James Schuyler's specimen days
In this essay, I will try to account for the importance of “the day” in Schuyler’s poetry, but I will come at my subject in a slightly roundabout way. I claim Schuyler as my precedent. In a poem published soon after Schuyler’s death, Clark Coolidge notes that “[i]f Jimmy starts with one thing it’s always the / one in the middle.” So it makes a certain sense for me to begin in the middle of the middle, with Schuyler’s journal entry for August 15, 1970:
John A[shbery] at the Island in August: “I don’t believe in cause and effect.”
F[airfield Porter]: “But you’re taken with coincidences.”
John: “Coincidences never cease to fill me with amazement.”
5:30 and the creeping forefront of the fog wipes out the further view and a gull goes by above it brightly modeled by the afternoon sun.
A nice bit of paratactic collage, Schuyler’s diary does not comment on the conversation that he overhears, but juxtaposes it with a small coincidence of its own: the gull modeled by the sun against the backdrop of the encroaching fog. Schuyler gives this momentary observation, this observation of a moment, resonance by juxtaposing it with Ashbery’s refusal of causation. The gull signals that Schuyler is also amazed by coincidence. While Ashbery might not be astounded by such minimal coincidences — by the fog and a gull — Schuyler is.
Schuyler’s iconic poem “February” consists of just such small coincidences: a chimney, a series of pinks, some greens, and a woman and a baby. Although some tulips on his desk anchor the poem — the pinks and the greens in the landscape come to rest, as it were, in the flowers in the room — they are not fully visible until about halfway through. This delay makes the initial haphazard coincidence of the poem’s particular colors seem inevitable, or, rather, makes its inevitability look like a stroke of aesthetic luck (“I can't get over / how it all works in together”). The poem comes to lay its emphasis on the inside of the room and on details that it has not yet mentioned:
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
That sudden intrusion of yellow and that equally sudden insistence on shape and on the water (not to mention the drinking glass) could blow apart the composition of pinks, greens, and blues, but it does not because each of these details underscores the aesthetic justness of ensemble.
The poem ends with its productively ambiguous affirmation:
It’s a day like any other.
In a letter about the poem, Schuyler claims that while composing “February,” he saw that “something marvelous was happening to the light, transforming everything” and it “then occurred to me that this happened more often than not (a beautiful sunset I mean) and that it was ‘day like any other,’ which I put down as a title.” Of course, the effect of the poem’s last line (he changed the title) also moves in the other direction. Marvelous sunsets might take place every day if you care to look, but this marvelous sunset, with its glorious array of details is a single and singular event, soon to dissolve into its many constituent parts. Coincidence, by Schuyler’s rather scrupulous definition, only lasts for the moment of its telling.
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, as he does in another poem, “April:”
The morning sky is clouding up
and what is that tree,
dressed up in white? The fruit
tree, French pear. Sulphur —
yellow bees stud the forsythia
canes leaning down into the transfer
across the park. And trees in
skimpy flower bud suggest
the uses of paint thinner, so
fine the net they cast upon
the wind. Cross-pollination
is the order of the fragrant day.
That was yesterday: today is May,
not April and the magnolias
open their goblets up and
an unseen precipitation
fills them. A gray day in May.
The “and” that binds the first phrase and the second has no logical consequence at all because the name of the tree and local weather conditions have nothing to do with each other. They merely cross the speaker’s mind in quick succession. And Schuyler’s question to himself about the name of the tree seems to demand that we read the poem as a real-time transcription of consciousness. But Schuyler then undoes the fiction by redoubling it, by saying that everything that we have read in the present indicative up to this point actually refers to what is already past. The break between the poem’s two moments seems radical, almost catastrophic. Yesterday’s cloud might have turned into today’s rain, but the two days — one in April, one in May –– seem to belong to different orders. April was all about cross-pollination and its lovely specificities. Today is about something else entirely, although it is not yet clear what that is. It is still generic, “a gray day in May,” and the internal rhyme of that phrase makes it banal to the point of tautology. (This might be Schuyler’s version of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”)
“February” commemorates “the day before March first” just as “April” draws attention to the difference the calendar makes. This sense of a continuously discontinuous present plays itself out in Schuyler’s good-natured parataxis, whose disjunctions grow more insistent as his poems wax longer. Schuyler’s style can thus be opposed to Ashbery’s “aggressive hypotaxis,” which, as Ben Lerner has pointed out, maintains the illusion of narrative where none exists and provides “the affect of logic” even where logic is plainly absent. Although he does not speak to Ashbery’s sentences in this way, Christopher Nealon’s recent argument that the poet of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror studiously avoids the punctual event in favor of temporal flux supports this point quite nicely. The passage of time is Schuyler’s great subject, but he does not register it as flow as much as sheer succession.
For all Schuyler’s good nature, though, the punctual is not without its terrors. His frequently praised equanimity of tone is bought at a cost, as his great crisis lyric “Buried at Springs” clearly shows. It begins genially enough, with a joke about a death averted, Schuyler’s refusal to kill a hornet: “There is a hornet in the room / and one of us will have to go / out the window into the late / August midafternoon sun. I / won” (Collected Poems, 42). As it turns out, neither Schuyler nor the hornet has to go in any final way — the hornet is simply escorted out —and the whiff of mortality in the line break at the word “late” is just that — a whiff –– passed over as easily as the enjambment that lays the lightest of emphases on the rhyme “sun” / “won.”
Many of Schuyler’s poems are framed by death, just as the memory of a dead body runs like a seam through his early novel, Alfred and Guinevere. But death threatens to bring “Buried at Springs” to a premature end. Schuyler’s rather typical report of the scene out his window stops short with what looks like a quick recantation:
It is not like this at all.
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same (Collected Poems, 43)
Schuyler’s punctuation is often light, but it disappears here almost completely, as if washed away by the sheer force of time or, more precisely, by the effect of time on this place. Frank was here; Frank is no longer here and nothing that was here when he was is here now. The poem suffers a kind of metaphysical vertigo. Every little thing seems to dissolve — needles, seaweed, and rock — in the face of the implications of O’Hara’s absolute absence. His death disperses everything.
The poem resumes in the second part on a very different note. It concentrates on “the day” as a whole and not its bright particulars:
A day subtle and suppressed
in mounds of juniper enfolding
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness — rocks, trees, a stump —
stands shadowless in an overcast
of ripe grass.
What kind of thing is a day if it can be described as “subtle” and “suppressed”? Schuyler is not writing about the weather as such although weather certainly has something do with it. In fact, weather has everything to do with it. It seems to encompass more than just Schuyler’s chosen patch of coast, because the forecast of rain extends across the Atlantic. But it is not exactly weather that’s at stake here. The lack of shadow might well be the result of a cloudy sky but it is the grass, after all, and not the sky, that is overcast. In the end, everything resolves not into shadow, but into shade even though there doesn’t seem to be a single source of light.
One of the odder aspects of the poem’s odd turn to this description of “the day” is the way that unexpected adjectives and attributes seem to adhere to unaccustomed objects. Shadow becomes scratchy while a stand of spruce is described in terms of sound: “its resonance / just the thin scream / of mosquitoes ascending.” The day is “subtle” and “suppressed.” It is also “delicate,” “tarnished,” and “fractured.” The closest Schuyler comes to bald meteorological statement is to call the day “clammy” and this leads to his final simile:
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.
The brilliance of the figure lies in its quick accumulation of anomalous specificity. A day might be like wet silk. That would indeed be clammy. But what does that have to do with the stain and why Schuyler’s emphasis on a single branch, let alone a dead one? And what, in the end, is the color of dried blood? Is it the day, the silk, the stain? Of course, it is all of them because the day, the silk, the branch, and the color of blood all stand in for each other, as do the spruce and the mounds of juniper. They all make up “the day” and ‘the day” is nothing less than its atmosphere. “The day” serves as the background of Schuyler’s experience while it is also the experience itself.
Schuyler’s attempt to come up with an accurate description of “the day” is really an attempt to nail down its mood. Even if it is hard for Schuyler to sum up the mood of the subtle and suppressed day, it is easy for us to define the mood of “Buried at Springs.” With its shadowless shade, its screaming mosquitoes and apparently universal rain, the poem provides a little portrait of melancholy. Melancholy famously forgets what it mourns for and colors the world with its loss. The lost object of this poem — Frank O’Hara, who is indeed buried at Springs — and the trauma of his loss are indeed suppressed in the second section of the poem. They begin to come into focus only when the very last lines summon up the grisly fact that O’Hara bled to death, even while displacing this knowledge onto the landscape and onto “the day” as a whole. Once the ghostly object returns, the poem can come to its appointed end.
The tendency of mood to totalize and bring all objects into its orbit sets up the second section of “Buried at Springs” as an answer to the atomizing metaphysical terror that engulfs the first. To look at it this way is to remember that mood is not merely a subjective projection onto the world. Schuyler is one of our greatest poets of mood as well as one of our most attentive describers of objects because mood for him (as for Emerson, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Benjamin) is disclosive. Mood opens things up to us and opens us up to the world. We never confront the world as it is or in general. We approach it in our persons and through our moods.
Moods mediate in important ways. They trouble the distinction between subjective and what is objective, because while mood is clearly about emotions, it also appears to precede us, lie in wait for us. “Mood,” to quote Hubert Dreyfus quoting Heidegger, “is in each case already there, like an atmosphere, in which we are steeped and by which we are thoroughly determined.” Or, as Schuyler puts it in rather Emersonian terms in “Hymn to Life,” “The day lives us, and in exchange, we it: after snowball time, a month, March, of fits and starts, winds / Rain, spring hints and wintery arrears” (Collected Poems, 215). The day is what we live in and live through even as it comes to life through us. We grasp it through mood. It is the objective face of mood and experience.
So it makes sense to say that Schuyler is a poet of the day and of days. “The day” in his work is a unit of time and a theater of coincidence grasped through mood. It is the space in which things and thoughts happen together. The day is always catastrophically short and always shadowed by death, and this lends each single detail its latent pathos.
As “the days tick by, each so unique, each so alike” (Collected Poems, 223), and the punctual gives way to succession. The mood of the day gives over the moods of months and seasons. Schuyler strings days together in single poems (“The Morning of the Poem,” “A Few Days,” and to a large extent “Hymn to Life”) and in sections of books (“Fall and Winter,” say, in The Crystal Lithium). No matter how long a given period is, it is short — shot through with befores and afters, “spring hints and wintery arrears” — and also dogged by death.
The day is always shot through with loss. Almost forty pages into “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler provides a homely inventory of his breakfast and his poem:
Before dawn I woke and made my oatmeal, orange juice and
Coffee and thought about how this poem seems mostly about what I’ve
lost: the one who mattered most, my best friend, Paul
(Who mattered least) the Island, the California wildflower paper,
the this, the that, Whippoorwill, buried friends,
And the things I only write between the lines. (Collected Poems, 296)
Indeed, “The Morning of the Poem” could be called “The Mourning of the Poem.” But though it is largely about loss, you can hear a peculiar flatness in the list I have just quoted. Wallpaper seems to carry the same emotional weight as Fairfield Porter (the one who mattered most) and Paul (the one who mattered least). This could lead you to wonder if Schuyler’s celebrated expansiveness is not based on the ability to think of a buried friend as a lost this or a lost that. More to the point might be Schuyler’s preemptive acceptance of loss, his ability to read death into what has not yet passed, as in “From the next room”:
From the next room
the friendly clatter of
an electric typewriter.
Flies buzz in the window
pane. It is their dying
season. The house
is painted gray. The fields
befuzz themselves with
milkweed silk. By the
pond, a beaver gnaws
a tree. Those teeth, so
keen. The road winds
down the hill to here
then winds down further.
The woods are brown.
The sky is gray. What
incredible silence on
this hill surrounds
the friendly clatter,
the buzz of dying. (Collected Poems, 196)
The poem’s observations begin with sound, move to sight as the focus broadens, and then come back to the framing of sound by silence. Perception of sound into figure as the silence of the hill becomes the silence of death, the quietus that follows the buzz of all dying. The sheer contiguity of apparently empirical fact resolves into a metaphor of death. It is hard not to hear the echo of Dickinson in Schuyler’s buzzing flies, but he is not playing with her corrosive ironies. His flies do not disturb any revelation of eternity. They don’t get in the way precisely because eternity doesn’t enter the picture. His is a world of unalloyed temporality where the buzz of dying is a friendly clatter (because we’re all together in this dying business) and the friendly clatter is a memento mori, the buzz of a death that is, as of yet, deferred.
In that period of deferral — the space of Schuyler’s poetry — there is ample room for pleasure:
A better morning comes to pass
Sunlight buttered on the grass
Late, late, I lie awake
Finding pleasure for its own sake. (Collected Poems, 290)
Pleasure takes on any number of forms in Schuyler’s work: eating, reading (evidently Willa Cather alone is worth all the horrors of civilization); everyday consumption (Noxzema shaving foam, Perrier “in the odd-shaped bottle from France,” or Taylor’s Eau de Portugal); hanging out. Chiefest, though, is “the pure pleasure of / Simply looking” (Collected Poems, 220), the sheer delight in the way things appear. Or rather, the attendant pleasure of finding the words that describe what is simply — or not so simply — seen. The archaism of that last quotation — its rhymes and irregular tetrameter — calls attention to the pleasant and pleasurable wit of the term “coming to pass.” The morning comes only in order to pass. Yummy and buttery as it is, it will turn into afternoon and then night. Even so, its passing is not a cause for fear, or sleepless anxiety. The poet will still be up seeking more pleasure, not least of which is the pleasure of sound, of tight rhythms and rhyme.
Pleasure and not ecstasy. Schuyler does not compensate for large losses by looking for commensurately abundant gains. You could argue, in fact, that he cuts his losses down to his pleasures’ size by treating them both somewhat wistfully. Or you could say that the overall affect of his work is one of a gentle anticipation that counters the melancholic assumptions that serve as its base note. In any event, his poems are remarkably moderate. Mark Ford has written about Schuyler’s Anglophilia, his taste for minor English novels, for memoirs, and, most important, for diaries, all of which provided him with models of a rigorous modesty:
What he found in the journals of such as Kilvert and Woodforede and Gilbert White was not only a form of pastoral, but a way of writing that concentrated on the everyday and … suggested how his own poetry might avoid dealing with what John Ashbery calls in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” “the big / Vaguer stuff.”
The term “pastoral” gets dropped in Schuyler criticism rather easily, even though we might want to be careful. Beyond the touch of the pathetic fallacy that one might read into Schuyler’s experiments with mood and weather, there are not a lot of pastoral conventions or much pastoral conventionalism (mock or otherwise) in Schuyler’s poetry. If anything, his pastoralism, with its celebration of the pleasures of otium, his ruralism, and his mastery of the middle style, shows Schuyler to be thoroughly Horatian. In fact he might well be the closest heir to eighteenth-century English Horatianism that the American twentieth century could produce. In spite of the number of losses, miseries, and mishaps his poetry alludes to, Schuyler’s work as a whole presents a wonderful image of the good life: the poet, living in contemplative retreat, content to look and freely espouse.
Therein lies a possible rub. Schuyler will not put up a fight. O’Hara could shout out his cosmic refusal in a taxi: “muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you.” Schuyler never would. Instead, looking at the daffodils, he claims, “You see, you invent choices where none exist” (Collected Poems, 220). Twenty years ago Douglas Crase wrote that he wondered “if a receptive attention to ‘things as they are’ is apolitical or, to put it more sharply, complicit,” and this problem seems to have troubled Schuyler too. He tried to answer it in a mess of an article on Porter, in which he launched a defense of the painter against the charge of being “bourgeois.” The essay becomes incoherent for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Schuyler cannot decide what “bourgeois” actually means. Is the critique of Porter that Schuyler is trying to fend off Marxist or avant-garde? Is he sticking up for what Porter paints or the way he paints it? Both, it seems but Schuyler has a hard time countering the charges, in part because he is uninterested in what Marxists mean by “relations of production” and in part because he cannot accept the idea that people find figuration problematic. In the end, though, Schuyler never really addresses the core issue, which is Schuyler’s apparently promiscuous acceptance of the status quo. The Marxist wants to overcome the bourgeoisie and the avant-gardist wants to shock or surprise it. Porter is not interested in overcoming, shocking, or surprising, and neither, in the end, is Schuyler. To quote Schuyler, Porter is consumed by the immediate. “Look now,” he writes, “It will never be more fascinating.” Porter’s fascination with the present — his painting’s unwillingness look beyond “concentrated instances,” to analyze or take a stand — does look like a form of complicity.
We have to take seriously the fact that this aspect of Schuyler’s work is part and parcel of what makes him so bracing in the first place: his commitment to immediacy, his fascination with “the day.” By emphasizing concentrated instances and bright particulars, Schuyler’s work clears the poetic stables of so much inherited crap, “the big / Vaguer stuff” that Ashbery alludes to. Schuyler famously writes that “[a]ll things are real / no one a symbol” (Collected Poems, 125), and he actually means it. That said, Schuyler’s pursuit of daily reality leaves everything as it is. In this way, he seems the most complicit of poets, because he does not appear to offer any challenges to the world as it merely is. Schuyler never seems tempted by skepticism because his tenderness for detail will not allow him to stray from appearance. Like Porter, he wants to chart the day, not transcend it; capture the mood and not analyze it.
To see what is at stake here, it is worth comparing Schuyler’s work with An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, George Perec’s comic attempt to inventory “that which happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, clouds.” Charting what Perec sees in the Place Saint-Sulpice over a three-day period, An Attempt is purposefully quixotic. Perec cannot keep up with the doings in the square, let alone exhaust them. Too much is going on, even when — especially when –– nothing in particular is going on. Perec achieves a kind of shiny, uncomprehending empiricism, a paratactic string of unrelated events:
Pigeons on the plaza. A Volkswagen goes by between the plaza and the church
square. The church square is empty.
Two passersby in the distance. Slight sunny spell.
Full shopping bags; celery, carrots
Bouquets of flowers held with stems up
Most of the cake-boxes are in parallelpiped form (tarts?): pyramids are rare.
A bag (Tunisian) on which “SOUVENIR” is written.
I’m eating a Camembert sandwich
It is twenty to one. (41–42)
This whirr of activity demands narrative to bring it together, to make it make sense. What is the relation between these things? Why do these coincidences take place here and now? An armature is needed, and the manic futility of the exercise serves as a kind of introduction to the vast jigsaw puzzle of stories that make up Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual. Elsewhere Perec tells us to really look at what he called the “infra-ordinary” but he is clear that we can’t just look at it. We have to question it, to ask ourselves “about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects” we take up. We have to construct stories, little tales of cause and effect. Coincidence is not enough.
Life: A User’s Manual documents (and barely exhausts) a single apartment building, and therefore an exhaustive questioning of the Place Saint-Sulpice would require an even larger novel than that. So perhaps smaller measures will have to do. Given the frequency of buses in An Attempt, you could imagine the author imposing a little order on that text by looking at a bus schedule. That is a good part of Perec’s point. While we need to be good modernists if we are going to render the banal alien enough to see, estrangement is only the first step in the larger project of questioning. “An Attempt” is just a propaedeutic to further work. To the casual onlooker, the 96 bus pops up out of nowhere, as if by magic, but that is just an optical illusion. Perec’s questioner knows that there is no sorcery to it, just bureaucracy and the vagaries of local traffic.
In other words, the temptation that lies in an undue fascination with coincidence — the appearance of a bus, or the juxtaposition of pinks and greens, gulls and fog — is that while it does make us aware of the world, it turns randomness into fate. Buses do not just happen. What is missing in immediacy is precisely mediation: “the big / Vaguer stuff,” the structures of causation that order the world, like the local transportation authority. Crase’s momentary discomfort with Schuyler’s poetry recognizes the implications of Schuyler’s resolute insistence on the immediate and of his mistrust of mediation. On the one hand, it is true that Schuyler’s poetry is ethically quite admirable. His attentiveness is so opposed to instrumentalism, his vision of the good life where “to enjoy / is not to consume” (Collected Poems, 112) is so gentle that his poetry can clearly be made to serve as a critique of our instrumental and singularly ungentle corner of history. By the same token, Crase’s distrust of Schuyler’s complicity is a sign that ethics do not immediately map onto politics, that the desire to do no harm on a face-to-face level might actually do harm on a macrological one.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say that this disconnect between ethics and politics, the personal and the collective, might well be one of the truest aspects of Schuyler’s poetry because he presses up against it so hard. Schuyler’s poetry does search for totality. It searches for it constantly but can only register its affective shadows. It can recognize it only in moods of melancholy, resignation, or genial anticipation. As such, Schuyler’s genius and his pathos lie in his scrupulous attempt to seek the world in a day or series of days that can never quite encompass it.