Armand Schwerner Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.