BY ANGE MLINKO
Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz
edited by Craig Morgan Teicher.
New Directions. $17.95.
Delmore Schwartz (1913–1966) lay dying of a heart attack in the hallway of a sleazy midtown Manhattan hotel for at least an hour before an ambulance was called around 4:00 a.m.; his body then lay in the morgue unclaimed for two days. The judgment of his contemporaries and students on this early casualty of the confessional
generation could serve as a snapshot of blighted promise. “The American Auden,” boasted James Laughlin. Or, no, “the new Hart Crane,” proposed Dwight MacDonald. “He was tortured, beyond what a man might be,” avowed John Berryman. “The two sides of his face were different one from the other and reflected, he thought, a split in his personality,” reported Eileen Simpson. “One vowel bedevilled by seven consonants,” quoth Lowell. “You were the greatest man I ever met,” Lou Reed effused.
John Ashbery was neither contemporary nor student of Schwartz, but “admired his poetry even before coming to the university” where Schwartz occasionally taught — Harvard — and writes now, in his introduction to this newest selection: “The bulk of his work is unpublished and probably unpublishable.” Between his Partisan Review debut in 1937 and winning the Bollingen Prize in 1959, Delmore Schwartz wrote poems, stories, criticism, and verse plays. His attempted epic, Genesis, might have been the longest American poem in existence if he had finished it; after two hundred pages, the
protagonist Hershey Green had only reached the age of seven. Hefty volumes of letters and notebooks were published posthumously. In his last days, according to his biographer James Atlas, “he sat in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library filling one notebook after another with incomprehensible novels.”
A friend half-jokes to me: “For that generation, it wasn’t that you couldn’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but that you couldn’t write poetry after T.S. Eliot.”