Thursday, April 19, 2012

Aimless Reading: The S's, Part 13 (Delmore Schwartz)

"Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge
Schwartz, Delmore
Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge

Purchased at St. Mark's Books.

I first heard of Delmore Schwartz in a song by Brenda Kahn. Brenda was part of the East Village anti-folk movement in the early nineties. She sang lots of cleverly desperate and romantic and fatalistic songs about living among the junkies and squatters and artists in the East Village of the time. I and some of my friends were infatuated with her. She had a line in a song that read, "Delmore and Edie/would have made bad lovers too/Just like me and you." There must have been a liner note or something that cured me into to the fact that this referred to Delmore Schwartz.

Later I learned that Schwartz had been a kind of mentor to the young Lou Reed, who, as an undergraduate used to meet up with the then dissipated poet to talk about his work. Eventually, I bought this volume. I never much liked the work, truth be told. I bought a bio once, too, which did little to excite me about the man, either.

I did always like the first poem in the book, though, "The Ballad of the Children of the Czar." I don't think I like it as much as I once did though. It feels a bit too, how shall we say? overdetermined?


The children of the Czar   
Played with a bouncing ball

In the May morning, in the Czar’s garden,   
Tossing it back and forth.

It fell among the flowerbeds   
Or fled to the north gate.

A daylight moon hung up
In the Western sky, bald white.

Like Papa’s face, said Sister,   
Hurling the white ball forth.


While I ate a baked potato   
Six thousand miles apart,

In Brooklyn, in 1916,   
Aged two, irrational.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt   
Was an Arrow Collar ad.

O Nicholas! Alas! Alas!
My grandfather coughed in your army,

Hid in a wine-stinking barrel,   
For three days in Bucharest

Then left for America
To become a king himself.


I am my father’s father,
You are your children’s guilt.

In history’s pity and terror   
The child is Aeneas again;

Troy is in the nursery,
The rocking horse is on fire.

Child labor! The child must carry   
His fathers on his back.

But seeing that so much is past   
And that history has no ruth

For the individual,
Who drinks tea, who catches cold,

Let anger be general:
I hate an abstract thing.


Brother and sister bounced   
The bounding, unbroken ball,

The shattering sun fell down   
Like swords upon their play,

Moving eastward among the stars   
Toward February and October.

But the Maywind brushed their cheeks   
Like a mother watching sleep,

And if for a moment they fight   
Over the bouncing ball

And sister pinches brother   
And brother kicks her shins,

Well! The heart of man is known:   
It is a cactus bloom.


The ground on which the ball bounces   
Is another bouncing ball.

The wheeling, whirling world   
Makes no will glad.

Spinning in its spotlight darkness,   
It is too big for their hands.

A pitiless, purposeless Thing,   
Arbitrary and unspent,

Made for no play, for no children,   
But chasing only itself.

The innocent are overtaken,   
They are not innocent.

They are their father’s fathers,
The past is inevitable.


Now, in another October   
Of this tragic star,

I see my second year,   
I eat my baked potato.

It is my buttered world,
But, poked by my unlearned hand,

It falls from the highchair down   
And I begin to howl.

And I see the ball roll under   
The iron gate which is locked.

Sister is screaming, brother is howling,   
The ball has evaded their will.

Even a bouncing ball   
Is uncontrollable,

And is under the garden wall.   
I am overtaken by terror

Thinking of my father’s fathers,   
And of my own will.

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