Armand Schwerner is best remembered for his translations and his performances, as typified in his book-length serial poem the tablets (1999) (see long and serial poetry). As an avid translator, Schwerner was concerned with the relationship between the spoken and written word and how the transition from one to the other affected the meanings of language (see poetry and translation). His nonlinear style recreates the fragmented and uncertain nature of experience.
Throughout his life Schwerner studied Buddhism, first as a student, and later as a lay priest. This fascination with spirituality, coupled with the difficulties of language, locates Schwerner in a tradition that includes such poets as George oppen, Jerome rothenberg, Michael heller, and David antin.
Schwerner was born in Antwerp, left Belgium for France, and, with the Nazi invasion of Europe imminent, finally immigrated to the United States in 1936. He studied French literature at Cornell and Columbia Universities and pursued graduate studies at Columbia in anthropology and literature. He taught at several colleges and universities, including the College of Staten Island, the City University of New York. He received several awards, most notably three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1973, 1979, and 1987) and an award for contributions to American literature from the Fund for Poetry (1991). Despite these honors and the production of more than 20 volumes of translations and original poetry, his work rarely received wide critical attention. Much of this neglect owes to the performative nature of his work, and indeed, Schwerner's allegiance to the spoken word is plainly evident in his verse (see poetry in performance), since it favors the whimsical nature of speech over the static materiality of written language, as in this excerpt from "the work" (1977): "it's no good it's closed the door is closed the energy / wave's short-circuited impossible not to sing."
That language is essentially transient allows for its volatile behavior, and the meanings given to words are equally unstable. Ultimately the poet owns neither the words nor their meanings. In "sounds of the river Naranjana" (1983), Schwerner writes, "what I hear keeps changing, the flute becomes a garbage truck." The poem goes on to list many common sounds that, when heard at length, come to resemble something else. Therefore a flute over the stereo may, for a fleeting moment, remind one of a sound made by a garbage truck. Likewise words can be used in ways that are incompatible with their traditional meanings, for, as Schwerner asks in The Tablets, "What sorts of things store concepts?"
For Schwerner, those concepts often reside in unexpected places. Where one looks for substance, one often finds emptiness—it is amidst this terrain that Schwerner creates his poems. Like the Scholar/Translator, the fictive interpreter of The Tablets, Schwerner both creates and is created by the poem he renders, with each undergoing changes as the poem progresses. As in Buddhism, a poem is composed of a series of perceptions, many of which are illusory. Reality is nothing more than an amalgamation of those contingencies we accept as truths, and we accept them, because, in some way, our lives require us to do so. Says Schwerner in Tablet XIX (1976): "magic word floats out of my need for it," and as need creates language, so too is truth created by circumstances. And a truth does not remain a truth for long.
This constant change and shifting creates a palpable anxiety in Schwerner's work. On one hand, Schwerner recognizes values (whether poetic or ethical) as something ever shifting, and his poetry attempts to overturn whatever truths it posits. His poem "blood" (1999) says that writers "'begin in joy and gladness and descend therefrom / into despondency and madness.' or or or or or or." The stereotype of the poet as a brooding and volatile person, who cannot create except in the grip of turbulent emotions, is dispelled by a single word: or. Or suggests an alternative, a choice. And where tradition would have us believe poets incapable of writing unless half-crazed by "despondency and madness," Schwerner makes the poet less heroic and, in the process, more human.
The act of becoming human—and taking risks to achieve that end—is a primary goal of Schwerner's poetry. In it, we see the travails of a man performing, as Kathryn vanSpanckeren says, "an unembarrassed surgical examination of living tissues of the mind" (16). This internal investigation is turned outward, as the reader is expected to accompany Schwerner, sharing in his introspection, often risking (mis)under-standing along with the author, in a work, which, as Schwerner relates, "allow[s] the reader to fall into the holes again and again" (qtd in VanSpanckeren 31).
In an essay on The Tablets, Hank Lazer points out that "particularly if one can resist the lure of using the poem as a site to display one's (personal) craft, mastery, or grace, the poem may become a treasured site for discovery" (150). During his life, Schwerner was many
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things: a student of Buddhism, a trained musician, a performer, a translator and a poet. These activities exhibit the inquisitiveness present in all of Schwerners pursuits. By these methods Schwerner learns the patience of effort—this process is growth—and, as Willard Gingerich points out, "the process is never complete, has no telos (Gk. end)" (20). The end product is a body of work that resists generalizations. Schwerner has very little to say that is easily said. As the poet himself pointed out in The Tablets, "The greatest daring is in resisting what comes easily," and his work was neither written nor can it be read without a considerable degree of sacrifice.
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