I woke up this morning thinking of Delmore Schwartz. I had been dreaming that I was starting college again, right after the Army. I was still in uniform, but I couldn’t find my duffle bag in the dorm. I wandered around a lot, met someone at a bar and spent a good portion of my dream signing random forms for people. The words that occurred to me when I woke up were In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the title of a short story written by the aforementioned Mr. Schwartz.
Delmore Schwartz died a year before I was born. He had a heart attack on a stranger’s doorstep at the age of 52. It took several days before someone claimed the body. Having suffered from a mental illness for a couple of decades, this shining, intellectual poet and short story writer faded to relative obscurity. Lou Reed was a student, Robert Lowell a friend, Saul Bellow a protégé – all of whom wrote in tribute to him.
That particular phrase, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, so imprecise, but weighty with meaning, will stay in my head for as long as I have cognitive abilities. It joins a collection of stories, phrases and poems that have resonated with me throughout the years. But I am a tad indiscriminate about what sinks in and stays. Let’s take a little tour through the archives.
- There is a poem by William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming“.
- A quote about opera from the movie Pretty Woman (Cinderella as prostitute): “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”
- A bumper sticker: “Jesus loves you, but I think you’re an asshole”
- There’s all the lyrics to “At the Zoo” by Simon and Garfunkel, as well as “The MTA” by The Kingston Trio.
- A quote by Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.”
- Most of the obscure references from anything written by Douglas Adams, from the BBC series Red Dwarf and a good chunk of the dialogue from “Shirley Valentine”.
I sometimes wish I were more high minded. I wish I could retain literature and quotes that could be whipped out at an Algonquin Table gathering. When I’ve read accounts from POWs and concentration camp prisoners, they seem to be able to recollect poetry and literature and music while imprisoned.
One of my Russian professors was able to talk for hours about every aspect of Russian culture – there was a sense of reverence for literature and music. When I was stationed in Germany, many of the Europeans I met were also this way.
If I were ever a prisoner, would I be humming a Verizon commercial jingle, instead of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? I suspect that I’ve not been a good curator for my brain and that is something that seems less tolerable as I get older.
What has stuck with you over the years? Are you ever baffled as to why one thing stays and other more literate, profound things drift away?