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The Man Who Came to Dinner

1.

The poet James Schuyler (1923– 1991) and the painter Fairfield Porter (1907–1975) met in 1952. Abstract Expressionism was at its most triumphant and seemingly irresistible, with New York poised to supplant Paris as the epicenter of modern art. The experiments of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning were beginning to influence those working in other art forms too: “New York poets,” Schuyler once observed, “except I suppose the color-blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.”

Schuyler and Porter both reviewed the work of abstract artists admiringly for ARTNews, and were among the first to praise the genius of de Kooning, whose works Porter began collecting in the mid-Thirties. The contemporary poets whose work most excited and inspired them adopted as radical an approach to words as the action painters had done to paint: Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest each found startling new ways of moving beyond the dry, ironic, New Criticism–friendly lyric that dominated the official postwar American poetry scene, composed, as Schuyler caustically observed, by “campus dry-heads”—he was probably thinking of formalist poets such as Anthony Hecht or Richard Wilbur—“who wishfully descend tum-ti-tumming from Yeats out of Graves with a big kiss for Mother England.” In his “Fresh Air” of 1955 Kenneth Koch imagined a strangler who murders these “castrati of poetry” as they set about composing odes to maple trees or the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island.

The work of Porter and Schuyler was, in turn, promoted by the leading figures in the circles of experimental artists and writers in which they moved. Yet neither Porter’s painting nor Schuyler’s poetry looks particularly avant-garde. It took concerted pressure from such artists as Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers to persuade John Bernard Myers to offer Porter his first one-man show at the Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1952: Myers was worried that Porter’s low-key realist interiors and landscapes would compromise his gallery’s reputation at the cutting edge of the new. And while the poets O’Hara and Ashbery and Koch were deliberately challenging traditional conceptions of poetry, rupturing syntax, fracturing narrative, at times almost obliterating form, Schuyler’s poetry is written—as Ashbery pointed out in an introduction to the first public reading Schuyler gave, in 1988—in “what Marianne Moore called ‘plain American which cats and dogs can read.’” “He makes sense, dammit,” Ashbery continues, “and he manages to do so without falsifying or simplifying the daunting complexity of life as we are living it today.”

In his excellent biography, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (2000), Justin Spring explores in detail the nature and development of their relationship. It was, briefly, sexual. Porter had been married for twenty years when they were introduced at the photographer Rudy Burckhardt’s house. He had four children—a fifth would be born four years later—the eldest of whom, Johnny, suffered from a severe form of autism. Porter had devoted much time in his twenties and thirties to attempting to ameliorate his son’s condition, and this undoubtedly hindered his progress as a painter. Schuyler had himself the year before suffered the first of a long series of mental breakdowns; on this occasion he believed he had talked to the Virgin Mary, who had advised him the Day of Judgment was at hand. He was hospitalized in Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains, New York, where he composed his first important poem, “Salute,” a mini ars poetica:

Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.

Although Porter’s and Schuyler’s work is nearly always considered in the context of “The New York School,” their imagery is far more often rural than urban; and while such as O’Hara or Pollock seem obsessed with capturing the competing impulses of an all-embracing present, Schuyler’s and Porter’s work often seems suffused with a multihued awareness of the different ways in which the past becomes past.

Porter’s excitement at the vistas opened up for him in the mid-Fifties by his friendships with—as well as Schuyler—Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Koch, and Jane Freilicher is palpable in the letters and articles he wrote during this period. It was the decade in which he came into his own as an artist. He had always been averse to Abstract Expressionism’s penchant for macho posturing, and to the aesthetic dictates propounded by some of its spokespersons—indeed he liked to claim that it was Clement Greenberg’s insistence that figurative painting was dead that made him decide to become a figurative painter. The more tolerant, laid-back, quizzical attitude toward life—and art—of his young friends was a crucial catalyst for him. Schuyler in particular encouraged Porter to trust what he called, in a review of an exhibition of 1962, “the freedom of his hand.”

Porter painted a number of portraits of Schuyler, most of them during summers the Porter family spent on Great Spruce Head, an island off the coast of Maine that Porter’s father (who had inherited much of the land on which Chicago’s Loop was built) had purchased in 1912. Schuyler’s first visit was in 1955, and Porter paints him in a canary-yellow shirt relaxing in a wicker chair on the porch of the eccentric house Porter’s father had designed. A discarded sunhat and furled orange and olive sun umbrella accentuate the picture’s delightful aura of summery relaxation.

In contrast, a group portrait painted nine years later on the same porch reveals some of the anxieties Porter’s intense friendship with Schuyler imposed on his family. The poet is again in a wicker chair in summer clothes, this time reading. Porter’s younger daughter, Elizabeth, holds the back of the chair, and seems to be glancing over his shoulder at his book. On the left, the older daughter, Katie, around fifteen at the time, stares into the distance, her hands awkwardly twisted. At the extreme right-hand edge Porter’s wife, Anne, peers from the garden through the porch screen at the scene her husband is painting. A tube of pigment, a trowel, and a can of brush cleaner at left increase the viewer’s awareness of the artist’s own involvement in the creation of the disturbing domestic tensions the picture so brilliantly captures.

Schuyler moved in with the Porters permanently after a serious mental collapse in the spring of 1961. “Jimmy came for a visit,” Anne Porter later quipped, “and stayed eleven years.” Those years were, Schuyler remarked in an interview of 1980, “much the happiest of my life.” His poetry and Porter’s painting developed a delicate, intricate dialogue. They shared a belief that the most important art is that which is indifferent to its own importance, and instead “values the everyday as the ultimate, the most varied and desirable knowledge,” as Schuyler put it in an article of 1967. In both Porter and Schuyler the enchantment of the scene depicted seems to derive from their fidelity to the way things happen to happen. Beneath the surface casualness may lurk all kinds of unresolved tensions, but both Schuyler and Porter privilege above all the act of description for its own sake. “To me,” Schuyler once remarked, “much of poetry is as concerned with looking at things and trying to describe them, as painting is.” Schuyler and Porter were both late starters who eventually evolved idioms that somehow manage to be at once accurate and tentative, memorable and yet provisional, lyrical, even limpid, and yet attentive to the unstable, the involuted, the random, the inexplicable.

Schuyler was without doubt the more entertaining letter writer. A number of his poems are in the form of letters, like the one from which this volume borrows its title, addressed to the poet and librettist Kenward Elmslie, thanking him for a gift:

Dear Kenward,
 What a pearl
of a letter knife. It’s just
the thing I needed, something
to rest my eyes on, and always
wanted, which is to say
it’s that of which I
felt the lack but
didn’t know of, of no
real use and yet
essential as a button
box, or maps, green
morning skies, islands and
canals in oatmeal, the steam
off oyster stew…

Schuyler’s poetry, like that of Frank O’Hara—with whom he shared an apartment in the mid-Fifties—is insistently social: neither lets us forget for long the band of friends, some famous, some not so, who provide an intimate audience for each poetic performance. Their poetry—far more than Koch’s or Ashbery’s—depends on the concept of the coterie; we are invited to imagine each poem circulating like a letter from friend to friend, from Jap (Jasper Johns) to Furl (Porter’s nickname) to Kenward to Ashes, keeping all up to date with the latest in the group’s artistic, social, and sexual adventures. But while O’Hara’s poetic bulletins register as a kind of invigorating tonic, as an injection of energy designed to keep the group “humming,” Schuyler’s more often adopt the tone of witty, graceful, sophisticated thank-you notes for kindnesses received.

Like his poetic letters, his actual letters are witty, graceful, sophisticated, but also gossipy (“FO’H and Allen de Ginsberg ‘made it’ after the grand MOMA opening. Tsk tsk”), informative, curious, occasionally waspish, intrigued and intriguing, full of amusing anecdotes, of quotations from the works of obscure enthusiasms such as Hezekiah Prince Sr. (1789–1839) or Hamlin Garland or Harriet Beecher Stowe, of shrewd responses to paintings, music, fiction, and poetry (“Eliot made the rules everybody wants to break”), of recipes and gardening tips, of advice about where to go and what to see and whom to meet and what to eat.

The first letter included here, written from Bloomingdale Hospital in 1951, congratulates a friend for having slept with Christopher Isherwood (not, it must be said, the most challenging of conquests): “Well, well, so you scalped a British-American novelist! Good for you; go it boy!” enthuses Schuyler; “Tell me all.” Nearly all the letters in the volume are to writers and painters; his chief correspondents were John Ashbery, Kenward Elmslie, the novelist Harry Mathews, the painters Joe Brainard and Trevor Winkfield, and the poet Ron Padgett.

Particularly delightful are the letters to Ashbery, who moved to France in 1955, and spent most of the next decade there. Three years earlier he and Schuyler had begun work on a collaborative novel called A Nest of Ninnies (the title is borrowed from an Elizabethan jest book) that was eventually published in 1969.* It proved impossible to proceed with this while the Atlantic divided them, for they found the novel’s prose lost a certain “nubbly, handwoven” quality when they attempted to continue it by post. Anyone who has enjoyed the dippy humor and dizzying allusiveness of A Nest of Ninnies will be royally entertained by Schuyler’s half of their correspondence. The editor of the letters, William Corbett, has had his work cut out tracking down Schuyler’s copious references to minor movie stars, radio soap operas, comic strip characters, and obscure film noirs.

  1. *

    Dutton; reprinted by Ecco in 1997.

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