The New Yorker has posted a piece by John Ashbery on the writer Delmore Schwartz. The essay, which Ashbery first gave as a talk in Japan in 1996, has not been easily accessible in print until now, but it will apparently serve as the introduction to Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, a new edition of Schwartz’s work (edited by Craig Morgan Teicher) that is due out in April from New Directions. A resuscitation of Schwartz’s reputation is overdue and fortunately this collection “aims to restore Schwartz to his proper place in the canon of American literature and give new readers access to the breadth of his achievement.”
With the clarity, charm, and elegance typical of his prose, Ashbery recounts the ups and downs of Schwartz’s life and reputation, and makes a persuasive case for the enduring strength and appeal of his poetry.
Ashbery seems like a fitting figure to provide this introduction since Delmore Schwartz served as an important influence for his own work and for the other poets in Ashbery’s circle. As the critic Terence Diggory has noted, “Schwartz loomed over the New York School as a figure of authority in person as well as in his writing.”
When Ashbery and his future fellow New York School poet pals attended Harvard in the late 1940s, Schwartz, already one of the most celebrated younger writers of the day, was a professor there. In the piece, Ashbery actually acknowledges that a major reason he wanted to attend Harvard in the first place was because Schwartz, whose work he was already very fond of, was on the faculty there. He writes:
though I never studied with Delmore, nor met him at Harvard, for reasons I can no longer remember, since I admired his poetry even before coming to the university; in fact, he was one of the main reasons I wished to study there. My friend Kenneth Koch did, however, take a course with him, from which he reported great things. (I did get to know Delmore slightly several years later, in New York, and was delighted when he accepted my poem “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” for Partisan Review.) Our lack of contact at Harvard may have been a problem of scheduling; Schwartz, in fact, on at least one occasion cancelled his course abruptly and returned to New York to breathe the freer air of Greenwich Village.
The fact that Ashbery has written so eloquently and perceptively about Schwartz’s work further underscores a point which I have argued elsewhere: that Delmore Schwartz stands as an unexpected point of origin, of common ground, shared by the first generation New York School poets and Lou Reed, who always insisted that studying with Schwartz at Syracuse University was a formative, life-changing experience. Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground, famously tipped their hat to the poet who served as mentor and influence for not only Lou Reed, but also Kenneth Koch, and (more indirectly) John Ashbery, on their epochal first album (with the famous Andy Warhol banana cover), which closes with a long, chaotic song titled “European Son (to Delmore Schwartz).”
The song, which features two brief, cryptic verses (“You killed your European son / you spit on those under 21”) before turning into a 7 minute dissonant instrumental jam, was something of a tribute, but also a sly rebuke, to Reed’s hero Delmore Schwartz, who Reed knew was very skeptical of his turn from literature to rock music. As guitarist Sterling Morrison recalled, “Delmore thought rock and roll lyrics were the worst things he’d ever heard in his life; he despised songs with words. As this was our big instrumental outing on the album we dedicated it to him.”