Poetry and the unpoetic

Left to right: Marjorie Perloff, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Plato.

Early on in her 1996 study of “Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary,” a book entitled Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Marjorie Perloff puts forward the thesis — one which has circulated widely — that Wittgenstein wrote “‘philosophy’ as if it were ‘poetry.’”[1] Both “philosophy” and “poetry” appear in quotation marks, giving us to understand that a certain metaphorical grammar may be at work here, although equally it may be the very literality of these terms that Perloff wishes to insist upon, in order in some sense to “undo.” In evoking this proximity of poetry to philosophy, even by way of an analogy — of an analogical writing — Perloff calls to mind, without naming,[2] the figure (we might say spectre) of a form of “poetry” that writes as philosophy; which negates itself (as poetry) in a moment of zealous assertion of its truth (as philosophy). Perloff’s implied interlocutor here is the Plato of The Republic. In the background of Perloff’s discussion of Wittgenstein, of “poetic language,” and of “estrangement,” the three books of the Republic dealing with the exclusion of “poetry” from the ideal polis — in fact its interdiction — evoke the ambi-violence of a type of primal scene: on the one hand describing a castration-effect of language under the dominion of the philosophic Signified, and on the other describing the locus of a return of the philosophical “repressed,” its Unheimlich, its strangely resemblant yet disconcerting and innately threatening other. They rehearse in inaugurating political consciousness, towards whose “thought” — or rather rationale — language (and so-called poetic language above all) is henceforth subjectivized as “obedient, dutiful, servile, fawning” — to borrow the words of Zambian-born poet Karen Mac Cormack.[3] Plato’s consolation to poetry is to allow it to plead, to “make her defence”: in any case, poetry is under no circumstances to speak for itself, or to speak in its own name, it must rather be represented before the tribunal of reason by others, speaking in proseas if it were philosophy.[4]

It has gone without saying, of course, that poetry “speaking as prose,” enters upon the purview of the philosophical only by virtue of this fact, that it does not speak (just as, in the Platonic schema, the truth — under the name Socrates — remains the last word of a philosophy that does not write). But though it is prohibited from speaking in its own name, the eliding of poetry into prose, into the “language of” philosophy, evokes a type of Freudian symptomatology — a type of “return” of the philosophic repressed — by way of this seeming aporia: as if it were philosophy (or even what Badiou, addressing Wittgenstein, calls “antiphilosophie”). There is a corollary, of course, in that the “repressed” is never any detachable thing, but rather a symptom of an inaugurating gesture, such as — analogously — of the Platonic schema. The impetus of poetry’s threat to the polis is entirely apportioned in the inaugurating action of this schema (to the extent that one might indeed argue that poetry — or if not poetry in its generic sense, then poiēsis in the broader tropological sense — “is” this inaugurating action “itself”). “La poème,” writes Badiou, “signifie l’être, et enregistre l’imminence de l’acte.”[5] In any case, poetry henceforth becomes that of which, in its own turn, philosophy will not speak — other than in the proscriptive mode or (equivalently) as an exemplum.

If the republic of Plato stands as a summa of philosophical-political accomplishment, poetry then assumes something of the contrary “function” — of détournement, of ostranenie, of disconcertion and masking: which is to say, it does not state itself as thought, but enstates a type of thought (the unheimlich poetic object, so-called, puts us in the position of thinking at the same time as it maintains a critical distanciation, a “persona”). It is able to do this not because poetry may be applied “philosophically” or “politically” (i.e. as a vehicle for thought in competition with philosophy/politics), but because it itself constitutes a condition, an illicit possibility of the “philosophical” and of the “political” (Plato’s exclusion more than implies it).

We see in Plato that the very activity of formalizing the political as philosophy as thought presents itself as the locus of a kind of obsessional neurosis. The poetic exclusion becomes the bellwether of an entire system and the necessary condition for its terms and the discourse they represent to uphold their claims to a sovereign reason (one unperturbed by internal contradictions).[6] By excluding dramatic poetry from his ideal polis, Plato strictly excludes the possibility of such a thing as “poetical reason,” even if (or rather because) the logic of “personae” employed in dramatic poetry is ostensibly the same logic as underwrites philosophical discourse: i.e. the logic of hypothesis. And philosophical discourse is no mere descriptive system — it is not, as Wittgenstein rightly argued, theoretical, but rather an action, an activity (eine Tätigkeit), thereby commensurate with thinking, with “thought,” and thus commensurate also with a “poetics” of thought.[7] Despite Plato’s objections to the contrary, the activity of philosophy (and Plato’s own philosophical “mode” — aporetic dialogue plus interrogative suspense — is very much exemplary of this) brings together what Badiou calls a syntax continually tempted by mathematics and a semantics equally tempted by a “poésie hermétique.” It aspires to a “crystalline univocity” at the same time as it is drawn towards an “absolute equivocation.”[8]

If Wittgenstein himself formulated no “poetics,” his investigations of language and propositional structures themselves articulate a poetics. In a note, Perloff cites Stanley Cavell to the effect that while “in Plato, philosophy retains a given reality, an autonomous cultural, intellectual, institutional life,” for Wittgenstein such an autonomy no longer obtains.[9] We see that in part this has to do with the view, given in the Tractatus, that language in all its modes — including so-called “philosophical discourse” (as much as “poetic language”) — is either commensurate or contiguous or (to the extent this is possible) both, its autonomy founded solely on a series of rhetorical (poetical) manoeuvres, such as those played out in the Republic. Wittgenstein, however, doesn’t merely dismiss “philosophic” or “poetic” language as categories, but rather — and quite significantly — demonstrates that the logic of Plato’s gesture (the foundational gesture of the philosophy/poetry dichotomy) is itself vested in precisely this contiguity of language (and there is a temptation here to emphasize its as such, if this itself were not a pleonasm): it is a language-effect, an operation of a certain as if. In a very fundamental sense for Wittgenstein, philosophical language and poetic language are hypotheses which are mutually implied if yet in no proper sense equivalent. As Badiou observes:

Words take on, in philosophy, a sense both imperious and troubling. They are at the same time made axiomatic by the effort to systematise and poeticised by the rhetorical energy of doing so.[10]

The Tractatus (an attempt, in Badiou’s estimation, to produce a work sans extérieur through an evocation of linguistic materiality: “the contrary of the entire rhetoric of Platonism”)[11] — though concerned with articulating principles of “logic” — commences with a series of aphorisms, in the guise of axioms (replete with its own numerical pseudo-system, “un principe de montage, codé par les numerations”), about delimitation and discourse, summed up in 5.6: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt). It is important to understand Wittgenstein quite literally here. If Browning by way of McLuhan says “a man’s reach much exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?” this “reach,” for Wittgenstein, means the possibility of language, and thus the possibility of a world — which is to say, of an idiom.[12] The aporia of language, of poiēsis, for Wittgenstein organizes itself around an absolute alterity that is only ever able to announce itself by way of “paradoxes” that are nonetheless fully in accord with what is conceivable — as for example the type of hermetic statements we find in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, such as in Notre Musique when one of his actors proposes a two-fold definition of “death” as both “the impossibility of the possible” and “the possible of the impossible.” In both instances — Godard and Wittgenstein — paradox is not a descriptive pragmatics, but a “syntax” and a “stylistic” (“une stylistic de l’aphorisme,” e.g.).[13]

For Wittgenstein, language — whose “limits” are contiguous with those of the possible — is “everything that is the case” (proposition 1). But what “is the case” in language? Or let me return to Perloff’s formulation, from which two questions seem to want to present themselves: What does it mean to write as if? And what is poetic language?

The institution of Philosophy, according to a certain tradition, is properly founded with the writings of Plato. Voilà. This idea has recently been restated by Badiou, who points to Plato’s de-suturing of “philosophy” and “poetry,” in the republic, as the foundational moment.[14] It is a moment reflected in the birth of the Enlightenment, in the de-suturing of science and metaphysics. It suggests that, in-advance of itself, “philosophy” remained alchemically indistinguishable from the “poetic,” wrapped up in so much subjectivism. Badiou’s point hinges on the nature of the exclusion of poetry from Plato’s ideal polis — specifically the exclusion of dramatic poetry, in which the persona of the speaker is not grounded in the selfhood of poet or listener/reader, and not consequently bound by any criteria of truth (it evades the juridical, in that it disavows responsibility for its avowals) — thus permitting philosophy to constitute (or believe it constitutes) its own rule-governed class of language. At the same time, Plato’s gesture of exclusion presents itself as a type of necessity, without which philosophy would not be able to assert its claims over reason and truth, though equally the fact of poetry’s exclusion has always — however subtly, however discreditedly — represented a certain embarrassment, a certain disquietude, like the continued existence of a Britannicus in the eyes of a Nero.[15] Ostensibly, the dramatic poet is regarded by Plato (who for his part appropriates the figure of Socrates to rail against the deleterious influence of Homer on Athenian morals) as a species of sophist, whose language presents an especial dilemma for philosophy because it is able at every stage to simulate the discourse of truth, without, as it were, being responsible for its own words.[16] However, paradox is situational, it finds a way of inhabiting the very systems that seek to reduce or exclude it; it is produced “complementarily” with them (as anti-matter is to matter) and abolished in their abolition (as Barrett Watten says, “A paradox is eaten by the space around it”).[17]

It is for this reason that we find the “poetic exception” consistently undermined throughout Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In order to account for language at all, it is necessary to account for language in its broadest ramification. Wherever a theory of language exists which maintains a poetic exception, the spectre of “poetic language” constantly haunts and undermines its definitions, its suppositions, its “world view.” And yet the relation of poiēsis to philosophic logos also assumes the character of an aporia. Poiēsis, like the sophist, will not be pinned down. It presents, in fact, the allure of an anti-paradigm (of which, more later). Our ability to know what “poetry” is remains here negatively defined, either with regard to the master discourses of philosophy or politics; and in light of a historical project which has maintained the autonomy of aesthetics (to which the term “poetry” has been most often affiliated) a number of questions arise as to the systematization of poetry, the reconvergence of poetry and philosophy by way of a poetics, and the designation of an “unpoetic.” Between the inflection of the definite article and an apparent appropriation of the exclusionary prefix, the term “poetic” hesitates between two seemingly contradictory tendencies: a paradox. On the one hand, there is the consolidation, from the classical era by way of the Renaissance, of both formal and ethico-aesthetic delimitations of the poetic (to the exclusion of elements deemed “unpoetic”); effectively a re-inscribing of Plato’s originary gesture, by means of which poetry — as the formerly excluded — redeems itself once more for the good and the beautiful. On the other hand, there is — primarily associated with modernism, but finding diverse antecedents — the assumption of a critical stance which seeks both to upset the ideological foundations of such an aesthetics and at the same time to extend the idea of the “poetic” by means of the “unpoetic.”

If there exists an historical moment at which the consolidation of the “poetic” by way of an exclusion of the “unpoetic” shifts towards an extension of the “poetic” by way of an engagement with the “unpoetic,” then problems of more than merely definitional character arise. (Is it true, as Roland Barthes claims, that “it is only recently that literature comes into existence — as a problem”?)[18] What is of particular interest, however, is how the poetic/unpoetic dichotomy re-inscribes, in a reverse movement, the signal exclusion of “poetry” from Plato’s ideal “polis.” The history of modernism suggests a politicizing of the “unpoetic” (or an acknowledgement of the “unpoetic” as the “political”) orientated towards a critique of official modes of discourse, including official modes of poetic discourse (and consequently, official modes of modernist poetic discourse, once these too have become reified). Nevertheless, this “politicization” (in truth, the “poetic” is political from its origin) necessarily tends towards a recuperation of “poetry” for the “polis” (in one respect or another, the “poetics of the unpoetic” tends to assume a stance with regard to the polis, or the “cultural police,” and thus to be defined by it). In almost every instance, the poetic “avant-garde” — as it has manifested itself, however diversely, throughout the history of modernism, and in its more recent incarnations — has nevertheless maintained a social-transformative function (a re-negotiation of the terms binding poetry to the polis): for Surrealism it was to bring about a poetico-social revolution by means of a change of consciousness; for Dada, the abolition of “false” moral-aesthetic values (“Art” or “Kultur”) etc. The question, then, is how can we treat the “unpoetic” as a paradigm of “poetic” critique? What does it mean when we accede to the idea of the “poetic” in advance of such a critique? And what does it mean when we seek to extend, or progress, the “poetic” by means of the “unpoetic” — whether in its singularity, or as a plurality? And this raises again for us a question posed by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “Is poetry [therefore] a sign or is it an instrument of power?”[19]

But to return to my first question: What would it mean to write as if?

One recent exploration of this question is Karen Mac Cormack’s 2008 book, Implexures — whose title refers to an archaic usage, defined by the OED as “an infolding, a fold.” Mac Cormack’s text might be loosely described as a kind of “dramatic poem” (though for the most part in prose) whose “poetics” is organized around certain constructs of persona articulated through a matrix of travelogue, letters, journal entries, diary entries, notebook entries, memoire, self-quotation, quotations from diverse sources — scientific, historiographical, philosophical, literary (including Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, Deleuze and Guattari, Max Beerbohm, Aphra Behn, Marcel Duchamp, and Petrarch) — newspaper clippings, civic ordinances, parliamentary records, etymologies, genealogies, trivia, photography, diagrams, dreams, mythology, political commentary, number tables, and the odd forgery (a letter, for example, from “Susan Hicks Beach,” the author’s great-aunt, “to Jacques Derrida circa 1880”): all arranged in thirty-one sections, plus postscript, plus index of “sources.” Incorporating conventions of philology, Implexures examines the functional distinctions between poetry and artefact, record, testimony, document, facticity, and ultimately what it means to speak of truth statements (Mac Cormack: “promotion to meaning enlists words”[20]). The montage-effect of the work — the paradoxically seamless and yet inassimilable “demarcation” of the so-called poetic object — demands accounting for: firstly with regard to the logic of dichotomy (which not only underwrites whatever may be said about the “poetic” and “unpoetic,” or dramatic poetry and philosophy), but of genre and consequently of discourse as a whole; and secondly with regard to the possibility of montage, of expropriation or re-expropriation (whether of the poetic for the philosophical, for example, or of philosophy into the poetic): montage here describes a syntax, the implexure of language.

During the late nineteenth century, Hans Vaihinger’s Philosophy of As If specified an array of instances in which “fictive” thinking lent comparative impetus to biology, mathematics, physics, philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence. For Vaihinger, all discourse, all genres, are structurally reducible to the sequence of thought encapsulated by the “as if.” Additionally, Vaihinger argued that science, in a strict sense, is speculative, since we can never really “know” (or directly experience) the underlying reality of the world. Rather, we construct systems of thought and act “as if” these correspond to some objective reality. The worldview presented by science is, for Vaihinger, ultimately constructed upon certain fictional foundations, even if it is a highly coherent and effective one. This view reflects the practical reliance of science upon hypothesis, but also the dependence upon indirect verification. Meaning that much of what underwrites our reality cannot even be represented by means of analogy. Often, science is concerned with what, for us, remains fundamentally unknowable. For Vaihinger, the as if underwrites the very notion of hypothesis, of modelling, prediction, predication, possibility, and fiction. It also evokes synonymy, similitude, analogy, metaphor, representation, and signification. In short, an entire poetics. Here, the quasi-oppositional dichotomy gives rise to a theory of radical contiguity. Not equivalence, but a structural contiguity of discourse, of language. Importantly, the as if also generalizes our thinking about such things as hypothesis from the “object” of a given discourse (what it knows or can know), to the character of that discourse itself. For example, with regard to Plato’s ideal polis, we can treat philosophy (in the sense of being founded upon a certain dichotomization) as a type of as if. That is to say as a hypothesis, or a set of similar hypotheses. The coherence of philosophical discourse thus devolves, in a certain sense, upon the coherence of its hypothetical foundations: the as if. Vaihinger’s theory of fictions, which begins with a consideration of knowledge and hypothesis, attempted to address questions of human subjectivity, and the preponderance of individuals to employ psychological fictions to mediate their experience of “irrational” social realities (ideas which echo those of Charcot, Breuer, and Freud concerning hysteria — in which psychosomatic illness is recognized as indistinguishable from “conventional” illness. The forms of simulation encountered in hysteria, for example, point towards a functional equivalence of reality and fiction at certain crucial points, echoing not only the methodological dependency of science upon a philosophy of “as if,” but also the status of this “as if” as foundational for scientific method and its forms of verifiability. Mac Cormack:

How the unknown becomes the known (process again) and sometimes becomes lost, misplaced, suppressed, de-known, subjectively and collectively, from culture to culture …[21]

This “process” is given throughout Implexures by way not only of the concatenation of discourses, but by way of a type of archaeology or paleo-etymology, in which the “evolution” of language(s) articulates a logic of as if whose terms are themselves thus “propositions.” One example, early on in Implexures, has to do with the contiguity of the terms “grammar” and “glamour” — tending towards paradox:

The word glamour “developed” as the Scottish spelling of the English gramayre or gramarye (entered into English in the 14th century denoting grammar or learning) but by the 15th century it signified occult learning. By the close of that century (in its modern spelling) glamour meant a specific form of magic spell or charm cast by devils through the agency of (usually) female witches, and supposedly caused the illusory disappearance of the penis …[22]

The politico-philosophic evolution that will have elsewhere conjoined phallus and logos, here encounters an “illusory” castration at the hands, so to speak, of a grammar gone astray along a path of orthographic deviancy — precisely what Plato was so anxious to preclude in his well-known discourse (written in the persona of Socrates) against writing; a companion-piece to his treatise against poetry (with which analogy seems unavoidable). For Mac Cormack, the evolutionary pathways of these terms describe a “poetics” of the possible: each term acting as an open hypothesis, suggestive of a shifting locus of meaning which “circulate equivocally,” in Badiou’s reading of Wittgenstein, “between the sense of the proposition … and the sense of the world.”[23] Just as for Wittgenstein, the “world” for Mac Cormack (everything that “is the case”) is language-dimensions (“without exteriors,” as Badiou says). Mac Cormack:

From string theory to M-theory (one dimensional strings giving way to higher-dimensional membranes) but apparently “most of the known physical forces operate only within a particular (mem) brane” — except perhaps gravity. If gravity “leaks out” it might allow an inferring of a parallel “brane’s” presence. And so what’s presently referred to as “dark matter” could be ordinary matter on one of many (?) parallel branes, its emitted light “trapped in its own world” but its gravity now also in ours. How to infer the “curled up” extra dimensions of language …?[24]

Mac Cormack’s Implexures — via what Badiou terms “le principe syntaxique du montage” — evokes writing as multiple personae, a writing as if, which puts to work the dichotomic interval of “parallel branes” — so to speak — in order to “infer the ‘curled up’ extra dimensions of language.” To return to Perloff, if Wittgenstein is seen to write “philosophy” as if writing “poetry,” this would not mean the one in “imitation” of the other, or a reverse “expropriation” of the one to the other, or even an “anti-philosophy” in any simplistic sense, but — let us hypothesize — a writing by which “poetry” and “philosophy” are re-inaugurated, and again re-inaugurated, tropologically, across this “complementation” (as Buckminster Fuller used to say) of as and if. Mac Cormack’s Implexures, to paraphrase,

is an engagement with depiction abstracted, skewed, the poetry a layering of interactions internal and external so too “on” and within linguistic forms.[25]

It would be incorrect to suggest here that Mac Cormack’s text records an attempted “intervention” by means of the poetic, or poetic “strategies,” into those discourses from which it is conventionally viewed as excluded. Nor is it merely an act of serial appropriation. It is not enough simply to “change all the sentences,” as Charles Bernstein has said,[26] just as it is ultimately self-defeating to submit to an anti-paradigm such as the “unpoetic” for the purpose of pursuing “poetry by other means.” The paradigm/anti-paradigm of the un/poetic (just as much as Badiou’s anti/philosophie dichotomy) needs to be reviewed in light of Derrida’s response to Foucault in his 1963 essay “Cognito and the History of Madness” (concerning Foucault’s attempt to employ “madness” [unreason, alogos, and — by declensions implied — poetry] as a paradigm of the critique of history-as-reason [i.e. philosophy], Derrida poses two basic questions: If history is a rational concept, how is it possible to write a history of madness? and second, If Foucault claims to speak for a madness that by definition must remain silent does he not risk re-appropriation by the very mode of exclusion that he claims to avoid? “We have the right,” Derrida argues, “to ask what, in the last resort, supports this language without recourse or support …? Who wrote and who is to understand, in what language and from what historical situation of logos … this history of madness?”).[27] At the very least this has to do with the fact that poiēsis, if not necessarily “poetry” as a genre of literary discourse instituted in one sort of Platonistic gesture or another, already articulates structures contiguous between all modes of discourse — including the technical and even mathematical. Like Wittgenstein’s logic, poiēsis — the poetic[28] — doesn’t give a picture: it is foremost structure and situation. It internalizes its dichotomies in advance, so that to speak of “poetic language” is at once to stipulate a general condition of the signifiable, while at the same time evoking a fundamental aporia, paradox, or pleonasm. The “impossibility of the possible” and the “possible of the impossible.”



1. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3. In L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein (Paris: Nous, 2009), Alain Badiou in a similar vein describes the Tractatus as “Une saison en enfer écrit dans la forme de Un coup de dés …” (102; the comparison with Mallarmé is also made earlier, on page 88).

2. Except in two endnotes, on pages 246 and 254. Perloff’s intervention necessarily casts back — in light of Russell and Whitehead’s failed Principia Mathematica — to the very foundations of philosophy and, explicitly or otherwise, concerns itself with an inherence of what is sometimes called “paradox” or aporia in the project of reason from Plato onwards and its haunting by the figure of “poetry.”

3. Karen Mac Cormack, Implexures (Tucson: Chax Press, 2008), 58.

4. Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (London: Penguin, 1955), book 10, 607d-e.

5. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 112.

6. What this in part amounts to, is an acknowledgement that poetry is effectively excluded by Plato because it cannot be instituted, that it cannot be reduced to the type of definitional regimen he seeks to employ throughout in order to establish philosophy etc. on axiomatic foundations. In other words, that this “exclusion” is always a “pragmatique descriptive,” as Badiou says, since “by definition” poetry already writes itself out of the Platonic equation in advance, at the same time as it haunts each of its terms (philosophy defines itself, we might say, with poetry very much in mind, while poetry is only arbitrarily concerned with the philosophical as such, and this is what philosophy, to Plato’s way of thinking, cannot bear). See Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 109. Another consequence of all this is that, despite yoking together the terms philosophy, politics and thought, Plato succeeds only in describing a type of theoretical complex, under whose rarefied conditions a philosophical “way of life” might become possible.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, intro. Bertram Russell, trans. C. K. Ogden (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922), 4.112.

8. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 99, my translation.

9. Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder, 246n20.

10. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 98.

11. Ibid., 99.

12. What can be thought or expressed is both inherent in language but also contingent upon a state-of-affairs of language: its poiesis, its making. Charles Bernstein, in an interview with Tom Beckett, argues: “A task of poetry is to make audible (tangible but not necessarily graspable) those dimensions of the real that cannot be heard as much as to imagine new reals that have never before existed. Perhaps this amounts to the same thing.” Bernstein, “Censers of the Unknown — Margins, Dissent, and the Poetic Horizon,” in A Poetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 184.

13. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 99.

14. Badiou, “Language, Poetry, Thought,” trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano, Theoretical Writings (London: Continuum, 2004), 239ff.

15. Poetry in this sense is the subjective in language.

16. Plato, in seeking to exclude those aspects of discourse that contradicted any systematization of language-as-reason (logos), above all paradox, was possessed by the same demon that drove Bertram Russell. The system of dialectical reduction in Plato produces the aporia of indeterminacy, just as the system of mathematical reduction in Russell produced the logical ambivalence of a whole class of sets.

17. Barrett Watten, “Plasma,” In the American Tree, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1984), 27.

18. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), xv.

19. Mahmoud Darwish in the film Notre Musique, dir. Jean-Luc Godard (2005).

20. Mac Cormack, Implexures, 14.

21. Ibid., 64.

22. Ibid., 25.

23. Badiou, L’antiphilosophie de Wittgenstein, 100.

24. Mac Cormack, Implexures, 88.

25. Ibid., 89.

26. Bernstein, A Poetics, 152.

27. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), 62.

28. On this collocation, see Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), ed. David Farrell Krell. Revised edition. (London: Routledge, 1993), 308.

Playing the world

Poetry generated from a source text has been around at least since 1920, when Tristan Tzara wrote his instructions for how to make a Dada poem. What follows is an argument for reading the procedures of such works as texts themselves, worthy of analysis. These procedures signify in ways that are as complex as the results they yield. In other words, just as language is circumscribed by its cultural use, so are these seemingly neutral processes.

NewsReader is an online “textual instrument” that was commissioned by the net art website turbulence in 2003. Created by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and a team of collaborators that included Brion Moss, David Durand, and Elaine Froehlich, Newsreader is software that lets the reader alter and reformulate news stories through a variety of cut and paste procedures. As the creators note, the main action of these instruments is “to perform William Burroughs’s injunction to ‘cut word lines’ — to break the chains of conceptual association that say this follows from that …” In doing so, the piece reveals much about our times, but not in the way one might initially expect.

As of January 2012, this piece was no longer “playable,”[1] so what follows is a session of “play” that occurred in 2007 when I presented this essay as a talk at the Modern Language Association’s annual convention.

When the Newsreader program is first opened up, a Yahoo! News headline feed from mainstream news sources appears. A click on any of the article summaries leads to the full-length article.

However, the full-length article includes a number of highlighted words and phrases. Although they may appear as such, these are not hypertext links that connect to some predetermined offshoot of text; instead, these are n-grams — words that commonly repeat in the English language in groups of two (digrams) and three (trigrams). A click on any of these groupings leads to another screen. In the example here, the digram “to build” was selected, which generated a screen with three paragraphs beginning with “to build.”

It took me a long time to figure out how this nonlinear text was put together, but I could tell that it was the result of some kind of cut-up process. After reading through the working documents of the piece, as well as contacting Wardrip-Fruin and plying him with questions, here’s what I understand to have happened. While I was reading my mainstream Yahoo news story, the program was busy downloading in the background all the top news stories from an alternative newspaper feed at the website Common Dreams.

When I clicked on the digram “to build,” the program searched the alternative news stories for matching digrams. When a match was found, new text (what I’ll call an “alteration text”) was generated according to the statistical n-gram model.

How this model works might best be understood as a procedure in league with the Oulipo’s N+7 or John Cage’s mesostics or Jackson Mac Low’s diastics. Imagine you’re reading the news at the Common Dreams site and you randomly pick the pair of words that make up this particular digram, “to build.” You then search for another occurrence of that digram on the site and when you find one you add the word that follows that next digram: “to build a.” So you now have three words — a trigram. The second and third words (“build a”) are then treated as a digram, and there’s a search for a recurrence of that pair. Then the word that follows that pair is added (“build a Humvee”), and so on until a chain is created. Thus, this paragraph is a cut-up generated by an algorithm. The n-gram screens contain further n-grams that you can keep on clicking to produce new screens.

N-gram chains can be followed indefinitely. Each time, the n-grams act as bridges between two separate textual bodies.

But generating nonlinear text strands are just part of the play here; there’s more that can be done.

If you click on a word that’s not highlighted or linked in the alteration text, the chain that extends from that word back to the digram beginning the chain/paragraph will be cut and pasted into the previous document at the point of the digram that led you to this alternative page in the first place. In this example, a click on the word “report” in the first line of the second alteration paragraph causes the phrase “to build a children’s well-being report” to be cut and pasted into the original news article.

The alteration text screen disappears when this is done, and the phrase “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build the world’s largest computer database of biometrics” becomes “The FBI is embarking on a $1 billion project to build a children’s well-being report.”

The screenshot above is the result of some extended play with the first paragraph of the article.

The main action of Newsreader seems to be to locate n-grams in a source text (a news feed) and then inject them back in so as to alter that source. But to what end? Could it be argued that this piece is an elaborate machine for creating something that earlier proceduralists like Tristan Tzara and William Burroughs, were able to accomplish with a simple pair of scissors? Or is this program modeling something that goes beyond the syntactic disruptions of an algorithmic cut-up? In order to articulate what’s at stake in a piece like this, I want to do a quick comparison with John Cage’s mesostics — specifically those created for his Norton lectures at Harvard in 1988.

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 9, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

This is the first mesostic strand in the first of the lectures.[2] Very briefly, mesostics are similar to acrostics, but with a center strand functioning as a kind of spine. The center strand is often a name or a group of words (in the excerpt above, it’s the word “method”), used to infiltrate or “read through” a much longer text or group of texts. The mesostic rule requires not repeating two adjacent center string letters which frame the wing words (between the “m” and the “e” in method, there is not a repetition of those letters).

Cage created this procedure so as to make unpredictable discoveries apart from authorial intention. Once the center strand was determined, Cage “hunted” for what the material was trying to say; he looked for the ideas that might become clearer by taking a few words or letters away from the wings. So the words to either side of the center are the result of his editorial choices. As Cage said during one of the question and answer sessions that followed each lecture, “this is a way of writing that comes from ideas but is not about them but somehow brings new ideas or other ideas into existence” (338).

The six Norton lectures are published as I–VI, but the sub- (or super-) title is above. Each word listed refers to an aspect of Cage’s work in music composition, and each word is used as a determining center strand (in the listed order) for sections of the mesostics that make up the lectures. The main reason I’ve chosen this particular procedural work for comparison with Newsreader has to do with Cage’s choice of source texts. Unlike other mesostic works that were generated from singular texts (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Thoreau’s journals being well-known examples), these lectures mix writings by a familiar set of Cagean influences (Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Emerson, McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller) with an array of newspaper sources (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor). Such use of quotidian materials is rare for Cage. Below is a page where the news is visible, if not entirely readable:[3]

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 14, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Due to the newspaper text, a number of questions were raised after the lectures about how Cage saw language and politics to be relating in his work. He answered:

I seem to be at a point where maybe many of us are where there’s a kind of separation between us and language and even things that are reported so that we don’t always respond — it’s almost as though we can’t … I’m in a situation of using words so to speak in a straitjacket but a straitjacket that includes the things from which we have so to speak numbed ourselves. I would like to know something more intelligent to say but I don’t know it. (115)

In a later question and answer session he noted, “Performance of a piece of music can be a metaphor of society … you can think of music as a representation of a society in which you would be willing to live” (177). A clue to how this might work is given in Cage’s introduction to I–VI: “there was a tendency on the part of the empty words, the particles, connectives like ‘and’ and ‘the’ and ‘a’ … to become important and to give us a kind of meaning that I’m not sure we fully understand” (5).

In this excerpt from IIV, we can see and hear the particles:

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from I-IV by John Cage, pp. 409, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1990 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

AND IS with gets, is in AS TO …

In relation to this phenomenon, Cage states that “the words that we thought were so meaningful become almost meaningless …. Benefits can come from taking the lesser of two things and supporting it rather than the stronger one, as for instance noise as opposed to musical sound and in this case empty words as opposed to full words and in the case of our society the poor instead of the rich” (254).

Thus the mesostic provides a possible world model, a vision for how the status quo might be altered through a procedural and documentary poetics. Which brings me back to Newsreader. If Cage’s mesostic procedures are modeling a society in which we would be willing to live, what kind of connectivity between text, procedure, and world does Newsreader posit?

In my exchange with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, it was made clear that the n-gram model that runs Newsreader is used in a number of everyday circumstances, as computers try to recognize and work with the input we give them. For example, in voice recognition software, if a computer was trying to parse out whether a speaker said “banana” or “bandanna,” the trigram “ate the banana” is much more common than “ate the bandanna” and the computer can make its choice based on that knowledge.[4] But the n-gram model is also behind ideas such as “total information awareness” and other government-sponsored mass surveillance projects. These models are used to determine patterns of “normal” language behavior, so as to be able to locate when patterns are transgressed. They are used to locate syntactic combinations that statistically indicate suspicious or criminal behaviors. If you were following your non-linear aesthetic inclinations and found yourself producing digrams and trigrams with unfortunate associations over the Internet or over the phone, this could have consequences if you live in a society where your government decides to eavesdrop on its citizens. You might find yourself in a suspect data set, caught in the net of an early-warning system, marked by your avant-garde word chains. Although this might sound like some kind of Minority Report cyber conspiracy theory, the fact is that datamining for “pre-crime” has been (and no doubt still is) a subject of funded governmental research.[5]

Of course, the total information awareness model can’t actually function. It yields a lot of false negatives and false positives. You can really only get good results for matches on a very small scale — for example, if you’re dealing with textual units, you’ll be more successful trying to find matches for three words than for full sentences. But there are instances when such models do work in more common circumstances — for instance, when Amazon makes suggestions for books you might enjoy, or when a music or film site suggests things based on your past interests. The example that is perhaps most useful because of the potential for negative consequences is when credit card companies use the n-gram algorithm to identify fraud. Credit card companies have defined a profile of purchasing (purchases being the n-grams here) for each individual that can help indicate criminal activity on a card. You may have taken a trip abroad without informing your credit card company and then had the awkward experience, like I once did, of having your card denied at a restaurant. Basically, I was the victim of a false positive in the statistical model that the company used. The inconvenience was annoying, but a relatively small price to pay for the failure, and fairly easy to fix. But the cost for using these models for something like terrorist surveillance is much higher, in that everyone is monitored, everyone is treated as a suspect, and there are perhaps one billion false positives for every one terrorist communication actually intercepted.

According to Wardrip-Fruin, the people designing these surveillance systems know that the costs of massive information aggregation and analysis far outweigh the benefits. But they also know that the model is quite seductive, with its proposition that everything can be accessible and knowable via computer systems (the biometrics article in the Newsreader example above is another instance of that seductive quality). Such a promise is easy to sell to a government that continues to wage war on an abstraction like “terror.” The threat of a “false positive” was clearly not a concern when the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act was passed.

And that’s where Newsreader comes in. It’s a piece that calls attention to use patterns, but emphasizes the fallibility of any attempt to interpret them. It highlights and celebrates the fact that the matches it produces are false positives — they can’t lead to a place of narrative coherence, to a singular meaning. They have a different kind of story to tell, and they evoke meaning in a different kind of way. They defy the concept of normative language structures and predictable usage patterns. The reader must hunt for what these digrams have in common, what they might coincidentally suggest, in the way that Cage hunted through the debris of his procedures’ output for ideas. The action is not of solving a cryptogram, but of reveling in the multiplicitous actions of our words.

Both Newsreader and Cage’s mesostics make use of what we now easily recognize as forms of data mining. Both argue against habitual systems of knowing and experiencing the world, with the help of aleatory and anti-digestive fragmenting procedures. Both show readership (and authorship) to be performative: an act of sampling, transforming, altering, and physically handling text. But perhaps most importantly, both are functioning on metatextual or metaphorical levels, allegorizing our methods of attention, our methods of processing information, and the ways those forms of processing mirror the forms of life we actually live in and with.

As much as I want to make the case that these procedures are two parts of a continuing project, the differences between them keep me from bringing this piece to a tidy conclusion. These documentary procedures are responding to forms and structures that perform the contents of very different historical moments. Cage, in his decision to follow the path of nonintention, was resisting what he saw as the automatic privileging of romantic self-expression and intention. Newsreader, built with an architecture of information processing tools, resists the contemporary desire for everything to be knowable, searchable, and analyzable.

Similar to the Surveillance Camera Players performance group, Newsreader is co-opting a nefarious system and retooling it for creative play. Unlike Cage’s mesostics, which are wonderfully elegant in their precision and thus poised for instigating meditative discoveries through reading or listening, Newsreader’s outputs are deliberately clumsy. Readers are forced to prioritize the concept behind those outputs over the textual product. Readers are asked to see process as the content of the work.

John Cage is often quoted as saying that “the function of art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.”[6] Newsreader revises that dictum by declaring that the function of art is to imitate culture and its procedural operations, and that when those cultural operations become dangerously reductive, they must be altered.



1. When I attempted to access Newsreader in order to update my “play” with current news stories, I discovered that it was no longer functional. The creators say that an upgrade may be forthcoming; however, its current dysfunction points to the ephemerality of digital art that relies on an external data source. This piece is built on a certain kind of data collection (of news, in this case) in a particular format. But formats are always changing; perhaps digital works will one day be able to accommodate that constant change. Until then, they function (to use Wardrip’s term) as “impermanence agents.”

2. John Cage, I–VI (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997), 9.

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Since presenting this talk in 2007, the concept of “n-grams” has moved perhaps more visibly into the mainstream with the introduction of Google’s Ngram viewer.

5. The Total Information Awareness program was created in 2003 as part of the Homeland Security Act. Although it was defunded by Congress in 2004, its work was renamed and absorbed by other intelligence agencies, such as the Disruptive Technology Office and the National Security Branch Analysis Center.

6. John Cage, A Year from Monday (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 31.

Hidden harmonies in John Cage's 'Empty Words'

Mushrooms grow best on shit — specifically, the shit of “corn-fed, hard-worked horses, which have been bedded down on wheat straw.”[1] Some mushrooms pop up after a rain, and grow in circles called “fairy rings,” only to disappear a few hours later. Some mushrooms have names like “Angel of Death” and “Death Cap,” and cause nausea, vomiting, delirium, coma, and — yes — death.

“The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish,” wrote John Cage, composer and founder of the New York Mycological Society. He was talking about the Buddha being killed by a poisonous mushroom.[2] This comment seems very Cagean: humble, irreverent, funny.

Another Cage-mushroom anecdote has Cage struggling to find an adequate translation to a Basho haiku about mushrooms. A composer friend, Toru Takemitsu, suggested, “Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking on it.” Three years later Cage himself came up with two translations: “that that’s unknown brings mushroom and leaf together,” and, his favorite, “What leaf? What mushroom?”[3]

What Cage appreciated in the haiku, besides the oblivious — or nonexistent — mushroom, was the multiplicity of meanings contained in its seventeen syllables — a multiplicity made possible by the haiku’s ambiguous syntax. If destabilizing syntax could admit so many divergent readings, what would happen if one destabilized — or eliminated — words? Syllables? Letters? How many more meanings would be possible? Cage explores these possibilities in his 1974 work Empty Words.[4] In it, he uses aleatory methods, that is, chance operations, to systematically disassemble the journals of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words is both text and score: It was designed to turn language into music. Each of its four parts, or “lectures,” is composed of at least four thousand chance events dictated by throwing the I Ching. The first lecture eliminates sentences; and contains only phrases, words, syllables, and letters. The second lecture eliminates sentences and phrases; and contains only words, syllables, and letters. The third lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, and words; and contains only syllables and letters. The final lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, words, and syllables; and contains only letters.

Cage intended the performance of the work to last overnight, with three half-hour intermissions between lectures for the audience to eat. The final lecture would be accompanied by projected images from Thoreau’s journals (also selected and placed in the text according to chance operations), and would be timed to coincide with the dawn. The doors would open and the ambient sounds of the morning would mingle with the linguistic “music” of Empty Words.

* * *

Cage’s methods may have been chance-determined, but his choice of Thoreau could not have been more deliberate. (Cage himself grants that, had he applied the same aleatory procedures to Finnegan’s Wake, or to a non-English text, the resulting work would have been very different.[5]) In the journals, Thoreau’s observations exhibit a disciplined clarity that evokes the wide, non-judging perception associated with Zen. He describes the eyes of an owl and the patterns made by the first frost of the season. In summer, he notes the flowering of the white vervain, checkerberry, spikenard, orchis.

As linguistic material, Thoreau’s journals are no less attentive, no less earth-bound. In Empty Words, we recognize over and over allusions to the cardinal directions (“santwh cur of gen M. more ingSouth them,” “neighborhood youaou is ngdspruongrwestd!” “makingGod on the southeast slopes on”), and to colors (“star quite handsome orange,” “greenness trifolia sky,” “ingray-brown pull nover high ofa e”). Thoreau is just as scrupulous about noting times of day (“notAt evening,” “morning oldgolden andbubble ground,” “noonOthasndry sn nglth e Dr. B the I ee tw”) and Latin species names (“Lysimachia lanceolataare,” “amtheleavesand andFringillareawakened,” “Lechedtyon Vi the terin theoth y”).[6] Oaks, white maples, and blackberries haunt the text, becoming more and more indistinct as the work progresses.

“Meaning,” determined as it is by linguistic and cultural conventions, begins to shimmer. Take, for example, this stanza:

beneathboards in militsvexground

     comes hawk

within some Isoff owlafiftythem[7]

Like the hawk itself, traditional meaning appears, and then gradually, through the chance-driven compounding of words, flies off. Rather than being compulsory, it is merely a point our attention moves toward, and returns from.

We witness this movement on the syntactic level, too:

                                               to which of the fire
overfelt mebut yet mingled red and green
               about a three espassing over it[8]

Here, a relative clause abuts a prepositional phrase, neither of which has any discernible antecedent. Does “red,” placed after “mingled,” function as an adverb or a noun? What does “it” — nested so deeply within what are ostensibly clauses — refer to? Cage attempted to “demilitarize” language by releasing it from syntax, but it is, on the contrary, the insistence of syntax that makes possible so many divergent readings — that paradoxically liberates it.

Consider the following, taken from the fourth lecture:


h opls e ar as
                                     a eolsstr eu rSp
                           dsbyM h n l re R s ny
              n pr tt Tk sn r ndl llth ksshd
e inat tnthrn ts oe iai twsh.   M es    o rm

                ck          tl hchm                         eihe
                  re                                       y r
                     Stro                  thndB  e
     a   e     kP.    M.      Tho                e
rse  h                             u                 ca           i
               i  s,  s  r
                              ing       ymbf     Chdh             llk
                 n                                            o  n
           stwn                                          r       dyd   ntly,
   thhtlytr                             a


In performance, units that evoke ocean (“oea / ann”) and star (“eolsstr”) are separated by long periods of silence, in which ambient sounds might intervene, and the mind might wander, before being brought back to attention by Cage’s articulation of the next sound. (In his performances of Empty Words, Cage sometimes lets minutes go by in this kind of apparent silence.) In “twsh” and “ksshd” we hear the snap of a sheet drying in the wind, the sound of a boot breaking through the crust of ice that has formed on a puddle. The mind moves from the particular instance to the idea, or chain of ideas, the word evokes. In the voiceless fragments “eihe” and “h,” the sound is the sense: breath.

Given Cage’s method and his theoretical concerns (which he articulates in the introductions that precede each lecture), it is fairly straightforward to identify some of the ways in which Empty Words — both as text and as score — means. But might there be another, more arcane valence of meaning revealed by Cage’s meticulous process?

* * *

Ferdinand de Saussure devoted three years and ninety-nine notebooks to research on anagrams. The French title of the published notes, Les mots sous les mots, suggests that the process was like excavation, looking beneath words to find hidden meanings. Central to his research was the concept of the poetic hypogram, a fragmented version of a “theme word,” usually a name, which is dispersed and circulated throughout the text. In the line of Saturnian Latin verse, “Taurasia Cīsauna Samnio cēpit,” for example, Saussure uncovered “Scīpio,” the name of the man (Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus) the lines honor.[10]

“The hypogram,” Saussure writes, “is very much concerned with emphasizing a name, a word, making a point of repeating its syllables, and in this way giving it a second, contrived being added, as it were, to the original of the word.”[11] This implies that there is a link between the constituents of a word and the word itself; that, in the poetry Saussure studied, phonemes retain vestiges of the names they were once a part of — an idea that is as revolutionary as it is fanciful.

Saussure never conclusively proved this theory; nor did he conclusively fail. What matters to us is the fact that “he isolated a particularity of poetic functioning: that supplementary meanings slip into the verbal message, tear its opaque cloth, and rearrange another signifying scene.”[12] It may be a stretch to consider the text of Empty Words to be the hypogrammatic “residue” of all fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s journals, but we can nonetheless draw on Saussure’s ideas to determine, for example, what “r h nt rt nyncy” could possibly mean — and, perhaps more importantly, how it could possibly mean.

Baudrillard compares the operation of the poetic hypogram to annihilation: “The name of God, torn limb from limb, dispersed into its phonemic elements as the signifier, is put to death, haunts the poem and rearticulates it in the rhythm of its fragments, without ever being reconstituted in it as such.”[13] To him, each fragment — hypogrammatic or not — reminds the reader of what has been lost. (Even though the name of God is torn apart, the specter of God remains, and haunts the poem.)

In Empty Words, it is tempting to attribute the phonemes’ multiple possible meanings not to any hypogrammatic alchemy, but to Cage’s process. After all, he set out deliberately to break down Thoreau’s language (and to tell us that that is what he is doing): of course the fragments are going to suggest the words they came from. However, it must be stressed that Saussure never proved that poets used hypograms as a method of composition. What matters, then, is not the “why,” but the simple, observable fact that the fragment suggests meaning beyond itself.

Consider the following:

                the er think three – rind-in the
oftheshaldol ifis andhard Coloingdis
                Monto ahisgold in de weeds should in and
oncealedso with asun lyby sim Pond[14]

Might “Co” in “Coloingdis” have originally been part of “Concord”? Or “Thoreau and Company,” pencil makers? Perhaps. For those listening to the performance (on whom the initial capital would be lost), it may suggest “cottage,” “cloudy,” or “factory” — all likely possibilities given Thoreau’s lexicon (and Cage’s process). 

Likewise, “oncealedso” could be a composite of “once a led so,” “onc[e] [s]ealed so,” or “[c]oncealed so.” (Unless we have read the entire journal, though, the “lost meaning” we recover, or, rather, the lost meaning each fragment suggests, is not the journal itself, but our idea of it.)

So the text, especially in its earlier sections, asks the attentive listener to hold different ways of meaning and different chronologies of meaning in a kind of negative capability, in disciplined Zen attention. Empty Words becomes a palimpsest, with all possible meanings leaving their traces on the text.

Indeed, if the fragment can contain links to a presumed “original” whole, why could it not contain links to every whole it might possibly be? In

cm orv rthtnhu t strs ws
                               art ainS o nt in
              sh chi htndSpsca[15]

“strs” could originally have been starlings, streams, stutters. Could it not also be stairmasters, strippers, stoplights? And why limit our readings to English? “t u as glass”[16] and “leaf oneRain aler”[17] have lovely possibilities in French.

I am not asking these questions to be perverse. Rather, I am asking whether the possible signification of Cage’s text is limited by the text from which it is drawn: do the words in Thoreau’s journals describe the boundaries of Empty Words, or do they open the text to a multitude of possibilities? And if this is the case, might reading be less like murder and more like reassembling the body of Osiris?[18]

I think it is both. One would be hard pressed to look at the unit “nt” and claim that it does not seem to be missing something. So on this level, yes, the fragments emphasize their own incompleteness. However, I would venture that this very incompleteness gives the text its meaning. The fragment, according to Steve McCaffery, “contaminates the notion of an ideal, unitary meaning and thereby counters the supposition that words can fix or stabilize in closure.”[19]

On first read, McCaffery’s conclusion seems overly ambitious. If the fragment is indeterminate, must it necessarily follow that the word from which it originated is also indeterminate? In Empty Words, yes. Cage’s process, in the way that it systematically divides and combines units of meaning, reminds us that words themselves are configurations of interchangeable parts, assembled according to phonetic conventions. Just as the ostensibly incomplete words (“nt,” “de”) allude to all of their possible “wholes,” the hybrid words (“oneRain,” “oftheshaldol”) allude to all of the possible words they comprise. Just as Co could be Concord, so too could Concord be Co, acorn, raccoon. And because it could be any of these, it must be none of them — it must remain open.

“A,” then, is above all a symbol of indeterminacy. The fragments in Empty Words, by retaining links to words they comprise, words they may have been, and words they may yet become, keep the text porous — so much so that when the work dissolves into “emptiness,” it is, paradoxically, full of inchoate meaning.

* * *

When Cage performed parts of Empty Words at the Naropa Institute in 1974, people jeered and threw things. When he performed it in Milan in 1977, the audience of 3,000 divided into camps: some audience members tried to destroy the slide projector Cage was using; others fought them off. One person smashed the bulb in Cage’s reading light; another screwed a new bulb in. Someone even took off Cage’s reading glasses then, on second thought, placed them carefully back on Cage’s face.[20] One can see why audiences may have felt threatened: Empty Words can justifiably be described as pretentious, a work accessible only to an educated coterie. Visually and sonically, it is hostile to conventional notions of sense and harmony. Yet Cage did not intend only to provoke.

“The word at the center of [Cage’s] appreciation of sound is beauty,” writes David Revill in Roaring Silence.[21] Indeed, Cage famously used the word “beautiful” to describe the sounds of traffic and the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. But his is not the kind of essentializing beauty by whose simplistic definition the sound of traffic would be considered discordant — ugly, even. Beauty for Cage admits uncertainty and change, chance and imperfection. Conceived this way, it “[troubles] unquestioned categories, values, and generalized truth …. Beauty troubles sameness because it embodies difference.”[22]

Other poets and scholars who have been talking about beauty recently take a similar tack, pointing out the ways in which beauty is fraught, while affirming that it is nonetheless something real, charged, potent. Karla Kelsey suggests that it is a movement of mind, a way of perceiving.[23] Elizabeth Robinson offers this definition: “beauty is by definition imperfect: partial, transitory, and yet willing to embrace the valuations that are intrinsic to the pleasure we take in perceiving beauty.”[24] There is a wonderful double meaning here that I am sure she intended: beauty is partial in that it can never fully be realized; and beauty is partial in that it is biased — it is connected to ideology. Robinson implies here that qualities like “imperfection” and “value” can coexist.

The sound of traffic may have been beautiful to Cage because it did not seek to “mean”; it sought only to be. Likewise the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. Unlike the table, however, Empty Words is entirely dependent on traditional habits of meaning-making. The distinctions among sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and letters delineate each of its four lectures, thereby constituting the framework of the piece. Syntax, phonics, sound, process, and even the obscure signification of Saussure’s hypograms all become more pronounced as the mind attempts to impose their rules and conventions on Cage’s text.

Yet it is not the rules themselves, but their “failure” that gives Empty Words its artistic energy. The furtive, unruly fragments in Empty Words resist containment and preclude definitive interpretation. They activate multiple registers of sense at once, generating myriad shifting, partial meanings. Perhaps most importantly, they destabilize our notions of sense and closure by exposing the mechanics of our different systems of meaning-making. Here, then, is the subversive beauty that Robinson and others describe.

Joan Retallack asks us to consider the implications of the beautiful, radical shifts Empty Words requires of us: “Might it be possible to move through our lives in other ways, guided by other processes and structures, perceiving connections, even constellations lost to our habitual grammars, seeing the side streets, getting lost and discovering something new?”[25] In a linguistic universe dominated by the cant of politics, religion, war, and commerce, this task is increasingly urgent — a poethical imperative. When reading the paper, shopping for groceries, passing by a billboard, we would do well to remember Cage’s translation of Basho’s haiku: “What leaf?” he asks. “What mushroom?”



1. Lucy Kavaler, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi (New York: John Day, 1965), 45.

2. John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1994).

3. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (New York: Knopf, 2010), 261. 

4. Cage, Empty Words (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).

5. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 150.

6. Cage, Empty Words, 8, 20, 28, 25, 18, 37, 12, 37, 61, 30, 49, 62.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Ibid., 14.

9. Ibid., 71.

10. Jean Starobinski, Words Upon Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 16.

11. Ibid., 18.

12. Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams,” in Tel Quel Reader, ed. Patrick French and Roland-François Lack (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 293.

13. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993), 199. 

14. Cage, Empty Words, 52.

15. Ibid., 54.

16. Ibid., 15.

17. Ibid., 55.

18. Starobinski, Words Upon Words, 20.

19. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 196.

20. Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 130–133.

21. David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, a Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), 123.

22. Steven Taylor, “Beauty Trouble: Identity and Difference in the Tradition of the Aesthetic,” in Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, ed. Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 389.

23. Karla Kelsey, “Attention in the Garden: Beauty as an Act of Mind,” Five Fingers Review no. 23.

24. Elizabeth Robinson, “The Ecology of Beauty (And the Vulnerability of the Perceiver),” Not Enough Night (Fall 2006).

25. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 223.

'Building a nest out of torn up letters'

James Schuyler, trash, and the poetics of collage

James Schuyler in Calais, VT, late 1960s. Photo by Joe Brainard.

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,”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[[7] 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.[8]

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.[[9] 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).[[10]

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.[[11] 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.[12]

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.”[13] 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.”[14]

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.”[15] 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.”[16]

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.”[17] 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).[18] 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.”[19] 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

Jacqueline Cochran
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.[20]

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.[21] 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.”[22]

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:[[23]

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).[24]

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.”[[25]

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” [8]), Ron Silliman titling a poem “Sunset Debris,” or Brenda Coultas creating catalogs of things pulled from dumpsters in “A Bowery Project.” [26]

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.[27]

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
splash splash

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.[[28]

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.”[29] 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.”[30] 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:

Balance checkbook.
Rid lawn of onion grass.
“this patented device”
“this herbicide”
“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.[31]

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.[[32] 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.”[33] 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.[34]

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.



1. David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 266.

2. Howard Moss, “James Schuyler: Whatever is Moving,” American Poetry Review 10 (May/June 1981): 14.

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.

4. James Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Noonday, 1993), 43.

5. Schuyler, “An Interview with James Schuyler,” interview by Robert Thompson, Denver Quarterly 26 (1992): 116.

6. Douglas Crase, “A Voice Like the Day,” Poetry 163, no. 4 (January 1994): 231.

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 [2009].).

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 [2002]: 43–68), Mark Ford (“Like a Lily Daché Hat,” Poetry Review 92–93 [2002]), 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 [1985]: 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]).

13. Quoted in Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 26.

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).

16. Schuyler, Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951–1991, ed. William Corbett (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2004), 239.

17. Schuyler, Selected Art Writings, ed. Simon Pettet (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow, 1998), 281.

18. Spring, Fairfield Porter, 278, 373n2.

19. Schuyler, interview by Carl Little, 166.

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”).

22. Quoted in Spring, Fairfield Porter, 254.

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 [1995]: 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).

29. Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996), 25–31.

30. Ted Berrigan, Collected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

31. Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

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.

33. Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems, ed. Louis Untermeyer (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1971), 108.

34. Kenneth Goldsmith, The Weather (Los Angeles, Make Now, 2005); Robert Fitterman, Sprawl (Los Angeles, Make Now, 2010).

James Schuyler's 'Freely Espousing'

Images from Trevor Winkfield's cover for 'Freely Espousing' (SUN reprint, 1979).

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.[1

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.[2]

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.[3] 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)[4] 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
      mowers clack.
No, it is absolutely forbidden
for words to echo the act described; or try to. Except very directly
as in
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”:[5] 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.”[6] 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.



1. James Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), 238.

2. Ibid., 252.

3. Schuyler, Freely Espousing (Garden City, NY: Paris Review Editions/Doubleday, 1969), 13–14.

4. “James Schuyler: An Interview By Mark Hillringhouse,” The American Poetry Review 14 (March/April 1985), 8.

5. Geoff Ward, Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets, 2nd ed. (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave, 2001), 23.

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.