Man with Blue Guitar

A prefatory family anecdote….’cos this post makes me think of my father.

This is a photo of Wallace Stevens’s The Man with the Blue Guitar, and other poems first published 4 October 1937. My parents’ copy  was bought in 1945, when the book had been reprinted and re-set, and it might be that my mother bought it for Henry anticipating his return home from Germany right after the War. Next to it is Delmore Schwartz’s review of the volume in our continuing look at Vol4, issue 3, February  1938 of Partisan Review. Stevens was a crucial name in the family storehouse of important writers, and if Proust and James were my mother, Adeline’s,  imaginary friends, since they both had a hyper-senstivity that  let them convey the exactness of  the atmosphere of psychological states, Stevens belonged to my father, who had become a Stevens reader early on, and every volume was covered in grocery wrapping paper, with a blue label on it, and so most of them remain that way even now.  It was Stevens’s  abstractions that Henry loved.

Henry as Editor
East SIde High Yearbook Editor in Chief

Having grown up in Paterson, and having gone to East Side High, now famous for having educated Allen Ginsberg, Henry had learned about Columbia University through an intricate set of connections amongst members of the Communist Party and locals — there had been Columbia teachers in the same CP Cell in Paramus as Henry’s cousin IJ —  Henry was a Columbia student between 1931-1934, and his seriousness about the study of philosophy came from from his divided sense of needing a profession, while yearning for a life of the mind. The dilemma of where his intellectual path would lead him was something he spoke about while my sister Mary and I were growing up, and he would repeat to us the advice given him by his Philosophy professor at Columbia, Irwin Edwin, that ‘there is need in this world for many good doctors, Henry; but only great philosophers.’ It must have been hard to take at the time, but a mellowed and aged Henry turned it into a  smiling bon mot that suggested he had become a great doctor. Given our Ma’s James interests, from time to time we would refer to our father as ‘The Other HJ.’   I will turn off the Janowitz reminiscence faucet in a minute, but I happen to have a postcard that Delmore Schwartz wrote to his friend Norman Jacob suggesting a meet-up for drinks in the City, and Norman sent it on to Henry, inviting him to come along.  I found it in a box in a drawer in  in my parents’s apartment after they died.  I have to assume that the event never took place, since I am certain Henry would have remembered and then embellished a story of what had taken place in January 1939.

SO now we arrive at Delmore Schwartz again, and by moving on, we arrive at Delmore’s book review of Stevens.


In 1949, Delmore Schwartz had a “Dream of…a doctor in pajamas in a drugstore, and of marrying the daughter of Wallace Stevens.”   Delmore was certainly connected to Stevens, even if it wasn’t exactly a marriage of minds, and his review of The Man with the Blue Guitar was for the most part of a piece with the journal’s desire to publish and praise contemporary Modernists who weren’t necessarily of the same political tendency as the journal’s own.

Schwartz begins with a genealogy of Steven’s style, in relation to ‘dandyism’ and the tradition of what he calls “the moon-struck poems of Dowson, Laforgue, and Verlaine. and the Laforgue who sighs that existence is so quotidian”.     I think of John Ashbery when I read Stevens, and Ashbery has often described the importance to his poetic of Stevens’s influence. Certainly there is something ‘dandyish’ about Ashbery’s work, though it ironises itself with Ashbery’s exuberance and humour.  Stevens’s irony was more tense, with the squeak of mockery.

Delmore goes on to talk about the environment within which Stevens would have picked up these habits of “florid irony,”       “AS a hypothesis, one may suppose that his style crystalized in the days when The Smart Set was the leading literary magazine, when one knew French with pride, discussed sophistication, feared to be provincial, and aspired to membership among the Elite. ..  To be a poet at that time was to be peculiar; merely to be interested in the arts was to take upon oneself the burden of being superior, and an exile at home.”:

Stevens as a Young Man

“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” for those of you who may never have read it — is a constantly changing set of 33 poems, all with a similar structure of shortish lyrics.  All are variations on the poem’s deep structure of  the contest of poetry and reality (or a host of other stand-ins: imagination and knowledge, abstraction and instantiation,  the analogue pattern of more and less in  music and the digital rigour of the articulation in words, and all the others you might think of when you read the text.) I am sorry that it isn’t available online, but I bet its in a library near you…or in a volume of Stevens’ Collected Poems.  The problem of the poem is presented right at the start — by problem, I mean the problem that the poem works with and against through the 33 parts.

“The man bent over his guitar,
A Shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”


Schwartz wants the reader to see that though Stevens can look a bit fussy or even suggest burlesque comedy, his subject is not only serious it is about what poetic vocation can achieve in a world of ‘things exactly as they are.’

`It is because of an enforced awareness that his time is one of immense conflict and derangement that the poet has been compelled to consider the nature of poetry in its travail among things as they are. … he justifies poetry, he defines its place, its role, its priceless value. Nothing could be more characteristic of this poet, of his virtues and also of his limitations…”

Delmore Schwartz

Schwartz is not quite satisfied with Stevens’s abstraction. “Virtue and defect, however, seem to be inseparable. The blue guitar, the statue, the duck, the greenest continent, and above all the bread and the stone presented here for the first time are figures and metaphors of a richness and meaningfulness which justify the method [aj: the dandyism, the irony, etc.] The poems taken as a whole constitute a special kind of museum, of a very familiar strangeness, located, because of the extent of the poet’s awareness, in the middle of everything that concerns us.” 

When we turn to the endpapers of this issue, there is a noisy shattering that accompanies the break away from the Stevens’s abstractions into ‘the middle of everything that concerns us.’  Schwartz’s apologia for Stevens’ anachronistic style creates a kind of sound-proof shell around him. While I can hear Delmore swearing and sweating and carrying on in his New York poetic, Stevens’ poems are read in my head, soundless except for the random and often frightening interruptions of cawing and crying and cackling of the tropical birds of Key West.

Next: Rose M. Stein “Sketches in Little Steel.”