture, baseball, politics, history, etc until finally the narrator retires to bed: "Next day he was still going strong. It made me giddy to hear so much subtle analysis and to have so much world history poured over my head at breakfast. He hadn't slept at all." (Bellow, p. 32)

In his journals, which were published in 1986 as Portrait of Delmore (edited by Elizabeth Pollet), Delmore jotted these lines of verse: 

Of three o'clock in the morning

Of four o'clock in the morning,

            and of the early 

Morning light I would be poet laureate (p. 221)

I am insomnia's poet, Delmore Schwartz  (p. 269)

Elsewhere in his journals, he modified Joyce's famous line: "History is a nightmare: during which I am trying to get a good night's sleep, which gives me insomnia." (p. 458)

So it figures that Delmore could be "that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia" because he even treated the book Finnegans Wake exactly as Joyce suggested, "to be nuzzled over a full trillion times for ever and a night till his noddle sink or swim." His biographer James Atlas relates the intensity with which Delmore would read the Wake starting from its early excerpts: 

Delmore at seventeen was a self-styled member of the avant-garde; he read Hound & Horn, studied Pound's Cantos as they appeared, and collected first editions of everything T.S. Eliot wrote. transition was especially important to him now that excerpts of Finnegans Wake were appearing in its pages, and he pored over each new installment with Talmudic zeal. For the rest of his life, Joyce was to be his literary hero, Finnegans Wake a work he read and annotated with such intensity that his copies would fall apart; he went through several in his lifetime. (Atlas, p. 40)

A copy of Delmore Schwartz's Finnegans Wake now resides at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and by the wonders of technology you can view each page of the book and zoom in on the tiny details of Delmore's scribbled annotations. Over at the blog "Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay" Peter Chrisp has written a beautiful post about Delmore Schwartz and his devotion to Joyce, including a close look at some pages from his annotated Wake. I am trying to avoid overlap as I don't want to step on Peter C's toes, but it was that post that initially sprung me off on my research of Delmore Schwartz.

The part that really struck me was his biographer James Atlas mentioning that Delmore's passion for the Wake was such that "he even annotated while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds." (Atlas, p. 327) That image---the poet Delmore Schwartz attending a NY Giants baseball game at the Polo Grounds and reading and annotating Finnegans Wake while he sat in the stands---that's what compelled me to write this. I am drawn to Delmore Schwartz because he loved Finnegans Wake and major league baseball like I do.

I have been trying to track down more details about that note---which game(s) did he attend? What pages of the Wake was he annotating? Since we have every page of his personal copy of Finnegans Wake available to view online and since his journals are available in published form, you would think this information might be discoverable. As I described in Part 1, Delmore would often jot the details in his journals when he attended a baseball game. I still have not been able to track down where exactly James Atlas got that information described in his excellent biography, though. I've been scouring Delmore's journals trying to find any mention of this. There's several times where he mentions indulging in following a Giants ballgame and reading FW on the same day. The closest thing I can find is this brief note from July of 1954: 

F[innegans] W[ake], 300-314. Giants doubleheader (losing second game)---distressed by nightfall. (Portrait of Delmore, p. 494)

I suspect this might be it. Delmore was a regular at the Polo Grounds when he lived in New York and he's pretty clear about it whenever he was following a game on the radio rather than attending in person. So it's possible this note indicates Delmore was there at the Polo Grounds watching the 1954 NY Giants (who went on to win the World Series that year) play a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, July 11, 1954 and that he was also reading and annotating pages 300-314 of Finnegans Wake during the game. 

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in an online Finnegans Wake reading group session with the members of the Finnegans Wake Society of New York in which we read page 308. This is one of the strangest pages in the book, with text in three columns, footnotes, and even doodles in the margins. It's also one of the pages Delmore would have been annotating at the Polo Grounds during that doubleheader on July 11th, 1954. I found Delmore's annotations on this page (which he may or may not have scribbled while watching Willie Mays patrol centerfield for the Giants) to be pretty helpful in pointing out how the various blocks of text and drawings all interrelate. 

You can see at the top of page 308 how he drew lines connecting the countdown ("Aun Do Tri" etc) with the marginal text on the left. 

Detail, top of pg 308 of Delmore Schwartz's copy of FW. (Beinecke Library)

He also identifies connections between the middle text ("tea's set") and the marginal text on the right ("YOUR BEEEFTAY'S FIZZIN OVER") and he drew lines for the connection between the five and ten from the countdown to the footnotes below. He also drew links between the doodles on the bottom left and the marginal text on the right. 

Detail, bottom of pg 308 of Delmore Schwartz's copy of FW. (Beinecke Library)

In the meeting with the NY group, our collective unpacking of the page did find that some of these connections bore out. At a bare minimum, it's just incredible to look at all of these notes on this one page and try to think alongside Delmore as he reads the Wake. The page a palimpsest of different shades of ink and pencil written and overwritten over multiple readings (stains of coffee or beer are evident on many pages), hieroglyphic lines scratched and arrowed like a baseball scorecard

Close-up of a random baseball scorecard.

Finnegans Wake p. 308 with annotations by Delmore Schwartz. From the Beinecke Library of Yale website here.

*   *   *

Peter Chrisp in his post says that "Delmore Schwartz must have spent more time thinking about Finnegans Wake than almost anybody else. Yet it's a shame he wrote very little about the book." It is a shame indeed. Delmore was known for being a sharp and witty literary critic, surely he must have had lots of interesting things to say about Joyce and the book he loved so much. Peter C shared the one paragraph from Delmore's essay on "The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World" where he talks about Joyce and Finnegans Wake at some length, stressing the global scope of the work and how it involves all of history. There's also a nice little footnote in that essay where Delmore argues that Finnegans Wake belongs in any serious discussion about poetry:

Joyce's two best works, Ulysses and his last book, are not poems in the ordinary sense of the word; and he wrote several volumes of poetry, most of which consist of verses far inferior to anything in his major books. But any view of poetry which excludes Finnegans Wake as a poem and Joyce as a poet merely suggests the likelihood that Joyce transformed and extended the limits of poetry by the writing of his last book. If we freeze our categories and our definitions, (and this is especially true in literature) the result is that we disable and blind our minds. (from Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, p. 22)

His stressing of Finnegans Wake as a work of poetry here is important. Beyond that, though, it's true that Delmore never got around to publishing any extensive writings about Joyce. A letter from September 1938 mentions his intention to write "an extended review of Joyce's new work" (see Letters of Delmore Schwartz, p. 59) but it doesn't seem to have ever materialized. 

In the preface to the Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (1970) the editors explain: "Another omission is more surprising. This volume contains nothing on James Joyce. Two short pieces could have been included, but the editors thought them too perfunctory, too hastily journalistic to represent adequately Delmore's vast knowledge of the work of his chief literary hero. A likely guess would be that an extended essay or book on Joyce was one of Delmore's long entertained projects and that he never accomplished the project precisely because he thought of it as crucial." (p. xiii) (Reading about Delmore Schwartz reveals many intriguing yet uncompleted projects he labored on for years, some other examples: a book-length study of T.S. Eliot, an edited/translated collection of Heinrich Heine, and a textbook on the history of poetry.) 

There are many abbreviated notes on Finnegans Wake to be found in Delmore's journals (edited by his second wife Elizabeth Pollet) but even there, when you read the introduction, you'll find a similar caveat: "The one major exception is the omission of Delmore's copying of other writers, particularly of James Joyce in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Much that was cut was either illegible or so fragmentary or chaotic that it would have choked any movement." (Portrait of Delmore, p. xv) Reading through the journals, Delmore mentions frequently that he spent time copying passages from FW. These copied passages have been omitted, but there are some interesting bits to be found like this versification of a FW line:

"To peek aboo

       Durk the


      Of slumbwhere" 

                  (FW, p. 580) 

(from Portrait of Delmore, p. 510)

The Wake as the height of poetry was a theme for him. In 1954, he noted "copying FW & letting it suggest the beauty & the future of language & of poetry to me." (p. 505) In 1943, he wrote this note on the Wake: "Liffey is Life, and it is a poem of nature, the male and the female principle, and all memory, hall memory." (p. 129) At another point he ruminates, "Reading FW must satisfy some deep need---beyond love of language & rhythm---since I go on, month after month, hour by hour." (p. 339) 

He also mentions a few times how important it must have been to Joyce's development as an author that he taught at a Berlitz language school. Finnegans Wake is a book that deploys more than sixty languages, after all. At one point Delmore writes this note: "FW: The Authorized King James version of Anglo-Irish International Basic English." (p. 624)

At another point, he praises an essay by Edmund Wilson on Joyce especially what he found to be "a beautiful and generous and exact statement: 'The demands that Joyce makes upon the reader are considerable, but the rewards are astounding!'" (p. 497)

It's also worth noting that, when he was teaching at Harvard, Delmore had a sort of rivalry with the scholar Harry Levin whom he loathed. Possibly because he was blinded by his intense dislike for Levin, Delmore argued that Levin's book on Joyce (James Joyce: A Critical Introduction, 1941) was terrible and his interpretations off-base. What's ironic and sort of ridiculous about the whole thing is Levin's book on Joyce was praised by Joyce himself for being a very sharp and accurate appraisal of his work. I've read Levin's book and I think it is superior to Campbell and Robinson's Skeleton Key among the early studies of the Wake. I think it holds up well. One wishes Delmore had written his own book on the Wake to counter his rival. 

Then again, there's that famous line from Joyce about mistakes. Delmore riffed on this in a journal entry from 1943:
Joyce says, The artist makes no mistakes. His mistakes are the portals of discovery.
    No, wrongly stated for the rhetoric of the paradox. The artist always makes mistakes; his mistakes are the only way in which he can make certain essential discoveries. (p. 135)

*   *   *

From Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow (a fictionalized account of Delmore Schwartz):

"Poets have to dream, and dreaming in America is no cinch. God 'giveth songs in the night,' the Book of Job says. I've devoted lots of thought to all these questions and I've concentrated hard on Humboldt's famous insomnia. But I think that Humboldt's insomnia testified mostly to the strength of the world, the human world and all its wonderful works. The world was interesting, really interesting. The world had money, science, war, politics, anxiety, sickness, perplexity. It had all the voltage. Once you had picked up the high-voltage wire and were someone, a known name, you couldn't release yourself from the electrical current. You were transfixed.... Where are the poets' power and interest? They originate in dream states. These come because the poet is what he is in himself, because a voice sounds in his soul which has a power equal to the power of societies, states, and regimes. You don't make yourself interesting through madness, eccentricity, or anything of the sort but because you have the power to cancel the world's distraction, activity, noise, and become fit to hear the essence of things." (Bellow, p. 316)

What's fascinating about Delmore's "famous insomnia" is that he so often wrote about sleep and dreams in his work. He was a poet of the liminal state, that threshold between waking and sleeping, a territory he must have been very familiar with. His most famous story is called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" and many of his stories and poems involve dreams or the earliest inklings of dawn and waking up from a dream. He developed a great interest in Freud and psychoanalysis, he often wrote down his dreams in his journals and tried to analyze himself. He also tended to dwell on the type of ontological question about dreams and reality that opens his poem "The Fulfillment": 

"Is it a dream?" I asked. To which my fellow

Answered with a hoarse voice and dulled insistence:

"Dream, is it a dream? What difference

Does it make or mean? If it is only a dream

It is the dream which we are. Dream or the last resort

Of reality, it is the truth of our minds:

We are condemned because this is our consciousness." 

(from Summer Knowledge, p. 150)

*   *   *

Let's go back to that aforementioned note from 1954 once more---"F[innegans] W[ake], 300-314. Giants doubleheader (losing second game)---distressed by nightfall." (Portrait of Delmore, p. 494) This doubleheader took place at the Polo Grounds on Sunday July 11th, 1954. Exactly one year later, Delmore was again reading Finnegans Wake on July 11th because he jotted the date "7.11.55" in the bottom left corner of page 89 in his copy:

Detail from Delmore's Wake, pg 89.

There's an eerie significance here because it was on this same day a decade later when Delmore Schwartz died of a heart attack on July 11, 1966. 

Frequently in his journal Delmore would quote lines from Anna Livia Plurabelle's closing monologue from Finnegans Wake as the river of life flows out to the sea and her death. In October of 1943 he wrote: 

When yellow leaves or none or few

My leaves have drifted from me--- (p. 129)

He's quoting from the last lines of the Wake: "My leaves have drifted from me. But one clings still." (FW, p. 628) He draws on this same line again in this note from January 1944, a month after his 30th birthday: 

My years have rifted from me. One to thirty. How do I know how many more, and where will I be and when will I die and will I be sorry that I am I? Yes? Guess! (p. 147)

By the mid-1960s poor Delmore Schwartz had descended pretty deep into madness and addiction which he'd been struggling with for years. He suffered from paranoid delusions about the Rockefellers beaming signals into his brain from the top of the Empire State Building, he alienated his friends and loved ones as he lobbed unfounded accusations at them and even brought lawsuits against them, he concocted a delusional story in which his wife was cheating with someone she had never actually met, and he fell into a sad and pathetic state. Despite his psychological maladies he still managed to publish some poetry and hold down a job as a professor at Syracuse University (where he became a mentor to Lou Reed), but in 1966 he got anxious and left the university to head back to New York City. He bounced around a few seedy hotels in crappy neighborhoods and then on July 11th, 1966, while returning from taking out his trash, he suffered a heart attack and ended up dead in the hallway of a floor other than his. He was 52 years old. It's assumed he must have suffered for hours in the middle of the night because he was found on the floor with his shirt ripped open. His body was unclaimed in the morgue for a few days since nobody seemed to know who the once-famous poet was.

Knowing that Delmore had a love for the Anna Livia monologue at the end of FW and knowing the sad circumstances of his death, I can't help but think of these lines in relation to him: "...never heed of your name! O bitter ending! I'll slip away before they're up. They'll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me." (FW p. 627)

In his notes from 1945 he jotted down these lines from the end of the Wake:

And I rush, my only! into your arms---

I done me best when I was let---


I mounted the steps of the high chair and recited, pointing my finger: "I done me best when I was let---"

(p. 262)

*   *   *

James Atlas in Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet describes how Delmore fell into a depressed state shortly after his 28th birthday. And then, "The death of James Joyce a month later increased his desolation, and he summoned William Barrett [NYU professor of philosophy and his close friend] from Providence to come up and 'keen for our dead brother.' From then on, Delmore always referred to Joyce as 'our poor dead king,' echoing Mr. Casey's lament for Parnell in A Portrait of the Artist." (Atlas, p. 198-199)

Even though Delmore never got around to publishing a full-length study of Joyce, fortunately we do have a poem that he wrote in tribute to his literary hero. This poem appears in the posthumous collection Last and Lost Poems published by New Directions in 1989.

A King of Kings, a King Among the Kings 

              (by Delmore Schwartz) 

Come, let us rejoice in James Joyce, in the greatness of this poet,

     king, and king of poets

For he is our poor dead king, he is the monarch and Caesar of English,

     he is the veritable King of the King’s English


     The English of the life of the city,

     and the English of music;


Let them rejoice because he rejoiced and was joyous;

For his joy was superior, it was supreme, for it was accomplished

After the suffering of much evil, the evil of the torment of pride,

By the overcoming of disgust and despair by means of the confrontation       

of them

By the enduring of nausea, the supporting of exile, the drawing from

     the silence of exile, the pure arias of the

     hidden music of all things, all beings.

For the joy of Joyce was earned by the sweat of the bow of his mind

     by the tears of the agony of his heart;

     hence it was gained, mastered, and conquered,

     (hence it was not a gift and freely given,

     a mercy often granted to masters,

     as if they miraculous were natural --)

For he earned his joy and ours by the domination of evil by

     confrontation and the exorcism of language

     in all its powers of imitation and

     imagination and radiance and delight....