My James Schuyler obsession continues. (So is my adoration of blogs about pencils, but that is another story.) Below are some online readings for readers vintage and new to his work. The first few are all from a special online edition of Jacket2 dedicated to his work. Happy reading!
Just a little more than twenty years after his death, James Schuyler seems to be doing well, thank you. The bulk of his work is in print (his collected and uncollected poems, three of his novels, and his letters), while the out of print materials (his art criticism, his diaries) are easy and still relatively cheap to come by. The reception of his unpublished poems, Other Flowers, two years ago was hugely positive and offered reviewers an opportunity to make big claims for Schuyler’s achievement, such as Dan Chiasson’s lovely statement that “James Schuyler is a supreme poet of articulated consciousness” or Ange Mlinko’s judgment that “the weight of the world is a ballast against the levitating effect of James Schuyler’s courteous English, which made him our most angelic poet: full of air, intelligence, light.”
For the most part Schuyler wrote what he himself called “skinny poems,” clear descendants of Williams’s variable foot: sentences are broken into short phrases over many lines, with no more than two or three beats or accents per line. Strong enjambment is the rule: a complete clause rarely coincides with the line. And the long poems, written mostly in very long enjambed lines, are rarely ordered by the sort of parallelism we find in Whitman and Ginsberg. But even in the long poems, the sometimes startling line breaks contribute to expression by emphasizing the first and last words of the line and creating suspense — as in this short passage from “Hymn to Life,” which typically moves from the lyrical to the everyday and back again, finding the lyrical in the everyday:
…. Or a cut branch of pear blooms before its time,
“Forced.” Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
Daily life. The cat has a ripped ear. He fights, he fights all
The tom cats all the time.
I am making the unremarkable suggestion that Schuyler is an aesthete of the incidental. His customary stance — a man seated by a window — is that of the disinterested observer, and “February” is about nothing so much as the faculty of judgment, about fine discriminations. It celebrates the poet’s ability to appreciate the gradations of the instant as it passes. Schuyler’s sense of punctual time leads him to make the most of the difference between discrete moments.
At Schuyler’s best he is that simple and straightforward, that easy to understand, but after the word what is there to do or say but marvel? His poems are elegiac because their present is so real that it is over the moment the poem ends. Schuyler lets the reader live and realize what his poems live and realize, and then the satisfying heartache, the rueful contentment, something is over but not finished, of “a dream you just remember … a day like any other.”
For all the kindness Jimmy showered on me, I was mostly at a loss as to how to please him. Partly, there was never enough quality time together for us to feel at ease with one another. Back in New York in 1971, I learned that Jimmy was hospitalized, and Maxine Groffsky got me invited with her to see him. Shy of sickbed visitations, I gave Maxine a pound or more of tangerines to take in my place.
I discovered James Schuyler one day in the 1990s in the course of my job – weeding the poetry collection in the Language and Literature Department of the Brooklyn Public Library, among other duties. It was regrettably true, as my boss said, that our poetry books tended to accumulate like furballs under the sofa while going largely unread, and many of those pristine, slender volumes of contemporary verse would have to be consigned to the decks – a lesson in the vanity of human wishes or a hopeful bet on the future, depending on how you looked at it. (Since that time – and definitely not on my watch – almost all of those volumes have been discarded.) As I stood there thumbing through the 811’s, I picked up Schuyler’s A Few Days and read:
A few days
are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass
out of breath: don’t dwell on the grave, which yawns for
one and all.
Will you be buried in the yard? Sorry, it’s against
the law. You can only
lie in an authorized plot but you won’t be there to
know it so why worry
Today’s “Poem-a-Day” posted by the Academy of American Poets site is a lovely poem by Kate Angus called “Schuyler today and the students.” It’s about an experience a relatively small number of us know quite well — teaching the poetry of James Schuyler and watching students light up with excitement about his work.
In a note on the poem, Angus explains that:
“I wrote this after an afternoon class when my students fell in love with James Schuyler—how joyful his poems felt to them after the other work we’d been reading (Berryman,Plath, Sexton), and how easy for them to enter. That afternoon, our seminar discussion felt like a door opened. And, of course, I was thinking also about what I love in Schuyler’s work and about New York and about someone I loved that I’d lost touch with, and how sad and beautiful and happy I was about everything.”
It was on a morning in Manhattan, the book was The Morning of the Poem (typically, I don’t know how it came to be in my possession), and the poems that convinced me (it’s unusual to remember this) were a sequence of 11 short pieces called ‘The Payne Whitney Poems’. The Payne Whitney, I knew from reading about Robert Lowell, was a New York mental hospital, in the same way I knew from reading Lunar Caustic that the Bellevue was a New York mental hospital, and here was a clutch of texts fit to set beside Malcolm Lowry’s book, or Lowell’s ‘Waking in the Blue’ or his sequence ‘Hospital’. Intact records of damage, frail hints at a central neural mystery, words newly out of bandages:
of buildings, this building,
frame a stream of windows
framed in white brick. This
building is fireproof; or else
it isn’t: the furnishings first
to go: no, the patients. Patients
on Sundays walk in a small garden.
Today some go out on a group
pass. To stroll the streets and shop.
So what else is new? The sky
slowly/swiftly went blue to grey.
A grey in which some smoke stands.
His Collected Poems dropped into the reading universe and met a familiar silence, the void that usually greets poetry, particularly if its monumentality is of the disguised, offbeat kind. The plaque substitutes for the acclaim his work deserves; makes a connection between residence and poem; asks that we, readers and pedestrians, remember where Schuyler lived and what he lived for; rebukes us for having taken his incarnation, in a hotel at once sleazy and legendary, for granted. The Collected Poems communicates pathos of a covert “Eroica”: craggy masterwork of the deaf, misunderstood, unlovely shut-in. The silence surrounding Schuyler was not as immense or discouraging as the neglect encircling most dead or living poets. After all, he won a Pulitzer. He stayed in the country homes of wealthy friends. Influential figures championed him; and he used silence–the state of being ignored–as ore and material. Catatonia of an indifferent public was an atmospheric buzz against which his protected, hothouse verse could become audible to itself.