June/July/Aug 2010

Me, Me, Me

James Schuyler put anything in his poems—especially himself

James Campbell


Toward the end of James Schuyler's sixty-page, long-lined meditation "The Morning of the Poem," a voice interrupts the meandering interior monologue: "'All he cares about are leaves and / flowers and weather.'" The remark is unattributed, but the speaker might be the poet's mother or sister, both of whom step in and out of the poem. Regardless, he or she is different from the "you" addressed next, without even a sentence break:

and who are you, which
Maple are you I mean, the one who curves its leaves like hands,
disclosing pink palms . . . ?

Where are we, and what are we doing here? We know that Maple isn't a nickname for his sister or mother, because this new "you" is scientifically identified: "A swamp maple . . . whose leaves turn first." Once the tree is tagged, and a separate species of maple recalled ("deeply blazing / Full in late summer"), the flow of memory and perception continues its twisting path:

The other evening my mother and I were watching TV in the living
room when something fell, a metal clang on the
Back stoop. I went and put the outside lights on and looked:
the trash-can lid had been knocked off and
Perched on the can full of trash was the biggest raccoon I've
ever seen: he turned his head and looked me
In the eye . . .

Mother is disbelieving: "'Maybe he / Was a dog,' she said, deep in her TV program."

We are in Schuyler's head, tracking the mind's inconsequentiality, but an inconsequentiality that is being processed into "the poem"—or, to apply the definition of poetry favored by Schuyler's first mentor, W. H. Auden, cast as "memorable speech." Auden, writing in the introduction to the anthology The Poet's Tongue (1935), wasn't thinking only of poetry that can be memorized—rather, poetry that impresses itself on the reader's mind and emotions. Nor did he insist on the ineffable subjects—"birth, death, the Beatific Vision, the abysses of hatred and fear"—although these are bound to occur. There was scope, too, for "the mark on the wall, the joke at luncheon, word games . . ."

Schuyler is the supreme leader of the mark-on-the-wall school of poetry. His poems are seldom about anything, as John Ashbery puts it in a blurb for the recently published Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems; "They are the anything." Schuyler is the ultimate "me" poet, and "The Morning of the Poem" is the ultimate "anything" poem: maple trees, TV, jokes, animals in the garden, "word games." It is Schuyler's most ambitious essay into "anything" poetry and represents a lifetime of compressed emotion in a morning's introspection.

It doubtless took more than a morning to write "The Morning of the Poem," Schuyler's longest, but the methodology applies to his work in general, as it does, in greater or lesser degree, to the poets with whom he is associated: not only Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, who make frequent appearances in his poems, but also Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, the poet whom Schuyler seems to me to resemble most, despite one being a leaver-outer and the other a putter-inner. Both depend on the intimation of pulse finding expression on the printed page. The phrase "nervous shudders" is frequently invoked in discussions of Creeley's poems; Schuyler's shuddering is anxious and needy.

Schuyler died in 1991, at age sixty-seven, and his reputation has grown, albeit fugitively, ever since. He began writing in the 1940s and appears in Donald Allen's landmark anthology of 1960, The New American Poetry 1945–1960, where he is given five pages (O'Hara has more than thirty) and space for a "statement on poetics," but his first major collection, Freely Espousing—the title by itself is a miniature statement on poetics—did not appear until 1969. Before then, he had published a novel about a pair of children, Alfred and Guinevere (1958), composed almost entirely in dialogue, and had written some short "way-off Broadway" plays. There were four more collections (The Morning of the Poem won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981), as well as two more dialogue novels, one written in collaboration with Ashbery (A Nest of Ninnies [1969]). Posthumous publications include an anthology of writings about art and now Other Flowers, which comes with two introductions and ten pages of not very helpful notes: "Rilke—German poet"; "The Village . . . New York's legendary bohemian Greenwich Village." Unfortunately, the editors, James Meetze and Simon Pettet, didn't think to arrange the poems in chronological order (as far as dating and internal evidence allowed), so as to help the general reader track Schuyler's development. Many of the poems are leftover sketches. "Short Poem" reads in full:

My muse plays tennis
and has a body like a Greek god.
My muse wears glasses
and looks swell in them.
I could go on like this forever.

In the face of this poem and others like it—"The starlings are singing! / You could call it singing. / At any rate, they are starlings"—it is hard to resist quoting "A Few Days" (1985), the second of what Ashbery calls Schuyler's two "great long poems." The speaker experiences an anxious shudder over a poem about a friend, Ruth Kligman, "in which every line began 'Ruth.'" The subject at first claimed tactfully to like it, as friends are apt to do, but both she and the poet eventually agreed it was "a / stinker":

when I'm dead some creep will
publish it in a thin
volume called Uncollected Verse. It will be a collector's
item. I hate to think
of the contents of that volume. "Dorabella's Hat" . . .

Inside this uneven, substantial volume, there is a thin volume struggling to get out. A good Schuyler poem guides the reader through the circuitry of the writer's sensibility, either evoking the ironic rumble beneath the relentless small talk: "A cold nose / means a / warm heart. / My, your nose is hot. / —What's worse / I've got cold feet"; or else with a view of devastating emptiness: "Men disport themselves. / They help each other: / 'Reach in my chest and massage my heart. / I am not dead.'" Or with lines that combine both, as in these from "The Exchange," apparently written after a casual sexual encounter:

More perishable than glass,
eyes break looks and pocket
them like coins, tribute
for the trip back.

The mark-on-the-wall mood, which is carried to its fullest expression in "The Payne Whitney Poems" (from The Morning of the Poem), is well represented here. The wall in that moving and memorable sequence belongs to a psychiatric hospital, as it does in "The Weeping Beech"—"This is / a hospital: weak nerves / have brought me here"—and "In the After-Dinner Lull":

The moon, will it be full?
I last saw it so
in September: goodnight, moon.

Look, I can't go on
standing on one foot
waiting for a moon
to rise. Goodnight, moon.

Schuyler's experience of life was devoted to emotional and aesthetic adventure, brought about by art, friendship, love—the three carry almost equal weight in his confessions—and by the act of writing itself. "Writing goes by so fast," he continues in "The Morning of the Poem": "a couple of hours of concentration, then you're / Spent." The sexual allusion is deliberate: To Schuyler, poems were encounters that, like the amorous kind, might be sudden, passionate, consuming, or just a wave that came and went "so fast." If not with another, then an entanglement with himself would do: "(Funny, I haven't beat my meat in days—why's / that?)" This parenthetical realization occurs in the midst of a snowstorm, perhaps triggered by the observation that "the big wet flakes / Stream horizontal."

The gamble with an "anything" poetry, as imitators of Schuyler (and O'Hara and Creeley) have found, is that, without a sure hand, it appears as little more than a series of marks on a page. The line between art and doodle is a fine one. "I guess I write letters on the same style as anything else," Schuyler wrote to Ron Padgett in 1966, "a little here, a little there": a little (in fact a lot) of "leaves and flowers and weather"; conversations with friends, or just a note to record the encounter; hesitations, changes of mind, and momentary decisions about emotional expression and suppression. In "Impromptu: Dorabella's Dreams," he writes: "Life was so much fun before / —well—before," inviting the reader to supply answers: before alcoholism, before evenings spent in front of the TV with a quarrelsome mother, before setting a hotel bed and himself on fire, before mental illness. The snapshot of the mind changing its mind recalls the previously published "Dec 28, 1974," which stumbles over a similar retraction: "last night I did wish— / no, that's my business and I / don't wish it now." This modulates into a recollection of unwanted criticism:

"Your poems,"
a clunkhead said, "have grown
more open." I don't want to be open,
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are.

It is typical of Schuyler that he should interpret "more open" in the emotional sense, when the clunkhead might have meant it to be taken poetically. Poems that are deliberately about anything are, from another perspective, not about anything. The pleasure of reading Schuyler is like the pleasure of reading Creeley: the rhythm of the poetry insinuating itself into the bloodstream at unexpected moments. With Schuyler, a different sort of enjoyment is in prospect—an invitation to the luncheon where the joke is made, the word games are played, and the mark on the wall is observed—together with Mother, Sister, John, Frank, and other friends such as Joe (Brainard), "Dear, dear Anne," and Kenneth the Menneth (as Koch is called in a letter).

The earliest poems in Other Flowers date from 1952–53, some seventeen years before Freely Espousing. Schuyler had every opportunity to include them in a volume, if he had felt that they fell on one side of the line, rather than the other. He was such an adept poet that his rejects might easily appear acceptable to others. Not all the poems in Other Flowers are stinkers. Then again, it's hard to imagine Schuyler being pleased by the release of the lyrical "Invocation"—

sprinkle with words this sheet as the wind
cross-ventilates and veils the yellow floor with dust
pollinate, a poem

—which reads like a five-finger exercise that many a poet would have tucked away in a folder marked UNPUBLISHED. Which is what Schuyler did with it.

James Campbell is an editor at the Times Literary Supplement and the author of Syncopations: New Yorkers, Beats and Writers in the Dark (University of California, 2008).

Claudeboyd

June 24, 2010
2:39 pm

Pretty sure James Schuyler did NOT have a sister, as Campbell states in his opening.

Schuyler's half brother later married, so as an adult he had a sister-in-law.

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