Right now I want something I don’t believe in.
–James Galvin, “Blue or Green”
In a hard time, Tarfia Faizullah showed me Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” and Jane Lewty showed me Delmore Schwartz’s “Abraham and Orpheus, Be With Me Now.” The two poems became personal touchstones — the solace of beauty in failure.
Today is Delmore Schwartz’s birthday — he was born on December 8, 1913 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were Romanian Jews who divorced when Schwartz was still young. Despite the critical acclaim that greeted his early work, he sank into increasing isolation as he battled alcoholism and mental illness in his final years, and he died of a heart attack in the Times Square Hotel, where he was living, on July 11, 1966. Schwartz’s life story has become a cautionary tale of wasted potential — the promising writer doomed by his demons.
While there’s truth to this mythology, I appreciate Catherine Fitzpatrick’s 2013 take on Schwartz in her article “Life, Work, Failure: Delmore Schwartz” in The Cambridge Quarterly 42.2. Fitzpatrick argues that by focusing on Schwartz’s biography as a “figure of failure,” a “two-part narrative of decline . . . resolved . . . into a story of triumph followed by downfall, so the downfall is read back into the triumph,” we neglect the ways in which he addressed and transformed “failure” in his own work — “Schwartz was a writer whose greatest literary successes came in his treatments of failure.” She pairs two seemingly contradictory declarations from Schwartz’s Selected Essays, “What we want of literature is the truth,” and “The subject of poetry is experience, not truth, even when the poet is writing about ideas.” Fitzpatrick writes, “In fact, these statements pair neatly or else the transition between them represents a discovery. What we want of literature is truth, but what it gives us is experience. It is therefore always, necessarily, failing us. This tension, between what is desired and what is given, is key . . .”
Later, Fitzpatrick writes:
Schwartz’s lyricism struggles to create and embody, as if out of nothing, Truth, but it is always fenced around with an awareness of the philosophical and personal impossibility of this struggle. What the poems almost always enact is the failure of the lyrical impulse. This awareness, however, while it conditions the willed experience of hope, making it nervous, tentative, prone to despair, does not cancel it out entirely. Schwartz’s descriptions are too attentive to the movements of thought, as opposed to logic, for that.
Of “Abraham and Orpheus, Be With Me Now,” published in Summer Knowledge (1959), David Zucker writes in “‘Alien to Myself’: Jewishness in the Poetry of Delmore Schwartz” (Studies in American Jewish Literature 9.2, 1990) of “[t]he unlikely joining of these two figures — one representing the religious-moral sensibility, the other the poetic.” He notes that the “chief trope of the poem is circularity . . . What is this lovely lyric movement but the power to invoke moral and aesthetic authoritative presences to form a secret symbolic community, tapped by the aching petition of the poet? The poem dramatizes Schwartz’s lack of ease with belief, yet his desire to believe. The circularity and abstractness imitate the dilemma of Schwartz’s struggle with the problem of belief itself. Schwartz cannot ‘believe’ . . . but he can feel the yearning of figures who themselves represent immersion in the mystery of belief, of absorption in a commandment that comes from another world. So his poetry reiterates his longing and asks that some of the power of the traditional imagination be his:”
Abraham and Orpheus, Be With Me Now
Abraham and Orpheus, be with me now:
You saw your love’s face abstract, the week-kneed stilts,
You saw and knew, and knew how near “no more”
(As one who scrutinizes mystery, the air),
How poised on nothing, weighted on the air,
The touched, seen substance, the substance of care:
Surround me, be round me, be with me like the air,
Abraham and Orpheus, be with me now.
Love love exhausts and time goes round and round,
Time circles in its idiot defeat,
And that which circles falls, falls endlessly,
Falls endlessly, no music shapes the air
Which did, can, shall restore the end of care,
For love exhausts itself and time goes round,
I shudder in the traffic, buildings stand,
Will fall and night will fall, the electric light be snapped
To spread its yellow genius on the floor,
And you knew too who knew and knew “no more”
That love exhausts itself and falls and time goes round.
Abraham and Orpheus, be with me now:
No longer the grandstand, nor the balcony,
Nor the formal window gives me cool perspective:
Love sucked me to the moving street below,
I see the price of care, turning to keep,
I am a price, I turn to keep, I care,
But time which circles dissipates all care,
As you knew too, who lifted up the knife,
And you, musician in the after-life,
Drowning in the shadow all love always bears,
As every solid thing must shadow in the light:
I ask your learned presence, I care and fear,
Abraham and Orpheus, be near, be near.
As an actual mystical summoning of Biblical and mythic figures, the poem is, of course, a “failure.” Abraham and Orpheus cannot be with Schwartz, or us, in any literal sense. But the incantatory music of Schwartz’s lines finds beauty in this failure, creating something lasting. Schwartz’s poem fails as an invocation, but succeeds at rendering the urgency and persistence of the desire for invocation, the desire for (to borrow Hugh Kenner’s phrase) “efficacious words,” which for some of us, is solace enough.
[Fun fact: Lou Reed was Delmore Schwartz’s student; click here to hear Lou Reed read Schwartz’s oft-anthologized short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”]