Despite the experimentalism of the great Modernists, teachers of the Post-Modern period often urged promising students to write rhymed and metered poem-exercises in class and extra-curricularly. The experience of Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) was in many ways typical, though not every student was as fortunate in his or her mentor. Schwartz was born and went to school in Brooklyn, New York. His high school poetry teacher was Mary J. J. Wrinn, editor of an influential high school textbook on poetry writing, The Hollow Reed.
In his biography of Delmore Schwartz, James Atlas mentioned Mary J. J. Wrinn twice. He wrote first, "It was obvious to some of his [high school] teachers that Delmore was a brilliant boy, and in particular to Mary J. J. Wrinn, 'an Irish, red-faced woman with a terrible temper,' as a classmate of Delmore's remembered her, who conducted the school's poetry club and would often argue with Delmore over his poems, which he was reluctant to revise. But she encouraged him in his writing, and was aware of his advanced knowledge of contemporary poetry" (26).
Again Atlas wrote, "One afternoon during the winter of 1933 Delmore pointed out to Maurice Zolotow a girl at a neighboring table in the N. Y. U. student cafeteria and announced that he knew her from Mary J. J. Wrinn's Poetry Club at George Washington High School. Her name was Gertrude Buckman, and a number of her poems had appeared beside Delmore's in The Poet's Pack" (63).
"A selection of Delmore's earliest poems can be found," Atlas noted further, "in The Poet's Pack of George Washington High School, a voluminous hardcover anthology of poems by 'members of the Poetry Club and Poetry Class 1927-1931.' Of Delmore's four contributions, a sonnet entitled 'The Saxophone' reveals that he had been reading Hart Crane; another, 'Automobile,' was more original in tone, exhibiting a fine dramatic intensity in measured quatrains."
In a "Foreword" Robert Phillips also mentioned The Poet's Pack in a note explaining his selections for the The Last and Lost Poems of Delmore Schwartz: "Other juvenilia I have not included are the poems 'Automobile,' 'Darkness,' 'E. A. P. — A Portrait,' and 'The Saxophone,' from The Poet's Pack...and 'Aubade' from Mosaic, I, .” (xix) However, Phillips did not mention Mary Wrinn. Neither he nor Atlas mentioned the fact that Wrinn was, at the time, gathering materials for a high school textbook in poetry writing that would become very well known among the early teachers of creative writing in the schools.
Mary J. J. Wrinn published The Hollow Reed in 1935. In it she used quite a number of poems by her high school students, five of them being by Gertrude Buckman, the future Mrs. Delmore Schwartz, and five by Schwartz himself, including, among those mentioned by Phillips, "Automobile," "E. A. P. — A Portrait," and "Saxophone." However, Wrinn used two Schwartz pieces mentioned by neither: "Saturday's Child" and "George Washington Bridge, December 1929." These may be considered two more "lost" poems which have received no attention at all since Wrinn's book appeared, for they have never been collected. Wrinn thus put into hard covers several poems that appeared three years before Schwartz published his own first book of poems and stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. All five are formal poems that utilize verse meters rather than "free verse" — prose which has been "line-phrased" or broken into lines at the ends of phrases or clauses.
In Wrinn's anthology "Saturday's Child" faces "Rejuvenation" by Gertrude Joan Buckman on the opposite page. Both appear in Chapter 39, "Miscellaneous," a section Wrinn introduced thus: "In the light of accumulating skill and a habit of observation students of poetry find many subjects for expression. Here are a few that their makers labeled 'optional.' They may suggest other optional poems to their readers" (487).
The subject of "Saturday's Child" is "life." It is written in relatively regular iambic pentameter lines arranged in quatrains. Schwartz did not rhyme the poem regularly; there is only one true-rhyming pair of lines in the three stanzas, and although these form a couplet rhyme, typographically they are not a distich; rather, the rhyme forms a sound bridge across the gap between stanza one and stanza two:
I think of blue confetti, amusement parks
And lighted Christmas trees, while carnivals
Parade like roman candles in my mind...
How should I dumb this rage? What should I say?
Within the pagan tent of holiday
Grow memories to brood upon and cherish
And fling on Monday from the gargoyled church
Of consciousness into a weary heart
Whose large remorse requires expectation
Of every joy that Saturday donates
To taunt that synthesis of monotone
And toil and firecrackers which is life.
But there are numerous effects other than rhyme on the sonic level, such as apocopated rhyme of the center lines of stanza three: donates-monotone; the consonance — almost the rich rhyme of the center lines of stanza two: cherish-church; the alliterations, (Christmas-carnivals), sonic repetitions (parks-Parade), and internal head rhymes (parks-carnivals-Parade). This is precocious work for a high school student.
It is no less precocious on the sensory level. The tropes — "figures of speech" — of "Saturday's Child" are not complex, but they are used in the Symbolist tradition. In particular, the abstract syntax (Donald Davie called it "musical syntax") of the rhetorical question, "How should I dumb this rage?" sounds like a French Symbolist expression, whereas "the gargoyled church / Of consciousness...weary heart" holds a hint of Eliot — it is no wonder that Schwartz's high-school yearbook said, "T. S. Eliot is God, and Delmore Schwartz is his prophet" (Atlas, 27).
The ideational (thematic) level of the poem is as ambitious as its techniques. Schwartz managed to get into these twelve lines a recapitulation of religion ranging from pre-Christian Paganism and Hebraism through Roman Catholicism, at times blending allusions and extending them metaphorically, as in "Roman candles." This is a meditation on the ambiguity of the Jew, Schwartz himself as "Saturday's Child" (Saturday being the Jewish Sabbath), in the American Diaspora.
"Washington Bridge, December 1929" is to be found in Chapter 13, "Object Poems," of The Hollow Reed (Wrinn, 173). The touchstone of this chapter is Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Of "object poems" in general Wrinn wrote, "things become significant through strange associations. The things on our table at home; a chair that a dear one sits in; our dog's special cushion; a hand bag worn at the corners may almost have the gift of words, so alive is it with significance. There is human interest in many an inanimate object. — the essence of a poem may be found in the history of an object; in its association; in its special physical or spiritual significance.
"Beauty lingers in strange places; her finger has left an impress on many an object, which the unseeing or unknowing may call ugly. —
"Some of the purest poetry has been stimulated through objects." The object Schwartz chose to treat in, again, three stanzas, is the George Washington Bridge linking New York City and New Jersey, but this time there are only two quatrains and a concluding triplet, so the poem is a line shorter than "Saturday's Child."
The meter is again iambic, but variable iambic this time, rather than normative; however, Schwartz did not allow himself much latitude, for the range in line length varies by only one foot, from tetrameter to pentameter. The poem begins with an iambic tetrameter line, but the second line is the longest typographically in the poem, though it is hypercatalectic by only one syllable:
Now in the darkness of the year
When afternoons, grown still, more chill and drifting,
Voyage unseen to dusk and blue loose night,
The wind is voiding our dream of spring.
Schwartz had early such a command of rhythm that the poem, though scansion leaves no doubt as to its meter, is seen to have many variations. Schwartz substituted a trochee for the initial iamb; he inserted a spondee into the central foot of line two, against all the rules of versification, by utilizing compensatory caesura after "afternoons": the pause at that point substitutes for an unstressed syllable which yields three stresses in a row. He has gotten away with it by phrasing, and even extended the effect into the next foot (more takes a secondary stress following yet another compensatory caesura after "still," and "chill" is sprung by internal rhyme with "still," so it takes a stress also). In fact, Schwartz put at least one variation into each line of the poem, which reads conversationally:
But all day long the rivets pulse, and cables
Crescent a river newly, cradle a word....
Will the gray sky gather the world to death?
Over the hush and sleep an iron breath
Tremendously is....No wind nor snow
Refutes this fleshed geometry, this birth,
Curving the strength of life over the earth.
This little ode relies more consistently on rhyme as its main sonic effect than did "Saturday's Child," its rhyme scheme being abcb-deff-ghh. Although the pattern is not strict, there is rhyme in each stanza, and there is couplet rhyme at the ends of the second and third stanzas. The first stanza is light-rhymed (drifting-spring), but it also has internal rhyme, as noted. There is also assonance (blue-loose) and considerable consonantal echo (ars and els). The first stanza sets the mood of the poem partly by mellifluous sounds; there is thus a real melding of the sonic and sensory levels, the former supporting the latter.
The second stanza blends images of birth and death. Schwartz was able to take something as hard as steel — the new bridge across the Hudson — and by association, using the word "cradle" connotatively, endow it with fabric, the "fleshed geometry" of the concluding triplet. By the time the poem is ended, the "cables" of the bridge have taken on the coloration of umbilical cords spanning not merely river banks, but birth and death, winter and spring, despair and hope. The ideational level of the poem, then, is as "organic" as the sonic and sensory levels. The fusion is extraordinary in the literary production of an adolescent who had, perhaps, been inspired to write this poem by his reading of Hart Crane's The Bridge, which was published early in 1930.
Schwartz's Summer Knowledge: New and Selected Poems 1938-1958 appeared in 1959. In the last section of this book there appears a series of poems, "Narcissus," the first poem of which is titled "The Mind is an Ancient and Famous Capital." This work exhibits in a developed form many of the aspects of the poet's earliest poems: it is a variable iambic poem utilizing many of the same techniques of metrical variation — substitutions of one kind of verse foot for another.
On the sensory level there is the Symbolist use of tropes; there are literary allusions, as to Shakespeare and to classical mythology; there is the idiosyncratic poetic syntax of "harp o'clock," which is of the same ilk as, "How should I dumb this rage?" Even the tone of the poem is traceable to Schwartz's early work. The poet's development was not apparently harmed by his teacher's emphasis upon formal training in verse-writing.
This essay is from Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012, 336 pp., ISBN 978-1-936205-30-1, paperback. Available from all booksellers.