James Schuyler, trash, and the poetics of collage
James Schuyler has, from the first, been viewed as a consummate poet of the everyday, hailed for his charming, inspiring attentiveness to the here and now. He has been described as “quietly Whitmanic, a planetary celebrator,” and as “a poet of the immediate, of views out of train and restaurant windows, of lawns and plants,” whose “subject matter, ostensible and real, is the flux of everyday life.” His poems are praised for the fresh and inventive ways they track the minute fluctuations of the weather and the sky, observe the ordinary goings-on outside a window, catalog and praise the ephemera of his daily existence.
The usual shorthand estimations of James Schuyler as a poet dedicated to an exact rendering the ordinary and “real” are by no means wrong, but they do threaten to reduce the complexity of his work. When we think of Schuyler as primarily a poet of realism and mimesis, the quotidian snapshot and the limpid lyric, we overlook some of what makes his poetry so powerful, lasting, and timely. At every turn, Schuyler’s work remains skeptical of the classic realist project and distrustful of claims to objectivity, mastery, and transparency in language and representation. For all his interest in descriptive exactitude, Schuyler continually finds himself crashing into the limitations of language and the impossibility of representational fidelity: in his elegy for Frank O’Hara, “Buried at Springs,” Schuyler describes a view of the bay and islands on the coast of Maine with characteristically meticulous detail — “feathery ripe heads of grass, / an acid-yellow kind of / goldenrod glowing or glowering / in shade” — only to suddenly interrupt himself in frustration: “It is not like this at all.” To some extent, Schuyler was simply uninterested in conventional “realism.” In fact, he resisted the idea that his goal was transparent mimesis or accurate description in the first place: for instance, when an interviewer asked him “Is your aim to precisely render the realistic scene?” his blunt reply was “No, I hope not.”
Just as Schuyler’s writing is hardly the apotheosis of an aesthetic dedication to representing “things as they are,” it is also not merely the exuberant celebration of the daily and ordinary that it is so often praised as being. It is, rather, an aesthetically and philosophically complex body of work, driven by a need to expose the ambiguity, doubleness, and elusiveness of the everyday. Schuyler’s poems are shaped by a profound sense of the everyday’s contradictions: not least that the everyday is always both impoverished and bountiful, boring and fascinating, forgettable and memorable, repetitive and different, familiar and surprising at the exact same time.
In what follows, I argue that Schuyler’s fascination with the everyday, its elusiveness and complexity, also leads him to create a body of work that is more formally various, more radically experimental, more influenced by collage and other disruptive avant-garde strategies, than it is often taken to be. In particular, I highlight the crucial connection between Schuyler’s longstanding love for the assemblages of the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and the collage aesthetic he develops in his poetry, in which the poet’s selection and juxtaposition of everyday materials and detritus is of the utmost importance.
Rather than thinking of Schuyler in terms of transparency, immediacy, clarity, or realism, we should reconceive of him as a radical empiricist and materialist, deeply skeptical of transcendence, idealism, sentimentality, and mimesis, drawn to formal experimentation, self-reflexivity, and practices of collage and appropriation. Schuyler’s constant recognition of both the urgent necessity and the impossibility of capturing or rendering the everyday provokes him to experiment with both form and content in order to better convey its unusual qualities. It leads him, for example, to experiment with parataxis, fragmentation, and the incorporation of found materials and overheard, “ordinary” language; to interweave hyperprecise observations of experience with tart skepticism about the fidelity of any kind of representation; and to use catalogs and lists and other tools that aim for maximum inclusivity. It causes him to blur the genre boundaries between poem, diary, and letter, and to develop a new kind of long poem that depends on a continuous seriality that avoids climax and closure. Schuyler’s recognition of the everyday’s paradoxes provokes him to adapt and reinvent a whole series of forms and modes — the pastoral, the ekphrastic, the elegy, the letter poem, the to-do list, the long poem — as tools in his pursuit of the quotidian.
For Schuyler, such tactics function as “traps for the attention,” to borrow a compelling and apt phrase from Douglas Crase’s discussion of Schuyler’s work. Schuyler deploys these “traps,” these diverse methods, genres, and devices, as part of his effort to do justice to the messy harvest reaped by a careful attentiveness to everyday experience. In recent years, Schuyler’s work has become increasingly important for contemporary poets, and I argue that this is in part due to his prescient, experimental approach to the problem of how to give shape to the everyday. Although Schuyler is hardly a household name even in the world of contemporary poetry, there have been signs of continuing, even resurgent interest in his poetry, whether in the form of younger poets paying tribute to his example, as in a pair of poems written “After James Schuyler” in Jennifer Moxley’s critically praised 2008 book, Clampdown, or in the publication of Schuyler’s uncollected work by a major commercial press (Farrar, Strauss published Other Flowers in 2010), or in reappraisals of his work and its contemporaneity, like a recent celebration of his writing on the widely read Poetry Foundation website.[ The last few years have also seen a spate of sophisticated critical essays investigating various aspects of Schuyler’s work after a long period of relative critical neglect.
From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, Schuyler’s work can be seen as a bridge joining various moments of fascination with the everyday in poetry and art over the past century: the modernist aesthetics of the ordinary one finds in Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf; the abiding concern with daily life and everyday materials in Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (as in the collages and assemblages of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Joe Brainard); the shift to experimental figurative painting in the postwar American art of his friends Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers; the turn to dailiness at the heart of the New American poetry of the postwar period, and particularly within the New York School; and some of the more conceptual, politicized, and radical approaches to the everyday to be found in Language poetry and more recent art and poetry, like Conceptual writing and Flarf. As such, I see Schuyler’s aesthetic of everyday life as both a consummation of various avant-garde tendencies and a forerunner of more recent poetic explorations of the quotidian.
Critics have often, and understandably, associated Schuyler’s poetry and its interest in rendering daily life with the work of Fairfield Porter, along with that of other postwar New York artists who experimented with figurative painting during the age of abstraction, like Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. After meeting in 1952, Schuyler and Porter quickly became close friends and aesthetic allies and spent the next two decades working (sometimes literally) side by side and developing a relationship that was in some ways even a collaborative or symbiotic one.[ David Lehman observes that “of the poets in the New York School, Porter was closest to Schuyler personally and in artistic temperament. There is a sense in which Porter’s paintings and Schuyler’s poems amount to a largely unconscious collaboration of kindred sensibilities” (328).[
During the heady days of Abstract Expressionism’s ascendancy, Porter and other painters in their circle rejected Clement Greenberg’s proclamation that abstraction was the only viable approach for truly modern art and scoffed at his prohibitions against figurative painting. They defiantly chose to work in a more representational mode at the very moment that Abstract Expressionism was at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. But they did so only after absorbing its innovations. Like Schuyler, the painters returned to figuration after prolonged exposure to avant-garde experimentation with disjunction and abstraction, an experience that only deepened their obsession with the simultaneous allure and impossibility of representation. Together, Porter and Schuyler hit upon a style of rendering the everyday whose power and novelty came from its ability to tensely balance the representational and the abstract, a mode I refer to as experimental or skeptical realism.
Schuyler’s important affiliation with Porter has often been noted, and clearly the sensibility and approach to the daily they share is central to Schuyler’s poetry. Nevertheless, Schuyler’s natural affinities with Porter, Freilicher, Rivers, and the brand of figurative painting they developed have obscured his abiding interest in avant-garde techniques. Indeed, one of the most important tools Schuyler took away from his early exposure to the avant-garde was the practice of collage, which plays a more central role in the evolution of his aesthetic than many critics have acknowledged.[ Although he took pleasure in and wrote with sympathy about a wide range of artistic practices, Schuyler was particularly fond of various forms of collage, both visual and verbal, especially in the period when he was first establishing himself as a writer in the early 1950s.
Schuyler’s early love of collage was kindled especially by the work of Kurt Schwitters, the German artist and Dadaist who pioneered the use of assemblage. Schwitters was a key figure in promoting the groundbreaking idea that art could be made from detritus and junk. In the 1910s, Schwitters became a central player in the emerging Dada movement when he began creating delicate collage constructions, which he called “Merz,” out of mixed, found materials. Reeling from the catastrophe of World War I, Schwitters believed that the leftover, commercial waste of modern society could be gathered, assembled, and converted into art: as he recalled, after the war finally ended “I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. … Everything had broken down in any case, and new things had to be made out of fragments.” As he put it, “I don’t see why the used tickets, driftwood, cloakroom numbers from attics and rubbish dumps couldn’t be used as painting materials just like factory-produced paints.”
Schuyler frequently cited the importance of Schwitters, and collage more generally, to his own work, both as an inspiration for his experiments with composing verbal collages in the early 1950s and for his overall aesthetic sensibility. In an interview with Carl Little, Schuyler explained that his early stint of writing collage poems came about because “I was very interested in Dada, and I loved Schwitters’s work, the idea of using scraps and bits and pieces.” He went on to acknowledge that “sometimes in other poems I’ve popped ‘found’ things in, but I don’t think it shows,” a remark which suggests the persistence of his interest in collage in his later writing. In a letter he wrote in 1969 to an admirer who had asked whether Willem de Kooning was an important influence on his poems, Schuyler explains in some detail his own aesthetic, explaining that “I know that I like an art where disparate elements form an entity. De Kooning’s work, which I greatly admire, has less to do with it than that of Kurt Schwitters’, whose collages are made of commercial bits and ‘found’ pieces but which always compose a whole striking for its completeness.”
Schuyler’s admiration for Schwitters is also apparent in a brief review he wrote for Art News in 1959 of an exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, in which he praised the artist’s “creative genius: the gift for making.” He not only marveled at what Schwitters was capable of doing artistically with pieces of garbage, but went further: “the high enduring plastic merit he could create out of trash — and the more ‘mere’ the trash the better — is, like the invisible splendor of Ad Reinhardt’s mature style, one of the climactic paradoxes of modern art.”
Not surprisingly, Schuyler was also enthusiastic about other artists who worked with collage and assemblage, like Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and later, his close friend Joe Brainard. Like O’Hara and Ashbery, Schuyler deeply admired Cornell’s box constructions and surrealist collages, as did Fairfield Porter, who struggled for nearly a year to write an appreciative essay about Cornell’s work. Cornell was so pleased with the essay that he gave Porter one of his boxes as a gift, and after Porter died, his widow Anne Porter gave the box to Schuyler (who, apparently, “sold it soon after,” most likely as a result of his ever-present financial woes). Schuyler’s fondness for Cornell’s work appears in a number of places in his correspondence as well: for example, in a 1966 letter, Schuyler told Ron Padgett, “I hope you & Pat go near the Guggenheim before the Cornell is over; one can scarcely get too close to it” (Just the Thing, 162), and in another letter from 1971, he tells the artist Trevor Winkfield that “There is a new place in N.Y.C., by the way, where they show all Cornell’s own movies — all the collage ones & hand-tinted ones — so you’d better come visit us” (331). In an interview, Schuyler also mentions the tantalizing fact that he wrote but never published a poem “that describes a Joseph Cornell box.” Presumably, Schuyler felt a kinship with Cornell’s penchant for making entities out of disparate elements, his delight in everyday things, and his love for the details of daily life in New York City.
Schuyler was also taken with Rauschenberg’s daring and controversial work of the 1950s and 1960s. In a piece about Rauschenberg’s “Combines,” the famous mixed-media assemblages that he began making in the mid-1950s, Schuyler praises the artist in terms that express his own aesthetic goals: “Any archeologist of our own time and world, armed with the rosetta stone of his sensibility, has an occasion for profound research. Rauschenberg, as he works, is against imagination, which produces works that are much more provocative for the imagination of others, for he leaves the objects he agglomerates free to be themselves, generating the sufficiency of what they are or endlessly suggesting. That is up to the looker” (Selected Art, 84). Like Rauschenberg, Schuyler loved the idea of the modern artist as a radical empiricist committed to objects drawn from the immediate present, whose job is to gather things deemed sufficient in and of themselves, not in need of being reimagined or transformed to be meaningful. In his review, Schuyler mentions his fondness for “the shock of finding the real in an imagined work,” as when one notices that “the stuffed fowl pacing on top of [Rauschenberg’s] Satellite is really stuffed.” This anticipates Schuyler’s own incorporation of what Marianne Moore refers to as “real toads” in the “imaginary gardens” of his poems, as when he inserts actual shopping lists, letters, and fragments of overheard speech into his poetry.
In the early 1950s, at the same moment his fellow New York School poets were engaged in all manner of radical experiments with disjunction, nonlinearity, and collage, including Kenneth Koch’s “When the Sun Tries to Go On” and Frank O’Hara’s “Second Avenue,” Schuyler began composing poems made entirely from fragments of found language. For example, to create the 1953 piece “The Times: A Collage,” Schuyler pasted together pieces of text from the New York Times Magazine:
I’m not doing anybody
any good with my ideas
Buttering your face won’t help
saw the connection
Shall we be able to hold her
and study her as a fixed star? (Other Flowers, 18)
Although Schuyler moved quickly past this early flirtation with composing poems of “pure” collage, his interest in the practice, and even a philosophy, of collage throughout his career is fairly constant and central to his views about his own work.
“Freely Espousing,” another early poem that would become the title poem and lead-off work in his first book many years later (in 1969), reads as a kind of manifesto for the joyous art of “commingling” disparate materials and making linkages between discordant things:
a commingling sky
a semi-tropic night
that cast the blackest
of the easily torn, untrembling banana leaf
or Quebec! what a horrible city
so Steubenville is better?
the sinking sensation
when someone drowns thinking, “This can’t be happening to me!”
the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the Romans
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of
pill when used as in
“she is a pill” (Collected, 3)
Structured as a rapidly moving list of juxtaposed images, observations, and fragments of quoted language, the poem is both about, and is an example of, an approach to life based on a philosophy of collage and parataxis, in which the world’s variety — objects, words, experiences — are freely espoused and brought together. The poem exults in such linkages, in the “marriage” of this with that, and hails the “new sensation” one can experience in the process:
Marriages of the atmosphere
are worth celebrating
where Tudor City
catches the sky or the glass side
of a building lit up at night in fog
“What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”
“You are experiencing a new sensation” (Collected, 3)
From beginning to end, Schuyler’s work is driven by a fascination with gathering, archiving, and juxtaposing disparate materials; a fondness for incorporating in art “real” things and found verbal shards in all their stubborn materiality; the idea of creating a whole entity from incomplete fragments; and the challenge to illusionism or mimesis collage poses.
Thus, as he began to develop his own mode of poetry, Schuyler found collage to be not only a congenial formal device, but also essential to his ideas about how to present everyday experience in art. It even becomes a trope that undergirds his conception of the everyday: a figure for how the artist, and by extension, any individual, might respond creatively to the multiform, contingent, messy, fragmented, and ephemeral nature of contemporary daily life. By forcing the writer to find and collect scraps of the actual, the practice of collage also insists upon the everyday’s basis in material things and experiences, and compels us to pay close attention to otherwise overlooked, concrete facets of our daily existence.
For Schuyler, one of the most important kinds of material trace to which one should be most attentive is language, which is why his poems, like “Freely Espousing,” are so often woven out of the bits and pieces of language that he has overheard, read, or recollected. Schuyler’s practice of archiving and using such materials indicates his conviction that to be truly attentive to daily life one must forever be on the lookout for strange, absurd, charming, or striking examples of ordinary language, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday speech.
Also crucial for Schuyler is collage’s insistence on the value to be found in the cast-off and overlooked, in recuperating objects normally considered to be garbage and waste. In “Master of the Golden Glow,” Schuyler describes a breeze doing something akin to what he does in his own poetry: “Somewhere, out of the wind, / the wind collects a ripe debris” (Collected, 34). In “The Morning of the Poem,” he writes about longing to be on a beach after a storm, in order to “see the scattered wrack, fish and weed and / (always) some cast-up surprise: fishing / Gear, net, an ominous object of red and orange plastic” (294). Ever alert to the “cast-up surprise” to be found in scattered junk, Schuyler places a high premium on the effort to collect such ripe debris, and values trash in and for itself. A letter Fairfield Porter wrote to a friend in 1960 about spending time with Schuyler further illuminates this aspect of Schuyler’s artistic sensibility and eye: “We went often to the beach, where he practically never swam, but picked up things which he invested with a Rauschenbergian potential value.”
From the start, Schuyler was drawn to the idea that art could be, perhaps should be, created by gathering such “things,” the material bits and pieces of the world, including its “ripe debris” and detritus. Take, for example, his first published and perhaps best-known poem, “Salute,” which, as Schuyler often recalled, was a pivotal work for his own development as a writer:[
Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field. (Collected, 44)
The poem is a compact meditation on a whole host of issues central to Schuyler’s work: the poet’s loving attention to nature and flowers, the refusal to dwell in the past or linger upon regrets, the complex relationship between memory and forgetting, intention and failed ambition, and the implicit parallels between writing poetry and the act of gathering and trying to memorialize things of the world.
But “Salute” is also about a premeditated, rule-governed project, an act of collage and assemblage that the poet once dreamt up (the mission here being to gather one of each kind of flower in a meadow). Schuyler not only refers to this ambitious archival project he had devised, but also confronts his failure to complete it. “Salute” amounts to an early statement of what would become Schuyler’s life’s work: an aesthetics of the everyday whose goal would be to gather and capture the concrete particulars of the various field of experience, and to study, celebrate, and salute them, and their variety, before they wilt and vanish. But at the same time, the statement of artistic intent includes within it another element essential to Schuyler’s writing: an acknowledgment of the continual failure or impossibility of the very project he dreams up, combined with a refusal to succumb to regret for that failure (“past is past,” he admits, but “I salute / that various field” nonetheless).
This conception of poetry reverberates throughout Schuyler’s work. For example, in the poem “The Trash Book,” Schuyler again engages in, and reflects upon, the making of a collage. In this case, it is a kind of scrapbook; in the summer of 1970, Schuyler decided to make a gift for Joe Brainard, whose own inventive and wonderful collages Schuyler deeply admired and had written about with great enthusiasm. Writing to Brainard from the Porters’ house in Maine where he was living for the summer, Schuyler explains:
As soon as I got here I started to make you a trash book out of an address book I had never used. I thought it would take about an hour, but who would guess that an address book, such a little bitty address book, could have so many pages? Or that one’s trash runs out so soon? A trash book, in case you’re wondering, is something like a scrap book, only, well, you put trash in it. Which is not the same as garbage. That you put in boxes, like a candy box, and call it a Garbage Box. Garbage Boxes are not quite so nice as Trash Books. (Just, 298)
A couple of days later he told Brainard that he had completed the project: “Yesterday I finished your little trash book. I’m rather pleased with it. Partly because of its nothingness, partly because I didn’t think anybody else would think of making one for you. You’ll get it soon” (Just, 304).
Clearly, the idea of creating a “trash book” would appeal to Schuyler, given his love for Schwitters and his fascination with the “idea of using scraps and bits and pieces” to make art. Compiling a “trash book” is also another intriguing example of the kind of everyday life “project of attention” that I mentioned when speaking of “Salute”: setting up a project and finding a form that would force one to pay attention to the trivial and inconsequential in order to find value in it, a form that might allow one to preserve remnants and frame them in such a way as to make it meaningful, beautiful, or at the least visible. It also speaks to the impulse to collect that Walter Benjamin theorizes in his work: projects like those reflected in “Salute” and “The Trash Book” are part of “the struggle against dispersion” Benjamin pinpoints as “perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects”: “right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found,” and attempts to combat that dispersal by bringing “together what belongs together.”[
A “trash book” is also a potent metaphor for the kind of work that so often recurs in contemporary everyday life aesthetics. With its mixing of high art with low, its reevaluation of debris and waste, its conviction that a book can or should be a receptacle for garbage and waste, an archive for the cast-off and disregarded, Schuyler’s idea of a “trash book” resonates with many other approaches to the daily that contemplate the relationship between art and garbage: for example, Walter Benjamin’s image of the modern artist as “a ragpicker, at daybreak” collecting modernity’s scraps, Wallace Stevens’s poet on the junk heap in “Man on the Dump,” Joseph Cornell assembling his box constructions out of discarded found materials, A. R. Ammons composing a poem named “Shit List” or a book-length work called Garbage (“garbage has to be the poem of our time” ), Ron Silliman titling a poem “Sunset Debris,” or Brenda Coultas creating catalogs of things pulled from dumpsters in “A Bowery Project.” 
Schuyler not only made this little book for his artist friend; he also wrote a poem about its creation and dedicated it as well to Brainard. The poem opens in media res, at a midpoint in the process of creation:
Then I do not know what
to paste next in the
Trash Book: grass, pretending
to be a smear maybe or
that stump there that knows
now it will never grow
up to be some pencils or
a yacht even. A piece of
voice saying (it sounds like)
“I thought her did.” Or
the hum that hangs in only
my left ear. Or, “Beer” not
beer, all wet, the quiver
of the word one night in
1942 looking at a cardboard
girl sitting on a moon in
West Virginia. She smiled
and sipped her Miller’s. (Collected, 100)
The poem is especially interesting because it gives us a glimpse of the process of making a collage out of ordinary materials. In particular, it zooms in on a moment of artistic selection and the indecision that comes along with it. The poem implies that not just anything can go into a trash book or collage: that the success of the project depends on what is pasted in next. Using the list as a formal device as he often does, Schuyler runs through his options, including the idea of including a bit of grass, or a tree stump, or a fragment of funny and peculiar spoken language (“I thought her did”). By referring to the quote as a “piece of voice,” he makes the verbal scrap over into a tangible object to be collected like any other ordinary thing, while also suggesting that overheard, everyday speech is, for most people, akin to trash.
Furthermore, with its closing inclusion of an iconic Miller’s beer advertising image from Schuyler’s youth, the poem, like a collage by Schwitters or a Joseph Cornell box or a piece by Joe Brainard, appropriates a fragment of found, “commercial” material to incorporate into its own creation. In this sense, Schuyler’s project, like the work of many other practitioners of art-out-of-junk, can be seen as a sly response to a culture of consumption and materialism: art as an act of collecting, arranging, and repurposing the leftover waste of consumer culture.
Interestingly, the poem seems to unravel its own project as it goes forward, because the things Schuyler lists as potential items to paste in quickly skitter away from stuff that one could actually glue into an old address book. You cannot literally glue a tree stump, or a “piece of voice,” or a hum heard in one’s ear, into a physical book — but you can include such things in a poem. The poem entitled “The Trash Book” is therefore different, in kind, from the physical book, and perhaps more wide-ranging, more capacious and multisensory. Although we know from his letters that Schuyler has literally made a three-dimensional art object, “The Trash Book” as a poem, as a verbal artifact, seems to hint that a poetic form made from collaging bits and pieces of detritus is even more effective than a work of visual art at approaching everyday experience. In that sense, Schuyler may be drawing a subtle contrast between Brainard’s favored medium and his own, while also probing the tension between the actual “thing itself” and words about the thing itself.
Nevertheless, Schuyler’s decision to make this little book, and to write the poem about it, point again to his belief that a proper, even ethical relationship to the everyday requires us to do something: to take action, to devise forms that might serve as “traps” for the attention. As he writes in a critical piece on Brainard’s work, collecting and making in this manner call for an act of careful and sustained attention, one that takes patience and skill: “It takes a knack — where to look and, when you get there, how to look” (Selected Art, 79).
Another form, closely related to collage, which Schuyler finds alluring is the “list poem,” which has its roots in, among other sources, the work of Walt Whitman, with its great catalogs of concrete particulars that tally up the diversity of the American experience. In his quest to include as much of experience as possible within the space of poetry, Schuyler frequently employs lists and catalogs in his work. But, as we saw with “Salute,” he often does so while reflecting on the list itself as a form, on the very impulse to catalog and gather experience. Another early poem, “Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing” tackles these issues head-on. The poem uses the list as a structuring device, but it is also a self-conscious meditation about the list as a form, and, further, about poetry as an act of listing and cataloging things of the world.
The poem begins by rattling off a series of decidedly unpoetic, mundane things that a person preparing for a trip or a move might need to sort, wrap, pack and stuff: “dirty socks in dirty sneakers / capless tubes of unguents among brushes and septic Band-Aids / adhesive flowers into spongy books” (Collected, 27). But it quickly becomes about the difficulty of actually capturing objects and experiences and retaining them: “how do you pack a blue fire escape”? the poem asks. The speaker keeps reflecting on the poem’s central actions — “stuff wrap cram snap” — which now seem part of an increasingly violent and potentially destructive attempt to force things into boxes or containers. Just when it seems as if he has managed to get it under control, the “blue fire escape” escapes in an erotic rush: “it’s coming unpacked all over the floor like a Milky Way” (28).
The effort to sort, wrap and pack the pieces of one’s life and experience continues to run into difficulty, to get “out of hand”:
the time is getting out of hand
cut down the books
to fit an Oshkosh nutshell (28)
In the end, the poem meditates on the violent, mostly doomed attempt to wrench a world of flux into a small space, whether it be the “Oshkosh nutshell” of a packing crate, the mind, or art. But beyond taking this issue on thematically, the poem’s form enacts that effort and that failure. With the rapid, dislocating jumps of its montagelike, paratactic form, the humorous and incongruous asides and unattributed quotations, and the parodic list of book titles to be “cut down” and packed up (including “My Heart Is Like a Green Canoe,” “Romance of Sergei Eisenstein,” and “Immanuel Kant, Boy Detective”), the poem spills out in every direction.
Ultimately the piece acts out a resistance to philosophical and aesthetic closure, mastery, classification, and retention and questions the possibility of remembering and memorializing experiences. However, at the same time, it exults in the attempt to bring as much of the rich diversity of life into the poem as possible. This doubleness can be seen in the poem’s last two lines:
The spruce have stopped shrinking
they never began and great hunks of the world will fit
Here Schuyler points to the fact that everyday experience seems to always exceed our formal and analytical grasp: you can’t sort, wrap, pack, or stuff spruce trees or any other aspect of daily experience (dirty socks, Yuban Instant Coffee, or a fire escape) successfully. But he also expresses his faith in an aesthetic of radical inclusivity that would at least try. For Schuyler, there is always the desire and the hope that “great hunks of the world” — a wider range of experience than previously thought possible — will fit into a poem, a mind, or a view of the world.[
Schuyler frequently returns to the promise and complexity of the list as a rhetorical form and as a vehicle for collage and parataxis. Another example can be found in his interest in the “to-do list,” an unlikely structure which he seizes on and turns to poetic ends. Schuyler’s poem “Things to Do” is just that: a list of chores, which seems partly an actual one, partly a parodic send-up of such lists. Presumably, Schuyler was enticed by the slightly subversive idea of using such a mundane and nonliterary form for a poem, especially within the context of postwar American poetic decorum: how can a “to-do list” be significant or poetic enough to be a poem? But this sort of embrace of the supposedly banal, this insouciant blast at reigning formal conventions, was the New York School’s bread and butter. As David Lehman observes, “the New York poets welcomed into their work all the pure and impure products of modernity that weren’t thought to belong in poems,” as when Schuyler “made poetry out of the possibilities of the laundry list. His ‘Things to Do’ was the model for a genre that became a staple of second-generation New York School poets; in the 1960s and ’70s, everyone wrote one” (353).
In fact, at around the same time that Schuyler wrote this poem Gary Snyder also wrote a poem, “Three Worlds, Three Realms, Six Roads,” which consists of a series of six sections with titles like “Things to Do Around Seattle” and “Things to Do Around Portland.” As Lehman notes, this form “appears to have been the simultaneous invention of two poets working separately and without knowledge of one another” (353). Among Schuyler’s admirers who tried their hand at the form, the most memorable example is Ted Berrigan’s recurring use of the device in such poems as “Things to Do in Providence,” “Things to Do in Bolinas,” “Things to Do in New York,” and “10 Things I Do Every Day.” Apparently, Schuyler was rather protective of his invention, especially as numerous other poets associated with the New York School began to adapt it. When Mark Hillringhouse remarked in an interview with Schuyler “there’s a poem, on page 34 in The Home Book, which I believe to be truly representative of a brand of ‘New York School’ writing — it’s called ‘Things to Do,” Schuyler shoots back, “It wasn’t invented by the ‘New York School’; it was invented by me! Well, Ted Berrigan has a stylized version of it in his ‘Things to Do in Providence’” (11–12).
The original “Things to Do,” which Lehman refers to as “quintessential Schuyler” (353), starts by listing some typical trivial and onerous chores that perhaps exemplify the dailiness of the everyday:
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“Sir, We find none of these
killers truly satisfactory. Hand weed
for onion grass.” Give
old clothes away, “such as you
yourself would willingly wear.”
Impasse. Walk three miles
a day beginning tomorrow.
Alphabetize. (Collected, 59)
The catalog of goals and obligations, which seem none too lofty, is quickly ventilated with Schuyler’s characteristic device of collaging together clichés and found language — in this case, ad language (“this patented device”), store clerk speak (“hand weed for onion grass”), and a phrase that sounds like a moralistic old saw (only give away clothes that “you yourself would willingly wear”). The curious inclusion of “impasse” in this list may hint at the difficulty of actually achieving any of these tasks: it points to the yawning gap between aspiration and accomplishment in our daily lives. As we have seen, this is a theme with great importance to Schuyler’s work, beginning with “Salute” and its meditation on whether all the things we fail to do are salvaged by the fact that at least we meant to do them in the first place.
“Things to Do” tweaks the whole idea of laying out a regime of self-improvement — so dear to the American puritan and pragmatic spirit, as best embodied in that ur-text for any to-do list, the daily routine Benjamin Franklin famously included in his Autobiography. Schuyler’s poem seems to echo the imperative tone and hopeful, practical determination of Franklin’s list of daily tasks, his “scheme of employment,” which begins with the morning question “What good shall I do today?” and ends with the evening question “What good have I done today?,” and which includes reminders to the self to “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness! contrive day’s business and take the resolution of the day,” “Read, or look over my accounts and dine,” “Put things in their places,” “Examination of the day,” “Sleep.” Schuyler gently mocks the way such well-intentioned goals are so often undermined by the habit of continually putting off any actual self-improvement when he ironically refers to the goal of walking three miles every day, starting … tomorrow.
Not surprisingly, Schuyler has no compunction about including the trivial, personal, even bodily stuff of day-to-day living in his list, which is considerably more quotidian than Franklin’s (“Purchase nose-hair shears. / Answer letters / … See more movies. / Practice long-distance dialing”). And yet at the end of this amusing and suggestive list, the poem seems to deepen and darken, to grow more philosophical and reflective, as Schuyler strips down the actions he hopes to undertake to just a series of verbs:
Send. Keep. Give. Destroy.
Brush rub polish burn
mend scratch foil evert
emulate surpass. Remember
“to write three-act play”
and lead “a full and active life.” (Collected, 60)
It is almost as if Schuyler begins to boil down the list, and by extension, a life, to the basics; it becomes more elemental, more general, more universalized. What are the things that we do, that we must do, over and over as days pass? Send, keep, give, destroy, brush, rub, polish, burn.
The poem’s last lines ironically suggest the limitations of reducing a life to a list of things to do: the quotation marks around “write a three-act play” and lead “a full and active life” point to the banality and ubiquity of the clichéd language of ambition and self-improvement, as in Franklin’s famous list of thirteen moral injunctions (“eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation,” “tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation,” “resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve”). As we have seen, Schuyler’s is a poetics fueled by what Silverberg calls “indolence” and Koestenbaum calls “failure” — by not acting, by impossibility and inability — which may account for the ironic undertone of “Things To Do.” A passage in the poem “Empathy and New Year” similarly questions the efficacy of listing one’s aspirations: “New Year is nearly here / and who, knowing himself, would / endanger his desires / resolving them in a formula?” (Collected, 79). The end of “Things to Do” throws the question back at the reader: is it worthwhile to resolve one’s desires into a formula or list? Would accomplishing the list of goals and ambitions we have just read amount to a “full and active life”? What actions would such a life consist of anyway? The poem forces us to contemplate where the convention comes from in the first place: why are we driven to list our goals and aspirations and to write down such reminders to ourselves about how to live fully and well? What tends to be left out of such a list? What things that we want or need to do are not included? Does such a list tell us anything about what daily life is like?
It is notable, too, that Schuyler does not choose to replicate the to-do list in order to decry life as drudgery, or everyday life as repetitious and numbing. In fact, the list seems to playfully defy expectation, to exceed its confines, to echo yet gently mock the Franklinesque clichés of the form, and to resist the standardization inherent in the genre of the to-do list. Because of these qualities, one could argue that “Things to Do” suggests that play, irony, and even subversive responses to daily practices might serve as antidotes to quotidian boredom and repetition: in other words, it posits, like Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, that individual forms of freedom and resistance are possible even within the regimented sphere of daily life in an administered culture.
Schuyler’s invented form has proven to be a durable and portable tool for contemporary poetics of everyday life and has attracted the interest of later poets.[ Although various iterations of this form have often been lumped together, they are actually quite distinct. For example, Schuyler’s use of the “things to do” poetic template is quite different from what one finds in the similarly titled poems by Ted Berrigan and Gary Snyder. In fact, the differences between the modes actually points to an essential feature of Schuyler’s work: the interest in both daily aspiration and failure at the heart of his poetics. Snyder and Berrigan each create catalogs of things that the speaker does, has regularly done, or could do, in a given place: in their hands, it is closer to a quotidian version of a travel guidebook’s list, like a primer on “things to do in Paris” but adapted to one’s experience of the local. For example, in Snyder’s “Things to Do Around Portland,” he writes, “Walk over Hawthorne Bridge the car tires sing / Take the trolley out to Sellwood when cherries are in bloom” (25–26); Berrigan’s “Things to Do in Providence” begins, “Crash / Take Valium / Sleep … Read the Providence Evening Bulletin” (375).
Schuyler, in contrast, creates a list of things one aspires to do or must do, which is more in line with a “to-do list” that one might keep in daily life. As we have seen, Schuyler’s poem is also considerably more metapoetic and self-conscious about the form itself than Snyder or Berrigan. For Schuyler, the capacious and flexible form of “Things to Do” offers him another way to fling open the doors of art to a wide range of everyday experience. It also allows him to engage in critical self-reflection about the list as a conceptual form, as well as about the things we do, and the things we merely hope to do, in the course of everyday life.
At the end of “An East Window on Elizabeth Street,” one of Schuyler’s most memorable and powerful poems of urban everyday life, he subtly reflects on the centrality of collage to his own poetics of daily life. As in his other “window poems,” the poem carefully renders a view from a window in New York onto an ordinary, unpromising scene that reveals itself to be a dynamic and vibrant cityscape when carefully observed. It ends:
But why should a metal ladder climb, straight
and sky aspiring, five rungs above a stairway hood
up into nothing? Out there
a bird is building a nest out of torn up letters
and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.
The furthest off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running. (Collected, 85)
Although Schuyler was of course deeply wary of poetry that relies too heavily on symbolism — “all things are real / no one a symbol,” runs one oft-quoted line (Collected, 125) — it is hard not to read the concrete details these closing lines present as both “real” things and as suggestive of deep truths about Schuyler’s work and vision. That “sky aspiring” ladder which climbs straight “up into nothing” surely feels like an apt emblem of Schuyler’s skepticism of the transcendent and romantic, his incredulity about aspirations towards heaven, the mystical, or eternal. In effect, the moment is not unlike Robert Frost’s “Birches,” where the pragmatist poet declares that “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better,” as he longs to climb a birch tree “Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” In both poems, the “sky aspiring” vehicle to transcendence goes nowhere; earth is where we must stay and make the best of things.
It is quite fitting that the immediate response to the searching question about this aspirational ladder which is literally a dead-end is the image of the bird building its nest from “torn up letters / and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.” What Schuyler seems to have discovered outside the window is a feathered collagiste, the avian equivalent of a Kurt Schwitters, a Joseph Cornell, a Robert Rauschenberg, or a Joe Brainard, making its own “trash book.” As David Herd has noted, “the bird is up to what Schuyler is up to, making himself at home in his environment with the materials the environment provides, the scraps and fragments, the torn-up letters and gum packs” (174).
With this conclusion, “An East Window on Elizabeth Street” demonstrates the turn away from the metaphysical to the everyday that is the keynote of Schuyler’s entire literary project. Here Schuyler throws in his lot with a model of poetry that acknowledges the world as it is and refuses to be seduced by the illusion of ascent or transcendence. It is a poetics, and an ethics, that insists on the value of the obvious and ordinary, of looking out at whatever is happening out one’s window rather than skyward. The poem itself, in all its vibrant detail, provides a picture of what such an everyday life poetics might look like, might accomplish. The nest-building bird crafting its home from fragments of trash emblematizes Schuyler’s trust in the ordinary and its concrete traces — it is an allegory for his own poetics of collage, his belief that a poem can function as a kind of “trash book.”
As we have seen, collage is both a practice and a conceptual framework that offers Schuyler a powerful way of approaching, appreciating, and presenting everyday experience, a method of recuperating objects and experiences others dismiss as garbage or beneath notice. The act of collecting, sorting, and juxtaposing bits and pieces of ordinary experience and language gives Schuyler a way to retain the quotidian’s variety, complexity, and concrete materiality while bypassing or undermining naïve claims about transparency, realism, or mimesis.
Once we move past the idea of Schuyler as a poet whose goal is “to precisely render the realistic scene” (which he himself dismissed), return him to the avant-garde milieu from which he emerged, and consider his enduring fascination with collage and other experimental poetic strategies, it becomes clear that his work stands as a forerunner of many trends in contemporary poetry and art, including the recent surge of interest in documentary poetry and Conceptual projects that register the quotidian. With its radical inclusion of “unpoetic” found materials — its recourse to shopping lists, to-do lists, and a seemingly bottomless archive of purloined ordinary language and things — Schuyler’s work presages a whole range of recent works: from Brenda Coultas’s trash-reclaiming “Bowery Project,” to Kenneth Goldsmith’s transcriptions of weather reports in The Weather (a subject especially close to Schuyler’s heart!), to Robert Fitterman’s Sprawl, which features a series of poems consisting of names of stores taken from shopping mall directories.
Quietly radical, restlessly innovative, highly self-conscious about the process of making art from daily experience, Schuyler’s body of poetry not only offers a very moving, sophisticated investigation of the dailiness of everyday life. With his aesthetic and ethical commitment to collage as an approach to the world, Schuyler also demonstrates a mode of attention and action that enables one to engage with the elusive everyday continuously, creatively, and critically.
3. For example, Lehman observes that Schuyler “committed himself to the task of painting what’s there and only what’s there” and “insists on affirming ‘things as they are’” (The Last Avant-Garde, 273, 275). In a recent essay, Daniel Katz points out that a “valorization of careful observation and description” has dominated discussions of Schuyler’s work: “Schuyler has received little serious attention from scholars and critics. To the extent that a critical tradition does exist, however, it tends to single out two elements of Schuyler’s work for particular praise: its ‘precision of detail’ or ‘descriptive exactness’ along with its attentive immersion in the ‘everyday’” (Daniel Katz, “James Schuyler’s Epistolary Poetry: Things, Postcards, Ekphrasis,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 [Fall 2010]: 143). Such terms of approbation and assessment appear throughout the excellent collection of tributes gathered for a special issue of Denver Quarterly in 1990 that was devoted to Schuyler’s work just before his death in 1991. The issue features loving and perceptive tributes to Schuyler’s poetry by a diverse array of poets, whose styles and sensibilities span the spectrum of contemporary poetry, including Barbara Guest, Ann Lauterbach, Sherod Santos, Bin Ramke, and Mark Rudman.
7. Jennifer Moxley, Clampdown (Chicago, IL: Flood Editions, 2009); Schuyler, Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, ed. James Meetze and Simon Pettet (New York: Farrar, Straus, 2010). See Eric Ziegenhagen’s 2009 article on the Poetry Foundation website, “James Schuyler in the Spotlight.” The two poems in Moxley’s Clampdown are “These Yearly Returns” (28–30) and “Taking My Own Advice” (31–34). On Moxley’s book, see Ange Mlinko’s review “Comfort and Agony: Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown,” The Nation (June 8, 2009), and Scott Stanfield, who makes the interesting point that “Moxley’s imitations in Clampdown of Schuyler in his ‘Morning of the Poem’ vein provide more insight into his work than most critical commentary” (Ploughshares 35, no. 4 [2009/2010]: 193–94). See also Rob Stanton, who notes of Moxley that “two long-lined wonders are written ‘After James Schuyler’ and one ‘After Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra,’ finding in the New York School a useful model for balancing breezy everyday detail with more weighty intimations” (“What ‘We’ Did Next,” Jacket 37 .).
8. See, for example, the very useful and wide-ranging pieces on Schuyler by Mark Silverberg (“James Schuyler’s Poetics of Indolence,” Literary Imagination 11, no. 1 (2009): 28–42), David Herd (Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007]), Christopher Schmidt (“‘Baby, I am the garbage’: James Schuyler’s Taste for Waste,” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 10/11 [Spring and Fall 2009]), Daniel Katz (“James Schuyler’s Epistolary Poetry: Things, Postcards, Ekphrasis,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 [Fall 2010]: 143–61), and Raphael Allison (“James Schuyler’s Beef with Ordinary Language,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 3 [Spring 2011]: 106–27). In the past few years, attention to Schuyler’s work has surged, as can be seen in the bevy of recent critical essays, extended reviews, and appreciations by Lehman, Robert Thompson (“James Schuyler’s ‘Spots of Time,’” in The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, ed. Terrence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller [Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 2001]), Timothy Gray (Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School [Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010] 100–20), William Watkin (“‘Let’s Make a List’”: James Schuyler’s Taxonomic Autobiography,” Journal of American Studies 36 : 43–68), Mark Ford (“Like a Lily Daché Hat,” Poetry Review 92–93 ), Peter Campion (“Palpable Fact: James Schuyler and Immediacy,” P.N. Review 28, no. 5 [May–June 2002]: 50–51), W. S. Di Piero (“Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again …,” Poetry 187, no. 4 [January 2006]), Eric Gudas (“Scrappiness,” Los Angeles Review of Books [June 2011]), and others.
9. Justin Spring’s biography of Porter offers perhaps the most exhaustive account to date of the artistic and personal relationship between Schuyler and Porter (Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000]). Spring’s book details, for the first time, Porter’s bisexuality, and recounts that Porter and Schuyler engaged in an intermittent and sometimes stormy romantic relationship, despite the outwardly conventional, heterosexual domestic life Porter lived as a husband and father. After suffering one of his periodic mental breakdowns in 1961, Schuyler became a de facto member of the Porter family, and spent more than a decade living with them in their homes in Southampton and Maine: as Anne Porter, Fairfield’s long suffering wife, said in an oft-quoted quip, Schuyler “came to lunch one day and stayed for eleven years” (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 25).
10. When an interviewer asked Schuyler about whether he wrote poems about Porter’s paintings, he replied “No, but I tried to write poems that were like his paintings” (“James Schuyler: An Interview,” interviewed by Mark Hillringhouse, American Poetry Review : 7). Schuyler also noted with a laugh that Porter “once said that I was much more visual than he was.” As I mentioned, Spring’s biography of Porter contains much discussion of the Porter-Schuyler relationship and their influence on one another’s work; see also Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde (245, 328), and Jed Perl, who observes that “the mood of [Porter’s] paintings, exact and ebullient, specific and yet tied to some enlarging experience, jibes closely with the quotidian romanticism of the poetry of Porter’s close friend James Schuyler” (New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century [New York: Random House, 2005], 533).
11. For a reading of Schuyler that does emphasize the importance of collage to his work, see Herd, Enthusiast!, especially 172–75. See also Schmidt, who focuses on Schuyler’s recuperation of trash and waste in his work (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
12. Perl describes the ubiquity of collage in the New York art world that Schuyler was a part of: “a considerable number of New York artists were doing collage or assemblage in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and shows of work both contemporary and historical abounded” (New Art City, 281; 279–372 passim). Of particular importance was the “Art of Assemblage” show exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961 (in which Schwitters featured prominently). Perl argues that this surge of interest in collage was due to a natural affinity between the practice of collage and the daily experience of New York, between “the artist’s assembling bits of found material and the unfolding juxtapositions of the city” (a notion we will see explored in Schuyler’s poems) — “over and over again in postwar writing about New York, we find the city described as a collage, a patchwork of variegated elements” (281, 282). Stephen Fredman makes a compelling case for the centrality of collage and assemblage to the New American Poetry, particularly in its San Francisco incarnation (Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010]).
14. Quoted in Brian Neville and Johanne Villeneuve, eds., Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 76–77. For more on Schwitters, see the important study by John Elderfield Kurt Schwitters (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985), and the exhibition companion edited by Isabel Schulz, which was published in conjunction with a recent retrospective, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage (New Haven and London: The Menil Collection/Yale University Press, 2010).
15. Schuyler, “An Interview with James Schuyler,” interview by Carl Little, Talisman 9 (1992): 179. For similar comments, see Thompson interview (116). While Freely Espousing contains some of the purest examples of his experimentation with Dadaist collage, like “A New Yorker” and “Walter Scott,” the recent publication of Schuyler’s uncollected poetry in Other Flowers has provided further evidence of this stage in his evolution: see, for example, “The Times: A Collage” (18) and “Continuous Poem” (35).
20. Raphael Allison’s recent essay is the most sustained and rewarding treatment of Schuyler’s appropriation of found, ordinary language, although he does emphasize its ordinariness (and its political subtexts) more than the fact that it is so often appropriated rather than invented. Also, see Herd’s very useful discussion of Schuyler’s “poetry of quotation” and the importance of his Diary as a repository for found, quoted language (Enthusiast!, 172). See Schuyler, The Diary of James Schuyler, ed. Nathan Kernan (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1997).
21. For more on this topic, see Schmidt, who argues that Schuyler’s poetry “recuperates both bodily and consumer waste” as a queer gesture, a sign of his camp sensibility: “Schuyler’s version of camp is staged … through an unabashed embrace of the abject material of trash and waste … Schuyler’s camp recuperates the deprecated (waste and trash) into a source of queer identity and strength, with special attention to how that identification is routed through the products and waste of late capitalism” (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
23. Schuyler mentioned the importance of “Salute” to his development as a poet in numerous places. For example, see Schuyler’s interview with Hillringhouse (9). “Salute” was included in the epochal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen (New York: Grove, 1960), and quickly became Schuyler’s signature poem.
24. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes, “Salute” “concerns collecting, the failure to collect, and the desire to include the failure in the poem” (“Epitaph on 23rd Street: The Poetics of James Schuyler,” Parnassus 21, nos. 1–2 : 42–43).
25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 211. In a piece Schuyler wrote for Art News about Brainard himself, he wrote, “He is a painting ecologist whose work draws the things it needs to it, in the interest of completeness and balance, of evident but usually imperceived truths” (Selected Art, 74). In describing one of Brainard’s pieces made literally from trash, Schuyler admires the way his friend could find pattern and order in randomness: “A cigarette butt work: he crams cork-tipped butts into a space until it is stuffed. The pattern has to find itself, except ‘pattern’ is a poor word: a contiguity, like what polishing shows in a slice of granite, the order of randomness” (74–75).
26. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1954); A. R. Ammons, Garbage (New York: Norton, 1993); Ron Silliman, The Age of Huts (Compleat) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2003), 13–55. See Benjamin’s use of a quotation from Baudelaire about the figure of the ragpicker: “Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. … He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser like a miser guarding a treasure.” After quoting from Baudelaire, Benjamin argues that “This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse, both go about their solitary business while other citizens are sleeping; they even move in the same way” (Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Michael William Jennings [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003], 48).
27. Schmidt makes a similar point in his interesting reading of “The Trash Book”: “Although ‘The Trash Book’ begins as a paean to matter in its most material state, it does things only a poem could do. … ‘The Trash Book’ is Schuyler’s version of O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter,” a testament to the power of poetry, disguised as a meditation on another medium” (“Baby, I am the garbage”).
28. See Herd’s discussion of “Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing,” “where,” he argues, “the joke is in the present participles which name ways of containing and organizing the world, but which in their ongoing grammatical nature show that such organization is a hopeless pursuit. Thus in the poem nothing will stay packed” (188). See also William Watkin, who reads the poem as an exemplary instance of what he calls Schuyler’s “taxonomic autobiography”: in the poem “we find an early example of how Schuyler establishes his agency through an autobiography of naming” (Enthusiast!, 46, 51).
32. Contemporary poets have continued to turn to the “to-do list” as a poetic form, decades after Schuyler wrote his poem; for example, see Frank Giampietro’s “To Do List #5333” in his book Begin Anywhere (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2008), 30–31.
James Schuyler’s poetry gently checks the inclinations of the reader attuned to avant-garde sensibilities. It participates, on one hand, in the radical side of New York School aesthetics, dissolving the boundaries that demarcate individual selves and separate speech from poetry and art from life. Where the reader expects to find openness, fragmentation, and a mobile subject position, she finds them — but accompanied, always, by a countervailing attention to the experience of coherence. Sometimes, the persistence of ordinary coherence is oppressive:
is much as before. Night
slams gently down.
At other times, it’s sustaining:
… When I think
of that, that at
only fifty-one I,
Jim the Jerk, am
still alive and breathing
deeply, that I think
is a miracle.
But it is always matter-of-fact and never taken for granted. Repeatedly hospitalized for psychotic breaks, James Schuyler knew firsthand that things fall apart. Rather than fetishizing either chaos or the forms of order that might contain it, however, he finds his aesthetic in a bemused recognition of the limited and variable extent to which things also hang together.
The first and title poem of Schuyler’s first major book of poetry, “Freely Espousing” is an apt introduction to this aspect of Schuyler’s aesthetic. The poem is a fractured manifesto, a disjunctive enumeration of what things “are worth celebrating” and what, on the other hand, “I am not going to espouse.” Like Frank O’Hara, Schuyler is temperamentally allergic to the self-seriousness of the manifesto genre. Where “Personism” sends it up with hilarity, “Freely Espousing” moderates it through continual self-moderation.
The poem begins in a hybrid vein of Whitmanian expansiveness (“… when I thought up the title I thought of it as Whitmanesque,” Schuyler remarked) and Surrealist disjunction. Long, listlike lines of heterogeneous fragments only retroactively come into focus as a catalog of the kinds of things a poem might espouse: “a commingling sky,” “or Quebec! what a horrible city,” “the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the Romans.” When the list turns its attention to language, the poem gets its first sustained thought and its first moment of self-revision:
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of
pill when used as in
“she is a pill”
on the other hand I am not going to espouse any short stories in which lawn
No, it is absolutely forbidden
for words to echo the act described; or try to. Except very directly
bong. And tickle. Oh it is inescapable kiss.
The lines set up an opposition between words married to their meanings and words divorced from them: on one side, the mimetic clacking of lawnmowers, on the other, illness and wellness swapping sounds and shuffling contexts. Schuyler’s preference for the latter use of language goes hand-in-hand with the poem’s collage aesthetic, but the moment the preference becomes dogmatic it begins to erode. The “kiss” between sound and signification is far from necessary or universal, the poem seems to say, but total divorce is as poor a description of the poet’s experience of language as perfect marriage.
Forms of coherence proliferate in the remainder of the poem, from the linguistic to the perceptual, ecological, painterly, and interpersonal, while the form itself becomes increasingly organized. The lines get shorter, their length and indentation more regular:
if the touch-me-nots
are not in bloom
neither are the chrysanthemums
the bales of pink cotton candy
in the slanting light
are ornamental cherry trees.
The greens around them, and
the browns, the grays, are the park.
It’s. Hmm. No.
Their scallop shell of quiet
is the S.S. United States.
It is not so quiet and they
are a medium-size couple who
when they fold each other up
well, thrill. That’s their story.
As if prompted by the reminder of an empirical relation between late-summer touch-me-nots and early-fall chrysanthemums, the painterly act in the middle of this passage undoes the aesthetic that would transform cherry trees into bales of cotton candy and dissolve the park into sensational browns, greens, and grays. The end-stopped lines with their terminal monosyllables effect a candid reversal of these impulses towards surrealism and impressionism, resolving the bales into trees, the greens and grays into the park. Like Fairfield Porter, Schuyler arrives at realism “alongside or from the far side of abstraction”: he doesn’t insist upon coherence or its absence, he simply declines to disregard the limited degree of it that he finds.
This stepping back from the freedom of disarticulation to the fact of the feeling of organization is a version of what John Wilkinson calls discesa, after the Italian for descent: Schuyler’s distinctive form of bathos that registers his “resistance to both the sublime and the depths of extremity.” Moments of humor, self-revision, and banal or bodily detail keep Schuyler’s poems from rising or sinking too emphatically, in the way that the bathos of “Jim the Jerk” undercuts the sublimity of “miracle” in “Trip,” quoted above.
The last lines of “Freely Espousing” show how discesa opens up a particular kind of affective experience. On one hand, “It’s. Hmm. No” evokes the self-censorship with which Schuyler, as a gay man, would have had to treat the “story” of his relationships in the Cold War–era United States, figured in the poem as both the patriotic symbol and the claustrophobic environment of the world’s fastest ocean liner. But it is also part of the process by which Schuyler reduces sex to the elemental. For Schuyler, the clear-eyed banality of describing sex as a matter of “folding each other up well” — the refusal to grant it the status of a sublime event — is what justifies his claim to the “thrill.” What makes the thrill thrilling, in other words, is that it’s produced by nothing more or less exalted than the convergence of two medium-sized bodies.
6. John Wilkinson, “Jim the Jerk: Bathos and Loveliness in the Poetry of James Schuyler,” in On Bathos: Literature, Art, Music, ed. Sara Crangle and Peter Nicholls (London and New York: Continuum, 2010), 78.
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.”
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), “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.
“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,” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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:
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.
“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.
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!,” 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.” 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. 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:
past is past
gather one of each
gather one of each
past is past
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.”
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):
the grass! so many
will has freely
let us name: dandy-
to list them all …
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.” 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,” 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. 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, , 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.
6. Schuyler, T.l.s. to Howard Moss, Dec. 31, , 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.
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.” 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.” 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.
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
And for no
reason my eyes
and the sky
turns to rain,
and emotive, too
these pass. They
here: they’ll go
as Granny went
embanked in flowers
so long ago, so
cold a cheek to
ask a child
to kiss. “Those
would have said,
They came from
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.
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.
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
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:
it is the moment
when a mystic like St. John of the Cross
rises in a beam or column or like morning mist
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,
gentle and bright
Angels, Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim and Cupidons
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,
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.