Armand Schwerner Essay - Critical Essays

Schwerner, Armand


Armand Schwerner 1927-1999

Belgian-born American poet, translator, and essayist.

Schwerner was a twentieth-century American poet whose primary work, The Tablets, evolved over three decades in various print versions and as live performance art. His poetry has been described as satirizing modern life and the philosophies and practices of language, religion, antiquities scholarship, and art.

Biographical Information

Schwerner was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1927. His father emigrated to New York City in 1935; the rest of the family, including Schwerner, two siblings, and their mother, arrived the following year. Although he spoke only French until the age of nine, Schwerner rapidly became fluent in English, reflecting a linguistic ability that would later influence his career as a translator of poetry from multiple languages, including Greek, Italian, and Tibetan. In 1945 Schwerner briefly attended Cornell University. Following a year of military service as a U.S. Navy musician and short periods of study at several universities, Schwerner eventually received a bachelor of arts degree in French, pursued graduate study in anthropology, and finally received a master of arts degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. In 1961 Schwerner married art ecologist Doloris Holmes, with whom he had two sons. In 1964 he joined the faculty of Staten Island Community College (now the College of Staten Island, City University of New York), where he remained as professor of English from 1973 until his death in 1999.

Major Works

Schwerner's poetry superimposes fragments of text and symbol, image and sound, print and voice in an exploration of relationships, identity, and ethnopoetic traditions. He once said, “I'm deeply interested in language work simultaneously and inextricably occurring along with the pictographic, the alphabetic, the oral dimension and the abstractive.” In live performances of his most significant work, The Tablets, which did not appear in its final published form until the year of the poet's death, Schwerner often incorporated slide presentations or photocopies of the so-called ancient text hieroglyphics, and played music on ethnic folk instruments such as the Guatemalan bird-ocarina, a Balinese flute, or an African rain stick. The first published version of The Tablets appeared in 1968, featuring “Tablet I” through “VIII.” Subsequent volumes, each expanded beyond the previous release, appeared in 1971, 1975, 1983, 1989, and 1999. The Tablets are presented as the magnum opus of a fictive, eccentric scholar/translator. The work purports to be a series of clay tablets, rendered in Sumerian/Akkadian symbols and dating back more than 4,000 years. It is distinctive for its simultaneous illumination and parody of the process of discovering and interpreting ancient texts and text fragments, as well as for its evolutionary style that parallels advances in actual archaic materials scholarship between 1968 and 1999.

Schwerner's literary output also includes criticism, essays, translations, and collaborative efforts. During the 1960s Schwerner authored numerous critical commentaries of major literary works. In the 1970s and 1980s he produced translations of poetry from various tribal, ethnic, and archaic sources, and worked with other artists to adapt his work for theater, dance, and audio recordings. In the last decade of his life, he turned his attention to essays on a variety of topics related to his career in oral literature. Although Schwerner published several collections of poems throughout his career, none achieved the notoriety or critical attention of The Tablets.

Critical Reception

Schwerner is considered a pioneer for his efforts to transcend the limits of print and oral traditions in linguistic expression. Peers including poet Diane Wakoski noted that Schwerner's creative expression was dampened by the boundaries of print, suggesting that his work, particularly The Tablets, is best suited to live presentation. Schwerner presented The Tablets, the centerpiece of his career, as the life's work of a scholar/translator who employs unorthodox techniques of research and translation. Critics have not overlooked the parallel between the poet's own nontraditional literary expression and the eccentricities of his invented scholar/translator. Schwerner's wide-ranging literary accomplishments defy easy categorization, although he is considered part of a group of twentieth-century writers known as the second generation of ethnopoets.

Principal Works

The Lightfall 1963

(if personal) 1968

The Tablets I-VIII 1968

Seaweed 1968

The Tablets I-XV 1971

Bacchae Sonnets 1974

The Tablets XVI, XVII, XVIII 1975

This Practice: Tablet XIX and Other Poems 1976

Triumph of the Will 1976

Bacchae Sonnets 1-7 1977

the work, the joy and the triumph of the will 1977

Sounds of the River Naranjana and The Tablets I-XXIV 1983

The Tablets I-XXVI 1989

Selected Shorter Poems 1999

The Tablets 1999

The Domesday Dictionary [with Donald M. Kaplan] (nonfiction) 1963


Diane Wakoski (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Wakoski, Diane. “A Satirist in the Avant-Garde.” Parnassus 1, no. 1 (fall-winter 1972): 148-51.

[In the following review of the 1971 version of The Tablets, American poet Diane Wakoski praises the work's satire and suggests that Schwerner's poetic language is showcased more completely in performance than in print.]

This book is easy to pass by and not initially understand either its excellence or importance. Why? Because The Tablets by Armand Schwerner is one of the first excursions into real oral poetry that the twentieth century has produced. Its full effect comes from the oral presentation, not from the printed page.

The poem on the page is analogous to a score for a piece of music; one performs or listens for pleasure, studies only for analysis. All poems sound better when read aloud. The Tablets is even more of a play script than a musical score. Anyone who has heard the magnificent presentation of Schwerner would agree he has undertaken an actor's job, not the simple act of reader. In fact, it is because Schwerner has the imagination of a very fine performer that he was able to write such a unique and important work. Consequently, the poems have a different life when performed, as does a play or piece of music.

Schwerner is first and foremost a satirist. Perhaps all serious literature must inherently be satirical, simply because to experience any of the deep emotions—love, compassion, anger, joy, loss, gratitude, pity—is also to understand how these very emotions swing us around by the tail, make up behave foolishly, without dignity, and often against our own best interests. The writer who takes it upon himself to express these deep emotions must also understand and, in some way, be prepared to present the madness and absurdity of our very seriousness.

One of the remarkable aspects of The Tablets is that they present all the serious feelings and persuasions of the world Schwerner occupies (the middle-class, academic, artistic, scholarly, and familial world) and simultaneously make fun of the rituals, taboos, confusions, narrow-minded absorption of that world. Schwerner's most beautiful achievement is he can walk that delicate tightrope of the serious and the absurd, not giving way to the abyss of either.

The Tablets purport to embody a series of inscribed clay tablets operating largely within an ancient Near-East context. The cultural field is reminiscent of Sumero-Akkadian materials, occasionally hieroglyphical, with interspersed tribal layers. The Tablets is presented to the modern reader by a scholar-translator who pays far more attention to figuring out the anthropological, historical quirks and peculiarities of the society the manuscript supposedly comes from than to any concerns that could even faintly be construed as poetic. In an age where half the poets I know devote themselves to the pseudo-poetic task of translating poetry and often seem far more concerned with anthropological fancies than with aesthetic ideas, the basic satire of Schwerner's poem is its definitions. I've seen fine poets turn everything from personal vendettas to political rhetoric, from obscure interests in linguistics to...

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Paul Christensen (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Christensen, Paul. “Some Bearings on Ethnopoetics.” Parnassus 15, no. 1 (spring 1989): 125-62.

[In the following excerpt, Christensen surveys contemporary critical opinion of Schwerner's poetry and discusses his work within the context of ethnopoetics.]

In a 1986 issue of Dialectical Anthropology, “an independent international journal in the critical tradition committed to the transformation of our society and the humane union of theory and practice,” poets and anthropologists are thrust together in flanking compositions, the social scientists serving as critics who find in the poetry mythical formations usually belonging to folklore and oral...

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Ed Sanders (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Sanders, Ed. “Path of the Glyph.” American Book Review 13, no. 4 (1991): 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Sanders discusses the role of glyphs, or symbolic characters, in The Tablets and reflects on similarities between a scholarly approach to hieroglyphics and Schwerner's poetic revelation and translation of imaginary ancient texts in his epic work.]

For twenty-three years Armand Schwerner has explored his obsession with the cryptic pre-Sumerian beginnings of the pictograph, in what we could call the Path of the Glyph. The results are The Tablets, a book of fictive translations and transliterations, accompanied by commentaries, of a group of...

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Armand Schwerner and Edward Foster (interview date 1999)

SOURCE: Schwerner, Armand, and Edward Foster. “An Interview with Armand Schwerner.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 19 (winter 1998-1999): 30-44.

[In the following interview, Schwerner comments on the uses and philosophies of language in creative expression and discusses both his original poetry and his approach to translating the works of others.]

This interview was conducted in the winter of 1998 in Armand Schwerner's apartment on Staten Island and edited the following spring.

[Foster]: You mentioned yesterday the piece that you read by Ted Berrigan …

[Schwerner]: Oh, that was in the...

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Tom Lavazzi (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Lavazzi, Tom. “Playing It Loose with The Tablets.Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 19 (winter 1998-1999): 90-94.

[In the following essay, Lavazzi discusses the sexual and genital imagery and language of Schwerner's poetry.]

To enter the world of The Tablets is to enter a pre-genital space where objects are decontextualized, identities disintegrated, and logical distinctions suspended. The tablets reanimate the world by “recreating the animistic” (Schwerner, Journals, SRN 118) [Citations as follows: SRN = Sounds of the River Naranjana and The Tablets I-XXIV; AS = “Armand Schwerner—A Conversation”; PI =...

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Publishers Weekly (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Review of “The Tablets.” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 22 (31 May 1999): 87.

[The following essay is a brief review of Schwerner's final version of The Tablets and his Selected Shorter Poems.]

A resident of New York City since immigrating to the United States from Belgium in 1935, [Armand] Schwerner passed away this February at age 71. The two books at hand are his summation. Schwerner's mischievous, fabular epic The Tablets, assembled here [Armand Schwerner, National Poetry Foundation, 1999] in full for the first time, is ostensibly a scholarly translation of twenty-seven clay tablets from the ancient Near East. In fact, it is a...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Fred Muratori (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Muratori, Fred. “Selected Shorter Poems.” Library Journal 124, no. 13 (August 1999): 98.

[The following essay is a brief review of Schwerner's “Selected Shorter Poems.”]

Schwerner (1927-1999) was a maximalist, a poet of expansive aims and encyclopedic learning whose interest in anthropology and religion fueled a poetry that explored the very nature of civilization. The simultaneous publication of his lifelong project, The Tablets, and a generous selection of shorter poems [Selected Shorter Poems], most out of print, is likely to fix his position among major postwar experimenters such as Robert Duncan, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Olson,...

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Hank Lazer (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Lazer, Hank. “Sacred Forgery and the Grounds of Poetic Archaeology: Armand Schwerner's The Tablets.Chicago Review 46, no. 1 (winter 2000): 142-54.

[In the following essay, Lazer excerpts Schwerner's own commentary on his work and opinions from other critics to formulate an assessment of, and response to, the final version of The Tablets, Schwerner's epic work of poetry that was published in full by the National Poetry Foundation in the year of the poet's death.]

The final edition of Armand Schwerner's The Tablets arrives as a valuable, important book, extending and challenging our conceptions of poetry, reading, certainty,...

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Further Reading


Gingerich, Willard. “Armand Schwerner: An Interview by Willard Gingerich.” American Poetry Review 24, no. 5 (September 1995): 27-32.

Schwerner discusses the philosophy of language in relation to creating his poetry.

Heller, Michael. “The Philoctetes and The Tablets.Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics no. 19 (winter 1998-1999): 82-89.

A comparison of Schwerner's translation of an authentic work of antiquity—Sophocles' Philoctetes—and his creation and translation of ancient texts in his epic work, The Tablets.

Kimmelman, Burt....

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