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:
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.
One of their running gags was to address each other and sign off with spoof names: Dear Grace Metalious…(author of Peyton Place)…Love Clo-Clo (a character in Jean-Louis Barrault’s Bizarre, Bizarre); Dear Prisoner in a Chinese Laundry (the title of a book by Jack Douglas)…Love Josette Day (the French actress); Dear Kewpie, Dear Veterans Day Celebrant, Dear “Troubled,” Dear Blackie Cinders (a reference to a comic strip), Love Bettina (Schuyler’s drag name), Wanda Hendrix (who starred in Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse of 1948), Donald Meek (best known as the traveling minister in John Ford’s Stagecoach).
“Dear Grinling Gibbons” (British wood carver and architect, 1648–1721), Schuyler writes from Great Spruce Head Island in July of 1966, shortly after Ashbery’s return to America and work on their novel has resumed:
Do you think that in A Nest it might suddenly be summer? We could do another of our wonderful seasonal evocations, of course, but what I really want to get in is a reference to “cut-and-come-again” lettuce in the home garden. I had some other ideas the other day in a sphagnum bog, but seem to have left them there.
That summer he was reading Martin Chuzzlewit, whose “famous American episodes,” he tells Ashbery, “are rather like being strapped into one of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speeches and pointed out to sea.”
Schuyler was the antithesis of the professional poet or person of letters. He was reluctant to publish, too shy to give readings until toward the very end of his life, and never even considered teaching, though his responses to young poets’ work are always astute and valuable. Nearly always broke, he depended—rather too heavily and readily some thought—on the generosity of wealthy friends such as Porter and Elmslie, and there is occasionally something reminiscent of that most famous of literary freeloaders, Dickens’s Harold Skimpole, in the way these letters mix exquisite aesthetic perceptions with frank demands for cash. They also at times put me in mind of Nick Guest in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, a hedonistic gay aesthete who yet feels most comfortable when surrounded by the domestic routines of a large well-off family.
Especially toward the end of the Sixties, Schuyler’s mental condition was considerably worsened by overuse of alcohol and drugs. Fairfield and Anne Porter first asked him to think about leaving their household in early 1968, but Schuyler proved adept at resisting invitations to depart. In 1971, however, as the first stage in weaning him of their care, they insisted he not accompany them to Great Spruce Head but remain in Southampton over the summer, sharing their large, early-nineteenth-century house with Ron Padgett, his wife, Patty, and their five-year old son, Wayne. Schuyler’s unhappiness with this arrangement precipitated a crisis that culminated in July, when he began thinking he was Jesus, but also issued a series of un-Jesus-like threats to kill young Wayne. The Padgetts reluctantly had him committed to the local state mental hospital. On his release he traveled to stay with Kenward Elmslie and Joe Brainard in Vermont, where he suffered a second breakdown, this time locking himself in the bathroom and washing dollar bills all night.
His letters from the psychiatric wing of Vermont General Hospital in Waterbury to the Porters that summer must have caused acute anxiety and pain. “Dear Anne & Fairfield,” begins one: “My young friend, Gary Greene [a fellow inmate], is coming—probably—to the Island to visit you with a friend of his.” Gary is a Mormon, not yet eighteen, “a genius of some sort,” and Schuyler has decided he would like “to stand in relation to him as Fairfield has to me, someone on whom he can unquestionably rely.” Another opens with a request for $5,000 to shore up the finances of the clothing company currently employing his lover, Bob Jordan, a married man Schuyler had met in the popular gay hangout the Everard Baths in Manhattan earlier that year.
Porter firmly refused, and consulted with Schuyler’s friends. In a letter to the painter Robert Dash of August 1971 he seems to have felt he had arrived at the nub of the matter:
Kenward says that he doesn’t think Jimmy is well enough for anyone (unless this person devote his life to Jimmy) to look after him. In short he needs a wife, and none of his friends would be willing to serve in this capacity for him.
In this letter he also expresses regret at his own failure to stand up to Schuyler’s moods and demands: “One is too inclined to be afraid of Jimmy, and consequently to appease him in a bad way.”
The years following the psychotic summer of 1971 were the most difficult, and productive, of Schuyler’s life. His protracted residence with the Porters continued until 1973, only two years before the painter died of a sudden heart attack. Finally expelled, Schuyler shuttled between insalubrious Manhattan boarding houses, cheap hotels, and a range of mental institutions—the Payne Whitney, Bellevue, Bloomingdale, and Lenox Hill and Roosevelt Hospitals. Few letters survive from the mid-Seventies, and friends who tracked him down were appalled by the squalor in which he lived. In April of 1977 he inadvertently caused a fire in his 20th Street rooming house by falling asleep with a lighted cigarette. Both his breathing and pulse had stopped by the time he was rescued and revived by the fire brigade.
But it was in the Seventies that Schuyler wrote his two finest collections of poetry, Hymn to Life (1974) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Morning of the Poem (1980), as well as his most enchanting novel, What’s for Dinner? (1978). In sequences such as “The Payne Whitney Poems” he evokes with a nervy but wholly unhysterical precision the varieties of mental numbness:
one is watching morning
TV. I’m not reduced to that
yet. I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.
(“February 13, 1975”)
Give my love to, oh, anybody.
I’m shaky. A shave, a bath.
Chat. The morning paper.
Sitting. Staring. Thinking blankly.
TV. A desert kind of life.
Yet the volume’s fifty-page title poem, “The Morning of the Poem,” composed in 1976 during a stay in his family’s home in East Aurora, New York, is anything but desert-like. A beguiling mixture of observation, memory, and speculation, it somehow makes poetry seem the most natural and flexible medium possible for recording the ebb and flow of the everyday. The poem’s quietly cumulative power derives from its ability to incorporate whatever happens to come the poet’s way into its even, fluid progress:
Have you ever swum
at night in water so cold it’s like
plunging into a case of knives,
Moving limbs dripping with
moonstones? I turned my back
and this small green world went shadowless:
The nimbus is back at four in the
afternoon: no moon tonight. Before dawn I woke and made
my oatmeal, orange juice and
Coffee and thought how this
poem seems mostly about what
I’ve lost: the one who mattered
most, my best friend, Paul
(Who mattered least), the Island,
the California wild-flower
paper, the this, the that,
Whippoorwill, buried friends,
And the things I only write
between the lines.
The Island is Great Spruce Head Island, and Whippoorwill Kenward Elmslie’s dog.
“Oh Fairfield, Fairfield, of all of them, why did you have to die?” Schuyler exclaimed in a diary entry of October 15, 1984, by which time he had been settled, courtesy of a grant from the Frank O’Hara Foundation, for five years in the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street. A very late poem links Porter with the concept of art which Schuyler first outlined in “Salute” the year before they met:
in the branches of
the great plane tree
whistles its song:
or is it that mimic
saluting the day
under the branches of
his great plane tree
in his springtime yard?
But in his early years Porter felt art should do much more than merely salute the day. He was drawn to left-wing politics, and in 1927 traveled to the Soviet Union; in Moscow his group was granted an audience with Leon Trotsky, whom Porter sketched in mid-oration. Porter also became friends with the socialist campaigner and poet John Brooks Wheelwright. He was a member of Rebel Arts, contributed to the radical magazine Arise, and executed a number of epic political murals (all lost) with titles like Turn Imperialist War into Civil War. Porter appears to have felt more unease with the contradiction between his—and his wife’s—considerable inherited wealth and their revolutionary aspirations than did Wheelwright, who, after a sumptuous dinner with a fellow Boston Brahmin, would set up his soapbox on a street corner in Roxbury and harangue the masses, still attired in evening clothes and sporting a luxurious raccoon-skin coat.
Porter soon tired of the chaotic living conditions that participation in socialist bohemia in Thirties New York seemed to entail, and proved incapable of adhering to a party line. As these letters testify again and again, Porter was a man of various strong, even vehement, views. His pronouncements in conversation, John Ashbery recalls in an article for the catalog of Porter’s first major retrospective in 1982, “could veer from far left to extreme right without any apparent transition.” In his wonderfully illuminating articles for ARTNews from the Fifties and Sixties, and in these letters also, we witness a man of immense integrity assessing the appeal of a range of political and aesthetic ideologies, and then discovering how to resist them.
The gorgeousness of Porter’s mature paintings, which at first sight seem so akin to the celebrations of bourgeois life of Vuillard and Bonnard, in fact emerged as the result of a series of rigorous intellectual rejections—and difficult acceptances. Porter’s hatred of technology, which he came to believe was the root of all evil, was founded on his distrust of the myths of idealism and objectivity. He responded sharply to a critic who suggested he “disappeared” into his painting:
I do not think I disappear, and only charity remains, because I too am part of whatever is there [as The Screen Porch so fully demonstrates], and I cannot get away from myself. Maybe scientists think they can get on the outside of things, which is called objectivity, but this objectivity is something incomplete, and it shows when later it is discovered that something very insistent has been left out. It is the cause of the destructiveness of technology: what is left out is in the interest of coherence of the theory; of its usefulness; of understanding; and this destroys the integrity of the particular case, which is what the aesthetic impulse is always concerned with.
As this quotation suggests, Porter’s epistolary style tended toward the earnest, and even letters to his family and close friends are rather formal, even stilted. His comments on his reading are often interesting and thoughtful, but have none of Schuyler’s insouciant dash and originality. He seems most relaxed and forthright when discussing the philosophy of Wittgenstein or the merits of Apollinaire with his second son, Laurence, who became a professor of French literature at Michigan State University. Overall, the letters included here create the impression that Porter never quite cast off the severe, even ascetic, principles of his parents, and one is often struck by the gap between his pictures’ joyous, even reckless handling of light and color and their creator’s tendency toward gloom and self-denial. One of his favorite poets was Wallace Stevens, a copy of whose Opus Posthumous is strewn among the breakfast things depicted in the 1958 painting Lizzie at the Table: while not as emotionally remote as Stevens was, there still seems an intriguing equation in the careers of both between the “essential gaudiness” of their work and a deeply rooted strand of Puritanism that conditioned their behavior.
It is a great shame he didn’t live to see the full burgeoning of Schuyler’s talent. He provided the jacket illustration for Schuyler’s second commercially published collection, The Crystal Lithium (1972), a watercolor of waves breaking on the beach at Southampton. The book contains a series of poems about Great Spruce Head Island, the last of which, “Closed Gentian Distances,” is a moving farewell to Schuyler’s numerous summers there, and to his life with the Porters, which the poem acknowledges—even if the poet himself refused to—was drawing to a close. Like so many of his best lyrics, it seems at once light as gossamer and yet charged with complex emotional resonances secreted somewhere “between the lines”:
A nothing day full of
wild beauty and the
timer pings. Roll up
the silver off the bay
take down the clouds
sort the spruce and
send to laundry marked,
more starch. Goodbye
golden- and silver-
rod, asters, bayberry
crisp in elegance.
Little fish stream
by, a river in water.
November 17, 2005