New York Pastoral

Selected Poems

by James Schuyler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pp., $25.00

James Schuyler is that unlikely writer in contemporary New York, a pastoral poet. Though he has, understandably enough, been linked geographically with his friends Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch in what is called the New York School of poetry, his work, despite some superficial resemblances of form (short lines like O’Hara’s, long lines like Koch’s), is not like theirs. Schuyler is not radically allegorical, like Ashbery, but literal; he is not a social poet, like O’Hara, but a poet of loneliness; he is not comical and narrative, like Koch, but wistful and atmospheric. Though he has increasingly refused to write a “well-made poem,” he is perfectly capable of the classic neatly turned lyric (he is an admirer of Herrick). I shall consider the short lyrics later, but any commentator on Schuyler must first deal with the strange long poems that are scattered through his work, from “The Crystal Lithium” through “Hymn to Life” and “The Morning of the Poem.”

Schuyler’s long poems, undramatic journals of daily life, have been his unshowy form of aesthetic refusal; they argue, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that poetry is not a matter of the isolated Paterian moment or of important political or intellectual argument, but is rather coterminous with perception, reflection, and feeling, wherever they extend themselves. This practice has implications for living as well as for writing, and for thinking as well as for living. I associate it with pastoral because it values leisure, the sexual life, the “trivial” (as in Herrick), and retirement from the active life. The aesthetic of all-inclusiveness is particularly congenial, perhaps, to outlaws of all sorts as a displaced form of social demand: “Let me in; let all of me in.”

The sumptuary laws of poetic tradition (bringing thoughts “to Church well drest and clad”—George Herbert) have been repeatedly challenged by new, intrusive voices of the “low” or “excluded”—Wordsworth’s beggars, Frost’s mad-women, Eliot’s Wastelanders—but often, in a defensive gesture, authors have detached themselves (by means of intellectual evaluation or religious sublimity or narrative detachment) from their “outlaw” poetic surrogates. Schuyler, who is homosexual and writes openly about his homosexuality, creates no distance between himself as a writer and himself as the person encountering daily banality (as well as daily beauty):

May
Opens wide her bluest eyes and speaks in bird tongues and à
Chain saw. The blighted elms come down. Already maple saplings,
Where elms once grew and whelmed, count as young trees. In
A dishpan the soap powder dissolves under a turned-on faucet….
The sun sucks up the dew; the day is
Clear; a bird shits on my window ledge. Rain will wash it off
Or a storm will chip it loose. Life, I do not understand.
Days tick by, each so unique, each so alike: what is that chatter
In the grass?

Confessional” poets have allowed the sordid, the tedious, even the depraved parts of their lives to compose the “low” strata of …

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