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.
An emergency, reading that James Schuyler “was born in 1933” — so says the jacket note on The Crystal Lithium. That would make him a mere six years older than I, seven years younger than Frank O'Hara, one year older than Ted Berrigan, and so on — a fact behind his accomplishment which my vanity calls unacceptable. But the jacket for Hymn to Life says, “born in 1923.” So there. (Though where vanity rears its horny head there can be no real relief).
The city poet who knows, like no other, the names of all flowers. Of whom else can it be said, he is our best (or only) descriptive poet? Was this ever said, as it might have been, of John Clare? “You can’t get at a sunset naming colors.” Every poem, a view. The sense in each of a scrim of exact detail so carefully woven as to be seamless, impregnable to the monsters raging, ready to pounce or tear through from the other side. The central character, if any, of most of his poems is the day, the poem geared to get it down, nail it in its lineaments as it appears and goes: “a nothing day,” “day the color of a head cold,” “Dark day,” “a day subtle and suppressed,” “May 24th or so,” “a day like any other,” and so on. His writing has what filmmakers call “room tone,” c.f., Charles North’s remark about Schuyler’s perfect pitch.
One hot day in 1961, when I was working in the office at ARTnews, Tom Hess said, “Go down to Jimmy Schuyler’s and pick up his reviews.” I hardly knew Jimmy then, but I had heard from John Myers that he had been having psychiatric troubles. The reviews for that month were long overdue; Jimmy apparently had told Tom that he had them but in his present mental disarray couldn’t manage the trip uptown from his place on lower Broadway to deliver them. Once there, I rang the bell a few times and got no response. Baffled as to what to do next, I went to a corner phone booth and called Frank who suggested I try Jimmy’s number. That worked, and Jimmy buzzed me in. The apartment was a mess, Jimmy in pajamas sort of silently, aimlessly padding around the front room. No, he said firmly, giving me a somewhat stony look, there were no reviews. I left, feeling useless and rude, an intruder in someone else’s private soul dust.
Schuyler told an interviewer that, to engage his interest, he sometimes wrote the first drafts of his art reviews in verse lines, then later rearranged them, closed up and slightly altered, in paragraphs. According to Frank O’Hara, the 1950s ARTnews poets Barbara Guest, John Ashbery and O’Hara himself, used to show their monthly short reviews and longer articles to Jimmy for style checks. Frank said, “Jimmy was the real writer; he knew where the commas were supposed to go.”
Cy Twombly [Stable; through January], fleeing for his creative life from the white hell of Black Mountain, shows Siberian slabs (those diamonds they’ve found there, what makes them so sure they’re not just frozen tears?). Fabulously underpriced. J.S. 
The prose is golden, in the same sense as Jane Freilicher’s great painting Goldenrod Variations: the prodigious scope alive to, never stumped by, whatever vibrant detail is there, and the sense, too, that all this happens in time and constitutes, in its way, history, human and otherwise. Such accurately directed empathy taken to its eternal edge. About the hornet in the room in “Buried at Springs”: “One of us will have to go.” Or how incomparably, as if Francis Ponge were taking a refresher course in how real both things and the words for them can get, “Trembling, milk is coming into its own.” The under-appreciated (although now in reprint via NYRB) novel What’s for Dinner? does just what Henry Green ordered, “Ring tears from the stone.” The poetry follows suit, even increasingly edgier:
So many lousy poets
So few good ones
What’s the problem?
No innate love of
Words, no sense of
How the thing said
Is in the words, how
The words are themselves
The thing said: love,
Mistake, promise, auto
Crack-up, color, petal,
The color in the petal
Is merely light
And that’s refraction:
A word, that’s the poem.
A blackish-red nasturtium …
Dinner after Jimmy Schuyler’s reading at the Art Institute, Washington Square Bar & Grill, with JS, Tom Carey, Lynn, Kathleen Fraser and Bob Glück. Corner table by the door. The talk breaks into facing twos: J/T, K/L, Bob and me. Jimmy is gracious — it’s more of an after-reading group than he’d bargained for, and the restaurant is noisy, replete with piano accompanying a girl singer who can’t quite meet the old standards (“Am I blue,” etc.) head on. Eventually, I catch Jimmy’s face out of the corner of my eye — a look of sweetest sadness with a faint cry of help at the corners of his mouth. No coffee, no dessert, and Bob drives Jimmy and Tom back to the Friary.
The reading had been astonishing. Jimmy seated at a card table with French blue tablecloth, blue Mexican water pitcher, Chinese enamel tin mug. He read musically, steadily, softly intoning each word. A few flubs, where word or phrase got gummed. One poem — “Fauré Piano Quartet”: Fauré, Schubert, Chopin — that range of precise, stately, sorrowful piano, groundswells of his poems, with fully rounded, openly flung vowels. Something else: in the insistent patching together of detail — a thing said for each aspect in a day, a view. The whole took about 40 minutes. He enjoyed the funny parts, the audience’s response — “They were so nice,” he said after the applause died down. Melodious he was, as I hadn’t expected. An Anglo melody in part (Auden, yes, but then reaching back to clear, hard Chaucer), plus the chortle and edge of manic American fact. Newly heard among the poems: “Evening Wind,” “Eyes at the Window,” “Korean Mums,” “Now and Then,” “A Man in Blue,” “What Ails My Fern” (a crowd pleaser), and before those, he always seems to begin “Past is past …” (“Salute”). Most sound longer than they look on the page.
Showing Jimmy the plum tree in our Bolinas yard that occasioned a poem I wrote for him. The tree is now in flower, as then it was in bud. And three plants he wanted to know the names of — Watsonia, Solanium, Salvia — I didn’t know but Lynn told me later and I sent the names on for Jimmy’s gardening registry. And the rose he recommended: Belle of Portugal.
In last night’s dream I confused Jimmy with Milton Greene (not difficult — they are near-lookalikes). I was sleeping in the entryway to his studio when he appeared at the door. Before that, a non-sequitur party with jazz musicians, Ornette Coleman and others (not Jimmy’s scene at all).
Jimmy by the Bay, Minuses and a Near-Plus:
He hated the hills, the incessant up-and-down of them, in cars.
He hated the long cross-continental plane ride.
He liked Bolinas and the Friary. (He had really come to see Tom.)
He visited Don Allen with Bob Gluck.
Me: “How was Don?” Jimmy: “As asp-ish as ever.”
Blue is the hero of Three Friends at a Table, a blue that varies from a night-blue wall pierced by a shining grey window to one mixed with violet and pink in a man's sweater; or it becomes slightly chalky, a “French” blue on a cup, or that of an iris under artificial light, or one with a clanger to it in the enamel of a teapot, or one that looks silky in the geometric pattern of a blouse. It is air within the paint and gives it breath. — James Schuyler, “Nell Blaine: The View from 210 Riverside Drive,” ARTnews, May 1968.
At Yaddo, June ’68, no sooner had I read the start of that first sentence than I was off the bed and typing in title caps “BLUE IS THE HERO” up top of my poem-to-be. Eventually, I mailed Jimmy the poem, and he wrote back, revealing that in fact his line had been prompted by an earlier one by Frank O’Hara (also in ARTnews) about Fairfield Porter, “that luminous grayness which is the hero of much contemporary painting.” Then, closing the circle, in late August Jimmy sent a poem for my birthday, “Gray, intermittently blue, eyed hero.”
A Page from 1971
The pearlized opalescent amethystine hills
are looking very well this evening.
August 24, 1971
– – – – – – – – – – –
Dear Dill Dirkson,
The first sentence is prose. I would not venture to say
the same for the second.
The friends who come to see you/and the friends who don’t.
For all the kindness Jimmy showered on me, I was mostly at a loss as to how to please him. Partly, there was never enough quality time together for us to feel at ease with one another. Back in New York in 1971, I learned that Jimmy was hospitalized, and Maxine Groffsky got me invited with her to see him. Shy of sickbed visitations, I gave Maxine a pound or more of tangerines to take in my place.
Phone message from Anne Waldman this morning: Jimmy Schuyler dead of a stroke at 7 a.m. And looking at his typescript poems on glaring orange bond, with alterations scribbled in tentative, thin but ever upright script — plus an inscription in The Home Book: “for Bill / father of / Moses — / love — / Jimmy / Jan. 9, 1977.
Of your Charity Pray for
the repose of the Soul of
April 12, 1991
— Our Miraculous Lady of Kursk
A first-time reader of James Schuyler’s poetry could have written my notes for this essay:
Loves a list
Letter / diary
Right now, right here
Weather and Light
Addresses, exact addresses
Names of friends
Yet I spent thirteen years editing Schuyler’s letters, years during which I thought of him at least once a day, and at every reading I have given in the past decade or more I read at least one of his poems. Really, I ought to be able to come up with a few new observations about his exceptional poetry.
“A word that’s the poem”
At Schuyler’s best he is that simple and straightforward, that easy to understand, but after the word what is there to do or say but marvel? His poems are elegiac because their present is so real that it is over the moment the poem ends. Schuyler lets the reader live and realize what his poems live and realize, and then the satisfying heartache, the rueful contentment, something is over but not finished, of “a dream you just remember … a day like any other.”
Were he in my shoes what would Schuyler do? Twiddle his pen and lay it down, turn on the TV, take a nap and, oh, “Perhaps there’s time to write a poem / there’s always time to write a poem.” Schuyler wrote art criticism, enough to make a book, because he said he liked to describe. He wrote few book reviews. One was of On the Road. He called it a “boy’s book.” Pretty smart. He had zero interest in manifestoes. There is his statement in The New American Poetry, but it is from a different world, a world of New York, “floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble,” than those of Olson, Creeley, or Duncan. Poetics? I can hear Schuyler burping a yawn. Just get on with it. If you don’t have the gift, where’s the point? He seems to have never studied poetry but read it for pleasure, discovering in his early twenties that he had a talent for writing it and an “innate” — his word — love of words. He wrote poems for readers who, like him, had no investment in upholding official verse culture. He never taught, so he had no flag to pledge allegiance to and no forum in which to separate the “right” way of doing things from the “wrong” way. If the question of how he wrote poems mattered to him, he rarely let on.
If this question matters to you, the path to discovery is in Schuyler’s poems themselves. That Schuyler descends from William Carlos Williams and writes free verse is obvious. That he mastered this form, and by mastery I mean saying exactly what he wanted to say, is also obvious. It is impossible for me to believe that any willing reader has had to learn how to read Schuyler. He delivers the news of the world as he sees, hears, and feels it, and he writes his own thoughts in a voice that over a few pages — open his Collected Poems anywhere — is indelible. He causes you to think that words like “indelible” and “voice” are not worth the breath they take. Schuyler means to communicate, but he is rarely urgent. There is no heavy lifting in a Schuyler poem. He can be trivial — who can’t? — but he has an ear, as his letters show, for pomposity and all high mindedness and stops himself as soon as he hears it in his own writing. He does not demand that you take him seriously, but you do because his effortlessness is enchanting. His poems begin a conversation that the reader is not overhearing but participates in. This reader loves Schuyler’s poems because his lines surprise and delight, and they are fresh. That simple. Are they evergreen? Time will tell.
In a letter to me responding to Just the Thing: The Selected Letters of James Schuyler, the poet Jim Cory writes, “Schuyler is famously frank in his poetry, self-examining in a way that places it at a remove from ‘confession.’” “Remove!” Yes, absolutely. In “Trip” from “The Payne Whitney Poems” Schuyler names himself “Jim the Jerk.” He’s not asking for sympathy. There is no “Each of us holds a locked razor” melodrama in any of the “Whitney Poems.” Schuyler knows who he is, and at the end of “Trip” knows that he has survived by luck. It is “a miracle” not because it happened to him, but because it happened and he is alive to tell the tale. “The simplicity of true drama.” You can’t imagine Lowell naming himself, “Cal the Jerk.”
The “remove” Cory hears is in Schuyler’s tone, casual, and matter-of-fact. He is not writing English literature but a lyric poem whose heightened verbal alertness will have to hold and convince the reader on its own terms. You are free to take it or leave it, but either way Schuyler believes what he writes in these lines from the poem “Dec. 28 1974”:
a clunkhead said, ‘have grown
more open.’ I don’t want to be open
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are.
There is the surface and beneath it … well, there is what the poet knows or thinks he knows, and there are the associations that will insist themselves on the reader, associations the poet cannot know. If there is no surface, there can be no depth. Schuyler is not opening up, but speaking intimately in an impersonal way. A reporter, or observer, if you like, whose gift is, in part, that he is both inside the moments of his poems and outside. And that he has no agenda other than “to say, to see and say, things / as they are.”
What are “things as they are”? At the end of “February” they are “The yellow” … “The shape” … “The water” — all name it but, inevitably, are like “a bit of pink I can’t quite see in the blue.” The reader will often, as Schuyler points out in his “Dear Miss Batie” letter, discover the poem in the same way the poet has. That letter in response to Miss Batie’s thoughts about “February” is the only one I know of in which Schuyler gives a gloss on one of his poems. It ends without his signing off, and possibly he never sent it.
From his breakdown in the early 1960s that led to his eleven-year stay with Fairfield and Anne Porter and their family through his breakdowns as he left that family and into his very dark New York late 1970s — we will learn more about all of this in Nathan Kernan’s forthcoming biography — Schuyler wrote lucid poems and novels. His art arranged the mess of his life into forms that cohere. Reading Schuyler you will enter a world intensified by his words and their action on your imagination, a world that you will step out of but can step back into at any time and be refreshed.
Rilke believed in angels, that the real world is not here and now but in transcendent realms of the imagination he strove to enter. Poetry was one ladder and painting another. For Schuyler ordinary life is real life. In his last years he found religion, but this might be thought of as the foreordained result of his lifelong communion with the natural world.
Perhaps because his own senses were several times deranged, Schuyler is in his poems, and all of his writing, sane and orderly.
William Blake believed that “where man is not nature is barren.” Wallace Stevens echoed this when he wrote that the “world would be desolate except for the world within us.” Schuyler works the other side of the street. His magic transforms the world without to the world within. When nature is not in man, man will be barren, desolate.
Imagine the poet who takes a “dump,” who studies the “smaller, than small” blackhead on his lover’s back and who hears the “great bronze bong” caught holding Yuban Instant in one hand and Coleman’s Mustard in the other. Mazola, Wesson. “A timer pings.” Imagine the poet who watched The Jeffersons and Mod Squad, who watched television the way regular folks do? One day someone will write a few words on Schuyler’s sense of humor, camp and otherwise.
Frank O’Hara called critics “the bores.” They are everywhere laboring to organize all human activity, squeeze the juice out of life, teach and enact laws that discriminate, set standards, honor tradition — the newspapers, the Internet are full of them and their hot air. But they are not the “news” William Carlos Williams had in mind when he pointed out that everyday men and women die of its lack. He meant poetry and not literal but spiritual death. For many reasons — his numerous breakdowns, the comfort of friends —Schuyler lived outside the world of “the bores” spending grim time institutionalized but serving no institution. He didn’t graduate from college, went AWOL from the Navy and did not hold a job for the last thirty years of his life. His poems celebrate friendship … the truth is that they never say so, would not be caught dead in anything so grand as a celebration. He preferred to send flowers. It is the fine and generous quality of his poems’ attention to the people in Schuyler’s life. He had no project, no urge, it seems to me, to convince himself or others that he needed a reason to write a poem. Title it “Today” and go from there.
What makes Schuyler’s poetry difficult to write about is that it is hard, at least for this lover of his work, to write a sentence that comes anywhere near the verve and genius in his lines. And his verbs! The mouth-filling, mind-clenching physicality of his verbs! Scuds, tugs, chuckles, creaks, sighs, reddens, ripens and smites are not in this essay but that are in the last seven lines of “Today.”
To have written these many words and not mentioned pleasure! After forty years of reading Schuyler’s poetry they still deliver pleasure on every level, most of all the pleasure of being stirred when rereading them. Auden, Schuyler’s sometime patron and friend, thought, pleasure the ultimate critical standard. It took me years to accept this. For too long I thought there had to be an intellectual or moral structure to support what gave me pleasure. Could you just love a poem? Yes, you can, Schuyler’s poems are word and deed.
you plunge your face
in their massed
papery powdery sweetness
and grunt in delight
at their sunset sweetness
Afterthought: What I hope will happen is that Schuyler’s letters and diaries will be published together. If I am around I can point out the errors and omissions in Just The Thing, but I don’t have to be the book’s editor. This book will stand beside Schuyler’s poems reminding readers, if they need to be reminded, that letters and diaries are not lesser than poetry. They are of a piece in the hands of this master.
This essay is for Jim Cory.
In this essay, I will try to account for the importance of “the day” in Schuyler’s poetry, but I will come at my subject in a slightly roundabout way. I claim Schuyler as my precedent. In a poem published soon after Schuyler’s death, Clark Coolidge notes that “[i]f Jimmy starts with one thing it’s always the / one in the middle.” So it makes a certain sense for me to begin in the middle of the middle, with Schuyler’s journal entry for August 15, 1970:
John A[shbery] at the Island in August: “I don’t believe in cause and effect.”
F[airfield Porter]: “But you’re taken with coincidences.”
John: “Coincidences never cease to fill me with amazement.”
5:30 and the creeping forefront of the fog wipes out the further view and a gull goes by above it brightly modeled by the afternoon sun.
A nice bit of paratactic collage, Schuyler’s diary does not comment on the conversation that he overhears, but juxtaposes it with a small coincidence of its own: the gull modeled by the sun against the backdrop of the encroaching fog. Schuyler gives this momentary observation, this observation of a moment, resonance by juxtaposing it with Ashbery’s refusal of causation. The gull signals that Schuyler is also amazed by coincidence. While Ashbery might not be astounded by such minimal coincidences — by the fog and a gull — Schuyler is.
Schuyler’s iconic poem “February” consists of just such small coincidences: a chimney, a series of pinks, some greens, and a woman and a baby. Although some tulips on his desk anchor the poem — the pinks and the greens in the landscape come to rest, as it were, in the flowers in the room — they are not fully visible until about halfway through. This delay makes the initial haphazard coincidence of the poem’s particular colors seem inevitable, or, rather, makes its inevitability look like a stroke of aesthetic luck (“I can't get over / how it all works in together”). The poem comes to lay its emphasis on the inside of the room and on details that it has not yet mentioned:
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
That sudden intrusion of yellow and that equally sudden insistence on shape and on the water (not to mention the drinking glass) could blow apart the composition of pinks, greens, and blues, but it does not because each of these details underscores the aesthetic justness of ensemble.
The poem ends with its productively ambiguous affirmation:
It’s a day like any other.
In a letter about the poem, Schuyler claims that while composing “February,” he saw that “something marvelous was happening to the light, transforming everything” and it “then occurred to me that this happened more often than not (a beautiful sunset I mean) and that it was ‘day like any other,’ which I put down as a title.” Of course, the effect of the poem’s last line (he changed the title) also moves in the other direction. Marvelous sunsets might take place every day if you care to look, but this marvelous sunset, with its glorious array of details is a single and singular event, soon to dissolve into its many constituent parts. Coincidence, by Schuyler’s rather scrupulous definition, only lasts for the moment of its telling.
I am making the unremarkable suggestion that Schuyler is an aesthete of the incidental. His customary stance — a man seated by a window — is that of the disinterested observer, and “February” is about nothing so much as the faculty of judgment, about fine discriminations. It celebrates the poet’s ability to appreciate the gradations of the instant as it passes. Schuyler’s sense of punctual time leads him to make the most of the difference between discrete moments, as he does in another poem, “April:”
The morning sky is clouding up
and what is that tree,
dressed up in white? The fruit
tree, French pear. Sulphur —
yellow bees stud the forsythia
canes leaning down into the transfer
across the park. And trees in
skimpy flower bud suggest
the uses of paint thinner, so
fine the net they cast upon
the wind. Cross-pollination
is the order of the fragrant day.
That was yesterday: today is May,
not April and the magnolias
open their goblets up and
an unseen precipitation
fills them. A gray day in May.
The “and” that binds the first phrase and the second has no logical consequence at all because the name of the tree and local weather conditions have nothing to do with each other. They merely cross the speaker’s mind in quick succession. And Schuyler’s question to himself about the name of the tree seems to demand that we read the poem as a real-time transcription of consciousness. But Schuyler then undoes the fiction by redoubling it, by saying that everything that we have read in the present indicative up to this point actually refers to what is already past. The break between the poem’s two moments seems radical, almost catastrophic. Yesterday’s cloud might have turned into today’s rain, but the two days — one in April, one in May –– seem to belong to different orders. April was all about cross-pollination and its lovely specificities. Today is about something else entirely, although it is not yet clear what that is. It is still generic, “a gray day in May,” and the internal rhyme of that phrase makes it banal to the point of tautology. (This might be Schuyler’s version of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”)
“February” commemorates “the day before March first” just as “April” draws attention to the difference the calendar makes. This sense of a continuously discontinuous present plays itself out in Schuyler’s good-natured parataxis, whose disjunctions grow more insistent as his poems wax longer. Schuyler’s style can thus be opposed to Ashbery’s “aggressive hypotaxis,” which, as Ben Lerner has pointed out, maintains the illusion of narrative where none exists and provides “the affect of logic” even where logic is plainly absent. Although he does not speak to Ashbery’s sentences in this way, Christopher Nealon’s recent argument that the poet of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror studiously avoids the punctual event in favor of temporal flux supports this point quite nicely. The passage of time is Schuyler’s great subject, but he does not register it as flow as much as sheer succession.
For all Schuyler’s good nature, though, the punctual is not without its terrors. His frequently praised equanimity of tone is bought at a cost, as his great crisis lyric “Buried at Springs” clearly shows. It begins genially enough, with a joke about a death averted, Schuyler’s refusal to kill a hornet: “There is a hornet in the room / and one of us will have to go / out the window into the late / August midafternoon sun. I / won” (Collected Poems, 42). As it turns out, neither Schuyler nor the hornet has to go in any final way — the hornet is simply escorted out —and the whiff of mortality in the line break at the word “late” is just that — a whiff –– passed over as easily as the enjambment that lays the lightest of emphases on the rhyme “sun” / “won.”
Many of Schuyler’s poems are framed by death, just as the memory of a dead body runs like a seam through his early novel, Alfred and Guinevere. But death threatens to bring “Buried at Springs” to a premature end. Schuyler’s rather typical report of the scene out his window stops short with what looks like a quick recantation:
It is not like this at all.
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same (Collected Poems, 43)
Schuyler’s punctuation is often light, but it disappears here almost completely, as if washed away by the sheer force of time or, more precisely, by the effect of time on this place. Frank was here; Frank is no longer here and nothing that was here when he was is here now. The poem suffers a kind of metaphysical vertigo. Every little thing seems to dissolve — needles, seaweed, and rock — in the face of the implications of O’Hara’s absolute absence. His death disperses everything.
The poem resumes in the second part on a very different note. It concentrates on “the day” as a whole and not its bright particulars:
A day subtle and suppressed
in mounds of juniper enfolding
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness — rocks, trees, a stump —
stands shadowless in an overcast
of ripe grass.
What kind of thing is a day if it can be described as “subtle” and “suppressed”? Schuyler is not writing about the weather as such although weather certainly has something do with it. In fact, weather has everything to do with it. It seems to encompass more than just Schuyler’s chosen patch of coast, because the forecast of rain extends across the Atlantic. But it is not exactly weather that’s at stake here. The lack of shadow might well be the result of a cloudy sky but it is the grass, after all, and not the sky, that is overcast. In the end, everything resolves not into shadow, but into shade even though there doesn’t seem to be a single source of light.
One of the odder aspects of the poem’s odd turn to this description of “the day” is the way that unexpected adjectives and attributes seem to adhere to unaccustomed objects. Shadow becomes scratchy while a stand of spruce is described in terms of sound: “its resonance / just the thin scream / of mosquitoes ascending.” The day is “subtle” and “suppressed.” It is also “delicate,” “tarnished,” and “fractured.” The closest Schuyler comes to bald meteorological statement is to call the day “clammy” and this leads to his final simile:
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.
The brilliance of the figure lies in its quick accumulation of anomalous specificity. A day might be like wet silk. That would indeed be clammy. But what does that have to do with the stain and why Schuyler’s emphasis on a single branch, let alone a dead one? And what, in the end, is the color of dried blood? Is it the day, the silk, the stain? Of course, it is all of them because the day, the silk, the branch, and the color of blood all stand in for each other, as do the spruce and the mounds of juniper. They all make up “the day” and ‘the day” is nothing less than its atmosphere. “The day” serves as the background of Schuyler’s experience while it is also the experience itself.
Schuyler’s attempt to come up with an accurate description of “the day” is really an attempt to nail down its mood. Even if it is hard for Schuyler to sum up the mood of the subtle and suppressed day, it is easy for us to define the mood of “Buried at Springs.” With its shadowless shade, its screaming mosquitoes and apparently universal rain, the poem provides a little portrait of melancholy. Melancholy famously forgets what it mourns for and colors the world with its loss. The lost object of this poem — Frank O’Hara, who is indeed buried at Springs — and the trauma of his loss are indeed suppressed in the second section of the poem. They begin to come into focus only when the very last lines summon up the grisly fact that O’Hara bled to death, even while displacing this knowledge onto the landscape and onto “the day” as a whole. Once the ghostly object returns, the poem can come to its appointed end.
The tendency of mood to totalize and bring all objects into its orbit sets up the second section of “Buried at Springs” as an answer to the atomizing metaphysical terror that engulfs the first. To look at it this way is to remember that mood is not merely a subjective projection onto the world. Schuyler is one of our greatest poets of mood as well as one of our most attentive describers of objects because mood for him (as for Emerson, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Benjamin) is disclosive. Mood opens things up to us and opens us up to the world. We never confront the world as it is or in general. We approach it in our persons and through our moods.
Moods mediate in important ways. They trouble the distinction between subjective and what is objective, because while mood is clearly about emotions, it also appears to precede us, lie in wait for us. “Mood,” to quote Hubert Dreyfus quoting Heidegger, “is in each case already there, like an atmosphere, in which we are steeped and by which we are thoroughly determined.” Or, as Schuyler puts it in rather Emersonian terms in “Hymn to Life,” “The day lives us, and in exchange, we it: after snowball time, a month, March, of fits and starts, winds / Rain, spring hints and wintery arrears” (Collected Poems, 215). The day is what we live in and live through even as it comes to life through us. We grasp it through mood. It is the objective face of mood and experience.
So it makes sense to say that Schuyler is a poet of the day and of days. “The day” in his work is a unit of time and a theater of coincidence grasped through mood. It is the space in which things and thoughts happen together. The day is always catastrophically short and always shadowed by death, and this lends each single detail its latent pathos.
As “the days tick by, each so unique, each so alike” (Collected Poems, 223), and the punctual gives way to succession. The mood of the day gives over the moods of months and seasons. Schuyler strings days together in single poems (“The Morning of the Poem,” “A Few Days,” and to a large extent “Hymn to Life”) and in sections of books (“Fall and Winter,” say, in The Crystal Lithium). No matter how long a given period is, it is short — shot through with befores and afters, “spring hints and wintery arrears” — and also dogged by death.
The day is always shot through with loss. Almost forty pages into “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler provides a homely inventory of his breakfast and his poem:
Before dawn I woke and made my oatmeal, orange juice and
Coffee and thought about how this poem seems mostly about what I’ve
lost: the one who mattered most, my best friend, Paul
(Who mattered least) the Island, the California wildflower paper,
the this, the that, Whippoorwill, buried friends,
And the things I only write between the lines. (Collected Poems, 296)
Indeed, “The Morning of the Poem” could be called “The Mourning of the Poem.” But though it is largely about loss, you can hear a peculiar flatness in the list I have just quoted. Wallpaper seems to carry the same emotional weight as Fairfield Porter (the one who mattered most) and Paul (the one who mattered least). This could lead you to wonder if Schuyler’s celebrated expansiveness is not based on the ability to think of a buried friend as a lost this or a lost that. More to the point might be Schuyler’s preemptive acceptance of loss, his ability to read death into what has not yet passed, as in “From the next room”:
From the next room
the friendly clatter of
an electric typewriter.
Flies buzz in the window
pane. It is their dying
season. The house
is painted gray. The fields
befuzz themselves with
milkweed silk. By the
pond, a beaver gnaws
a tree. Those teeth, so
keen. The road winds
down the hill to here
then winds down further.
The woods are brown.
The sky is gray. What
incredible silence on
this hill surrounds
the friendly clatter,
the buzz of dying. (Collected Poems, 196)
The poem’s observations begin with sound, move to sight as the focus broadens, and then come back to the framing of sound by silence. Perception of sound into figure as the silence of the hill becomes the silence of death, the quietus that follows the buzz of all dying. The sheer contiguity of apparently empirical fact resolves into a metaphor of death. It is hard not to hear the echo of Dickinson in Schuyler’s buzzing flies, but he is not playing with her corrosive ironies. His flies do not disturb any revelation of eternity. They don’t get in the way precisely because eternity doesn’t enter the picture. His is a world of unalloyed temporality where the buzz of dying is a friendly clatter (because we’re all together in this dying business) and the friendly clatter is a memento mori, the buzz of a death that is, as of yet, deferred.
In that period of deferral — the space of Schuyler’s poetry — there is ample room for pleasure:
A better morning comes to pass
Sunlight buttered on the grass
Late, late, I lie awake
Finding pleasure for its own sake. (Collected Poems, 290)
Pleasure takes on any number of forms in Schuyler’s work: eating, reading (evidently Willa Cather alone is worth all the horrors of civilization); everyday consumption (Noxzema shaving foam, Perrier “in the odd-shaped bottle from France,” or Taylor’s Eau de Portugal); hanging out. Chiefest, though, is “the pure pleasure of / Simply looking” (Collected Poems, 220), the sheer delight in the way things appear. Or rather, the attendant pleasure of finding the words that describe what is simply — or not so simply — seen. The archaism of that last quotation — its rhymes and irregular tetrameter — calls attention to the pleasant and pleasurable wit of the term “coming to pass.” The morning comes only in order to pass. Yummy and buttery as it is, it will turn into afternoon and then night. Even so, its passing is not a cause for fear, or sleepless anxiety. The poet will still be up seeking more pleasure, not least of which is the pleasure of sound, of tight rhythms and rhyme.
Pleasure and not ecstasy. Schuyler does not compensate for large losses by looking for commensurately abundant gains. You could argue, in fact, that he cuts his losses down to his pleasures’ size by treating them both somewhat wistfully. Or you could say that the overall affect of his work is one of a gentle anticipation that counters the melancholic assumptions that serve as its base note. In any event, his poems are remarkably moderate. Mark Ford has written about Schuyler’s Anglophilia, his taste for minor English novels, for memoirs, and, most important, for diaries, all of which provided him with models of a rigorous modesty:
What he found in the journals of such as Kilvert and Woodforede and Gilbert White was not only a form of pastoral, but a way of writing that concentrated on the everyday and … suggested how his own poetry might avoid dealing with what John Ashbery calls in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” “the big / Vaguer stuff.”
The term “pastoral” gets dropped in Schuyler criticism rather easily, even though we might want to be careful. Beyond the touch of the pathetic fallacy that one might read into Schuyler’s experiments with mood and weather, there are not a lot of pastoral conventions or much pastoral conventionalism (mock or otherwise) in Schuyler’s poetry. If anything, his pastoralism, with its celebration of the pleasures of otium, his ruralism, and his mastery of the middle style, shows Schuyler to be thoroughly Horatian. In fact he might well be the closest heir to eighteenth-century English Horatianism that the American twentieth century could produce. In spite of the number of losses, miseries, and mishaps his poetry alludes to, Schuyler’s work as a whole presents a wonderful image of the good life: the poet, living in contemplative retreat, content to look and freely espouse.
Therein lies a possible rub. Schuyler will not put up a fight. O’Hara could shout out his cosmic refusal in a taxi: “muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you.” Schuyler never would. Instead, looking at the daffodils, he claims, “You see, you invent choices where none exist” (Collected Poems, 220). Twenty years ago Douglas Crase wrote that he wondered “if a receptive attention to ‘things as they are’ is apolitical or, to put it more sharply, complicit,” and this problem seems to have troubled Schuyler too. He tried to answer it in a mess of an article on Porter, in which he launched a defense of the painter against the charge of being “bourgeois.” The essay becomes incoherent for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Schuyler cannot decide what “bourgeois” actually means. Is the critique of Porter that Schuyler is trying to fend off Marxist or avant-garde? Is he sticking up for what Porter paints or the way he paints it? Both, it seems but Schuyler has a hard time countering the charges, in part because he is uninterested in what Marxists mean by “relations of production” and in part because he cannot accept the idea that people find figuration problematic. In the end, though, Schuyler never really addresses the core issue, which is Schuyler’s apparently promiscuous acceptance of the status quo. The Marxist wants to overcome the bourgeoisie and the avant-gardist wants to shock or surprise it. Porter is not interested in overcoming, shocking, or surprising, and neither, in the end, is Schuyler. To quote Schuyler, Porter is consumed by the immediate. “Look now,” he writes, “It will never be more fascinating.” Porter’s fascination with the present — his painting’s unwillingness look beyond “concentrated instances,” to analyze or take a stand — does look like a form of complicity.
We have to take seriously the fact that this aspect of Schuyler’s work is part and parcel of what makes him so bracing in the first place: his commitment to immediacy, his fascination with “the day.” By emphasizing concentrated instances and bright particulars, Schuyler’s work clears the poetic stables of so much inherited crap, “the big / Vaguer stuff” that Ashbery alludes to. Schuyler famously writes that “[a]ll things are real / no one a symbol” (Collected Poems, 125), and he actually means it. That said, Schuyler’s pursuit of daily reality leaves everything as it is. In this way, he seems the most complicit of poets, because he does not appear to offer any challenges to the world as it merely is. Schuyler never seems tempted by skepticism because his tenderness for detail will not allow him to stray from appearance. Like Porter, he wants to chart the day, not transcend it; capture the mood and not analyze it.
To see what is at stake here, it is worth comparing Schuyler’s work with An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, George Perec’s comic attempt to inventory “that which happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, clouds.” Charting what Perec sees in the Place Saint-Sulpice over a three-day period, An Attempt is purposefully quixotic. Perec cannot keep up with the doings in the square, let alone exhaust them. Too much is going on, even when — especially when –– nothing in particular is going on. Perec achieves a kind of shiny, uncomprehending empiricism, a paratactic string of unrelated events:
Pigeons on the plaza. A Volkswagen goes by between the plaza and the church
square. The church square is empty.
Two passersby in the distance. Slight sunny spell.
Full shopping bags; celery, carrots
Bouquets of flowers held with stems up
Most of the cake-boxes are in parallelpiped form (tarts?): pyramids are rare.
A bag (Tunisian) on which “SOUVENIR” is written.
I’m eating a Camembert sandwich
It is twenty to one. (41–42)
This whirr of activity demands narrative to bring it together, to make it make sense. What is the relation between these things? Why do these coincidences take place here and now? An armature is needed, and the manic futility of the exercise serves as a kind of introduction to the vast jigsaw puzzle of stories that make up Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual. Elsewhere Perec tells us to really look at what he called the “infra-ordinary” but he is clear that we can’t just look at it. We have to question it, to ask ourselves “about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects” we take up. We have to construct stories, little tales of cause and effect. Coincidence is not enough.
Life: A User’s Manual documents (and barely exhausts) a single apartment building, and therefore an exhaustive questioning of the Place Saint-Sulpice would require an even larger novel than that. So perhaps smaller measures will have to do. Given the frequency of buses in An Attempt, you could imagine the author imposing a little order on that text by looking at a bus schedule. That is a good part of Perec’s point. While we need to be good modernists if we are going to render the banal alien enough to see, estrangement is only the first step in the larger project of questioning. “An Attempt” is just a propaedeutic to further work. To the casual onlooker, the 96 bus pops up out of nowhere, as if by magic, but that is just an optical illusion. Perec’s questioner knows that there is no sorcery to it, just bureaucracy and the vagaries of local traffic.
In other words, the temptation that lies in an undue fascination with coincidence — the appearance of a bus, or the juxtaposition of pinks and greens, gulls and fog — is that while it does make us aware of the world, it turns randomness into fate. Buses do not just happen. What is missing in immediacy is precisely mediation: “the big / Vaguer stuff,” the structures of causation that order the world, like the local transportation authority. Crase’s momentary discomfort with Schuyler’s poetry recognizes the implications of Schuyler’s resolute insistence on the immediate and of his mistrust of mediation. On the one hand, it is true that Schuyler’s poetry is ethically quite admirable. His attentiveness is so opposed to instrumentalism, his vision of the good life where “to enjoy / is not to consume” (Collected Poems, 112) is so gentle that his poetry can clearly be made to serve as a critique of our instrumental and singularly ungentle corner of history. By the same token, Crase’s distrust of Schuyler’s complicity is a sign that ethics do not immediately map onto politics, that the desire to do no harm on a face-to-face level might actually do harm on a macrological one.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say that this disconnect between ethics and politics, the personal and the collective, might well be one of the truest aspects of Schuyler’s poetry because he presses up against it so hard. Schuyler’s poetry does search for totality. It searches for it constantly but can only register its affective shadows. It can recognize it only in moods of melancholy, resignation, or genial anticipation. As such, Schuyler’s genius and his pathos lie in his scrupulous attempt to seek the world in a day or series of days that can never quite encompass it.
(for Simon Pettet)
I remember once asking Jimmy, after I had gotten to know him a little in the early ’70s, how he decided whether a poem published in a magazine was worthy of reprinting in a book. His answer — accompanied, as it often was, by a slow chuckle, which I assumed meant that his response was serious but that there was something faintly inappropriate if not embarrassing in talking about it — was that anything worth publishing once was worth publishing again. In fact, since I saw a couple of his manuscripts which contained poems that didn’t make their way into the book, he wasn’t quite telling the truth. I also remember asking him whether he revised much, to which the answer was no, hardly at all. As far as I know, at least by the time of The Crystal Lithium if not before, that was true. One brilliant local revision I remember from the very long “Morning of the Poem” was his changing “Another day, another dollar” to “Another day, another dolor.” How come I never thought of that.
When I first read (straight through) Other Flowers, the uncollected Schuyler poems edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet (Farrar, Straus 2010), I was struck by an apparently early version of one of my longtime favorites, “Closed Gentian Distances,” which I had first come across in the Adventures in Poetry pamphlet A Sun Cab and called, in a review, “perfect, if anything is.” Compared to the changeover from “dollar” to “dolor,” the revisions in this poem are on the microscopic side: making a plural noun singular, changing “of” to “off,” taking out some italics, breaking a sentence in two, adding a comma. But these too were inspired, and the poem that was very nice to begin with became — I continue to think — something close to “perfect.” I read both versions to the audience at the Poetry Project launch for Other Flowers, and got pleasure out of underlining the differences.
This is the poem I had known for close to forty years:
“Closed gentian distances”
A nothing day full of
wild beauty and the
timer pings. Roll up
the silver off the bay
take down the clouds
sort the spruce and
send to laundry marked,
more starch. Goodbye
golden- and silver-
rod, asters, bayberry
crisp in elegance.
Little fish stream
by, a river in water.
And this is the version from Other Flowers, which must be earlier but how early I don’t know. (For some reason, despite the book’s nine pages of notes, there isn’t one on this poem.)
“Poem (a nothing day full of)”
A nothing day full of
wild beauty and the
timer pings. Roll up
the silvers of the bay
take down the clouds
sort the spruce and
send to laundry marked
more starch. Goodbye
golden- and silver-
rod, asters, bayberry
crisp in elegance and
small fish stream
by a river in water.
So what’s so brilliant — or at least inspired enough to suggest that Valéry’s famous remark about poets abandoning poems rather than finishing them needs a footnote to the effect that poems can be abandoned and then reabandoned. “Roll up / the silvers of the bay” is certainly a nice metaphor and fits the clever conceit of a day (or season) compared to the steps in doing laundry. But to me, rolling up “the silver off the bay” is uncannily concrete, visceral as well as visual; it gives the bay a skin (sheet? blanket?) in a way you can almost feel. What is a bay doing with something silver on top of it that can be rolled off, anyway? Becoming even more of a surprise in a poem that has subtle surprises at each turn.
The next two changes — the new comma after “marked” and no ital. for “more starch” — are OK, though not important. The comma after “marked” could have been left out; Jimmy had a habit of throwing in a comma (where most of us wouldn’t) in situations that look like an introduction to (unquoted) dialogue, declaration, or, in this case, writing/marking. Why did he eliminate the italics? My guess, though I don’t have a very good one, is that the italics stood out too much in such a small (in every way) poem. The next three (or four) changes are the ones that really make a difference. In the earlier version, the “and” in the third to last line actually looks to me like a mistake. The awkward, ungrammatical coupling of two clauses, one imperative and one declarative, doesn’t sound like Jimmy; it weakens the rhythm and the punch of both of its parts. Could it have literally been a typo? I don’t think a comma before the “and” would have helped. On the other hand, ending the next to last sentence with “crisp in elegance” is terrific. The phrase is a lovely eyeful and mouthful, and “elegance” is a wonderful word to end sentence, line, and direct address. The last two lines, now beginning with “Little” (an improvement musically and colloquially) and producing a brilliant appositive with the addition of the comma before the final metaphor/image, are now magical. Knowing how attentive Jimmy was to matters of punctuation and line breaks, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this missing comma in the original was a typo too. The difference between small fish streaming past “a river in water” (which not only doesn’t do much but really isn’t clear) and small fish constituting “a river in water” is so vast, even in this tiny poem, that I would like to believe the latter is what Jimmy meant all along.
Decades ago in graduate school, I remember reading critics who seemed to think that the official versions of poems in books and anthologies had something inevitable about them: no other word could have taken the place of this perfect one; that line couldn’t have ended in any other way. I’m pretty sure I found the idea of inevitability silly even then. A poem is never finished; it’s abandoned for all sorts of reasons, among them that the poet doesn’t know anything more to do with it or that the manuscript is due at the publisher’s. Specific choices involving diction, punctuation, sentence breaks, et al., are the way they are because that was the way they were when the poet decided to — or had to — move on to the next poem. Small fish streaming by a river in water wasn’t inevitable — fortunately. Neither was the “river in water” composed of small fish streaming by. But it’s brilliant.