On Delmore Schwartz’s “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.”
“the withness of the body”
The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.
Preceding every poem is the same urgent need—to say something and to have it acknowledged, to have some proof that what the poem said has been heard. By this measure, almost no poem succeeds: the poem offers only half of what would fulfill it; the other half resides in an imaginary reader, who may never open the book, and who, if he or she does, will almost certainly never send acknowledgment back to the poet in a way that the poet can receive it. Perhaps very famous poets—Eliot, more recently Heaney—palpably felt the acknowledgment of their readers, but normal poets rarely do, maybe only a few times in their lives. Of course, poets don’t bet much on acknowledgment; what excites them is finding a precise way to say what they need, or finding out what they need in the act of saying it.
“The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me,” the most famous poem by Delmore Schwartz, the twentieth century’s most thwarted poet, strikes me as a prime example of this principle at work. The speaker of this poem is desperate for a very specific kind of feedback, a kind that the poem tries to pretend it doesn’t want, but which finally it reveals its need for. Schwartz wanted, more than anything, to be famous, to be acknowledged as a genius—his letters can be excruciating, stuffed with a kind of skull-busting ambition, self-aggrandizement that renders Schwartz so big that there can’t possibly be room for him in the world. Finally, he sized himself out of it, dying crazed and spiteful in a New York hotel, having dispatched, through his lawyer, accusatory letters to friends and supporters for years.
He wanted to be big because he was direly afraid he was small. And in fact, in many ways, he was—unable to think much beyond himself, his fears, his frustrations, his hopes. His poems and stories, and letters and journals testify to that in abundance. As does the wreckage of spent friendships he left behind him.
I’m indulging deeply here in the suspicious act of reading a poet’s biography into his poems, because, with Schwartz, the poems are enlarged by the roiling of his personality, they are justified, explained. Schwartz hoped that his poems would make up for him, excuse a lifetime’s bad behavior in eternity, and because he encoded that hope in the poems themselves—nowhere more than in this one—they do.
There is a lumbering, blunt, over-the-head quality to these lines. The pieces—the words—that make up the poem are big, unsubtle bricks rather than feathers. “The central ton of every place” can’t be missed; it takes up most of wherever it is. There is wonderful, clumsy bearishness to this poem (and to many of Schwartz’s—this is the poem in which he teaches himself and us how to read him): “face” rhymes obviously with place; the bear “climbs the building,” any building, because one is as good as another for this purpose—the bear does what he shouldn’t, gets in the way, doesn’t control himself.
How lucky to have “a swollen shadow” to whom to outsource one’s sins, not even an evil twin, but someone who looks different, who looks not like you, not even like an evil you, but like evil. What is a bear? What do we think of when we think of “bear”? Play dead if you see one. Against his fury, there is nothing anyone can do. What a perfect figure he is. Because, of course, there is also the circus bear, “a stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,” a monster in a skirt balancing on a ball, the anger trained out of it, forgotten, ridiculous, without even the dignity its fearsome body should command.
Schwartz embarrasses himself, “Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants”—oh how I love Schwartz’s misuse of verbs, passive “bulging” made active, odd and active “mouthing” suddenly a creepy descriptor—and he “Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,” the glutton, and shows himself to be no more than “quivering meat.” He is a jealous, threatening monster, too, one who “Stretches to embrace the very dear / With whom I would walk without him near.” Those lines capture exactly the shame and pride that are everywhere in this poem, the imprisonment and the power. Look how the rhyme shackles the bear to the girl—“dear” and “near” are almost the same—and the man to his bear. The rhyme leaves no way out of the fact of those lines, but the cage bars ring with music.
There’s dignity and indulgent beauty in the phrasing. The lines “That inescapable animal walks with me, / Has followed me since the black womb held,” remind me of nothing more than the verbal lavishness of Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece of dark luxury, “Lament,” which begins, “When I was a windy boy and a bit / And the black spit of the chapel fold / (sighed the old ramrod dying of women).” Schwartz aspired to that kind of music, the reader’s payoff for enduring the writer’s embarrassment and shame.
So why does he drag himself through the mud this way, and why so beautifully? I taught this poem to a class of undergraduates along with the poem “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. It’s a kind of ridiculous pairing, but my theme was poems of self-love and poems of self-hate. Photocopied on opposite sides of the same sheet, the two poems seem made to answer one another. Schwartz’s “beating brutish one” confesses right off to “[Boxing] his brother in the hate-ridden city.” Oliver answers with foregone forgiveness: “You do not have to be good.” I’ll wager Schwartz’s is the better poem, but Oliver’s is what he wants in return.
Though a few of my students found Oliver’s baiting: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” I think Oliver offers that in order to make whoever “you” is feel more normal and comfortable, feel amongst friends who also feel despair. Schwartz offers no such trade. He wants to tell his despair, but is not here to listen to yours. He’s not here at all, and his poem understands that in a way Oliver’s doesn’t. The poem is a megaphone, not a telephone, operating in one direction only. It must accomplish what it hopes to accomplish without having to hear back from the reader.
So what does it want? What can it accomplish simply by being read, by being tolerated, even enjoyed until the end? Why do any of us confess the wrong we have done? What do we want in return? Forgiveness, of course, as I said. But what’s so remarkable about this poem is the way that it gets what it needs: by reading it, enjoying it, singing and savoring its music, don’t we forgive it? Aren’t we implicitly admitting that the bear has his powerful charms? All we have to do is get to the bottom of the page and Schwartz is forgiven his whole miserable life.