Page 19 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 36

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11
HINDUS / JEWISH AMERICAN POETRY
out of which American college and university students learn
to survey American poetry of the twentieth century. The most
firmly established American poets of Jewish origin among the
authoritative figures who produce these texts are probably at
this time Delmore Schwartz and Karl Shapiro.
The dominance of these two figures in the textbooks stems
not only from their own qualities but from the age of the
professors who make the textbooks. Both poets were perhaps
better known in the 1940s than in subsequent decades. They
were among the first Jewish American writers to make the so-
called ‘breakthrough’ into the general public consciousness, or
(more accurately speaking) into the general
literary
conscious-
ness (which, in America, means a more or less specialized area
that leaves the common reader untouched). Since Schwartz’s
notorious death in 1966 (he had fallen so low by that time that
his body lay unclaimed in a New York morgue for several days),
several new collections and reprints of his earlier works have
appeared. And since being the model (or, rather,
one
of the
models) for Saul Bellow’s character Von Humboldt Fleisher in
Humboldt’s Gift,
and the subject of a biography by James
Atlas, he has become something of a
succes de scandale,
an
American-type
poete maudit
like the French poet Rimbaud,
whom he had once translated.
After all this publicity, there is nothing left but that Schwartz’s
poems should ‘catch on’ as they unfortunately never did. In
anticipation of this perhaps, a recent New Directions Annual
reprinted his little play
Shenandoah,
as Jewish an example of
his verse as can be found. Delmore Schwartz, who felt his in-
congruous name was his fate, transposes it into that of his pro-
tagonist Shenandoah Fish and seeks to dramatize the origin
of the absurd name. Unhappily, he loses himself (and most
of his readers, too, I’m afraid) in lofty speculations, philosophi-
cal abstractions, and verbal ambiguities. In spite of these disap-
pointing qualities, I was not sorry to reread the work, which,
failing to achieve the detachment and objectivity the writer
strove for, nevertheless (in spite of itself almost) leaves us with
an impression of the suffering which a Jewish immigrant back-
ground meant for him from the beginning. I have not recently
reread
Genesis,
perhaps his most ambitious autobiographical