A Schuyler of urgent concern

James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel, 1989. Photo by J. M. Baron.

Just a little more than twenty years after his death, James Schuyler seems to be doing well, thank you. The bulk of his work is in print (his collected and uncollected poems, three of his novels, and his letters), while the out of print materials (his art criticism, his diaries) are easy and still relatively cheap to come by. The reception of his unpublished poems, Other Flowers, two years ago was hugely positive and offered reviewers an opportunity to make big claims for Schuyler’s achievement, such as Dan Chiasson’s lovely statement that “James Schuyler is a supreme poet of articulated consciousness” or Ange Mlinko’s judgment that “the weight of the world is a ballast against the levitating effect of James Schuyler's courteous English, which made him our most angelic poet: full of air, intelligence, light.”

Nevertheless, Schuyler still doesn’t quite fit. He might be well respected but there are, as yet, almost no studies of him. (This will change, one hopes, with the publication of Nathan Kernan’s biography.) Everyone likes Schuyler, to be sure, but few people try to write like him. Schuyler is in part to blame for this situation, because he made his agility look easy and so let his extraordinary artfulness be mistaken for an aw-shucks immediacy. He was, as he maintained in an interview, anything but a realist. Nevertheless, this admired member of the “last avant-garde” has not made a direct claim on the avant-gardes that have come after him — you can hear odd echoes here and see short, sharp glimmers there, but he gets little of the full-throated emulation that goes to Ashbery and O’Hara.

I think this has to do with that commitment to consciousness, with Schuyler’s admitted distrust of the unconscious. So much experimental writing of the last century has tried to make good on Rimbaud’s claim that the textual “I” is an other. Schuyler’s biographical “I” often really was an other. He suffered from crippling mental illness. As a result, the steady, gazing, reflecting subject of his poetry was really a remarkably psychic accomplishment, an achievement that is hard to imitate.

With any luck, this small collection of essays, appreciations, and poems will help bring Schuyler’s wiliness and particularity more sharply into focus. The writer who emerges here is a skilled stylist (but we should already have known that); a radical collagist; a grand celebrator of small failure; as much a meditative poet as a descriptive one; our finest watercolorist of mood and a version of Benjamin’s storyteller who “bathes us in a self-reflecting death, polite yet radical.” He remains, two decades on, of urgent concern.