Articles

Past = past

Some notes on James Schuyler’s 'Salute'

Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you? — Walt Whitman, “Salut au Monde!”

With his first published poem, “Salute,” the poet James Schuyler seems to spring fully formed from the person of the rather mannered prose stylist he had been up to that point. He wrote “Salute” in November 1951 in a mental hospital, in an intense burst of inspiration. No preliminary drafts or sketches are to be found among his papers (which is not unusual for Schuyler), and even the original typescript of the poem is still untraced. However, I suspect that he had been meditating on the central idea, imagery, and even some of the wording for some time, perhaps since the summer of 1950. What he needed were the catharsis of a nervous breakdown plus the catalyst of his recent exposure to Frank O’Hara’s work to bring it forth, and with it his mature poetic voice. In fifteen short lines, “Salute” already suggests, seedlike, much of the thematic material and imagery of James Schuyler’s full-flowered poetic oeuvre.

“Salute” was one of a group of four or five poems that Schuyler wrote in November and December 1951 while recovering from a nervous breakdown at Bloomingdale Psychiatric Hospital, in Westchester County. He had originally been admitted to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York City on October 24, in a manic and delusional state, during which he believed the radio was speaking directly to him and that he was the infant Jesus of Prague. At some point before mid-November he was transferred to Payne Whitney’s Westchester County branch, known as “Bloomingdale,” a much pleasanter situation in a grassy campus planted with mature specimen trees. Schuyler’s friend W. H. Auden paid the bills. Once he was there and on the mend, he characterized his breakdown somewhat cavalierly (it had been frightening for his friends) while seeming to recognize its creatively liberating potential: “Whatever it was it happened very quickly and seems terribly worth while having had happen. I’ll call it a nervous breakdown, and say that I feel better now than I have in years.”[1]

Schuyler had spent the past several years attempting to write novels and stories, in emulation, as he said, of the kind of low-key, Modernist short stories published in The New Yorker magazine. No drafts of novels and only a few stories from this period survive. The three very short stories that were his first published works had just appeared in the summer 1951 issue of the prestigious literary magazine Accent. They are by turns admirable, odd, slightly derivative, and fairly self-conscious. Schuyler and Trevor Winkfield decided not to include them in The Home Book, a selection of miscellaneous prose pieces and poems edited by Winkfield and published in 1977. However, Schuyler had also been writing some poetry since at least the summer of 1950, if not earlier, and had submitted several poems to Accent in August 1951. Most of those early poems appear to be lost. The seven or eight pre-Bloomingdale poems that can be documented as having been submitted to Accent are known in most cases only by their titles. These are: “Things Seen,” “Amalfi,” “Amsterdam” (published posthumously in Other Flowers, 139),[2] “Mountain Crossroads,” “Off Key West,” “Not Here,” “Evening” (which may or may not be the poem published posthumously under that title in Other Flowers, 85), and perhaps “The Mushroom Gatherer’s Familiar” (which may be a story). Some of these poems may have been revised and published later under other titles.

“Salute” and the other poems Schuyler wrote in the hospital are distinctive in that they were directly inspired by his discovery of Frank O’Hara’s work a short time before his breakdown. In particular, “Salute” was derived from O’Hara’s “The Three-Penny Opera,” which had appeared in the same summer 1951 issue of Accent as Schuyler’s three stories there, and may have been, in fact, the only O’Hara poem Schuyler had yet read. Shortly after Accent came out, as Schuyler related in several interviews, John Bernard Myers, the director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and a longtime acquaintance, called Schuyler to congratulate him, effusively. After a while, Schuyler turned the conversation by saying the only other writing in the issue he admired was a poem by one Frank O’Hara, whom he had never heard of. Myers, a close friend of O’Hara’s, exclaimed, “Why, he’s here in the room with me right now!” Soon after this, on October 1, 1951, the two poets met at the opening of a Larry Rivers exhibition at the gallery. But Schuyler’s breakdown and hospitalization intervened before the friendship could advance much further.

O’Hara’s “The Three-Penny Opera,” inspired of course by the Brecht-Weill musical, is completely different from “Salute” in tone and subject matter; what Schuyler took from O’Hara’s poem were its abrupt line breaks and what he called its jazzlike “broken rhythm.” Discussing the two poems in 1977, he said:

If you look at [“Salute”] carefully and then read Frank’s poem “The Three Penny-Opera,” you’ll see that my form is entirely taken from Frank O’Hara, particularly breaking a line where it would seem logical not to break it, and leaving such things as a dangling “a” or “the” … What I loved in Frank’s poem, aside from the glitter of style of it, was this broken rhythm. It was almost like listening to jazz, or the kind of jazz that someone like Prokofiev might write.[3]

“The Three-Penny Opera” is a poem in two stanzas of twenty-four and twenty lines each; each stanza is broken about midway by a pair of half-lines. “Salute” is a single-stanza poem of fifteen lines. Both poems achieve their “jazzy” rhythm by breaking lines at places that might seem counter to the natural flow of speech or expectation. Both poems break a word just before an “-ing” suffix: “Air- / ing old poodles” (“The Three-Penny Opera”); “Like that gather- /ing of one of each” (“Salute”). “The Three-Penny Opera” is written in a breezy, confiding tone to which Schuyler also responded, and which helped him find and trust his own voice.

From the hospital, within a week or so of writing it, Schuyler sent a copy of “Salute” to The New Yorker poetry editor Howard Moss. Schuyler had either met or corresponded with Moss a short time before his breakdown, and his first letter to him from the hospital, dated November 27, begins by citing his unexpected hospitalization as the reason he had been unable to accept a recent invitation to stop by for a drink. Moss, a year older than Schuyler, was a respected poet but would be better known as the longtime poetry editor at The New Yorker (1950–1987). He had begun work there in 1948 as fiction editor, and it seems likely that Schuyler had submitted stories to him at some point after his return from Italy in the fall of 1949. In any case, by the time Schuyler came to write him from Bloomingdale, some sort of familiarity had already been established, judging from the jocular tone of the letters (he was already “Howard Moss,” not “Mr. Moss”; by the next letter he would be “Howard”). His November 27 letter included two poems; one, “The Double Gallery” (lost or unidentified) was written before his breakdown, he says. The other, “Salute,” is described as “the only writing I’ve done here, since,”[4] which means that it was written sometime within a few weeks before November 27, 1951.

Moss did not use either poem in The New Yorker, but instead forwarded “Salute” to another editor, Arabel Porter, whom Moss (along with John Lehmann) was advising at that time in the selection of poetry for a new literary periodical to be published by the mass-market paperback reprint house New American Library. After learning of this, Schuyler suggested in a subsequent letter that Moss and Porter also consider the work of his new acquaintance Frank O’Hara, whom he described, with the slight condescension of a twenty-eight-year-old speaking of a twenty-five-year-old, as “one of the Young Harvard set … I’ve met him in what I’ll call the John Myers (whom I adore) bunch. What I’ve seen of his poems I’ve thought awfully good.”[5] Moss and Arabel Porter took Schuyler’s recommendation, and both “Salute” and O’Hara’s “Poem” (“The eager note on my door said ‘Call me’”) were accepted for publication in the first issue of New World Writing, which came out in April 1952. Schuyler was still in the hospital when he got the good news of the poem’s acceptance. On December 31, he wrote Moss, “I’m pleased about the poem: how wonderful to be in something brand new, and that is not (I confess this pleases me) printed on an old ditto machine in a converted loft on East West Street.”[6]

New World Writing was indeed a mainstream, rather conservative venue for Schuyler’s first published poem to appear in. For this inaugural issue, Arabel Porter had elicited work from some of the big names of the day, and “Salute” appeared alongside contributions by Christopher Isherwood, Louis Auchincloss, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Rolfe Humphries, Shelby Foote, Gore Vidal, Wright Morris, William Gaddis, Howard Nemerov, James Laughlin and others. The fact that a mass-market reprint house was bringing out a serious literary magazine for new writing — fiction, poetry and criticism — attracted media attention, and Time magazine reviewed that first issue, albeit tepidly (and without mentioning Schuyler): “The selections are devotedly serious, they reflect solid craftsmanship, they are only rarely arresting.”[7] New World Writing would go on to be a highly regarded literary vehicle through the ’50s and ’60s, publishing chapters from the books that became Catch 22 and On the Road in issue number 7, for example.

In the meantime, throughout December, Schuyler had been sending Moss additional poems, at his invitation. These included the still-unpublished “Rome, December 1948,” an elegy “Harold Ross” (dated December 6, 1951), and two untitled short poems, beginning “Good days and bad …” and “Having felt so extremely …” One of the poems he sent, Schuyler said, had been written eighteen months previously, which would date it to the summer of 1950. This could have been “Rome, December 1948,” or possibly “At the Beach,” the poem that was eventually accepted by Moss for The New Yorker and published there in July 1952. The fact that the manuscript for “At the Beach” is not with Schuyler’s letters to Moss, housed in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library (nor is it in the New Yorker archive, also at the New York Public Library), does not rule out the possibility that it too could have been sent to Moss from Bloomingdale at this time. In early January, after being released from the hospital and before returning to New York, where a new job in the Holliday-Periscope Book Shop awaited him, Schuyler made a brief visit to his parents in East Aurora, New York. From there he sent Moss what must have been his first collage poem, incorporating items from the local Suburban Reporter and Shopping Guide. All five poems of the additional poems known to have been sent to Howard Moss have their merits, and “Rome, December 1948” is especially good, but none is of a quality comparable to “Salute.” Moss would remain a friend and supporter of Schuyler and his work up to his (Moss’s) death in 1987. In all, Schuyler’s work appeared in The New Yorker eleven times during his lifetime, and twice posthumously (so far). Moss also included Schuyler’s story, “Life, Death and Other Dreams” in his anthology The Poet’s Story, published in 1973. His perceptive review of The Morning of the Poem, published in The American Poetry Review in 1981 under the title “Whatever Is Moving,” became the title essay of Moss’s book of essays published the same year.

The significant place of “Salute” in his work was acknowledged by James Schuyler throughout his life. It was the title poem of his first (privately printed) book of poems (Salute, Tiber Press, 1960) and the concluding poem of his first commercially published book of poems (Freely Espousing, Doubleday Paris Review Editions, 1969). When Schuyler’s Selected Poems was published in 1988, the only change from the original order of poems taken from Freely Espousing was to move “Salute” to the beginning of that section, and of the book itself. (In the posthumous Collected Poems, it was moved back to its original place at the end of Freely Espousing.) Late in life, when Schuyler gave a series of remarkable public readings, “Salute” was the poem he invariably led off with. Those who were lucky enough to have attended any of those readings, or listened to a recording, will remember the sound of his gruff, deliberate voice as he read it. Let’s give a listen:

Salute

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.[8]


*


“Past is past.” The poem begins with a truism almost trite, which could also be a humorously deflating rebuttal to the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.[9]

But as a piece of homespun wisdom, it is possible that the expression “Past is past” came to him through the trio of remarkable women who helped shape James Schuyler’s childhood: his mother, his grandmother, and his great-aunt. Schuyler’s great-aunt Margaret Godley died in 1926, before Schuyler could have known her (although she did meet him as an infant), but she helped raise both his mother and his grandmother and was a dominant figure in their early lives. Schuyler’s maternal grandmother, Ella Connor, born in 1862, who had been a schoolteacher and farmer’s wife on the Minnesota frontier, in turn helped raise young James after his parents’ divorce. While she was living with James and his mother in Washington, DC, Ella took him to museums and parks and taught him the names of flowers and birds. Some of Ella’s, Aunt Margaret’s, and his mother’s sayings eventually made their way into Schuyler’s work. One that is specifically attributed to Aunt Margaret in Schuyler’s Diary is “Don’t sit down like a spoonful of mush!,”[10] which is also quoted by the grandmother, Biddy, in What’s for Dinner? as a saying of her grandmother, adding (as Schuyler must have heard his mother or grandmother do): “I can hear her now.”[11] Another Schuyler work that begins with a homely maxim is A Picnic Cantata, which starts, “I feel funny today / but you know what they say: / falls to the floor, / comes to the door.” Earlier in the same April 1988 Diary entry, Schuyler attributes “Falls to the floor, comes to the door” to his mother, and recalls that she “always had a ready proverb …”

“Past is past” is also reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s famous circular “concrete poem,” “rose is a rose is a rose.” But rather than being truly circular, the phrase is a kind of near-palindrome, as Eileen Myles points out, both in itself and in its repetition at the end of the poem.[12] Actually, the entire poem is in a sense palindromic, with at its center the generative (retrospective) “eye” of “I planned,” cupped on either side by the pair of nearly identical phrases, “gather- / ing of one of each” and “to gather one / of each,” and with “past is past” and the title itself occurring both at the beginning and near the end of the poem. One might diagram the quasi-palindrome of key phrases in the order in which they occur thus:

Salute
past is past
gather one of each
I planned
gather one of each
past is past
salute

Pared down to this core, “Salute” reveals a crystalline inner structure. Like a mathematical equation, it holds, as it were, a mirror up to itself. Opening from a self-contained seed or bud, it is centripetal like a flower. “Salute” can be studied like a flower, and doing so, we discover a reflection of our own action: the poet studying wildflowers, or at least planning to.

The narrative of the poem presents an event that, while we are told it did not actually happen, is nonetheless vivid as a possibility, and as such, becomes the poem’s primary image: the narrator picking wildflowers in a grassy meadow on a summer day and systematically studying them as they wilt. Although the poem does not specify just where the grasses and flowers were to have been studied, this reader has always envisioned it happening in the field itself, with the poet lying prone. For Schuyler, the image of lying in a summer field held deep associations, extending back to his first awakening to what he “meant / to do.” As he recalled in several interviews, the moment the teenaged Schuyler first realized he would become a writer occurred while he was lying in his tent in his East Aurora, New York, backyard, and looked up from the book he was reading to see the landscape “shimmer” before his eyes. The book in his hands on that occasion — in which a very similar epiphany is described by its author — was Logan Pearsall Smith’s autobiographical memoir Unforgotten Years, and the chapter he was reading was the one in which Smith recalls his youthful friendship with Walt Whitman: the author, of course, of the book called Leaves of Grass. Which itself begins with the poet lying in a field and contemplating “a spear of summer grass.” Again there is the sense of endless mirroring, here coupled with the idea of a continuing literary legacy, specifically, one might add, of gay male writers. “Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?”

Like Whitman in “Salut au Monde!” Schuyler was using the word “Salute” to convey a comradely greeting and pay homage to a place, which is also in a way the poet himself. According to the OED, “salute” once had a secondary meaning, now obsolete in English (except when offering a toast) of “safety, well-being, salvation.” Derived from the Latin salud, this sense survives and in most romance languages, including Italian, where salute means “health.” Schuyler had lived in Italy, spoke Italian, and as we will see, had already expressed the phrase “past is past” in that language. Titling his breakthrough poem, written in a hospital, with a word connoting health implies a connection in Schuyler’s mind between (mental) health and this poem, and perhaps by extension, the writing of poetry in general, a connection that could be explored in detail elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that, with few exceptions, Schuyler’s poetic voice seems a paradigm of calm sanity, in marked contrast to his intermittent nervous breakdowns, hospitalizations, periods of delusional behavior, and sometimes messy, on-the-edge existence.

The poem itself, and the believable nature of Schuyler’s work in general, convince us that “that field / the cabin stood in” was a real place, and the idea of making a wildflower “gathering” there an actual one in Schuyler’s life at some time. Although it’s not possible (or that important) to pinpoint the setting with absolute certainty, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that it was the cabin he and his then-lover Bill Aalto rented near Lac St. Jean in northern Quebec in the summer of 1945 that was in Schuyler’s mind. For one thing, the flag of the city of Montreal, where Schuyler and Aalto stopped on their way to their cabin, incorporates stylized images of four emblematic flowers or grasses, symbolizing the nationalities of the city’s original settlers, arranged in the quadrants of a heraldic “field.” One of them is the shamrock or three-leaved clover (the others are the Lancastrian rose, the Scottish thistle, and the fleur-de-lis). If Schuyler had actually thought of making a “gathering of one of each” kind of wildflower while he was at the cabin in Canada, the sight or memory of this flag might have unconsciously helped put the idea in his mind. And one of the things one traditionally “salutes,” of course, is a flag.


James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, 1956.

More relevantly, Schuyler had already used the phrase “past is past,” albeit transformed into Italian as “una cosa passata è passata” (“something past is past”) in a 1950 letter to an Italian friend, where it referred to his failed relationship with Bill Aalto, with whom the Canadian cabin was associated, and with whom he had more recently traveled to Europe in 1947–49. In the letter, Aalto is described as someone forever looking into a mirror — a metaphorical mirror of self-doubt — and with being obsessed with the past: with his own tragically unrealized talents and ambitions, as well as with the failed relationship with Schuyler. In 1951, in fact, the words “what one meant / to do and never did” were at least as heavily freighted if applied to Aalto, a former guerrilla hero in the Spanish Civil War who had remade himself into a historian with ambitions to write important books, but was instead leading an aimless, almost hustler existence in the south of France, as they would be if applied to Schuyler himself. Although he had not seen or spoken to Aalto in over two years, theirs had been longest and most important romantic and sexual relationship in Schuyler’s life up to that point; he, and a place where they had been happy together years before, might well have been in Schuyler’s mind as part of the personal stock-taking that would have followed his breakdown. But this is not at all to suggest that the poem is “about” Aalto or their relationship, of course.

“Clover, / daisy, paintbrush.” The three wildflowers that Schuyler chooses to mention with such seeming casualness are all rich in connotations, in general and for Schuyler personally. Of course we do not read Schuyler — who famously wrote “All things are real / no one a symbol” — looking for symbols. But certain emblematic images and words are frequently encountered in his poems (including flowers, leaves, grass, air) and it may be useful at times to try to identify some of the associations either the reader or the poet might make with them. But of course, with all such literary connotations it is the same as with the names of roses: as Schuyler wrote, “After learning all their names — Rose / de Rescht, Cornelia, Pax — it is important to forget them.”[13]

That said, it must be acknowledged that the trifoliate clover is a common symbol of the Christian concept of the Trinity, or the three aspects of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In fact, Schuyler refers explicitly to clover’s association with the Trinity (while giving a sidelong recapitulation of “Salute”) in his 1971 poem “Our Father” (also written in a mental hospital):

how green
the grass! so many
flowering weeds
Your free
will has freely
let us name: dandy-
lion (pisse-en-lit)
and, clover
(O Trinity)
it is
a temptation
to list them all …[14]

Schuyler had an on-again, off-again attraction to Roman Catholicism throughout his life, and certainly one of the things he might have “meant / to do” at several times in his life was to join the Catholic Church (he did finally join the Episcopal Church in 1989). In college he regularly attended Catholic services (though he had been confirmed as a Methodist) and classmates assumed he was a Roman Catholic. His delusional episodes often included religious imagery and a self-identification with Christ.

Daisy was Schuyler’s mother’s middle name, and it is also a common nickname for Margaret, which was her first name, so in effect, her two given names mirror or restate each other. Margaret Daisy Connor Schuyler Ridenour — Schuyler gives her full names when he ends A Few Days with the news of her death — was a formidably intelligent and somewhat contradictory person. Obviously the poem is not “about” her either, yet there is her name, “accidentally” in the middle of Schuyler’s first published poem, as it also concludes the last book of new poems he published during his lifetime.

The common daisy’s golden center and raylike petals form an emblematic image of the sun, to which it responds anthropomorphically by opening itself to it. As such, it exemplifies Keats’s image of the Poet, when he enjoins: “let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive.”[15] A common and ingenuous flower, daisies can suggest childlike innocence or love. In the child’s game “She-loves-me, she-loves-me-not …” petals are pulled from a daisy as love is alternately given or withheld: an ambivalence that Schuyler may have sometimes felt from his twice-named mother. The association a reader might make between a daisy and the children’s word game very subtly suggests a correspondence between words (of a poem, like the one we are reading) and the petals of a flower, as it also recalls the endless circularity of “rose is a rose is a rose” and “Past is past.”

There are several summer-blooming North American wildflowers known as paintbrush or Indian paintbrush. Whichever was meant (Indian paintbrush with its red flower and straight stem most closely resembles a paint-laden artist’s brush) it was surely the appeal of its name that led Schuyler to put it in the poem. The popular name “paintbrush” personifies nature in a manner already Schuylerian by seeming to hand her the means to portray herself. The image of a paintbrush can denote in traditional iconography the discipline of painting, an art with which Schuyler was deeply involved on several levels throughout his life: as gallery employee, art critic, museum administrator, and through close relationships with many painters. It can also connote creative art in general, and of course it was primarily as a creative artist, a writer, that Schuyler “meant / to do” something meaningful.

If, as Eileen Myles puts it, “the tone of ‘Past is past’ is both Gertrude Stein and Mom,”[16] the tone of what is perhaps the poem’s other key phrase is rather Henry James. “If one / remembers what one meant / to do and never did, is / not to have thought to do / enough?” poses a question one can almost hear a character asking in one of Henry James’s many tales of artists and writers and their dilemmas and scruples, expressed here in formal and convoluted language suitably Jamesian. The problem or the premise is not quite that which James presents in “The Middle Years” through the character of the dying writer Dencombe, who declares, “The pearl is the unwritten — the pearl is the unalloyed, the rest, the lost!”; nor exactly that of the serenely unambitious painter Bilham in The Ambassadors, who “had an occupation, but it was only an occupation declined,” but it feels akin.[17] James, the veritable poet of principled resignation, was one of Schuyler’s favorite writers at this time, and his recent trip to Europe had included several specifically Jamesian pilgrimages, visiting places that James had written about or stayed in, and generally reenacting the role of the searching Jamesian American in Europe. After returning from Europe, he perhaps continued to see himself and his struggles to write in knotty Jamesian terms. If so, such associations could also be unconsciously echoed in the names of the three wildflowers mentioned in the poem. Clover Adams, the wife of the writer Henry Adams, was a close friend of Henry James, and is said to have been a model for certain aspects (not least her floral nickname) of the character Daisy Miller, one of James’s most famous Americans abroad. (As a boy, Schuyler might have seen Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s haunting monument to Clover Adams in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery during one of his outings to the adjacent Rock Creek Park with his grandmother Ella.) While “paintbrush” in this context again recalls Henry James’s preoccupation with the problems of art and artists.

In seeming to postulate the primacy of imagination over action, the question touches on an important aspect or problem of Schuyler’s own life and sensibility, he who for stretches of his life would passively let himself be cared for, or not, and take no decisive action, who once declared himself “more of a reader than a writer” (a statement that can be understood in the largest sense, as I attempted to show in my introduction to his Diary). In short, there were times when he may have been close to believing that thinking instead of doing was enough. That being so, the swerve that the poem takes in the fifth line, “Like that gathering of one of each …” functions as a kind of straw man. For by its choice of example, the poem pretty much forces us to agree that it really is just as well to imagine making a physical inventory of every species of wildflower in a field as actually to do such a thing. Within the terms set by the poem, the proposition of not doing something seems reasonable, even beautiful, as if to support, by extension, Schuyler’s own tendency to do nothing, or not enough, at times when it is not reasonable (or beautiful).

Compared to many poets, James Schuyler was a late bloomer. In November 1951 he had just turned twenty-eight. He did not have a job and was being supported by his lover, Charles Heilemann (who himself had had ambitions to be a serious painter, but was making a living as a commercial illustrator and teacher). It had been at least twelve years since he had made the solemn decision to be a writer, lying in that East Aurora field, and he still had almost nothing to show for it except the three very short stories published in Accent. The stated purpose of his recent two-year sojourn in Europe with Bill Aalto had been to write a novel and stories, but no novel was written, and of the early stories that have survived none can definitely be dated to that period (although it is certainly possible that one or more of the Accent stories were written there).

“If one / remembers what one meant / to do …” If the poem is in part a personal stock-taking, it begins with resignation and the “Jamesian” suggestion that maybe to have meant to be, say, a writer was somehow a creative act in itself. Suggesting otherwise, he had the object-lesson of Bill Aalto (with whom the phrase “past is past” had already been associated) and other friends who never lived up to creative ambitions they originally set themselves. But now, he also had the positive inspiration of an exciting new friend, Frank O’Hara, whose work had shown him in practical, formal terms a way to go forward.

Though the poem’s surface narrative deftly changes the — unacknowledged — subject away from Schuyler’s early ambition to be a writer, to tentatively suggest that maybe it’s OK not to follow through on many ambitions, the poem itself, by its very existence, goes the other way. The solid fact of the poem triumphantly contradicts is own ambiguous message. The writing of “Salute” changes everything, even the past, even “Salute.” In the poet’s very act of resigning himself to not having done what he meant to do, he finally does it. The lovely, sad, possibly “unhealthy” dream that anything at all is possible, a dream which can only be kept alive by never actually settling on the thing to be done, is dissolved. In its place is the far more satisfying act of writing the poem, with all the unexpected discoveries and transformations that only the putting of words to paper can miraculously lead to.


Author’s note: “Salute” and other quotations from the poems of James Schuyler are used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the James Schuyler Literary Trust. Copyright © the James Schuyler Literary Trust. Quotations from James Schuyler’s letters to Howard Moss are used by permission of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. I would like to thank Douglas Crase, Raymond Foye, Jonathan Galassi, Eileen Myles, Charles North, and Tony Towle for reading earlier versions of this essay and offering valuable advice.


 

1. Schuyler, A.l.s. to Howard Moss, Nov. 27, [1951], 2 p. (2 leaves). The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

2. Schuyler, Other Flowers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

3. Schuyler, from interviews with Peter Schjeldahl, January 3–4 and 10, 1977. Transcription in the collection of the author.

4. Schuyler, A.l.s. to Howard Moss, Nov. 27, [1951].

5. Schuyler, T.l.s. to Howard Moss, “Monday” [Nov. 1951?], 2 p. (1 leaf). Berg Collection.

6. Schuyler, T.l.s. to Howard Moss, Dec. 31, [1951], 2 p. (1 leaf). Berg Collection. This description anticipates by over a decade Ted Berrigan’s C magazine and similar Lower East Side stapled publications, which Schuyler would come to value much more highly than corresponding mainstream periodicals.

7. “Books: The Better Things,” Time, May 12, 1952.

8. Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 44.

9. T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1974), 189.

10. Schuyler, The Diary of James Schuyler, ed. Nathan Kernan (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 261 (April 20, 1988).

11. Schuyler, What’s for Dinner? (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1978), 15.

12. Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 204.

13. Schuyler, Collected Poems, 218.

14. Ibid., 148.

15. John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. Maurice Buxton Forman (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 1:112 (February 19, 1818).

16. Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland, 204.

17. Henry James, The Short Stories of Henry James (New York: The Modern Library, 1945), 313; James, The Ambassadors (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 146.

The skinny on Schuyler's line

James Schuyler in 1987. Photo by Allen Ginsberg.

I fell in love with James Schuyler’s poetry when I was twenty. Since my beloved has (still!) not received the recognition he deserves, I was initially motivated to write about his work by critical and dismissive readings of it. As an undergraduate I wrote an honors thesis on his great long poems — “The Crystal Lithium,” “Hymn to Life,” “The Morning of the Poem,” and “A Few Days” — but my interest was in both his long and short line. Almost twenty years later, critics have yet to give much attention to Schuyler’s adept use of line breaks.

In an early review of The Morning of the Poem (1980), Stephen Yenser emphasizes the improvisatory feel of Schuyler’s work. Though he grants that “[w]hen he wants to, he can write tightly unified poems” with recognizable accentual and sonic patterns, his general sense is that “Most of the … ‘skinny poems’ [are] in short free verse lines so arbitrarily broken that they seem locked forever in mortal combat with the syntax.”[1] In a long review of The Collected Poems (1993), Wayne Koestenbaum offers a more nuanced reading of Schuyler’s use of the line, elaborating the claim that “The heart of [Schuyler’s] poetics is erratic, tender, skittering enjambment.”[2] He meant this affirmatively, of course — but in what sense is Schuyler’s enjambment “erratic”? It is irregular and unconventional, but Schuyler’s poetics are nothing like the sloppy free verse of some contemporary poetry, which does indeed read like prose arbitrarily broken into lines.

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.[3]

So many of Schuyler’s skinny poems also display an artful, expressive use of line breaks that it is hard to know where to begin. Among my favorites are “So Good,” from Hymn to Life (1974) and “This Dark Apartment,” the first poem in The Morning of the Poem (1980). “So Good,” which is something of an elegy for his grandmother, is typical of Schuyler’s short lyrical mode, in which the unit of the line is a unit of perception, as in Williams:

Sing to me
weather about
one bird
peck, pecking
on bleached
winter grass.
….
And for no
reason my eyes
and the sky
fill with
tears.
….
Snow that
turns to rain,
pain, physical,
and emotive, too
these pass. They
once weren’t
here: they’ll go
as Granny went
embanked in flowers
so long ago, so
cold a cheek to
ask a child
to kiss. “Those
birds,” she
would have said,
“are starlings.
They came from
England.”[4]

Short lines and frequent line breaks slow us down enough to appreciate the process of shifting feelings, the observation of small and poignant details — and they also serve to isolate and emphasize striking perceptions and multiply possible meanings and senses across one line and into the next. The fact that snow, rain and physical and emotional pain will pass away is comfort, until it is modified by the comparison to the death of “Granny […] / embanked in flowers” — which elevates even pain, because after all, we are lucky to still be alive. The short lines and line breaks also make the lovely sonic patterns more audible, as in “so long ago, so / cold a cheek to / ask a child / to kiss.” When Granny’s sweet speech is quoted, the expressive purpose of the line breaks shifts, to mimic the deliberate, informative tone in which she shared simple facts about the world with her grandson — facts that are also sad in their simplicity, as they fail to explain pain or death.

In “This Dark Apartment,” the line breaks contribute just as much, though somewhat differently, to subtleties of expression. The poem is composed of five ten-line stanzas, and each line has two or three beats or accents. The immediate situation is that, for the first time, the speaker has noticed his apartment’s view of the UN building, which triggers a painful memory of greater revelation. I begin with the second stanza:

I remember very well
the morning I walked in
and found you in bed
with X. He dressed
and left. You dressed
too. I said, “Stay
five minutes.” You
did. You said, “That’s
the way it is.” It
was not much of a surprise.

Then X got on speed
and ripped off an
antique chest and an
air conditioner, etc.
After he was gone and
you had changed the
Segal lock, I asked
you on the phone, “Can’t
you be content with
your wife and me?” “I’m
not built that way,”
you said. No surprise.

Now, without saying
why, you’ve let me go.

….

How I wish you would come
back! I could tell
you how, when I lived
on East 49th, first
with Frank and then with John,
we had a lovely view of
the UN building and the
Beekman Towers. They were
not my lovers, though.
You were. You said so.[5]

At first, each line unfolds the narrative of discovering the addressee in bed with someone else. (As if this weren’t bad enough, it happens in “this apartment / I took so you and I would have a place to meet[.]”) The suspenseful enjambment enacts the painful feeling of suspense and the improvisation of the speaker’s reaction, which dramatically develops our sense of the relationship. In the next stanza, the strong enjambment works toward poignant emphasis as well as suspense. Rather than blow up at his lover, the speaker pleads “Stay / five minutes.” Evidently he feels unsure whether to hope even for that, as in the delay between subject and verb: “You / did.” In turn, the lover’s dominance is underscored with another instance of strong enjambment: “That’s / the way it is.” The last line of the stanza, which nearly coincides with a complete sentence, sounds sadly certain and conclusive, especially in contrast to the strong enjambment of the preceding lines: “It / was not much of a surprise.”

The line breaks function similarly through the rest of the poem (and there is comedy in what is disclosed without suspenseful enjambment, as when “your wife and me” appear on the same line), down to the poignant close in which the speaker distinguishes his former lover from close friends he roomed with (O’Hara and Ashbery). “They were / not my lovers, though. / You were. You said so.” The emphasis here falls on “not,” of course. The speaker still longs to share mundane, minor observations with the former lover, and insists — in the only line that includes two complete, emphatically declarative sentences — that once upon a time, the lover also cherished, or at least acknowledged, their intimacy.

Schuyler may not be the first poet to come to mind when we think of mastery of the line among contemporary poets. Perhaps he should be. Like the work of other New York School poets, Schuyler’s poetry is rightly associated with improvisation, process, play, and chance, but these attributes are not antithetical to artistry. His innovative use of the line, especially of strong enjambment — even when it seems, at first glance, highly irregular or risky in its radical breaking of the syntax — serves specific purposes of expression acutely and consistently. In the end, Schuyler shows us, with characteristic understatement and modesty, that form and theme may be as deeply unified in so-called free verse as in more traditional forms.

 


 


1. Stephen Yenser, “New Books in Review,” The Yale Review 70, no. 1 (1980): 120, 119.

2. Wayne Koestenbaum, “Epitaph on 23rd Street: The Poetics of James Schuyler,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 21, no. 1/2 (1996): 33–57.

3. James Schuyler, “Hymn to Life,” in Collected Poems (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993), 215.

4. Schuyler, “So Good,” in Collected Poems, 179–180.

5. Schuyler, “This Dark Apartment,” in Collected Poems, 227–228.

Days and nights with James Schuyler

I still remember David Shapiro’s and Ron Padgett’s Anthology of New York Poets, with its picture of bright red cherries, a butterfly, and a ball and jacks on the cover, promising childlike verve. I ran across it in some New Jersey public library at the age of oh, about twelve, a few years after the book came out in 1970. The Shapiro-Padgett anthology trumpeted freshness — most of all, for me then as now, in the poems of James Schuyler.

Schuyler never shared the game-playing inclinations of Kenneth Koch or (at times) John Ashbery; there is no verbal hopscotch in his poems. There is little or nothing in Schuyler that is arch, intricate, or eccentric in the aesthete’s way. Occasionally he is campy; but Schuyler, conscious of his own awkwardness, defangs the rank-pulling effect of the camp — and for that we are grateful. (No man as awkward as Schuyler was can be a convincing purveyor of camp.) In Schuyler you will find none of O’Hara’s coiled wit-bombs and signposted exultations, none of Ashbery’s secluded, secretive chills. You can imagine him immersed in Heine or Herrick or John Clare, but not Baudelaire (though Baudelaire is mentioned in The Morning of the Poem and looms there for a few pages, Schuyler dispels him effectively). Alone among the New York School poets he has a pure, moving relationship with the late long poems of Williams. Sentiment is a natural phenomenon in Schuyler’s poems, and welcomed as such, frankly or bluntly. Sometimes the sentiment is scarily obsessive, as when he repeats Tom Carey’s name like a chant in “O Sleepless Night” (a poem I will return to, since it is among my favorite Schuyler).

Like his friend and lover, the great painter (and remarkable art critic) Fairfield Porter, Schuyler is devoted to innocent clarity. Many an offhanded sentence participates in this clarity, as when in the course of the long titular poem at the end of A Few Days Schuyler notes:

            I hate to miss
the country fall. I think with longing of my years in
            Southampton, leaf-turning
trips to cool Vermont. Things should get better as you
            grow older, but that
is not the way. The way is inscrutable and hard to handle.

Over its several dozen pages “A Few Days” mostly darts around its ostensible subject, the death of Schuyler’s mother (Schuyler finishes by avoiding her funeral): it skips understatedly from one mental station to another, “leaf-turning.” Schuyler’s characteristic method is browsing; he ruffles the pages in his head. Love, food, pills, dead friends, memories of drinking: it’s all there. And occasionally Schuyler comes upon a hard, plain place: “The way is inscrutable and hard to handle.” With what expression are these words pronounced? A sigh, a grimace, a blank oracular face? What’s remarkable is the sheer honesty of the line: there’s no way to dress it up.

Probably no poet has shown himself in so unpleasant a light as Schuyler does at times in The Morning of the Poem. As he says, he can be “Jim the Jerk” — not the fabulous colossal jerk played for laughs, but a real one: vindictive. Schuyler does not glory in his moral failings, and there is in his poems none of the Grand Guignol of Confessionalism. There is no gloating, no indulgence, and no special pleading on the grounds of the harrowing miseries he has endured (addiction, suicide attempts). There is, instead, the simple bravery of admitting who he is. Schuyler can be obstinate, unforgiving, hurt, malicious. It would be wrong to deny this sometimes unlikeable side of his work. Schuyler himself would have been the last person to deny it.

But there is also love, and love in Schuyler tends toward the crazy. “O Sleepless Night,” from A Few Days, begins with the poet’s memory of being awakened with a kiss by Fairfield Porter; it ends with Schuyler, insomniac and counting “creepy sheep,” drumbeat-yearning after the kiss of his young secretary, Tom Carey (“Tom Tom Tom, I want my Tom: / Tom Tom Tom, where’s my kiss?”). In between there is Schuyler’s rapturous argument with F. Scott Fitzgerald:

                                    … three a.m.:
“the Dark Night of the Soul”
about which F. Scott Fitzgerald
was mistaken: he
thought it was some sort of sudden unendurable angst
or anguish or plunge into the pit of hell:
no:
it is the moment
when a mystic like St. John of the Cross
                                                                          kneels outdoors
                                                                                                and
                                                                                       prays: his
very soul
rises in a beam or column or like morning mist
and intermingles
with the divine essence of the Godhead:
love, love, love,
pure and unalloyed, simon-pure, the real thing:
beyond, way far beyond
all human comprehension:
love, pure love, its essence:
gilded clouds, rainbows, no sky, no moon, no sun, no stars,
and yet
light
gentle and bright
light:
Angels, Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim and Cupidons
choiring together
melodiously
in song that is not plainsong
to the music of plucked harps, wind harps, o-
                                    carinas and the nose flute
and the oot of instruments: most beautiful of all,
the pianoforte
            played by Sviatoslav Richter
                 and Marguerite Long (Vuillard).
                        Shit, piss and corruption:
did I or did I not
take my Placidyl, which is a sleeping pill …

The visionary serenity, which is indeed “simon-pure, the real thing,” first divagates into childlike silliness (“the nose flute / and the oot of instruments”), then descends to a profane interruption as Schuyler tries to remember whether he took his sleeping pill. “Shit, piss and corruption” comically matches “light / gentle and bright / light …” To the pure all things are pure, and in “O Sleepless Night” Schuyler convinces us of his purity: his cursing is a kid’s cursing, and his invocation of Lear (“Never, never, never, never” does he sleep under blankets, he says) is a transparent attempt to dodge the association of sleep with death. There is still mortality, the realm of corruption that heavenly angels, singing us to our rest along with the ethereally named Placidyl, make us forget. And as for the shit and the piss — Schuyler reminds us that, as Bernard of Clairvaux put it in his famous one-liner, we are born inter faeces et urinam. All this is transmuted into sweetness as, at the end of “O Sleepless Night,” flights of angels sing Schuyler’s beloved Tom to his rest: “Good night, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” the poet murmurs. (Is Schuyler’s fantasy to be a Horatio: secure in his loyalty, glad to be of use?) Meanwhile, the sleepless poet has been taking “flights / of total recall,” remembering telephone numbers, zip codes, Leopardi’s verses. The last words of “O Sleepless Night,” after Horatio’s lines about dead Hamlet, are “Give me the Knife” — a quotation from Titus Andronicus. Titus, addled with grief, leaps about stabbing a dead fly, incensed because the insect is black and ill-favored like the villainous Aaron the Moor. It’s a ludicrous moment from Titus, Shakespeare’s gruesome, comic pastiche of Marlowe, and it offers Schuyler the dose of silliness he needs —better than any sleeping pill.

With his final Shakespearean phrases in quotation marks, Schuyler in “O Sleepless Night” evidently provides a miniparody of the ending of The Waste Land, and for good measure “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”: “sleep, prepare for life.’ // The last twist of the knife.” So he leavens his distress, and has his poke at Eliot’s high, portentous manner too. His nerves are bad tonight, and such a plight calls for a flippant moment, not a solemn Eliotic one.

Helen Vendler praised Schuyler as a tender and accurate pastoral poet, attuned to the enlivening details of landscape: a poet wistful, alone, and often enough strangely happy. She added, though, that his credo is “Let me in; let all of me in.” Schuyler’s insistence, matter of fact and all-important, on getting the whole man into the poem — warts and all, including the desperately nutty streak, the petty and obsessive ruminations, and the sour bursts of self-blame — has room too for the balloon of rapture, rising “beyond, way far beyond / all human comprehension.” He had his Paradiso as well as his hell; he knew as well as anyone how to be thankful for delight. And for that we are delighted, too — and thankful.

Schuyler entries

Frank O'Hara, John Button, James Schuyler, and Joe LeSueur, 1960. Photo by John Button.

7/7/88

An emergency, reading that James Schuyler “was born in 1933” — so says the jacket note on The Crystal Lithium. That would make him a mere six years older than I, seven years younger than Frank O'Hara, one year older than Ted Berrigan, and so on — a fact behind his accomplishment which my vanity calls unacceptable. But the jacket for Hymn to Life says, “born in 1923.” So there. (Though where vanity rears its horny head there can be no real relief).

***

The city poet who knows, like no other, the names of all flowers. Of whom else can it be said, he is our best (or only) descriptive poet? Was this ever said, as it might have been, of John Clare? “You can’t get at a sunset naming colors.” Every poem, a view. The sense in each of a scrim of exact detail so carefully woven as to be seamless, impregnable to the monsters raging, ready to pounce or tear through from the other side.            The central character, if any, of most of his poems is the day, the poem geared to get it down, nail it in its lineaments as it appears and goes: “a nothing day,” “day the color of a head cold,” “Dark day,” “a day subtle and suppressed,” “May 24th or so,” “a day like any other,” and so on. His writing has what filmmakers call “room tone,” c.f., Charles North’s remark about Schuyler’s perfect pitch.

***

One hot day in 1961, when I was working in the office at ARTnews, Tom Hess said, “Go down to Jimmy Schuyler’s and pick up his reviews.” I hardly knew Jimmy then, but I had heard from John Myers that he had been having psychiatric troubles. The reviews for that month were long overdue; Jimmy apparently had told Tom that he had them but in his present mental disarray couldn’t manage the trip uptown from his place on lower Broadway to deliver them. Once there, I rang the bell a few times and got no response. Baffled as to what to do next, I went to a corner phone booth and called Frank who suggested I try Jimmy’s number. That worked, and Jimmy buzzed me in. The apartment was a mess, Jimmy in pajamas sort of silently, aimlessly padding around the front room. No, he said firmly, giving me a somewhat stony look, there were no reviews. I left, feeling useless and rude, an intruder in someone else’s private soul dust.

***

Schuyler told an interviewer that, to engage his interest, he sometimes wrote the first drafts of his art reviews in verse lines, then later rearranged them, closed up and slightly altered, in paragraphs. According to Frank O’Hara, the 1950s ARTnews poets Barbara Guest, John Ashbery and O’Hara himself, used to show their monthly short reviews and longer articles to Jimmy for style checks. Frank said,  “Jimmy was the real writer; he knew where the commas were supposed to go.”

***

Cy Twombly [Stable; through January], fleeing for his creative life from the white hell of Black Mountain, shows Siberian slabs (those diamonds they’ve found there, what makes them so sure they’re not just frozen tears?). Fabulously underpriced. J.S. [1957]

***

Schuylerism

The prose is golden, in the same sense as Jane Freilicher’s great painting Goldenrod Variations: the prodigious scope alive to, never stumped by, whatever vibrant detail is there, and the sense, too, that all this happens in time and constitutes, in its way, history, human and otherwise. Such accurately directed empathy taken to its eternal edge. About the hornet in the room in “Buried at Springs”: “One of us will have to go.” Or how incomparably, as if Francis Ponge were taking a refresher course in how real both things and the words for them can get, “Trembling, milk is coming into its own.” The under-appreciated (although now in reprint via NYRB) novel What’s for Dinner? does just what Henry Green ordered, “Ring tears from the stone.” The poetry follows suit, even increasingly edgier:

So many lousy poets
So few good ones
What’s the problem?
No innate love of
Words, no sense of
How the thing said
Is in the words, how
The words are themselves
The thing said: love,
Mistake, promise, auto
Crack-up, color, petal,
The color in the petal
Is merely light
And that’s refraction:
A word, that’s the poem.
A blackish-red nasturtium …

***

2/11/89

Dinner after Jimmy Schuyler’s reading at the Art Institute, Washington Square Bar & Grill, with JS, Tom Carey, Lynn, Kathleen Fraser and Bob Glück. Corner table by the door. The talk breaks into facing twos: J/T, K/L, Bob and me. Jimmy is gracious — it’s more of an after-reading group than he’d bargained for, and the restaurant is noisy, replete with piano accompanying a girl singer who can’t quite meet the old standards (“Am I blue,” etc.) head on. Eventually, I catch Jimmy’s face out of the corner of my eye — a look of sweetest sadness with a faint cry of help at the corners of his mouth. No coffee, no dessert, and Bob drives Jimmy and Tom back to the Friary.

The reading had been astonishing. Jimmy seated at a card table with French blue tablecloth, blue Mexican water pitcher, Chinese enamel tin mug. He read musically, steadily, softly intoning each word. A few flubs, where word or phrase got gummed. One poem — “Fauré Piano Quartet”: Fauré, Schubert, Chopin — that range of precise, stately, sorrowful piano, groundswells of his poems, with fully rounded, openly flung vowels. Something else: in the insistent patching together of detail — a thing said for each aspect in a day, a view. The whole took about 40 minutes. He enjoyed the funny parts, the audience’s response — “They were so nice,” he said after the applause died down. Melodious he was, as I hadn’t expected. An Anglo melody in part (Auden, yes, but then reaching back to clear, hard Chaucer), plus the chortle and edge of manic American fact. Newly heard among the poems: “Evening Wind,” “Eyes at the Window,” “Korean Mums,” “Now and Then,” “A Man in Blue,” “What Ails My Fern” (a crowd pleaser), and before those, he always seems to begin “Past is past …” (“Salute”). Most sound longer than they look on the page.

2/13/89

Showing Jimmy the plum tree in our Bolinas yard that occasioned a poem I wrote for him. The tree is now in flower, as then it was in bud. And three plants he wanted to know the names of — Watsonia, Solanium, Salvia — I didn’t know but Lynn told me later and I sent the names on for Jimmy’s gardening registry. And the rose he recommended: Belle of Portugal.

In last night’s dream I confused Jimmy with Milton Greene (not difficult — they are near-lookalikes). I was sleeping in the entryway to his studio when he appeared at the door. Before that, a non-sequitur party with jazz musicians, Ornette Coleman and others (not Jimmy’s scene at all).

Jimmy by the Bay, Minuses and a Near-Plus:
He hated the hills, the incessant up-and-down of them, in cars.
He hated the long cross-continental plane ride.
He liked Bolinas and the Friary. (He had really come to see Tom.)
He visited Don Allen with Bob Gluck.
Me: “How was Don?” Jimmy: “As asp-ish as ever.”

***

Blue is the hero of Three Friends at a Table, a blue that varies from a night-blue wall pierced by a shining grey window to one mixed with violet and pink in a man's sweater; or it becomes slightly chalky, a “French” blue on a cup, or that of an iris under artificial light, or one with a clanger to it in the enamel of a teapot, or one that looks silky in the geometric pattern of a blouse. It is air within the paint and gives it breath. — James Schuyler, “Nell Blaine: The View from 210 Riverside Drive,” ARTnews, May 1968.

At Yaddo, June ’68, no sooner had I read the start of that first sentence than I was off the bed and typing in title caps “BLUE IS THE HERO” up top of my poem-to-be. Eventually, I mailed Jimmy the poem, and he wrote back, revealing that in fact his line had been prompted by an earlier one by Frank O’Hara (also in ARTnews) about Fairfield Porter, “that luminous grayness which is the hero of much contemporary painting.” Then, closing the circle, in late August Jimmy sent a poem for my birthday, “Gray, intermittently blue, eyed hero.”

***

A Page from 1971

Vermont

The pearlized opalescent amethystine hills
are looking very well this evening. 

                                    James Schuyler
                                    August 24, 1971 

 – – – – – – – – – – –

Dear Dill Dirkson,

The first sentence is prose. I would not venture to say
the same for the second. 

                                                love,
                                                Palme Dutt

***

The friends who come to see you/and the friends who don’t.

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.

***

4/12/91

Phone message from Anne Waldman this morning: Jimmy Schuyler dead of a stroke at 7 a.m. And looking at his typescript poems on glaring orange bond, with alterations scribbled in tentative, thin but ever upright script — plus an inscription in The Home Book: “for Bill / father of /  Moses — / love — / Jimmy /  Jan. 9, 1977.

 

Of your Charity Pray for
the repose of the Soul of

JAMES SCHUYLER

April 12, 1991

— Our Miraculous Lady of Kursk

[Funeral Card]

A few words on James Schuyler

John Ashbery (left) and James Schuyler (right) as painted by Fairfield Porter (1967).

A first-time reader of James Schuyler’s poetry could have written my notes for this essay:

Clarity
Loves a list
Letter / diary
Right now, right here
Weather and Light
Addresses, exact addresses
Names of friends

Yet I spent thirteen years editing Schuyler’s letters, years during which I thought of him at least once a day, and at every reading I have given in the past decade or more I read at least one of his poems. Really, I ought to be able to come up with a few new observations about his exceptional poetry.


“A word that’s the poem”

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.”

Were he in my shoes what would Schuyler do? Twiddle his pen and lay it down, turn on the TV, take a nap and, oh, “Perhaps there’s time to write a poem / there’s always time to write a poem.” Schuyler wrote art criticism, enough to make a book, because he said he liked to describe. He wrote few book reviews. One was of On the Road. He called it a “boy’s book.” Pretty smart. He had zero interest in manifestoes. There is his statement in The New American Poetry, but it is from a different world, a world of New York, “floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble,” than those of Olson, Creeley, or Duncan. Poetics? I can hear Schuyler burping a yawn. Just get on with it. If you don’t have the gift, where’s the point? He seems to have never studied poetry but read it for pleasure, discovering in his early twenties that he had a talent for writing it and an “innate” — his word — love of words. He wrote poems for readers who, like him, had no investment in upholding official verse culture. He never taught, so he had no flag to pledge allegiance to and no forum in which to separate the “right” way of doing things from the “wrong” way. If the question of how he wrote poems mattered to him, he rarely let on.

If this question matters to you, the path to discovery is in Schuyler’s poems themselves. That Schuyler descends from William Carlos Williams and writes free verse is obvious. That he mastered this form, and by mastery I mean saying exactly what he wanted to say, is also obvious. It is impossible for me to believe that any willing reader has had to learn how to read Schuyler. He delivers the news of the world as he sees, hears, and feels it, and he writes his own thoughts in a voice that over a few pages — open his Collected Poems anywhere — is indelible. He causes you to think that words like “indelible” and “voice” are not worth the breath they take. Schuyler means to communicate, but he is rarely urgent. There is no heavy lifting in a Schuyler poem. He can be trivial — who can’t? — but he has an ear, as his letters show, for pomposity and all high mindedness and stops himself as soon as he hears it in his own writing. He does not demand that you take him seriously, but you do because his effortlessness is enchanting. His poems begin a conversation that the reader is not overhearing but participates in. This reader loves Schuyler’s poems because his lines surprise and delight, and they are fresh. That simple. Are they evergreen? Time will tell.

In a letter to me responding to Just the Thing: The Selected Letters of James Schuyler, the poet Jim Cory writes, “Schuyler is famously frank in his poetry, self-examining in a way that places it at a remove from ‘confession.’” “Remove!” Yes, absolutely. In “Trip” from “The Payne Whitney Poems” Schuyler names himself “Jim the Jerk.” He’s not asking for sympathy. There is no “Each of us holds a locked razor” melodrama in any of the “Whitney Poems.” Schuyler knows who he is, and at the end of “Trip” knows that he has survived by luck. It is “a miracle” not because it happened to him, but because it happened and he is alive to tell the tale. “The simplicity of true drama.” You can’t imagine Lowell naming himself, “Cal the Jerk.”

The “remove” Cory hears is in Schuyler’s tone, casual, and matter-of-fact. He is not writing English literature but a lyric poem whose heightened verbal alertness will have to hold and convince the reader on its own terms. You are free to take it or leave it, but either way Schuyler believes what he writes in these lines from the poem “Dec. 28 1974”:

                ‘Your poems,’
a clunkhead said, ‘have grown
more open.’ I don’t want to be open
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are.

There is the surface and beneath it … well, there is what the poet knows or thinks he knows, and there are the associations that will insist themselves on the reader, associations the poet cannot know. If there is no surface, there can be no depth. Schuyler is not opening up, but speaking intimately in an impersonal way. A reporter, or observer, if you like, whose gift is, in part, that he is both inside the moments of his poems and outside. And that he has no agenda other than “to say, to see and say, things / as they are.”

What are “things as they are”? At the end of “February” they are “The yellow” … “The shape” … “The water” — all name it but, inevitably, are like “a bit of pink I can’t quite see in the blue.” The reader will often, as Schuyler points out in his “Dear Miss Batie” letter, discover the poem in the same way the poet has. That letter in response to Miss Batie’s thoughts about “February” is the only one I know of in which Schuyler gives a gloss on one of his poems. It ends without his signing off, and possibly he never sent it.

From his breakdown in the early 1960s that led to his eleven-year stay with Fairfield and Anne Porter and their family through his breakdowns as he left that family and into his very dark New York late 1970s — we will learn more about all of this in Nathan Kernan’s forthcoming biography — Schuyler wrote lucid poems and novels. His art arranged the mess of his life into forms that cohere. Reading Schuyler you will enter a world intensified by his words and their action on your imagination, a world that you will step out of but can step back into at any time and be refreshed.

Rilke believed in angels, that the real world is not here and now but in transcendent realms of the imagination he strove to enter. Poetry was one ladder and painting another. For Schuyler ordinary life is real life. In his last years he found religion, but this might be thought of as the foreordained result of his lifelong communion with the natural world.

Perhaps because his own senses were several times deranged, Schuyler is in his poems, and all of his writing, sane and orderly.

William Blake believed that “where man is not nature is barren.” Wallace Stevens echoed this when he wrote that the “world would be desolate except for the world within us.” Schuyler works the other side of the street. His magic transforms the world without to the world within. When nature is not in man, man will be barren, desolate.

Imagine the poet who takes a “dump,” who studies the “smaller, than small” blackhead on his lover’s back and who hears the “great bronze bong” caught holding Yuban Instant in one hand and Coleman’s Mustard in the other. Mazola, Wesson. “A timer pings.” Imagine the poet who watched The Jeffersons and Mod Squad, who watched television the way regular folks do? One day someone will write a few words on Schuyler’s sense of humor, camp and otherwise.

Frank O’Hara called critics “the bores.” They are everywhere laboring to organize all human activity, squeeze the juice out of life, teach and enact laws that discriminate, set standards, honor tradition — the newspapers, the Internet are full of them and their hot air. But they are not the “news” William Carlos Williams had in mind when he pointed out that everyday men and women die of its lack. He meant poetry and not literal but spiritual death. For many reasons — his numerous breakdowns, the comfort of friends —Schuyler lived outside the world of “the bores” spending grim time institutionalized but serving no institution. He didn’t graduate from college, went AWOL from the Navy and did not hold a job for the last thirty years of his life. His poems celebrate friendship … the truth is that they never say so, would not be caught dead in anything so grand as a celebration. He preferred to send flowers. It is the fine and generous quality of his poems’ attention to the people in Schuyler’s life. He had no project, no urge, it seems to me, to convince himself or others that he needed a reason to write a poem. Title it “Today” and go from there.

What makes Schuyler’s poetry difficult to write about is that it is hard, at least for this lover of his work, to write a sentence that comes anywhere near the verve and genius in his lines. And his verbs! The mouth-filling, mind-clenching physicality of his verbs! Scuds, tugs, chuckles, creaks, sighs, reddens, ripens and smites are not in this essay but that are in the last seven lines of “Today.”

To have written these many words and not mentioned pleasure! After forty years of reading Schuyler’s poetry they still deliver pleasure on every level, most of all the pleasure of being stirred when rereading them. Auden, Schuyler’s sometime patron and friend, thought, pleasure the ultimate critical standard. It took me years to accept this. For too long I thought there had to be an intellectual or moral structure to support what gave me pleasure. Could you just love a poem? Yes, you can, Schuyler’s poems are word and deed.

you plunge your face
in their massed
papery powdery sweetness
and grunt in delight
at their sunset sweetness

Afterthought: What I hope will happen is that Schuyler’s letters and diaries will be published together. If I am around I can point out the errors and omissions in Just The Thing, but I don’t have to be the book’s editor. This book will stand beside Schuyler’s poems reminding readers, if they need to be reminded, that letters and diaries are not lesser than poetry. They are of a piece in the hands of this master.


This essay is for Jim Cory.