In 1938, New Directions published Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities to wide critical acclaim, “the only genuine innovation we’ve had since Eliot and Pound,” according to Allen Tate, a doyen of modern poetry of his day. Schwartz was 26 at the time, and hailed as a brilliant wunderkind. The book opened with his astonishing title story, intense lyric poems, a verse play, and a five-acter in blank verse with prose interludes. From then through the 1970s, his poems appeared in every anthology of American poetry. He was at the top of the literary game long before the reputation of friends Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Randall Jarrell began to eclipse his.
Schwartz’s urban poetry was a precursor to so-called “confessional poetry,” though his work had a formal quality: one group of lyrics, for example, were gathered under Poems in Imitation of the Fugue. In 1959, Doubleday published Selected Poems (1938−1958): Summer Knowledge, which included much of the poetry from his earlier works, as well as poems written since the disastrous critical reception of Vaudeville for a Princess in 1950. (Hugh Kenner’s attack in Poetry magazine prompted editor Karl Shapiro to commission a gentler piece that he published as “Two Views of Delmore Schwartz.”) The new pieces published in Selected Poems differed greatly In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: stately dramatic monologues in Biblical and literary voices, and long-lined poems, looser and more musical, as in “The Kingdom of Poetry”:
The praise of poetry is like the clarity of the heights of the mountains.
The heights of poetry are like the exaltation of the mountains.
It is the consummation of consciousness in the country of the morning!
While Schwartz was awarded the prestigious Bollingen Prize that same year, his literary fortune was in decline, as was his personal life, beset by manic depressiveness, alcohol, and barbiturates. In 1967, at age 52, his body lay unidentified in the morgue for three days, inspiring Saul Bellow’s roman à clef Humboldt’s Gift.
Literary reputations are nothing if not fickle. Less than a year after Schwartz’s death, New Directions brought out Selected Poems in paperback: in continuous print for nearly forty years now, the collection has continued to influence modern poets, reviving interest in what first so compelled critics like Allen Tate. Meanwhile, in 1976 New Directions brought out In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, with a foreword by Irving Howe and introduction by Schwartz’s biographer, James Atlas; this edition, too, has had multiple printings, and was released anew in 2012, with an ecstatic preface by the late Lou Reed.
How then does this new collection, Once and for All, fit into Delmore Schwartz’s oeuvre? Does it truly represent the best of his work? The book’s aim is to give a fuller view of Delmore Schwartz’s literary endeavors by offering up a selection of poetry from Selected Poems, two verse plays, two stories — including “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is widely available on the Internet, as is one of the two essays, “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World.” There are also a handful of letters, and twenty pages from Genesis (1943),Schwartz’s book-length poem — a modern companion to Wordsworth’s Prelude, the growth of a poet’s mind. While Genesis had a respectful critical reception, it was mostly from friends: as Once and for All’s editor Craig Morgan Teicher writes, “the prose is often flat, slow, and sentimental.” So why include that which does not show Schwartz at his best?
Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz is a noble aim, but serves best an antechamber to the concert hall that Selected Poems and In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories have long delivered.