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A Hat off a Yacht…’

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Estate of Joe Brainard
James Schuyler, Calais, Vermont, late 1960s; photograph by Joe Brainard

1.

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 is so total and final as to amount to happiness. Everything in his work returns to the mean, whatever its natural gravity or buoyancy: we are on another planet from Lowell’s boomeranging poems, the wild Brahmin “free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.” Even Schuyler’s hospital poems seem tranquil rather than tranquilized. Here is Payne Whitney Hospital as it seemed to Schuyler in 1975:

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s:
tomorrow I’ll think about
that. Always nervous, even
after a good sleep I’d like
to climb back into. The sun
shines on yesterday’s new-
fallen snow and yestereven
it turned the world to pink
and rose and steel-blue
buildings. Helene is restless:
leaving soon. And what then
will I do with myself? Some-
one is watching morning
TV. I’m not reduced to that
yet. I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.

And here, for contrast, is Lowell at McLean’s, in Belmont, Massachusetts, twenty years earlier, writing in “Waking in the Blue”:

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

Lowell, in his quiet way, is a showboat: “Waking in the Blue” is a kind of demented class play, its theatricality guaranteed by verbs like “swashbuckles” and “horses.” Schuyler’s poem, by contrast, tunes language to the deprecated conditions it describes. It is a little box (standard width, stock length) with consciousness caroming around inside: beauty is always a possible outcome (“I wish one could press/snowflakes in a book like flowers”) but the odds are always against it, and Schuyler will not rig the game.

Gamblers believe in something called the “guesser’s disadvantage,” the idea that people do better when they bet according to a fixed pattern than when they bring to every new roll of the dice a new hunch about its result. Poetry (like craps) is managed chance, called (over the ages) by other names: inspiration, the unconscious, “craft.” Poets tend to be guessers, revving it up afresh for each new imaginative occasion. “Every attempt is a wholly new start,” Eliot writes, “and a different kind of failure.” But Schuyler is not a guesser: he does not make the Eliotic “new start,” nor could he say what O’Hara (in “To the Harbormaster”) said of himself: “I am always tying up/and then deciding to depart.” Schuyler makes the same bet—on passivity, on observation, on a low simmer of moods—every time. This limits his range, but not his scale: what falls inside the allowable parameters has to exemplify “the profoundest order”:

Help me
find the paradox I look for:
the profoundest order is revealed
in what is most casual, these humped and cat-
ty cornered cubes, the wind,
so you’re planning to be sad
or casual
as a hat
off a yacht,
afloat
in a cove.

Schuyler’s work is full of unsurprising, unobjectionable axioms: it does not exactly explode the limits of a person’s being to assent to the idea that “the casual” might be “profound.” It is hard to describe Schuyler’s poetry without resorting to the rather weak notion that what it does is “ennoble” or “glorify” the “ordinary.” But the ordinary had been long since covered by poetry, and adding to its contents a hangnail here, a ruptured sphincter there, doesn’t alter it conceptually. I would say that since by the time Schuyler wrote there was no frontier left within the ordinary, the ordinary was no longer a frontier. What is new in Schuyler is the depiction of mind as it motors ahead, whatever the terrain: roadblocks and hazards, all of it. It turns out that some people’s brains are more interesting than others, more likely to stand up to an art (or anti-art) of longhand transcription.

Schuyler is sometimes compared to Elizabeth Bishop (another poet whose fidelity to everyday things has been misunderstood) since both sift insight through the matter of visual perception. And yet they see things very differently. Bishop tends to focus on discrete things, often at close range or from estranging points of view (the top of a mast, a bus stopping then lurching ahead), while Schuyler monitors passing perceptual traffic. Bishop narrows seeing to a single, intense point; Schuyler dilates it slightly, allowing in the activity at the fringe. Whatever enters the visual frame is already headed out. His interest is in the passing of time’s observable forms, time inscribed on fading or gathering light or on clouds as they drift across the sky:

The sky this almost-evening afternoon
is swamp water frozen
into wind-ridged ice out of which
stick bearded straws. (A big
four-footed beast runs, skids and falls
and lies there, lifting its
noble antlered head with a surprised
tricked look of a neophyte bike-riding child
who took a spill then frighteningly, thrashing,
finds its footing and is gone.) Then it
breaks up a bit
and shows a bright blue baby fist.

Making shapes out of clouds, practically the insignia of mental drift, sponsors this spasm of rather lazy figuration: the sky is first some sort of swamp water, then a beast doing something or other, then a kid on a bicycle, then a “bright blue baby fist.” None of these transfigurations nails it; there’s nothing remotely quotable here, and that’s the point. The poem is partly the transcript of failed attempts at transfiguration.

Schuyler is often praised for his descriptive success, but I think his failure is more interesting. Forms of partial failure—the awkwardly broken lines, the corny jokes, the rhythmic hiccups, the memories lost in fog—are in fact part and parcel of Schuyler’s brilliance. The failures and false starts in Schuyler accumulate the only way, in a poem, they can: over time, in time. Those painters Schuyler loved could keep slathering paint onto their canvases, making the canvas a record of repeated tries, a field where re- adjustment and correction could be made visible. Not so with poems: the only way to suggest depth in a poem is to extend its length. The skittishness of Schuyler’s style, its canceled enthusiasms and bated assertions, swallowed punch lines, withdrawn hypotheses, suggest a vision of style so grand as to make all attempts at matching it disappointing. The many poems in Schuyler echoing Herrick, Ralegh, Herbert, and the troubadours suggest the impossible standards he set for himself.

2.

Schuyler’s uncollected poems were bound to be published. He made it simply too enticing not to do so. This, from the end his of great long poem (an oblique elegy for his mother) “A Few Days”:

I’m thinking about this poem. How to make it good, really
good. I’m proud of my poems.
I wrote a poem about Ruth Kligman in which
every line began “Ruth”—
talk about maddening. Ruth claimed to like it. When I
told her it was a
stinker she said, “I didn’t think it was one of your best.”
I’ve got to find that
notebook and tear it up, when I’m dead some creep will
publish it in a thin
volume called Uncollected Verse.

Other Flowers is the book Schuyler feared. The poem about Ruth didn’t make it, but there are trite tribute poems in the same vein. (The two poems Schuyler later singles out for special scorn—“Dorabella’s Hat” and “They Two Are Drifting Uptown on a Bus”—are missing, too.) This book ought to pose none of the conundrums that arise when little folders of poems posthumously turn up. There were no prohibitions against publishing them, no bans. I predict that there will not be the bloodletting that followed the publication, three years ago, of Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected work. So far as I know, nobody knew these poems existed, but the fact that they existed isn’t a surprise. Some seem finished (there existed, we are told, “multiple drafts”), some not: one could say the same for the poems Schuyler published. It was the essence of Schuyler’s published poems to feel like drafts.

I am very far from feeling that poets’ unpublished poems and drafts should never be published. (The Bishop book, Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, brilliantly edited by Alice Quinn and published in 2006, is already a classic.) And so it ought not to matter to the status of a poem whether Schuyler wanted it published—especially since the poems he did publish are often scrupulously unfinished, in both senses of that word: unvarnished and inconclusive. Weirdly, though, it does. There are some wonderful little poems here (I have been quoting partly from the unpublished poems), and James Meetze and Simon Pettet were right to want to publish those. But there are also some “stinkers,” lots of stinkers, in fact. Here is a stinker:

Put her tits back, boys, we’re coming into town.
The sky sweats, massaging a banker’s bottom cloud.
The sun goes out like a butt in a urinal.
The hot star crotch prepares to spread its thighs
as a bird’s crap flushes an overflow
down the Main Street false fronts.
Smoke it like a cigarette, don’t chew it like a cigar.

This is a poem about a blow job that has fun with the double meaning of the word “butt.” That’s about it. Combing Schuyler’s published volumes for poems this bad, you don’t find any. He can be slight or flip, but he’s never awful. This poem and perhaps two dozen more seem, at least to me, awful.

So the first problem is: lots of bad new poems. Nor are they (as Bishop’s were) obviously drafts or juvenilia. With unintended aptness, Meetze compares them to “breadcrumbs” left behind for “someone like me who…never knew the ‘Jimmy’ of these poems, but feel as if I did.” Poets survive their bad poems; Schuyler’s great poems will fare just fine, despite these jottings. But Schuyler is one of those poets doomed by his surface geniality to be underrated by fans of “serious” poems and overrated by fans of friendliness. The friendliness—Meetze calls it the “Jimmyness”—is all that comes across in a few too many of these poems. At times it feels like about all his editors expect from his poems.

This happened once, on a different scale, to Robert Frost, another poet of surface geniality: the poems (so it was thought), since they were the product of charm, existed mainly to supply the steady appetite for Frost’s charms. That kind of circularity—what we appreciate in Schuyler’s poems is their element of (usually mystified) Schuylerness—is not a good principle in assembling a volume of unpublished works. It rules everything in. And it’s even worse with a poet whose seeming virtue was his infinite capaciousness, his ability to get almost anything into his poems: Schuyler’s wide-open aesthetic can be enlisted posthumously to defend publishing poems that (despite his wide-open aesthetic) in point of fact he ruled out. I would be interested in a volume (again, Quinn’s Bishop book is the model) that made explicit those distinctions between good and bad implied by Schuyler’s original exclusions of these poems: tell us what makes a good Schuyler poem different from a bad one. Make a guess about why these 163 poems didn’t make the cut. And are some better than others?

Alas, the twin introductions by Meetze and Pettet offer nothing of that kind. The two seem either not to know Schuyler’s very famous lines about “Unpublished Poems,” quoted above, or—and this would be even more odd—to have chosen not to mention them: Why? What is their view of Schuyler’s perhaps facetious preemption of the very work they have done? And why, if one really feels that Schuyler ranks among the greatest American poets (I think so; I think they think so), does one settle for praising his “reverence for the essence of all things,” his love of “things just being as they are” (the Stevensian phrase suggests its own rebuttal: “But things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar”), and for calling us to “celebrate” “the belated arrival of this gathering”:

Other Flowers is a boon, a bouquet, a treat, and a treasure. [Schuyler’s] Collected Poems has just been pleasingly and stunningly and gorgeously expanded. Fanfare! This is indeed a cause for joy.

Would a sentence like that one make it into an edition of—choose your favorite poet—Bishop, Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Stevens, William Carlos Williams?

3.

Most of the new material in this book comes out of Schuyler’s early career. To read early Schuyler, from the Fifties and Sixties, is to read a poet grasping for an effect. He made himself a kind of junior O’Hara: but a borrowed effervescence is none at all, and most of those O’Hara-lite poems had been suppressed until, alas, now. He did not publish a major collection of poems until 1969, very late (like Bishop and Frost): he was forty-six. He knew that he was to be a poet of grown-up melancholy, rather than youthful élan. It is interesting to imagine what sort of poet O’Hara would have had to become, had he lived. His near-total elision of memory as a ground for poems would have to have changed; it is hard to imagine him facing old age with his rapturousness intact. Maybe. But my guess is that O’Hara and Schuyler would have switched roles: O’Hara would have had to apprentice himself, later in life, to Schuyler’s enormous brilliance in handling memory, just as, when young, Schuyler had had to learn from O’Hara how to see what was in front of his eyes. Schuyler found for memory and remorse their exact angles of repose. You wouldn’t know it from many of the poems in this book.

Still, about a quarter of the poems here are to be prized (my coeditor Meghan O’Rourke and I published several wonderful ones—at least we thought so—in the fall 2009 issue of The Paris Review). These poems display the aspects of Schuyler that people who want to think hard about him will want to think about. There is his curious, committed blankness, often when descriptive clarity is most to be prized:

SNAPSHOT

I do not remember
the house where I lived first.
I know
the small-town name,
Downer’s Grove, outside Chicago,
The Windy City.
There were wood-slat sidewalks
and there are photographs
of me in white dresses,
with a tin pail and shovel,
playing with a little girl.

I have on a too-big Indian suit
in one, and am laughing,
with my eyes shut,
at my mother sitting
on a little stool on the sidewalk
drying her hair
in the sunlight and laughing
at me, with a war bonnet
down around my ears.

And we had a touring car.
Then we moved
to Washington, D.C.

The aggressive artlessness of the poem follows from its elected constraints: only those details plainly visible in the snapshots—the dress is white, the pail tin, the sidewalks made of wood slats—make it into the poem. The poem ends when the family moves: presumably, Washington, D.C., stands for the moment firsthand memory, however hazy, takes over from secondhand testimony. When we remember the extensive fetishizing of preconscious childhood (by Freud, but also by poets from Wordsworth forward), it comes as a shock that the entire issue would be handled with such nonchalance. The fact that this poem appears first in Other Flowers, at the head of a sequence of autobiographical poems, will lead readers to assume that Schuyler was much more a poet of straightforward narrative than he really was (he almost never puts things in chronological order): at least the poem itself, in its weird affectlessness, its throwing up of hands, isn’t willing to cooperate.

And there is his brilliant construction of intimacy: the totally new terms of intimacy Schuyler proposed, so different from the “confessional” poets on the one hand—he never shocks—and (to borrow terms that no longer mean much of anything) the “New York School” poets with whom he hung around. The blankness of “Snapshot” amounts to a flat refusal of the apt, as though verbal precision might shatter the mood. And when he isn’t blank, he is probationary, testing the water of an insight, a perception, a fact, making his adjustments, testing again. It adds up to a kind of intimacy we rarely find, and find only in poets whose solitude makes a kind of echo chamber of art, every effect bouncing back to them a little distorted, a little strange.

The job for these poets—Schuyler, Bishop, Emily Dickinson—is to connect across the gulf of their own reverberating solitude, which is why letters and letter-like poems are so crucial to them. Schuyler ranks with the giants of American letter-writing (his letters to O’Hara are especially rich), but the real benefit of this gift accrues to the poems. Few poets ever made so much out of inside jokes, innuendo, bits of gossip (Frost: “one of the three great things in the world is gossip”). As Schuyler’s world passes, these factual bits lose their precise points of reference: Who alive can verify the patent numbers on a bottle of milk from Wight’s Dairy, Bucksport, Maine? (For the record, they are—or were—or appear to have been: 3, 116, 002, 3, 120, 333, 3, 120, 335.)

It is a funny thing that happens to poems—any poems—once they’re written: they join the heap of untransfigured reality that, just now, they were busy transfiguring. (Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump” and A.R. Ammons’s “Garbage” are only the recent highlights in the history of this paradox.) It is why poems seem written, often, not for the first or second but the twentieth or two hundredth reading: it is the trick that poems play on time, the way (if there is a way) to make certain that in the future, new minds may pass through them every so often, take a look around. Poetry isn’t progressive (the old stuff is just as relevant to us as the new), but the catch is that it changes over time: it means, for every new poet, finding a new trick, or an old one so drastically changed as to seem new. Schuyler’s brilliant trick was to transfigure things, even throwaway things, as little as possible, as though testing the innate power of disposable reality to withstand the test of time. This was a test, a kind of stress test, for poetry itself. If it passed, if lasting poems could be made from mere stuff, just empty quiddities, then poetry could do anything. It’s why this poetry of excessive humility and nonchalance is, in fact, hugely ambitious. And it worked. The trick worked.

Letters

Auden’s ‘Willing Helper’ September 30, 2010

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