'Building a nest out of torn up letters'
James Schuyler, trash, and the poetics of collage
James Schuyler has, from the first, been viewed as a consummate poet of the everyday, hailed for his charming, inspiring attentiveness to the here and now. He has been described as “quietly Whitmanic, a planetary celebrator,” and as “a poet of the immediate, of views out of train and restaurant windows, of lawns and plants,” whose “subject matter, ostensible and real, is the flux of everyday life.” His poems are praised for the fresh and inventive ways they track the minute fluctuations of the weather and the sky, observe the ordinary goings-on outside a window, catalog and praise the ephemera of his daily existence.
The usual shorthand estimations of James Schuyler as a poet dedicated to an exact rendering the ordinary and “real” are by no means wrong, but they do threaten to reduce the complexity of his work. When we think of Schuyler as primarily a poet of realism and mimesis, the quotidian snapshot and the limpid lyric, we overlook some of what makes his poetry so powerful, lasting, and timely. At every turn, Schuyler’s work remains skeptical of the classic realist project and distrustful of claims to objectivity, mastery, and transparency in language and representation. For all his interest in descriptive exactitude, Schuyler continually finds himself crashing into the limitations of language and the impossibility of representational fidelity: in his elegy for Frank O’Hara, “Buried at Springs,” Schuyler describes a view of the bay and islands on the coast of Maine with characteristically meticulous detail — “feathery ripe heads of grass, / an acid-yellow kind of / goldenrod glowing or glowering / in shade” — only to suddenly interrupt himself in frustration: “It is not like this at all.” To some extent, Schuyler was simply uninterested in conventional “realism.” In fact, he resisted the idea that his goal was transparent mimesis or accurate description in the first place: for instance, when an interviewer asked him “Is your aim to precisely render the realistic scene?” his blunt reply was “No, I hope not.”
Just as Schuyler’s writing is hardly the apotheosis of an aesthetic dedication to representing “things as they are,” it is also not merely the exuberant celebration of the daily and ordinary that it is so often praised as being. It is, rather, an aesthetically and philosophically complex body of work, driven by a need to expose the ambiguity, doubleness, and elusiveness of the everyday. Schuyler’s poems are shaped by a profound sense of the everyday’s contradictions: not least that the everyday is always both impoverished and bountiful, boring and fascinating, forgettable and memorable, repetitive and different, familiar and surprising at the exact same time.
In what follows, I argue that Schuyler’s fascination with the everyday, its elusiveness and complexity, also leads him to create a body of work that is more formally various, more radically experimental, more influenced by collage and other disruptive avant-garde strategies, than it is often taken to be. In particular, I highlight the crucial connection between Schuyler’s longstanding love for the assemblages of the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and the collage aesthetic he develops in his poetry, in which the poet’s selection and juxtaposition of everyday materials and detritus is of the utmost importance.
Rather than thinking of Schuyler in terms of transparency, immediacy, clarity, or realism, we should reconceive of him as a radical empiricist and materialist, deeply skeptical of transcendence, idealism, sentimentality, and mimesis, drawn to formal experimentation, self-reflexivity, and practices of collage and appropriation. Schuyler’s constant recognition of both the urgent necessity and the impossibility of capturing or rendering the everyday provokes him to experiment with both form and content in order to better convey its unusual qualities. It leads him, for example, to experiment with parataxis, fragmentation, and the incorporation of found materials and overheard, “ordinary” language; to interweave hyperprecise observations of experience with tart skepticism about the fidelity of any kind of representation; and to use catalogs and lists and other tools that aim for maximum inclusivity. It causes him to blur the genre boundaries between poem, diary, and letter, and to develop a new kind of long poem that depends on a continuous seriality that avoids climax and closure. Schuyler’s recognition of the everyday’s paradoxes provokes him to adapt and reinvent a whole series of forms and modes — the pastoral, the ekphrastic, the elegy, the letter poem, the to-do list, the long poem — as tools in his pursuit of the quotidian.
For Schuyler, such tactics function as “traps for the attention,” to borrow a compelling and apt phrase from Douglas Crase’s discussion of Schuyler’s work. Schuyler deploys these “traps,” these diverse methods, genres, and devices, as part of his effort to do justice to the messy harvest reaped by a careful attentiveness to everyday experience. In recent years, Schuyler’s work has become increasingly important for contemporary poets, and I argue that this is in part due to his prescient, experimental approach to the problem of how to give shape to the everyday. Although Schuyler is hardly a household name even in the world of contemporary poetry, there have been signs of continuing, even resurgent interest in his poetry, whether in the form of younger poets paying tribute to his example, as in a pair of poems written “After James Schuyler” in Jennifer Moxley’s critically praised 2008 book, Clampdown, or in the publication of Schuyler’s uncollected work by a major commercial press (Farrar, Strauss published Other Flowers in 2010), or in reappraisals of his work and its contemporaneity, like a recent celebration of his writing on the widely read Poetry Foundation website.[ The lastfew years have also seen a spate of sophisticated critical essays investigating various aspects of Schuyler’s work after a long period of relative critical neglect.
From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, Schuyler’s work can be seen as a bridge joining various moments of fascination with the everyday in poetry and art over the past century: the modernist aesthetics of the ordinary one finds in Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf; the abiding concern with daily life and everyday materials in Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (as in the collages and assemblages of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joe Brainard); the shift to experimental figurative painting in the postwar American art of his friends Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers; the turn to dailiness at the heart of the New American poetry of the postwar period, and particularly within the New York School; and some of the more conceptual, politicized, and radical approaches to the everyday to be found in Language poetry and more recent art and poetry, like Conceptual writing and Flarf. As such, I see Schuyler’s aesthetic of everyday life as both a consummation of various avant-garde tendencies and a forerunner of more recent poetic explorations of the quotidian.
Critics have often, and understandably, associated Schuyler’s poetry and its interest in rendering daily life with the work of Fairfield Porter, along with that of other postwar New York artists who experimented with figurative painting during the age of abstraction, like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. After meeting in 1952, Schuyler and Porter quickly became close friends and aesthetic allies and spent the next two decades working (sometimes literally) side by side and developing a relationship that was in some ways even a collaborative or symbiotic one.[ David Lehman observes that “of the poets in the New York School, Porter was closest to Schuyler personally and in artistic temperament. There is a sense in which Porter’s paintings and Schuyler’s poems amount to a largely unconscious collaboration of kindred sensibilities” (328).[
During the heady days of Abstract Expressionism’s ascendancy, Porter and other painters in their circle rejected Clement Greenberg’s proclamation that abstraction was the only viable approach for truly modern art and scoffed at his prohibitions against figurative painting. They defiantly chose to work in a more representational mode at the very moment that Abstract Expressionism was at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. But they did so only after absorbing its innovations. Like Schuyler, the painters returned to figuration after prolonged exposure to avant-garde experimentation with disjunction and abstraction, an experience that only deepened their obsession with the simultaneous allure and impossibility of representation. Together, Porter and Schuyler hit upon a style of rendering the everyday whose power and novelty came from its ability to tensely balance the representational and the abstract, a mode I refer to as experimental or skeptical realism.
Schuyler’s important affiliation with Porter has often been noted, and clearly the sensibility and approach to the daily they share is central to Schuyler’s poetry. Nevertheless, Schuyler’s natural affinities with Porter, Freilicher, Rivers, and the brand of figurative painting they developed have obscured his abiding interest in avant-garde techniques. Indeed, one of the most important tools Schuyler took away from his early exposure to the avant-garde was the practice of collage, which plays a more central role in the evolution of his aesthetic than many critics have acknowledged.[ Although he took pleasure in and wrote with sympathy about a wide range of artistic practices, Schuyler was particularly fond of various forms of collage, both visual and verbal, especially in the period when he was first establishing himself as a writer in the early 1950s.
Schuyler’s early love of collage was kindled especially by the work of Kurt Schwitters, the German artist and Dadaist who pioneered the use of assemblage. Schwitters was a key figure in promoting the groundbreaking idea that art could be made from detritus and junk. In the 1910s, Schwitters became a central player in the emerging Dada movement when he began creating delicate collage constructions, which he called “Merz,” out of mixed, found materials. Reeling from the catastrophe of World War I, Schwitters believed that the leftover, commercial waste of modern society could be gathered, assembled, and converted into art: as he recalled, after the war finally ended “I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. … Everything had broken down in any case, and new things had to be made out of fragments.” As he put it, “I don’t see why the used tickets, driftwood, cloakroom numbers from attics and rubbish dumps couldn’t be used as painting materials just like factory-produced paints.”
Schuyler frequently cited the importance of Schwitters, and collage more generally, to his own work, both as an inspiration for his experiments with composing verbal collages in the early 1950s and for his overall aesthetic sensibility. In an interview with Carl Little, Schuyler explained that his early stint of writing collage poems came about because “I was very interested in Dada, and I loved Schwitters’s work, the idea of using scraps and bits and pieces.” He went on to acknowledge that “sometimes in other poems I’ve popped ‘found’ things in, but I don’t think it shows,” a remark which suggests the persistence of his interest in collage in his later writing. In a letter he wrote in 1969 to an admirer who had asked whether Willem de Kooning was an important influence on his poems, Schuyler explains in some detail his own aesthetic, explaining that “I know that I like an art where disparate elements form an entity. De Kooning’s work, which I greatly admire, has less to do with it than that of Kurt Schwitters’, whose collages are made of commercial bits and ‘found’ pieces but which always compose a whole striking for its completeness.”
Schuyler’s admiration for Schwitters is also apparent in a brief review he wrote for Art News in 1959 of an exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, in which he praised the artist’s “creative genius: the gift for making.” He not only marveled at what Schwitters was capable of doing artistically with pieces of garbage, but went further: “the high enduring plastic merit he could create out of trash — and the more ‘mere’ the trash the better — is, like the invisible splendor of Ad Reinhardt’s mature style, one of the climactic paradoxes of modern art.”
Not surprisingly, Schuyler was also enthusiastic about other artists who worked with collage and assemblage, like Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and later, his close friend Joe Brainard. Like O’Hara and Ashbery, Schuyler deeply admired Cornell’s box constructions and surrealist collages, as did Fairfield Porter, who struggled for nearly a year to write an appreciative essay about Cornell’s work. Cornell was so pleased with the essay that he gave Porter one of his boxes as a gift, and after Porter died, his widow Anne Porter gave the box to Schuyler (who, apparently, “sold it soon after,” most likely as a result of his ever-present financial woes). Schuyler’s fondness for Cornell’s work appears in a number of places in his correspondence as well: for example, in a 1966 letter, Schuyler told Ron Padgett, “I hope you & Pat go near the Guggenheim before the Cornell is over; one can scarcely get too close to it” (Just the Thing, 162), and in another letter from 1971, he tells the artist Trevor Winkfield that “There is a new place in N.Y.C., by the way, where they show all Cornell’s own movies — all the collage ones & hand-tinted ones — so you’d better come visit us” (331). In an interview, Schuyler also mentions the tantalizing fact that he wrote but never published a poem “that describes a Joseph Cornell box.” Presumably, Schuyler felt a kinship with Cornell’s penchant for making entities out of disparate elements, his delight in everyday things, and his love for the details of daily life in New York City.
Schuyler was also taken with Rauschenberg’s daring and controversial work of the 1950s and 1960s. In a piece about Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” the famous mixed-media assemblages that he began making in the mid-1950s, Schuyler praises the artist in terms that express his own aesthetic goals: “Any archeologist of our own time and world, armed with the rosetta stone of his sensibility, has an occasion for profound research. Rauschenberg, as he works, is against imagination, which produces works that are much more provocative for the imagination of others, for he leaves the objects he agglomerates free to be themselves, generating the sufficiency of what they are or endlessly suggesting. That is up to the looker” (Selected Art, 84). Like Rauschenberg, Schuyler loved the idea of the modern artist as a radical empiricist committed to objects drawn from the immediate present, whose job is to gather things deemed sufficient in and of themselves, not in need of being reimagined or transformed to be meaningful. In his review, Schuyler mentions his fondness for “the shock of finding the real in an imagined work,” as when one notices that “the stuffed fowl pacing on top of [Rauschenberg’s] Satellite is really stuffed.” This anticipates Schuyler’s own incorporation of what Marianne Moore refers to as “real toads” in the “imaginary gardens” of his poems, as when he inserts actual shopping lists, letters, and fragments of overheard speech into his poetry.
In the early 1950s, at the same moment his fellow New York School poets were engaged in all manner of radical experiments with disjunction, nonlinearity, and collage, including Kenneth Koch’s “When the Sun Tries to Go On” and Frank O’Hara’s “Second Avenue,” Schuyler began composing poems made entirely from fragments of found language. For example, to create the 1953 piece “The Times: A Collage,” Schuyler pasted together pieces of text from the New York Times Magazine:
I’m not doing anybody
any good with my ideas
Buttering your face won’t help
saw the connection
Shall we be able to hold her
and study her as a fixed star? (Other Flowers, 18)
Although Schuyler moved quickly past this early flirtation with composing poems of “pure” collage, his interest in the practice, and even a philosophy, of collage throughout his career is fairly constant and central to his views about his own work.
“Freely Espousing,” another early poem that would become the title poem and lead-off work in his first book many years later (in 1969), reads as a kind of manifesto for the joyous art of “commingling” disparate materials and making linkages between discordant things:
a commingling sky
a semi-tropic night
that cast the blackest
of the easily torn, untrembling banana leaf
or Quebec! what a horrible city
so Steubenville is better?
the sinking sensation
when someone drowns thinking, “This can’t be happening to me!”
the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the Romans
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of
pill when used as in
“she is a pill” (Collected, 3)
Structured as a rapidly moving list of juxtaposed images, observations, and fragments of quoted language, the poem is both about, and is an example of, an approach to life based on a philosophy of collage and parataxis, in which the world’s variety — objects, words, experiences — are freely espoused and brought together. The poem exults in such linkages, in the “marriage” of this with that, and hails the “new sensation” one can experience in the process:
Marriages of the atmosphere
are worth celebrating
where Tudor City
catches the sky or the glass side
of a building lit up at night in fog
“What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”
“You are experiencing a new sensation” (Collected, 3)
From beginning to end, Schuyler’s work is driven by a fascination with gathering, archiving, and juxtaposing disparate materials; a fondness for incorporating in art “real” things and found verbal shards in all their stubborn materiality; the idea of creating a whole entity from incomplete fragments; and the challenge to illusionism or mimesis collage poses.
Thus, as he began to develop his own mode of poetry, Schuyler found collage to be not only a congenial formal device, but also essential to his ideas about how to present everyday experience in art. It even becomes a trope that undergirds his conception of the everyday: a figure for how the artist, and by extension, any individual, might respond creatively to the multiform, contingent, messy, fragmented, and ephemeral nature of contemporary daily life. By forcing the writer to find and collect scraps of the actual, the practice of collage also insists upon the everyday’s basis in material things and experiences, and compels us to pay close attention to otherwise overlooked, concrete facets of our daily existence.
For Schuyler, one of the most important kinds of material trace to which one should be most attentive is language, which is why his poems, like “Freely Espousing,” are so often woven out of the bits and pieces of language that he has overheard, read, or recollected. Schuyler’s practice of archiving and using such materials indicates his conviction that to be truly attentive to daily life one must forever be on the lookout for strange, absurd, charming, or striking examples of ordinary language, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday speech.
Also crucial for Schuyler is collage’s insistence on the value to be found in the cast-off and overlooked, in recuperating objects normally considered to be garbage and waste. In “Master of the Golden Glow,” Schuyler describes a breeze doing something akin to what he does in his own poetry: “Somewhere, out of the wind, / the wind collects a ripe debris” (Collected, 34). In “The Morning of the Poem,” he writes about longing to be on a beach after a storm, in order to “see the scattered wrack, fish and weed and / (always) some cast-up surprise: fishing / Gear, net, an ominous object of red and orange plastic” (294). Ever alert to the “cast-up surprise” to be found in scattered junk, Schuyler places a high premium on the effort to collect such ripe debris, and values trash in and for itself. A letter Fairfield Porter wrote to a friend in 1960 about spending time with Schuyler further illuminates this aspect of Schuyler’s artistic sensibility and eye: “We went often to the beach, where he practically never swam, but picked up things which he invested with a Rauschenbergian potential value.”
From the start, Schuyler was drawn to the idea that art could be, perhaps should be, created by gathering such “things,” the material bits and pieces of the world, including its “ripe debris” and detritus. Take, for example, his first published and perhaps best-known poem, “Salute,” which, as Schuyler often recalled, was a pivotal work for his own development as a writer:[
Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field. (Collected, 44)
The poem is a compact meditation on a whole host of issues central to Schuyler’s work: the poet’s loving attention to nature and flowers, the refusal to dwell in the past or linger upon regrets, the complex relationship between memory and forgetting, intention and failed ambition, and the implicit parallels between writing poetry and the act of gathering and trying to memorialize things of the world.
But “Salute” is also about a premeditated, rule-governed project, an act of collage and assemblage that the poet once dreamt up (the mission here being to gather one of each kind of flower in a meadow). Schuyler not only refers to this ambitious archival project he had devised, but also confronts his failure to complete it. “Salute” amounts to an early statement of what would become Schuyler’s life’s work: an aesthetics of the everyday whose goal would be to gather and capture the concrete particulars of the various field of experience, and to study, celebrate, and salute them, and their variety, before they wilt and vanish. But at the same time, the statement of artistic intent includes within it another element essential to Schuyler’s writing: an acknowledgment of the continual failure or impossibility of the very project he dreams up, combined with a refusal to succumb to regret for that failure (“past is past,” he admits, but “I salute / that various field” nonetheless).
This conception of poetry reverberates throughout Schuyler’s work. For example, in the poem “The Trash Book,” Schuyler again engages in, and reflects upon, the making of a collage. In this case, it is a kind of scrapbook; in the summer of 1970, Schuyler decided to make a gift for Joe Brainard, whose own inventive and wonderful collages Schuyler deeply admired and had written about with great enthusiasm. Writing to Brainard from the Porters’ house in Maine where he was living for the summer, Schuyler explains:
As soon as I got here I started to make you a trash book out of an address book I had never used. I thought it would take about an hour, but who would guess that an address book, such a little bitty address book, could have so many pages? Or that one’s trash runs out so soon? A trash book, in case you’re wondering, is something like a scrap book, only, well, you put trash in it. Which is not the same as garbage. That you put in boxes, like a candy box, and call it a Garbage Box. Garbage Boxes are not quite so nice as Trash Books. (Just,298)
A couple of days later he told Brainard that he had completed the project: “Yesterday I finished your little trash book. I’m rather pleased with it. Partly because of its nothingness, partly because I didn’t think anybody else would think of making one for you. You’ll get it soon” (Just, 304).
Clearly, the idea of creating a “trash book” would appeal to Schuyler, given his love for Schwitters and his fascination with the “idea of using scraps and bits and pieces” to make art. Compiling a “trash book” is also another intriguing example of the kind of everyday life “project of attention” that I mentioned when speaking of “Salute”: setting up a project and finding a form that would force one to pay attention to the trivial and inconsequential in order to find value in it, a form that might allow one to preserve remnants and frame them in such a way as to make it meaningful, beautiful, or at the least visible. It also speaks to the impulse to collect that Walter Benjamin theorizes in his work: projects like those reflected in “Salute” and “The Trash Book” are part of “the struggle against dispersion” Benjamin pinpoints as “perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects”: “right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found,” and attempts to combat that dispersal by bringing “together what belongs together.”[
A “trash book” is also a potent metaphor for the kind of work that so often recurs in contemporary everyday life aesthetics. With its mixing of high art with low, its reevaluation of debris and waste, its conviction that a book can or should be a receptacle for garbage and waste, an archive for the cast-off and disregarded, Schuyler’s idea of a “trash book” resonates with many other approaches to the daily that contemplate the relationship between art and garbage: for example, Walter Benjamin’s image of the modern artist as “a ragpicker, at daybreak” collecting modernity’s scraps, Wallace Stevens’s poet on the junk heap in “Man on the Dump,” Joseph Cornell assembling his box constructions out of discarded found materials, A. R. Ammons composing a poem named “Shit List” or a book-length work called Garbage (“garbage has to be the poem of our time” ), Ron Silliman titling a poem “Sunset Debris,” or Brenda Coultas creating catalogs of things pulled from dumpsters in “A Bowery Project.” 
Schuyler not only made this little book for his artist friend; he also wrote a poem about its creation and dedicated it as well to Brainard. The poem opens in media res, at a midpoint in the process of creation:
Then I do not know what
to paste next in the
Trash Book: grass, pretending
to be a smear maybe or
that stump there that knows
now it will never grow
up to be some pencils or
a yacht even. A piece of
voice saying (it sounds like)
“I thought her did.” Or
the hum that hangs in only
my left ear. Or, “Beer” not
beer, all wet, the quiver
of the word one night in
1942 looking at a cardboard
girl sitting on a moon in
West Virginia. She smiled
and sipped her Miller’s. (Collected, 100)
The poem is especially interesting because it gives us a glimpse of the process of making a collage out of ordinary materials. In particular, it zooms in on a moment of artistic selection and the indecision that comes along with it. The poem implies that not just anything can go into a trash book or collage: that the success of the project depends on what is pasted in next. Using the list as a formal device as he often does, Schuyler runs through his options, including the idea of including a bit of grass, or a tree stump, or a fragment of funny and peculiar spoken language (“I thought her did”). By referring to the quote as a “piece of voice,” he makes the verbal scrap over into a tangible object to be collected like any other ordinary thing, while also suggesting that overheard, everyday speech is, for most people, akin to trash.
Furthermore, with its closing inclusion of an iconic Miller’s beer advertising image from Schuyler’s youth, the poem, like a collage by Schwitters or a Joseph Cornell box or a piece by Joe Brainard, appropriates a fragment of found, “commercial” material to incorporate into its own creation. In this sense, Schuyler’s project, like the work of many other practitioners of art-out-of-junk, can be seen as a sly response to a culture of consumption and materialism: art as an act of collecting, arranging, and repurposing the leftover waste of consumer culture.
Interestingly, the poem seems to unravel its own project as it goes forward, because the things Schuyler lists as potential items to paste in quickly skitter away from stuff that one could actually glue into an old address book. You cannot literally glue a tree stump, or a “piece of voice,” or a hum heard in one’s ear, into a physical book — but you can include such things in a poem. The poem entitled “The Trash Book” is therefore different, in kind, from the physical book, and perhaps more wide-ranging, more capacious and multisensory. Although we know from his letters that Schuyler has literally made a three-dimensional art object, “The Trash Book” as a poem, as a verbal artifact, seems to hint that a poetic form made from collaging bits and pieces of detritus is even more effective than a work of visual art at approaching everyday experience. In that sense, Schuyler may be drawing a subtle contrast between Brainard’s favored medium and his own, while also probing the tension between the actual “thing itself” and words about the thing itself.
Nevertheless, Schuyler’s decision to make this little book, and to write the poem about it, point again to his belief that a proper, even ethical relationship to the everyday requires us to do something: to take action, to devise forms that might serve as “traps” for the attention. As he writes in a critical piece on Brainard’s work, collecting and making in this manner call for an act of careful and sustained attention, one that takes patience and skill: “It takes a knack — where to look and, when you get there, how to look” (Selected Art, 79).
Another form, closely related to collage, which Schuyler finds alluring is the “list poem,” which has its roots in, among other sources, the work of Walt Whitman, with its great catalogs of concrete particulars that tally up the diversity of the American experience. In his quest to include as much of experience as possible within the space of poetry, Schuyler frequently employs lists and catalogs in his work. But, as we saw with “Salute,” he often does so while reflecting on the list itself as a form, on the very impulse to catalog and gather experience. Another early poem, “Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing” tackles these issues head-on. The poem uses the list as a structuring device, but it is also a self-conscious meditation about the list as a form, and, further, about poetry as an act of listing and cataloging things of the world.
The poem begins by rattling off a series of decidedly unpoetic, mundane things that a person preparing for a trip or a move might need to sort, wrap, pack and stuff: “dirty socks in dirty sneakers / capless tubes of unguents among brushes and septic Band-Aids / adhesive flowers into spongy books” (Collected, 27). But it quickly becomes about the difficulty of actually capturing objects and experiences and retaining them: “how do you pack a blue fire escape”? the poem asks. The speaker keeps reflecting on the poem’s central actions — “stuff wrap cram snap” — which now seem part of an increasingly violent and potentially destructive attempt to force things into boxes or containers. Just when it seems as if he has managed to get it under control, the “blue fire escape” escapes in an erotic rush: “it’s coming unpacked all over the floor like a Milky Way” (28).
The effort to sort, wrap and pack the pieces of one’s life and experience continues to run into difficulty, to get “out of hand”:
the time is getting out of hand
cut down the books
to fit an Oshkosh nutshell (28)
In the end, the poem meditates on the violent, mostly doomed attempt to wrench a world of flux into a small space, whether it be the “Oshkosh nutshell” of a packing crate, the mind, or art. But beyond taking this issue on thematically, the poem’s form enacts that effort and that failure. With the rapid, dislocating jumps of its montagelike, paratactic form, the humorous and incongruous asides and unattributed quotations, and the parodic list of book titles to be “cut down” and packed up (including “My Heart Is Like a Green Canoe,” “Romance of Sergei Eisenstein,” and “Immanuel Kant, Boy Detective”), the poem spills out in every direction.
Ultimately the piece acts out a resistance to philosophical and aesthetic closure, mastery, classification, and retention and questions the possibility of remembering and memorializing experiences. However, at the same time, it exults in the attempt to bring as much of the rich diversity of life into the poem as possible. This doubleness can be seen in the poem’s last two lines:
The spruce have stopped shrinking
they never began and great hunks of the world will fit
Here Schuyler points to the fact that everyday experience seems to always exceed our formal and analytical grasp: you can’t sort, wrap, pack, or stuff spruce trees or any other aspect of daily experience (dirty socks, Yuban Instant Coffee, or a fire escape) successfully. But he also expresses his faith in an aesthetic of radical inclusivity that would at least try. For Schuyler, there is always the desire and the hope that “great hunks of the world” — a wider range of experience than previously thought possible — will fit into a poem, a mind, or a view of the world.[
Schuyler frequently returns to the promise and complexity of the list as a rhetorical form and as a vehicle for collage and parataxis. Another example can be found in his interest in the “to-do list,” an unlikely structure which he seizes on and turns to poetic ends. Schuyler’s poem “Things to Do” is just that: a list of chores, which seems partly an actual one, partly a parodic send-up of such lists. Presumably, Schuyler was enticed by the slightly subversive idea of using such a mundane and nonliterary form for a poem, especially within the context of postwar American poetic decorum: how can a “to-do list” be significant or poetic enough to be a poem? But this sort of embrace of the supposedly banal, this insouciant blast at reigning formal conventions, was the New York School’s bread and butter. As David Lehman observes, “the New York poets welcomed into their work all the pure and impure products of modernity that weren’t thought to belong in poems,” as when Schuyler “made poetry out of the possibilities of the laundry list. His ‘Things to Do’ was the model for a genre that became a staple of second-generation New York School poets; in the 1960s and ’70s, everyone wrote one” (353).
In fact, at around the same time that Schuyler wrote this poem Gary Snyder also wrote a poem, “Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads,” which consists of a series of six sections with titles like “Things to Do Around Seattle” and “Things to Do Around Portland.” As Lehman notes, this form “appears to have been the simultaneous invention of two poets working separately and without knowledge of one another” (353). Among Schuyler’s admirers who tried their hand at the form, the most memorable example is Ted Berrigan’s recurring use of the device in such poems as “Things to Do in Providence,” “Things to Do in Bolinas,” “Things to Do in New York,” and “10 Things I Do Every Day.” Apparently, Schuyler was rather protective of his invention, especially as numerous other poets associated with the New York School began to adapt it. When Mark Hillringhouse remarked in an interview with Schuyler “there’s a poem, on page 34 in The Home Book, which I believe to be truly representative of a brand of ‘New York School’ writing — it’s called ‘Things to Do,” Schuyler shoots back, “It wasn’t invented by the ‘New York School’; it was invented by me! Well, Ted Berrigan has a stylized version of it in his ‘Things to Do in Providence’” (11–12).
The original “Things to Do,” which Lehman refers to as “quintessential Schuyler” (353), starts by listing some typical trivial and onerous chores that perhaps exemplify the dailiness of the everyday:
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasse. Walk three miles
a day beginning tomorrow.
Alphabetize. (Collected, 59)
The catalog of goals and obligations, which seem none too lofty, is quickly ventilated with Schuyler’s characteristic device of collaging together clichés and found language — in this case, ad language (“this patented device”), store clerk speak (“hand weed for onion grass”), and a phrase that sounds like a moralistic old saw (only give away clothes that “you yourself would willingly wear”). The curious inclusion of “impasse” in this list may hint at the difficulty of actually achieving any of these tasks: it points to the yawning gap between aspiration and accomplishment in our daily lives. As we have seen, this is a theme with great importance to Schuyler’s work, beginning with “Salute” and its meditation on whether all the things we fail to do are salvaged by the fact that at least we meant to do them in the first place.
“Things to Do” tweaks the whole idea of laying out a regime of self-improvement — so dear to the American puritan and pragmatic spirit, as best embodied in that ur-text for any to-do list, the daily routine Benjamin Franklin famously included in his Autobiography. Schuyler’s poem seems to echo the imperative tone and hopeful, practical determination of Franklin’s list of daily tasks, his “scheme of employment,” which begins with the morning question “What good shall I do today?” and ends with the evening question “What good have I done today?,” and which includes reminders to the self to “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! contrive day’s business and take the resolution of the day,” “Read, or look over my accounts and dine,” “Put things in their places,” “Examination of the day,” “Sleep.” Schuyler gently mocks the way such well-intentioned goals are so often undermined by the habit of continually putting off any actual self-improvement when he ironically refers to the goal of walking three miles every day, starting … tomorrow.
Not surprisingly, Schuyler has no compunction about including the trivial, personal, even bodily stuff of day-to-day living in his list, which is considerably more quotidian than Franklin’s (“Purchase nose-hair shears. / Answer letters / … See more movies. / Practice long-distance dialing”). And yet at the end of this amusing and suggestive list, the poem seems to deepen and darken, to grow more philosophical and reflective, as Schuyler strips down the actions he hopes to undertake to just a series of verbs:
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.” (Collected, 60)
It is almost as if Schuyler begins to boil down the list, and by extension, a life, to the basics; it becomes more elemental, more general, more universalized. What are the things that we do, that we must do, over and over as days pass? Send, keep, give, destroy, brush, rub, polish, burn.
The poem’s last lines ironically suggest the limitations of reducing a life to a list of things to do: the quotation marks around “write a three-act play” and lead “a full and active life” point to the banality and ubiquity of the clichéd language of ambition and self-improvement, as in Franklin’s famous list of thirteen moral injunctions (“eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation,” “tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation,” “resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve”). As we have seen, Schuyler’s is a poetics fueled by what Silverberg calls “indolence” and Koestenbaum calls “failure” — by not acting, by impossibility and inability — which may account for the ironic undertone of “Things To Do.” A passage in the poem “Empathy and New Year” similarly questions the efficacy of listing one’s aspirations: “New Year is nearly here / and who, knowing himself, would / endanger his desires / resolving them in a formula?” (Collected, 79). The end of “Things to Do” throws the question back at the reader: is it worthwhile to resolve one’s desires into a formula or list? Would accomplishing the list of goals and ambitions we have just read amount to a “full and active life”? What actions would such a life consist of anyway? The poem forces us to contemplate where the convention comes from in the first place: why are we driven to list our goals and aspirations and to write down such reminders to ourselves about how to live fully and well? What tends to be left out of such a list? What things that we want or need to do are not included? Does such a list tell us anything about what daily life is like?
It is notable, too, that Schuyler does not choose to replicate the to-do list in order to decry life as drudgery, or everyday life as repetitious and numbing. In fact, the list seems to playfully defy expectation, to exceed its confines, to echo yet gently mock the Franklinesque clichés of the form, and to resist the standardization inherent in the genre of the to-do list. Because of these qualities, one could argue that “Things to Do” suggests that play, irony, and even subversive responses to daily practices might serve as antidotes to quotidian boredom and repetition: in other words, it posits, like Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, that individual forms of freedom and resistance are possible even within the regimented sphere of daily life in an administered culture.
Schuyler’s invented form has proven to be a durable and portable tool for contemporary poetics of everyday life and has attracted the interest of later poets.[ Although various iterations of this form have often been lumped together, they are actually quite distinct. For example, Schuyler’s use of the “things to do” poetic template is quite different from what one finds in the similarly titled poems by Ted Berrigan and Gary Snyder. In fact, the differences between the modes actually points to an essential feature of Schuyler’s work: the interest in both daily aspiration and failure at the heart of his poetics. Snyder and Berrigan each create catalogs of things that the speaker does, has regularly done, or could do, in a given place: in their hands, it is closer to a quotidian version of a travel guidebook’s list, like a primer on “things to do in Paris” but adapted to one’s experience of the local. For example, in Snyder’s “Things to Do Around Portland,” he writes, “Walk over Hawthorne Bridge the car tires sing / Take the trolley out to Sellwood when cherries are in bloom” (25–26); Berrigan’s “Things to Do in Providence” begins, “Crash / Take Valium / Sleep … Read the Providence Evening Bulletin” (375).
Schuyler, in contrast, creates a list of things one aspires to do or must do, which is more in line with a “to-do list” that one might keep in daily life. As we have seen, Schuyler’s poem is also considerably more metapoetic and self-conscious about the form itself than Snyder or Berrigan. For Schuyler, the capacious and flexible form of “Things to Do” offers him another way to fling open the doors of art to a wide range of everyday experience. It also allows him to engage in critical self-reflection about the list as a conceptual form, as well as about the things we do, and the things we merely hope to do, in the course of everyday life.
At the end of “An East Window on Elizabeth Street,” one of Schuyler’s most memorable and powerful poems of urban everyday life, he subtly reflects on the centrality of collage to his own poetics of daily life. As in his other “window poems,” the poem carefully renders a view from a window in New York onto an ordinary, unpromising scene that reveals itself to be a dynamic and vibrant cityscape when carefully observed. It ends:
But why should a metal ladder climb, straight
and sky aspiring, five rungs above a stairway hood
up into nothing? Out there
a bird is building a nest out of torn up letters
and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.
The furthest off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running. (Collected, 85)
Although Schuyler was of course deeply wary of poetry that relies too heavily on symbolism — “all things are real / no one a symbol,” runs one oft-quoted line (Collected, 125) — it is hard not to read the concrete details these closing lines present as both “real” things and as suggestive of deep truths about Schuyler’s work and vision. That “sky aspiring” ladder which climbs straight “up into nothing” surely feels like an apt emblem of Schuyler’s skepticism of the transcendent and romantic, his incredulity about aspirations towards heaven, the mystical, or eternal. In effect, the moment is not unlike Robert Frost’s “Birches,” where the pragmatist poet declares that “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” as he longs to climb a birch tree “Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” In both poems, the “sky aspiring” vehicle to transcendence goes nowhere; earth is where we must stay and make the best of things.
It is quite fitting that the immediate response to the searching question about this aspirational ladder which is literally a dead-end is the image of the bird building its nest from “torn up letters / and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.” What Schuyler seems to have discovered outside the window is a feathered collagiste, the avian equivalent of a Kurt Schwitters, a Joseph Cornell, a Robert Rauschenberg, or a Joe Brainard, making its own “trash book.” As David Herd has noted, “the bird is up to what Schuyler is up to, making himself at home in his environment with the materials the environment provides, the scraps and fragments, the torn-up letters and gum packs” (174).
With this conclusion, “An East Window on Elizabeth Street” demonstrates the turn away from the metaphysical to the everyday that is the keynote of Schuyler’s entire literary project. Here Schuyler throws in his lot with a model of poetry that acknowledges the world as it is and refuses to be seduced by the illusion of ascent or transcendence. It is a poetics, and an ethics, that insists on the value of the obvious and ordinary, of looking out at whatever is happening out one’s window rather than skyward. The poem itself, in all its vibrant detail, provides a picture of whatsuch an everyday life poetics might look like, might accomplish. The nest-building bird crafting its home from fragments of trash emblematizes Schuyler’s trust in the ordinary and its concrete traces — it is an allegory for his own poetics of collage, his belief that a poem can function as a kind of “trash book.”
As we have seen, collage is both a practice and a conceptual framework that offers Schuyler a powerful way of approaching, appreciating, and presenting everyday experience, a method of recuperating objects and experiences others dismiss as garbage or beneath notice. The act of collecting, sorting, and juxtaposing bits and pieces of ordinary experience and language gives Schuyler a way to retain the quotidian’s variety, complexity, and concrete materiality while bypassing or undermining naïve claims about transparency, realism, or mimesis.
Once we move past the idea of Schuyler as a poet whose goal is “to precisely render the realistic scene” (which he himself dismissed), return him to the avant-garde milieu from which he emerged, and consider his enduring fascination with collage and other experimental poetic strategies, it becomes clear that his work stands as a forerunner of many trends in contemporary poetry and art, including the recent surge of interest in documentary poetry and Conceptual projects that register the quotidian. With its radical inclusion of “unpoetic” found materials — its recourse to shopping lists, to-do lists, and a seemingly bottomless archive of purloined ordinary language and things — Schuyler’s work presages a whole range of recent works: from Brenda Coultas’s trash-reclaiming “Bowery Project,” to Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcriptions of weather reports in The Weather (a subject especially close to Schuyler’s heart!), to Robert Fitterman’s Sprawl, which features a series of poems consisting of names of stores taken from shopping mall directories.
Quietly radical, restlessly innovative, highly self-conscious about the process of making art from daily experience, Schuyler’s body of poetry not only offers a very moving, sophisticated investigation of the dailiness of everyday life. With his aesthetic and ethical commitment to collage as an approach to the world, Schuyler also demonstrates a mode of attention and action that enables one to engage with the elusive everyday continuously, creatively, and critically.
3. For example, Lehman observes that Schuyler “committed himself to the task of painting what’s there and only what’s there” and “insists on affirming ‘things as they are’” (The Last Avant-Garde, 273, 275). In a recent essay, Daniel Katz points out that a “valorization of careful observation and description” has dominated discussions of Schuyler’s work: “Schuyler has received little serious attention from scholars and critics. To the extent that a critical tradition does exist, however, it tends to single out two elements of Schuyler’s work for particular praise: its ‘precision of detail’ or ‘descriptive exactness’ along with its attentive immersion in the ‘everyday’” (Daniel Katz, “James Schuyler’s Epistolary Poetry: Things, Postcards, Ekphrasis,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 [Fall 2010]: 143). Such terms of approbation and assessment appear throughout the excellent collection of tributes gathered for a special issue of Denver Quarterly in 1990 that was devoted to Schuyler’s work just before his death in 1991. The issue features loving and perceptive tributes to Schuyler’s poetry by a diverse array of poets, whose styles and sensibilities span the spectrum of contemporary poetry, including Barbara Guest, Ann Lauterbach, Sherod Santos, Bin Ramke, and Mark Rudman.
7. Jennifer Moxley, Clampdown (Chicago, IL: Flood Editions, 2009); Schuyler, Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, ed. James Meetze and Simon Pettet (New York: Farrar, Straus, 2010). See Eric Ziegenhagen’s 2009 article on the Poetry Foundation website, “James Schuyler in the Spotlight.” The two poems in Moxley’s Clampdown are “These Yearly Returns” (28–30) and “Taking My Own Advice” (31–34). On Moxley’s book, see Ange Mlinko’s review “Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown,” The Nation (June 8, 2009), and Scott Stanfield, who makes the interesting point that “Moxley’s imitations in Clampdown of Schuyler in his ‘Morning of the Poem’ vein provide more insight into his work than most critical commentary” (Ploughshares 35, no. 4 [2009/2010]: 193–94). See also Rob Stanton, who notes of Moxley that “two long-lined wonders are written ‘After James Schuyler’ and one ‘After Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra,’ finding in the New York School a useful model for balancing breezy everyday detail with more weighty intimations” (“What ‘We’ Did Next,” Jacket 37 .).
8. See, for example, the very useful and wide-ranging pieces on Schuyler by Mark Silverberg (“James Schuyler’s Poetics of Indolence,” Literary Imagination11, no. 1 (2009): 28–42), David Herd (Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007]), Christopher Schmidt (“‘Baby, I am the garbage’: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste,” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 10/11 [Spring and Fall 2009]), Daniel Katz (“James Schuyler’s Epistolary Poetry: Things, Postcards, Ekphrasis,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 [Fall 2010]: 143–61), and Raphael Allison (“James Schuyler’s Beef with Ordinary Language,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 3 [Spring 2011]: 106–27). In the past few years, attention to Schuyler’s work has surged, as can be seen in the bevy of recent critical essays, extended reviews, and appreciations by Lehman, Robert Thompson (“James Schuyler’s ‘Spots of Time,’” in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, ed.Terrence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller [Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2001]), Timothy Gray (Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010] 100–20), William Watkin (“‘Let’s Make a List’”: James Schuyler’s Taxonomic Autobiography,” Journal of American Studies 36 : 43–68), Mark Ford (“Like a Lily Daché Hat,” Poetry Review 92–93 ), Peter Campion (“Palpable Fact: James Schuyler and Immediacy,” P.N. Review 28, no. 5 [May–June 2002]: 50–51), W. S. Di Piero (“Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again …,” Poetry 187, no. 4 [January 2006]), Eric Gudas (“Scrappiness,” Los Angeles Review of Books [June 2011]), and others.
9. Justin Spring’s biography of Porter offers perhaps the most exhaustive account to date of the artistic and personal relationship between Schuyler and Porter (Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000]). Spring’s book details, for the first time, Porter’s bisexuality, and recounts that Porter and Schuyler engaged in an intermittent and sometimes stormy romantic relationship, despite the outwardly conventional, heterosexual domestic life Porter lived as a husband and father. After suffering one of his periodic mental breakdowns in 1961, Schuyler became a de facto member of the Porter family, and spent more than a decade living with them in their homes in Southampton and Maine: as Anne Porter, Fairfield’s long suffering wife, said in an oft-quoted quip, Schuyler “came to lunch one day and stayed for eleven years” (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 25).
10. When an interviewer asked Schuyler about whether he wrote poems about Porter’s paintings, he replied “No, but I tried to write poems that were like his paintings” (“James Schuyler: An Interview,” interviewed by Mark Hillringhouse, American Poetry Review : 7). Schuyler also noted with a laugh that Porter “once said that I was much more visual than he was.” As I mentioned, Spring’s biography of Porter contains much discussion of the Porter-Schuyler relationship and their influence on one another’s work; see also Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde (245, 328), and Jed Perl, who observes that “the mood of [Porter’s] paintings, exact and ebullient, specific and yet tied to some enlarging experience, jibes closely with the quotidian romanticism of the poetry of Porter’s close friend James Schuyler” (New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century [New York: Random House, 2005], 533).
11. For a reading of Schuyler that does emphasize the importance of collage to his work, see Herd, Enthusiast!, especially 172–75. See also Schmidt, who focuses on Schuyler’s recuperation of trash and waste in his work (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
12. Perl describes the ubiquity of collage in the New York art world that Schuyler was a part of: “a considerable number of New York artists were doing collage or assemblage in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and shows of work both contemporary and historical abounded” (New Art City, 281; 279–372 passim). Of particular importance was the “Art of Assemblage” show exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961 (in which Schwitters featured prominently). Perl argues that this surge of interest in collage was due to a natural affinity between the practice of collage and the daily experience of New York, between “the artist’s assembling bits of found material and the unfolding juxtapositions of the city” (a notion we will see explored in Schuyler’s poems) — “over and over again in postwar writing about New York, we find the city described as a collage, a patchwork of variegated elements” (281, 282). Stephen Fredman makes a compelling case for the centrality of collage and assemblage to the New American Poetry, particularly in its San Francisco incarnation (Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010]).
14. Quoted in Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve, eds., Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 76–77. For more on Schwitters, see the important study by John Elderfield Kurt Schwitters (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), and the exhibition companion edited by Isabel Schulz, which was published in conjunction with a recent retrospective, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage (New Haven and London: The Menil Collection/Yale University Press, 2010).
15. Schuyler, “An Interview with James Schuyler,” interview by Carl Little, Talisman 9 (1992): 179. For similar comments, see Thompson interview (116). While Freely Espousing contains some of the purest examples of his experimentation with Dadaist collage, like “A New Yorker” and “Walter Scott,” the recent publication of Schuyler’s uncollected poetry in Other Flowers has provided further evidence of this stage in his evolution: see, for example, “The Times: A Collage” (18) and “Continuous Poem” (35).
20. Raphael Allison’s recent essay is the most sustained and rewarding treatment of Schuyler’s appropriation of found, ordinary language, although he does emphasize its ordinariness (and its political subtexts) more than the fact that it is so often appropriated rather than invented. Also, see Herd’s very useful discussion of Schuyler’s “poetry of quotation” and the importance of his Diary as a repository for found, quoted language (Enthusiast!, 172). See Schuyler, The Diary of James Schuyler, ed. Nathan Kernan (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1997).
21. For more on this topic, see Schmidt, who argues that Schuyler’s poetry “recuperates both bodily and consumer waste” as a queer gesture, a sign of his camp sensibility: “Schuyler’s version of camp is staged … through an unabashed embrace of the abject material of trash and waste … Schuyler’s camp recuperates the deprecated (waste and trash) into a source of queer identity and strength, with special attention to how that identification is routed through the products and waste of late capitalism” (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
23. Schuyler mentioned the importance of “Salute” to his development as a poet in numerous places. For example, see Schuyler’s interview with Hillringhouse (9). “Salute” was included in the epochal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen (New York: Grove, 1960), and quickly became Schuyler’s signature poem.
24. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes, “Salute” “concerns collecting, the failure to collect, and the desire to include the failure in the poem” (“Epitaph on 23rd Street: The Poetics of James Schuyler,” Parnassus 21, nos. 1–2 : 42–43).
25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 211. In a piece Schuyler wrote for Art News about Brainard himself, he wrote, “He is a painting ecologist whose work draws the things it needs to it, in the interest of completeness and balance, of evident but usually imperceived truths” (Selected Art, 74). In describing one of Brainard’s pieces made literally from trash, Schuyler admires the way his friend could find pattern and order in randomness: “A cigarette butt work: he crams cork-tipped butts into a space until it is stuffed. The pattern has to find itself, except ‘pattern’ is a poor word: a contiguity, like what polishing shows in a slice of granite, the order of randomness” (74–75).
26. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1954); A. R. Ammons, Garbage (New York: Norton, 1993); Ron Silliman, The Age of Huts (Compleat) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003), 13–55. See Benjamin’s use of a quotation from Baudelaire about the figure of the ragpicker: “Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. … He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser like a miser guarding a treasure.” After quoting from Baudelaire, Benjamin argues that “This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse, both go about their solitary business while other citizens are sleeping; they even move in the same way” (Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Michael William Jennings [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003], 48).
27. Schmidt makes a similar point in his interesting reading of “The Trash Book”: “Although ‘The Trash Book’ begins as a paean to matter in its most material state, it does things only a poem could do. … ‘The Trash Book’ is Schuyler’s version of O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” a testament to the power of poetry, disguised as a meditation on another medium” (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
28. See Herd’s discussion of “Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing,” “where,” he argues, “the joke is in the present participles which name ways of containing and organizing the world, but which in their ongoing grammatical nature show that such organization is a hopeless pursuit. Thus in the poem nothing will stay packed” (188). See also William Watkin, who reads the poem as an exemplary instance of what he calls Schuyler’s “taxonomic autobiography”: in the poem “we find an early example of how Schuyler establishes his agency through an autobiography of naming” (Enthusiast!, 46, 51).
32. Contemporary poets have continued to turn to the “to-do list” as a poetic form, decades after Schuyler wrote his poem; for example, see Frank Giampietro’s “To Do List #5333” in his book Begin Anywhere (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2008), 30–31.