James Schuyler is a supreme poet of articulated consciousness. His poems are set inside the mind but translated out of mentalese: their plot is mental but their script is companionable, even chatty. John Ashbery, our poet extraordinaire of mentalese, once affectionately griped that his friend “made sense, dammit”: not a virtue in itself (plenty of simpleminded poets make sense) but, when yoked to a mind this multifoliate, subtle, and searching, a miracle. He is the poet of ingrown courtesy, gossip in a vacuum, and remembered friendship, just as his friend Frank O’Hara—whom he often elegized—was the poet of one-on-one encounter. O’Hara famously claimed that anything he wanted to do in a poem he could do instead by “using the telephone.” Perhaps, but not if the person on the other end of the line is dead. Schuyler’s method results from the mismatch of social readiness with solitude, often with elegy. It seems to have occurred to him, sometimes, to try to act as though he were talking to God. But he didn’t have a God. Imagine George Herbert (whom Schuyler loved) without God, and you get a sense of reading Schuyler.
He had a hard, you might say tormented, life. He was born in Downers Grove, Illinois, in 1923, moved with his parents to Washington, D.C., for a time, then with his mother and a stepfather to East Aurora, New York, outside of Buffalo. He attended Bethany College in West Virginia for two years and then joined the navy. Like many artistic young people of the time, drifting from blank spot to blank spot on the American map, he became a loner; like many a loner, he mollified his solitude with reading, where he found models for how to live—as an artist, as a gay man—that his real life denied him. When he got to New York in the Forties, he found a whole group of young people in the same boat, artists and writers still winded after their narrow escapes from their pasts.
He traveled to Ischia, off the coast of Naples, where he served W.H. Auden for a time as secretary (this makes him the best poet to have played that role to another poet since Marvell worked for Milton). But things for Schuyler soon took a dark turn. Like Robert Lowell (Michael Hofmann called Schuyler “Lowell by other means”), he was a manic-depressive and many times institutionalized. When he was ill, people were afraid of him. When healthy, he was totally indebted to the fraying patience and charity of his friends, chiefly the painter Fairfield Porter, who took him in for eleven years. But by the Seventies he had more or less gone missing, living in hotels and flophouses.
He knew misery. And yet the forbearance he brings to his poems…
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