Sunday, April 17, 2011

As Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day

By Christopher Courtley


At a high point in the movie Star Trek Generations, the character Doctor Tolian Soran, played by Malcolm McDowell, declaims that "time is the fire in which we burn". Even though that film was mostly forgettable, that one phrase stuck with me for a long time, until one day I discovered that it was a quote from a poem by an obscure New York poet who deserves to be remembered. The line in question comes from the poem "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz of Brooklyn.

Here is an excerpt:

Calmly we walk through this April's day,
Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away,
Between the worker and the millionaire
Number provides all distances,
It is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
Many great dears are taken away,
What will become of you and me
(This is the school in which we learn...)
Besides the photo and the memory?
(...that time is the fire in which we burn.)

The poem, the full text of which can be found here, expresses the poet's observation of how we blithely and obliquely go about our lives in the shadow of the knowledge that everything ends, even in spring, as all life around us blooms, similarly heedless of the presence of the cold spectre of death. In this way it reminds me of the great Austrian composer Franz Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen.

It seems oddly fitting that the man who wrote this powerful and haunting poem has given his name to a phenomenon known as the Delmore Effect, which "is the tendency of most people to set much more explicit goals for low priority domains than for their most important ambitions." The reason he was given the dubious distinction of having this tendency named after him is cited by an editorial in the University of Chicago press as being "that an extended essay or book on Joyce was one of [his] long entertained projects and that he never accomplished the project precisely because he thought of it as crucial."

Delmore Schwartz is such a good poet and also such an obscure one, that I am seriously considering adopting him at Poets.org. In the meantime I will do my part to reduce his obscurity in other ways, however small. With that in mind, here is a simple still-image video I've created and uploaded to YouTube of myself reading one of Schwartz' last and greatest poems:

5 comments:

Howard said...

Thanks for this good post, especially your reading.

I've used the "time is the fire..." image a few times in talks and writings. Do you know the date of "Calmly We Walk Through This April Day"?

Thanks.

Christopher Courtley said...

Thank you!

Christopher Courtley said...

Thanks, I don't know the exact date it was written, but poetryoutloud.org cites their source as Selected Poems (1938-1958): Summer Knowledge, Copyright © 1967 by Delmore Schwartz. Not sure if that was the first time it was published, though. Of course, the text itself suggests that he started writing the poem in April 1937, but since it was included in a 1938-1958 collection I guess it wasn't completed that same year.

Ted Keer said...

Thanks for the post, Christopher. I agree with your assessment that the movie was largely forgettable. (Aside from the actual Universal Studio Theater on Sixth Avenue, all I can recall are a Christmas tree, some traveling space-lightning, and Kirk's merciful death on the Vasquez Rocks.) But I do remember the line, and am pleased to learn its provenance.

I hope we will have more like this from you!

Christopher Courtley said...

Thanks, Ted! I really enjoy your blog and hope to be able to contribute often. Yes, aside from the Delmore Schwartz reference, all I can recall is Kirk's death scene and Whoopie Goldberg's character telling Picard about the Nexus.