Armand Schwerner Criticism - Essay

Diane Wakoski (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1351 words.)

Paul Christensen (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2266 words.)

Ed Sanders (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2281 words.)

Armand Schwerner and Edward Foster (interview date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7808 words.)

Tom Lavazzi (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 =...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)

Publishers Weekly (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 postmodern meditation on language, translation, the limits of knowledge and origins of consciousness, and the pathos of intellectual life. Indebted to Olson's “Song of Ullikummi” (a poem derived from the Hittite version of a Hurrian myth), Schwerner's fragmented, often humorous reconstruction of an ancient “original” is no more real than the Borgesian land of Uqbar—or the Captain's Log on Star Trek. In some instances the muddle of past, present and future achieves an inspired lunacy. (“Tablet VII,” we're told, survives only in classical Old Icelandic, the work “of a certain Henrik L., an archaeologically gifted Norwegian divine” of the 19th century.) “The conflict between the comedian and the mystic can make poems,” notes Schwerner, and the “scholar translator” who presents the tablets, and whose anxieties and insights continually interrupt—and often overwhelm—the sometimes untranslatable original, exploits both sides. Accepting the authority of physical experience but tempering that authority with book learning and flights of fancy, Schwerner's [Selected] Shorter Poems make a worthy companion to The Tablets. The best pieces are likewise projections and refractions, most notably the section “Eskimo and Others'” retellings of stories found in anthropological texts. Other poems, like “Sounds of the River Naranjana,” offer moving testimony to a life devoted to contemplation: “I'm 53 and the fire / of the beginner again burns me into waiting. what time is it? the engines! of pleasure the business of engines, of subconscious gossip / in the dry white American desert.” These books are an out-of-the-way oasis.

Fred Muratori (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Hank Lazer (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 4441 words.)