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Poetry as disease and therapy
by James Atlas
A review of The Middle Generation by Bruce Bawer.
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Bruce Bawer The Middle Generation: The Lives and Poetry of Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and Robert Lowell.
The Middle Generation of Bruce Bawer’s title, poised between T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and an unruly crowd of Surrealists, Beats, New York School poets, and others born in the years after World War I, has long since passed beyond the temporal rank ascribed to it. A decade after the death of its youngest member, Robert Lowell, the four poets mainly responsible for the vigor of American poetry in the postwar era belong to literary history. Their lives and works enjoy a posthumous currency. Three of them— Schwartz, Berryman, and Lowell—have been the subject of biographies; William Pritchard is at work on a life of Jarrell. Letters and journals have been collected and published; Lowell’s essays will be out this spring. Studies by the late David Kalstone, John Thompson, and other hands are scheduled for publication or are in progress. “The stock market of literary success can be as unpredictable as Wall Street,” William Barrett remarked in The Truants, his elegiac memoir of life among the New York intellectuals. If the quantity of secondary literature spawned by these poets is any indication, the Middle Generation is enjoying a considerable boom.
It’s not only their work, of course, that has prompted such intense scrutiny. Bawer, in keeping with the general modesty of his enterprise, prefers the less flamboyant rubric, but the Middle Generation has also been called—with ample reason—the Tragic Generation. None of the poets under consideration here lived out his natural span. Jarrell and Berryman were suicides; Schwartz died, half-insane and alone, in a midtown Manhattan hotel; Lowell, who survived the longest, was dead at sixty, worn out by the long history of nervous breakdowns chronicled in his work. There was something terrifying about the way they burned themselves out; for them, poetry was a deadly business.
Disaster on such a dramatic scale threatens to overshadow its cause. “For everyone who cares to read the poems Schwartz wrote when he possessed his devils, there seem to be a thousand who delight to read about the years when his devils possessed him,” Murray Kempton noted in a recent issue of Grand Street. As Schwartz’s biographer, I don’t find this phenomenon as annoying as Kempton does, but it’s heartening all the same to read a book about these martyred poets in which the poetry predominates. For all the flamboyant tragedy their lives contained, the poets of the Middle Generation merit our attention because of what they wrote; whether we read it or not, it was poetry that made them what they were.
What established them as a generation? It was more than an accident of birth. “Really we had the same life,” Lowell claimed in one of his late poems—a life not merely devoted to poetry, but to the conviction that nothing else mattered. To be a poet meant to apprentice oneself to a secular priesthood, to validate one’s being in the world: I write, therefore I am. No poetry, not even Wordsworth’s Prelude or Whitman’s Song of Myself, has ever been more self-referential. The divorces, alcoholism, breakdowns, and public displays of madness recounted in their work were essential to their creativity; they were a “mutual affliction,” in Bawer’s view, symptoms of a common malady: “The very conditions which so tragically crippled them as men also provided their poetry with its greatest beauty and strength.” For the poets of the Middle Generation, poetry was both the disease and the therapy.
Bawer’s account of these conditions is skillfully managed. Without resorting to schematic arguments or twisting evidence to support a particular theory, he marshals familiar testimony to show how the four poets shared certain early experiences that shaped their development: uprooted families, divorced or unhappily married parents, weak fathers, overbearing mothers. The parallels are startling. Berryman’s father suffered devastating financial reversals, was divorced by the poet’s mother, and committed suicide. Schwartz’s father abandoned his family when Delmore was a child and died young, having lost a considerable fortune in the Depression. Jarrell’s parents separated when he was a boy, and his father became a distant, shadowy figure in his life. Lowell’s father, described so unsparingly in Life Studies as the ineffectual Commander Lowell, “cheerful and cowed/among the sea-dogs at the Sunday yacht club,” was a hapless failure, prone to foolish financial speculations and dominated by a bullying wife. “Estrangement, insecurity, resentment, guilt”—thus reads Bawer’s litany of youthful crisis. “Out of the stress of abandonment grew the sense of an unpardonable loss, the crippling absence seeming like an ineffable injustice; then arose the hate, and, in each of them, the illogical, disabling guilt that only a child’s pain can produce.”
The danger of putting such analysis in the service of literary criticism is that it leaves us more or less where we started; it explains but doesn’t explain. Some of Bawer’s hypotheses are so general they could apply to nearly anyone. “In his childhood,” he offers, “lay the seeds of Schwartz’s adult personality and, more to the point, the seeds of much of his mature poetry.” Well, yes, but of what poet would that not be true? And when he suggests that the memory of a violent quarrel between his parents Schwartz witnessed in childhood “may help to explain the insomnia that plagued him during his adult years,” Bawer is skating on thin ice. What kept Schwartz awake was the larger trauma of his parents’ marriage and his betrayed ambitions, combined with amphetamine addiction—not one isolated, highly conjectural episode in his youth.
Still, Bawer is no doctrinaire Freudian; his character analyses are shrewdly intuitive and sympathetic. I found his explanation for why the poets of the Middle Generation were so obsessed with Eliot especially persuasive. Eliot was “the ideal paternal image,” Bawer argues, a remote and dictatorial figure whose impersonality encouraged a kind of literary transference: he became the father they never had. With his bowler, furled umbrella, and ready knowledge of the whole of Western culture, Eliot was the quintessential European. Out of nowhere, he had fashioned an identity that reconciled two admirable but opposing impulses: revolt and authority. He had rejected philistine America, abandoning a homeland that insufficiently appreciated literature, and in the process had made himself a member of the establishment, sitting behind his desk at Faber & Faber uttering somber pronouncements about religion and society. Clearly this was the way to go about a literary career.
The poets who gravitated toward Eliot and considered themselves his disciples had a less certain grasp of European languages and literature than their mentor. Jarrell’s interest in German culture has always struck me as willed, and Lowell’s “imitations” of Leopardi, Baudelaire, and other European poets are more excuses for poetry than versions of the originals. Schwartz never even got to Europe, and could scarcely read French; his translation of Rimbaud was a disaster. Berryman, notes Bawer, “tried to make a Briton out of himself.” He studied at Cambridge, steeped himself in the English poets, sported a donnish bow tie. But Europe wasn’t quite real to them; it represented an idea, an ideal of tradition, order, civility, high culture, art—everything America was not.
Eliot sanctified poetry, insisted upon its importance in the world. It was this faith, and the gravity with which he articulated it, that made him so attractive to Lowell and his compatriots. “Poetry,” writes Bawer, “was the Middle Generation’s reply to life and death.” Their journals, their letters, their conversations were poetry-haunted, poetry-obsessed. Reading over Lowell’s famous poem to Schwartz in Life Studies, I was struck again by how unflaggingly literary it is. Surrounded by the tools of their trade—books, a typing table, a portrait of Coleridge—the two poets swap allusions as they “kill” (Lowell’s eerily prescient verb) a quart of gin and the Charles River turns silver in the dawn. Life ebbs away in the pursuit of a means to capture its evanescence.
Dealing as he does with four poets, Bawer must shepherd them briskly through the chronology of their careers, establishing a uniformity that belies the untidiness of life. Not all of them owed the same fealty to Eliot, nor did they suddenly break away from his influence like a pack of hunting dogs off on a new scent. Lowell was never as devoted to Eliot as were the others, and Schwartz never got over his obsession; among his papers at Yale is the manuscript of a book on Eliot that he labored over for decades and never managed to complete. Yet Bawer persists in dividing their discipleship into parallel stages: early, middle, late.
For a time, it’s true, the poets of the Middle Generation were engaged in a common effort to shed their “Eliotic impersonality” in favor of a more intimate, confiding voice. But is it fair to say that the work of the late Fifties and after constitutes in every case “a clear break” from the reticence of their apprenticeship? Schwartz, for one, retreated from the strong personal idiom he developed in Genesis, his long autobiographical poem, to a more indistinct, self-conscious style. Bawer takes issue with critics (myself among them) who have found the later poetry diffuse; perhaps a reader who comes to Schwartz’s work fresh, without having tracked him wearily through the ravages of his decline, is in a better position to respond to its music. But whatever the virtues of these sprawling, mellifluous poems, the “break” they represent is of a very different order from the stunning revelations of Life Studies and Dream Songs. By this time in his life, poetry had become for Schwartz a mask, a means of evasion; for Lowell and Berryman, it had become a powerful instrument of self-scrutiny.
Bawer is an impressive textual critic. His close readings reveal, line by line, the extraordinary dependence of the Middle Generation on Auden and Yeats. His critical voice is casual and self-assured, scholarly without being pedantic. He avoids solemnity toward grim subjects: The Waste Land is “the great anthology poem”; Song of Myself, “the poem to beat.” It’s a pity that Bawer feels compelled to quote so much from other critics; he doesn’t need them to make his points. And I wish he had shared his bibliographical research; his quotations from original sources—Schwartz’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale, Lowell’s correspondence in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library—are mysteriously scarce. Since he went to the trouble to consult the archives, why not let the reader in on his discoveries?
Bawer’s study of literary influence and the poets of the Middle Generation is the most complete we have, but it was more than shared influences that made them a generation. The intensity of their friendships, manifest in their correspondence, in the reviews they wrote of each others’ work, in the accounts we have of them together, and above all in their elegies, reflects a deeper affinity. Like Shelley and Byron, Rimbaud and Verlaine, they created among themselves a climate of dangerous stimulation; their competitiveness inspired them to greater heights even as it fed the flame of their self-immolating tendencies. “In a way,” writes Bawer, “the only religion any of them had was one another.” Faith can damage as well as sustain.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 October 1986, on page 80
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