the school in which we learn

Apr 23, 2020 poetry appreciation

I’ve no idea how well known this poem is, but it’s relatively new to me, and its refrains have been pulsing their steady rhythm through me for the last week or so. So here it is: ‘Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day‘ by Delmore Schwartz.

There’s something so urgent about the way this poem bristles with questions: there’s a drivenness, a longing to hold on, to redeem. I find the poem a swirling mass of images and ideas, different ones looming out at me each time I read it, in the same sort of way that images come forward onscreen when we hover our mouse over them. But behind, or through, or inside this mass we hear the central lament—that ‘Many great dears are taken away’—and the terrible question, ‘What will become of you and me/… Besides the photo and the memory?’ The steady repeated rhythms feel relentless, and function to mimic the inevitability with which time chases us all down.

How brightly the moment shines in this poem—’Each minute bursts in the burning room,/ The great globe reels in the solar fire’—and with what anguished clarity does the poem acknowledge that we cannot hold on to it. There is a pleading, almost a prayer: ‘May memory restore again and again/ The smallest color of the smallest day’. The helpless dread and desperation in the refrain statements is shiver-some (!): yes, we may ‘learn’; but what we learn is that ‘we burn’.

And yet… It may be where I’m reading it from at the moment, but there’s something I relish here, despite the shiversomeness. When the refrain lines finally appear together as the closing couplet of the poem, I find in them an acknowledgement of the relationship between mortality and meaning-making: time is the ‘school’ as well as the ‘fire’, and we learn—if we learn— because we burn. That’s the deal. I think of Tithonus, whose choices were rendered meaningless by his immortality (never mind the problems attendant on eternal life sans eternal youth…). So I guess I want to read this poem because it returns me, eventually, to a desire fully to inhabit that brilliant ‘burning room’, while I can.

Gathering rosebuds, the Delmore way…

2 thoughts on “the school in which we learn”
  1. Thanks very much for this, Lucy. I didn’t know the poem, and I don’t think I’d heard of Delmore Schwartz.
    It’s a fine poem, and certainly repays reading carefully more than once. I think you’ve said all I’d thought of about the poem, so I won’t repeat. But I did find the main article about him and his life on the Poetry Foundation website interesting and informative, placing him in the context of other American poets I have heard of.
    Thank you!

    1. It’s always a delight to meet a new poet, or to introduce someone to one, so I’m glad you liked ‘Calmly we walk’. I challenge you not to have the refrain pulsing through your head sometime as you are walking! x

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