A poem by Stephen Paul Miller
“It’s Hard to Explain What You Really Like about Rick Perry Anymore”
It’s hard to explain what you really like about poetry anymore.
When I was 17, no I was 25, but 24 or 5 was my poetry 17,
I spoke with John Ashbery about getting poetry out there
And he said let’s keep it our secret, but I think there are 2 Ashberies,
2 of me too, because who likes poetry? Let me explain.
Someone once said I don’t like poetry but I like what you do.
Poetry that is poetry is corn. I know that Ashbery really likes poetry
But underneath it all he knows better. That’s why you like what he does.
He has to hate poetry to like poetry. But owning up to that would make him
The teen I will always be. Some truths are inconvenient. But Ashbery can
Conveniently undermine and trump and qualify and digress from the truth
As it sails over. These things are not supposed to happen yet they do.
Stretching the truth if not overriding it pops the language qua language
Out of poetry, through the theater, and into the hyper definition of your
Weird heart. But Ashbery may not be the greatest poet of the last third
Of the last century. John A. said it was James Schuyler and I believe HIM.
If Ashbery and Schuyler are the two great late twentieth century poets
It is through diametrically opposite though similarly motivated strategies.
Ashbery like a great yet understated Abstract Expressionist painter
Marks shifting frames in alternating objective and subjective authenticities
Wearing one another’s nametags. In other words, he avoids the bull of
So-called poetry by avoiding breaking the plane of real poetry, by being
Strong enough to resist meaning anything outside poetry.
He does not take the bait. Or if he bites he keeps masking the taste,
Spitting it out, getting other stomachs, whatever it takes to mix spookily
Comic cosmic metaphors. But Schuyler does something different.
He takes objects and grinds them into film, I mean like Stan Brakhage,
And “Moth Light” has been on YouTube for years now. Ashbery
Marvels at how Schuyler is not only good but means something,
But only able to do that by “Freely Espousing,” by lapping language
Against itself within its diminutive super bowl: “a commingling sky”
“Cast[ing] the blackest shadow” from the Adam’s rib of “a semi-tropic
Night” that also is “the easily torn, untrembling banana leaf.” In a sense,
“Freely Espousing” is a Kenneth Koch meat in the
Sandwich of another poem-essay, the point spilling out of its eyes is that
“Freely Espousing” lists “marriages of the atmosphere” such as
“Oh it is inescapable kiss” “and tickle” and “Quebec … Steubenville
Is better?” and “the sinuous beauty of words like allergy/the tonic
Resonance of/pill when used as in / “she is a pill.” And yet the euphoria
Of the freely espoused doth bespeak the Schuyler poetry persona,
The truth consistent with that constantly put in his own humbly
Self-topping way. So he’s not that different than Ashbery
Though stagecraft is important too. Schuyler speaking through
Himself is like the “couple who / when they fold each other up / well,
Thrill. That’s their story.” Against this backdrop, using this moth
Light stuff, stuff of thing (thing from the Old English for “coming
Together”) light, Schuyler tells stories of lost stories. “Cultural
Treasures” “have an origin” that the cultured “cannot contemplate
Without horror” (Benjamin). “Back,” within Schuyler’s
“The Payne Whitney Poems” suite paradoxically recalls
These forgotten origins in Benjamin-like mode: “from the Frick. … /
It was nice / to see the masterpieces again, / covered with the striker’s
Blood. / What’s with art anyway, that / we give it such precedence? /
I love the painting that’s for sure. / What I really loved today
Was New York, its streets have / men selling flowers and hot dogs
In them.” “Back” values the street life of New York above that
City’s “masterpieces.” You can just see the “hot dogs” in “flowers”
Seeming more of the day yet somehow more like art. “Back”
Also demonstrates relationships amongst beauty and
The relatively poor and the seemingly uncultured. Ultimately, however,
Juxtaposing Walter Benjamin magnifies for me a slight but huge
Distinction between how to view redemption. For Christians,
And Schuyler during his last years was an Episcopalian,
The messiah has already come and his return will merely restore
Some kind of order and balance. However, for Jews such as Benjamin
And the teen, pre-poet, late sixties, and now and again me,
The messiah “brush[es] history against the grain.” The two messiahs,
Even if the same damn messiah, couldn’t be more different. Oddly,
If only in this respect, Judaism becomes diametrically more radical.
We see this in how Schuyler’s “A Few Days” perpetually prefigures
Death a-coming to end the poem, the death of the poet’s mother
Anticipating the poet’s premonitions of his own imminent death.
Thus the poem is in several ways a perfect story in accord with
How Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” describes one. For Benjamin,
Stories have been replaced by information, data and literate knowledge,
They supplant worldly experiences craftspeople and travelers
Tell like a comingling sky for storytelling likes loose causal
Connections and the proximity of death but modern life demands
Taking strict causality seriously. Modernity puts death behind a hospital curtain
But “A Few Days” see through it, doggedly, with one of Schuyler’s
Most paradigmatic and personal moves, describing plants and vegetation
And other natural subjects like the weather with enthusiastic and reverential
Albeit at times whimsical attention. Schuyler affirms experience and, further,
Death is not usually far from the most forefront in “A Few Days” and
Its musing. Like Frank O’Hara Schuyler’s “A Few Days”
Uses death doubly, to sharpen all that it relates, true,
But also with the greatest specificity. Death becomes a counter to life
Necessary in the linking of its most unrelated its constituents, and
“A Few Days” does the hard work of integrating death within and to
Loosely associated Benjaminesque storytelling components in a long
Poem whereas “The Day Lady Died” shocks us with death’s sudden
Aptness, eating up by first putting it in a sandwich that is all that is
And was and will be everything near and dear to the poem’s speaker.
Both “A Few Days” and “The Day Lady Died” respond to the impersonal
And seemingly objective public space discussed by the early Schuyler
Muse/influence (and subject within “A Few Days”) W. H. Auden
In his “Musée des Beaux Arts” and elsewhere wherein we are
Shown to be depressingly cold to a hot cool of death. “Musée des
Beaux Arts” comments on our excruciating need for Schuyler’s
Benjaminian storytelling mode. Within terms set by this flaky mini-essay,
“A Few Days” immaculately, wonderfully, even magically awaits a death
That if perhaps a part of a welcome, irrefutable order, nonetheless,
This order made accessible through the partial inaccessibility of
Language, bathes us in a self-reflecting death, polite yet radical.