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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 their theatrically disposed personal landscapes. “Realist” poets expose the gritty underside of modernity or heroism or civilized accomplishment. Schuyler, by unfolding to its full extent the component of banality in life and thought, reveals “confessional” and “realist” works as the operatically heightened things they are. Schuyler’s long poems can set one’s teeth on edge precisely because they do not avail themselves of the kinds of dramatic momentum that other apparently artless journal-poems depend on—Ginsberg’s political oppositions, Ammons’s transcendental buoyancies, Ashbery’s quizzical metaphysics. The drama faintly visible behind Schuyler’s long poems has to be deduced from his scattered allusions to several confinements in mental hospitals, periods of addiction to pills and alcohol, and an extreme nervousness manifesting itself in social silences, insomnia, and helplessness in practical matters. There are references to antidepressants, drinking, Antabuse, A.A. And yet, in spite of the bad biological hand that has been dealt him, Schuyler exhibits, especially in the long poems, a sunflower-like turning to life—a life hardly, it would seem, livable, but one represented often as ecstatic.

In fact, Schuyler’s earliest chosen pastoral precursor, on the evidence of the youthful poems, was the rapturous Gerard Manley Hopkins; and anyone who has Hopkins’s nature poetry by heart will hear its music underneath Schuyler’s early work, rich in phonemic orchestration:

   the glorious swamp flower
skunk cabbage and the tight uncurling punchboard slips
of fern fronds. Toned, like patched, wash-faded rags.

Wallace Stevens’s voice rises in Schuyler’s landscape poems too, shorn of its Tennysonian dying fall. Stevens will say, “The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen,” his beautiful pentameter turning to falling trochees under one’s very eyes. Schuyler will be emphatically American, and say, “All the leaves / are down except / the few that aren’t,” a remark one could hear in Maine (where Schuyler used to stay with the Fairfield Porters). Stevens says with grammatical elegance, “It was snowing / And it was going: to snow.” Schuyler says, in country tones, “No / snow yet but / it will snow.” One could argue that the change from Stevens’s lines to Schuyler’s lines represents one more episode in the emancipation of American pastoral from English tones.

To Hopkins and Stevens, Schuyler added Gertrude Stein; she was useful to him because of her mixture of homely domestic nonsense with tenderness. In a poem that we could call a modern urban pastoral, Schuyler is steaming out wrinkles in some neckties, and writing a love song in his head to the far-away person who gave him the ties:

Sometimes even yet or now, I mean, I forget for a few
sad minutes how unalone I
am, steaming ties you gave
me, ties are, yes even ties,
are silk and real.

And Frank O’Hara’s genial writing, urging the claims of the personal life, seems to have encouraged Schuyler to think that an unassuming voice might have a right to call itself poetic.

Helped in part by the example of such predecessors, Schuyler eventually found his own poetics lying just aslant from the way others—even his contemporaries—used words. An early love song in the form of a villanelle begins,

I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

That third line could stand as an epigraph to all Schuyler’s verse: How can one not see, or not grant the nature of what one sees, all of it? And yet the unnamed lover in the poem does not acknowledge by day what was done the night before. Schuyler’s reproach to the lover is also a defense of the truth-telling urge of his own poetics of sexual acceptance:

Words’ meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say.

You would hate, when with me, to meet by day
What at night you met and did not think wrong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

Reticent though it is, this is a poem in defense of “coming out”:

I am as shy as you. Try as we may,
only by practice will our talks prolong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

Schuyler called this villanelle simply “Poem”—a title poets invoke when what they have written seems to them to touch some rock-bottom sense of their own poetics. From this touching classic exercise, and its “naive” and almost helpless admission that there is no way to keep the wraps on natural “inscapes,” it is perhaps no great leap to late Schuyler and his revelations of the banal. Here is one morning’s awakening on display:

   I’m no good at interpreting
dreams. Hands fumble with clothes, and just at the delirious moment I wake up:
Is a wet dream too much to ask for? Time for a cigarette. Why are pleasures bad for you?
But how good the tobacco smoke tastes. Uhm. Blow smoke rings if you can. Or
blow me: I could do with a little carnal relief. The yard slopes down to a swampy bit,
then fields rise up where cows are pastured. They do nothing all day but eat:
filling their faces so they’ll have a cud to chew on. I’m not uncowlike myself: life as a
continuous snack. Another ham- salad sandwich and then goodbye.

This passage is neither so campy as some in Schuyler’s writing nor so bittersweet as others, but it can stand as a fairly random sample of the problems raised by Schuyler’s later work. Refusing the earlier charms of the insistent urgency and phonetic resonance that recalled Hopkins, it finds the humdrum more frequently on display than the momentous; it is suspicious of any transcendental explanation of life; it is relentlessly open to the more ignoble hints and nudges of the body; it is self-deprecating and jokey; its flow of consciousness seems uncensored and nerveless.

The reader tempted to indict the later work on the grounds of poetic convention may find, however, a self-indictment waiting in the wings: Who is to say that wet dreams and being blown are ignoble? Is the sublime better than a joke? Are closure and drama indispensable to all aesthetic acts? To a reader enamored of reticence, intellectual phrasing, complex structures, or conspicuous ornament, Schuyler’s talky, linear, patchy, pastoral daybooks, with their modest gamut of conversational tones, can seem diffuse and unsatisfying. To the admirer of Whitman, on the other hand, Schuyler can seem Whitman’s legitimate heir (though without Whitman’s astonishing imaginative flights—“I am stucco’d with birds and quadrupeds all over”).

Schuyler’s short poems often make an indelible impression. Among “The Payne-Whitney Poems” is one called “What,” in which the misery of being confined in a mental hospital—groggy from medication, subject to loneliness and horrible noises, doubting even one’s own vocation—is wonderfully and briefly rendered by the fretful questions (summed up in the title) of the first two stanzas. Then an unexpected grace is conferred by the eye’s lighting on flowers:

WHAT

What’s in those pills?
After lunch and I can
hardly keep my eyes
open. Oh, for someone
to
talk small talk with.
Even a dog would do.

Why are they hammering
iron outside? And what
is that generator whose
fierce hum comes in
the window? What is a
poem, anyway.

The daffodils, the heather
and the freesias all
speak to me, I speak
back, like St Francis
and the wolf of Gubbio.

It is Schuyler’s long and honest investigation of how natural species speak to him, and in what human settings, that makes his work worth attention. The opulent landscapes by Darragh Park that have adorned Schuyler’s book jackets—dunes, grass, and water on Selected Poems, purple loosestrife and rose of Sharon on A Few Days—point up the difference between the task, in this respect, of the painter and the poet: the painter trusts his shapes and colors alone to carry the weight of expressive feeling; the poet, even in a nature poem, generally must add some explicit description or analysis of a human situation. The visual speaks so forcibly by itself to Schuyler that he is almost tempted to try the painter’s way, and some of his best poems restrain themselves from moral explicitness while presenting a moral insight through patterned and colored shapes. One such poem, “A Gray Thought,” sets three natural greens (lilac leaves, lichens, and evergreens) against a gray autumnal sky:

In the sky a gray thought
ponders on three kinds of green:
Brassy tarnished leaves of lilacs
holding on half-heartedly and long….
On a trunk, pale Paris green…
lichens, softly colored, hard in durance…
And another green, a dark thick green
to face the winter, laid in layers on
the spruce and balsam or in foxtail
bursts on pine in springy shapes
that weave and pierce
the leafless and unpatterned woods.

This is Schuyler’s stoic meditation on the ways growth can persist in spite of intellectual bleakness and an absence of summer’s patterns (a Stevensian theme par excellence). Life can be maintained by persistence (lilacs), by endurance (lichens), and by new kinds of interest (evergreens). The moral is drawn in painterly ways, rather than in philosophical ones. Each of the three tenacious greens grows on the eye, as the gray upper level closes all three in against a background of aesthetic deprivation—“the leafless and unpatterned woods.” And although, as I’ve said, the theme may be Stevensian, the rhythms here are entirely Schuyler’s, as springy as the evergreen shapes, and as vagrant and wayward as the tentative exchanges between instruments in chamber music.

A Schuyler poem almost always cherishes unplanned patterns. The delicate moment of the apparently aleatory, in poetry as in music, is an exquisite effect when it comes off, and can make “planned” poetry seem domineering, just as Schuyler’s unemphatic gestures—light, unpossessive, relinquishing—can make others’ tones seem melodramatic. Schuyler’s romantic impressionism has a morality behind it—a morality of receptiveness and absence of ego:

The day
offers so much, holds
so little or is it
simply you who
asking too much take
too little? It is
merely morning
so always marvelously
gratuitous and undemanding,
freighted with messages
and meaning.

The defects of Schuyler’s qualities, especially in the long poems, are easy to list—chattiness, inconsequentiality, ingenuousness, banality, campiness. I have read him for years with the partial incomprehension of one less alive to visual effects than he, and one less willing to investigate the aleatory. Yet he can bring even a reluctant reader to admiration. A prose poem about a yard sale, “Used Handkerchiefs 5x$,” sums up Schuyler’s attractive openness, in which a Wordsworthian “wise passiveness” is rewarded by a treasure unasked for. In the middle of the random chaos of the yard sale (used handkerchiefs—“Clean used ones, of course”—postcards, an old Motorola gramophone) Schuyler sees his companion descend from the “trash-and-treasures loft” with what is to be today’s chance sample of beauty:

a slab of undyed linen its silverness yellowing like a teaspoon from egg yolk, ironed with too cool an iron so the washing crush marks make a pattern over the weave and, above the thick welt of the hem, a cross-stitched border of spruce and juniper unstylized (unless style is simply to choose) in shades of drab that sink in, or emerge from: the hand towel of today, embroidered forty-some maybe years ago.

Hopkins would have liked this writing, with its exquisite texture of letters and sounds, its slipping from description to theory of style, its noticing of visual affects, both accidental (crush marks) and intended (cross-stitching). In this affectionate piece, Schuyler allies himself with an American pastoral aesthetic of the found, the cared-for, and the homemade—with Stevens’s Tennessee gray jar and home-sewed, hand-embroidered sheet, with Elizabeth Bishop’s doilies and hand-carved flute “Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?” says Bishop’s Crusoe. Gradually American poetry has become more authentically a home production, and James Schuyler’s life work, now available in this handsome selection, has sought out and often found sights, idioms, and rhythms that are genuinely part of American cultural experience.

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