Humane to Hornets: The Poetry of James Schuyler
In “Dedication” Czeslaw Milosz wrote:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
(Trans. Robert Hass)
He hadn’t read James Schuyler. I have, and I’m inclined to ask, “What is poetry that does not go to the movies or take rides in taxi cabs or gossip about the sexual proclivities of friends and enemies or watch raindrops form beads on a wrought-iron balcony of the Chelsea Hotel?” Milosz was writing in Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. If I had seen what he had, I too might have lost all patience with traditional, inward-looking subject matter. The poetry that he and his compatriots wrote after the war did not save their nation or their people, yet it surely bore witness and inspired hope.
Nevertheless, I’m with the sophomore girls. James Schuyler’s apparently frivolous, willfully apolitical poetry is no less liberating than Milosz’s searching meditations on freedom and tyranny. In Schuyler’s world the personal is emphatically not the political – unless you consider the freedom to watch The Mod Squad and The Jeffersons (both of which get approving asides in “The Morning of the Poem” and “Moon”) a political act. There is a poetry of public address and a poetry of private address. I don’t think the latter is as insignificant as it might have appeared to a war-scarred Polish poet in 1945. The world needs both.
I discovered James Schuyler one day in the 1990s in the course of my job – weeding the poetry collection in the Language and Literature Department of the Brooklyn Public Library, among other duties. It was regrettably true, as my boss said, that our poetry books tended to accumulate like furballs under the sofa while going largely unread, and many of those pristine, slender volumes of contemporary verse would have to be consigned to the decks – a lesson in the vanity of human wishes or a hopeful bet on the future, depending on how you looked at it. (Since that time – and definitely not on my watch – almost all of those volumes have been discarded.) As I stood there thumbing through the 811’s, I picked up Schuyler’s A Few Days and read:
A few days
are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass
out of breath: don’t dwell on the grave, which yawns for
one and all.
Will you be buried in the yard? Sorry, it’s against
the law. You can only
lie in an authorized plot but you won’t be there to
know it so why worry
Reading the poem then was like quoting from it now – I wanted to continue indefinitely but had to get on with the job and so picked a stopping point more or less at random. Which brings me to a necessary caveat. As others have observed, Schuyler had an “allover” style somewhat reminiscent of the “action painters” he so much admired; the bottom left corner is just as important as the center. Thus, with his longer poems, he defeats almost any attempt at quotation. The serio-comic meditations, reflections, and reminiscences that seem to ramble on for pages at a time are in fact so tightly knit that severing one passage from another nullifies the effect of a mind thinking in time, which was his special province.
A Schuyler poem is a chain of associations and ideas that enact the workings of consciousness. Take out any link in the chain and you’re left with statement, not poetry. The statements are still pretty interesting, but they’ve lost their place in the process that brought them there. I have no reason to doubt Schuyler when he writes in “The Morning of the Poem,” “in New York City you / almost cannot buy a bowl / Of oatmeal: I know, I’ve tried,” yet I think it’s fair to say that Schuyler’s opinions about oatmeal are of less interest than the way they slide into place in a poem that doesn’t shy away from large matters of love and mortality and ethics but acknowledges without embarrassment or irony the imperatives of the quotidian. There’s more to be said about oatmeal, and Schuyler says it, yet to quote further risks making the passage sound portentously Significant, when the whole point is to show the unportentous significance of everything that enters the field of consciousness – from the little shopping expedition that precedes the Extempore Effusion on Oatmeal to the walk back home from the store that follows it. Similarly, I had no particular reason to end the above quotation from “A few days” where I did. It would have made just as much – or as little – sense to quote the lines that come immediately after:
Here I am at my brother’s house in western
New York: I came
here yesterday on the Empire State Express, eight hours
of boredom on the train.
A pretty blonde child sat next to me for a while. She
had a winning smile,
but I couldn’t talk to her beyond “What happened to
your shoes?” “I put them under the seat.” And
so she had.
Inadequate as these quotations are, I trust they convey some sense of Schuyler’s style and temperament – enough, perhaps to persuade some readers that James Schuyler is not the poet for them. Helen Vendler (in 1995’s Soul Says: On Recent Poetry) noted his defects – “chattiness, inconsequentiality, ingenuousness, banality, campiness” – and added, “Schuyler’s long poems can set one’s teeth on edge.” And she’s a fan. For readers expecting poetry to resemble the New Critical ideal of a Well-Wrought Urn, Schuyler’s must seem like a beat-up old coffee can. Well, as Jasper Johns showed (like most of his friends in the loosely defined “New York School,” Schuyler was crazy about painting and painters), a beat-up old coffee can might be strangely beautiful. In Schuyler’s case that coffee can contained the whole seeming world, or as much of the world as a gay, depressive, well-read, nature-loving, mostly dysfunctional New York poet could fit into it. For some, Schuyler’s world will always seem provincial, too stubbornly here-and-now. I myself can never get enough of the mundane, especially when, as Schuyler helps me to see, it’s not really mundane.
As a young man Schuyler served briefly as W. H. Auden’s secretary – a great and formative experience in the anxiety of influence. According to his friend Douglas Crase in Poetry, “he used to tell us he had realized then that if poetry was what Auden wrote he would never be able to write it.” Auden claimed to believe that apprentice poets should master multiple disciplines, dead languages, and abstruse prosodies, as he himself had. Schuyler, who had nothing like Auden’s class and educational privileges (suburban Buffalo and Bethany College as opposed to the West Midlands and Oxford University), sensibly ignored these impossible strictures and instead wrote the sort of unscholarly, unintimidating free verse that Auden thought more often than not resulted in “squalor – dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.” (Auden did, however, consider Schuyler’s comic novel A Nest of Ninnies, written with John Ashbery, a minor masterpiece. As do I.)
Being an outsider worked to Schuyler’s advantage. It helped him to see that he couldn’t and didn’t need to write studied, erudite poetry of ideas. What he could write and did write was a poetry of disarming simplicity and unexpected beauty about ordinary life in the manner of James Schuyler. Compare, for instance, Auden’s elegy to William Butler Yeats with Schuyler’s elegy to Auden. The gravitas of Auden’s commemoration (“He disappeared in the dead of winter”) aptly suits a figure of Yeats’s importance and renown. But then Auden himself was a figure of considerable importance and renown; a little gravitas on Schuyler’s part wouldn’t have been inappropriate. Instead, in “Wystan Auden,” he gives us an indelible snapshot of the poet in his humdrum, unYeatsian particularity,
at Maria’s café in the cobbled
square saying, “Poets should
dress like businessmen,” while
he wore an incredible peach-
colored nylon shirt.
Similarly, Auden keeps himself out of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” whereas Schuyler is all over the place in “Wystan Auden.” Everything he ever wrote, not excluding elegies, pastorals, epistolary poems, or the rare sestina or sonnet, takes as its foreground the movement of his shifting consciousness. Far from diminishing Auden, this forthright subjectivity catches the great man at his most human and endearing:
industrious, writing away in
a smoky room – fug – in a
ledger or on loose sheets
poems, some of which I typed
for him (they’re in Nones).
I don’t have to burn his
letters as he asked his
friends to do: they were lost
a long time ago. So much
to remember, so little to
say: that he liked martinis
and was greedy about the wine?
I always thought he would live
to a great age. He did not.
Wystan, kind man and great poet,
And yet a nagging doubt remains: shouldn’t serious poetry be a little more, you know, difficult than this? I used to think so. Years ago I struggled dutifully with the work of John Ashbery, Schuyler’s better-known colleague and friend, before allowing myself this liberating thought: You know, I really don’t like this stuff much. Not for a moment do I suggest that Schuyler is “better” than Ashbery. I just regret that I expended so much effort on a poet whose self-contained universe of riddling paradoxes I could never fully enter. Yet I persevered because, apart from the majesty of Ashbery’s voice (“As Parmigianino did it, the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away”), I had been taught to believe that this is what modern poetry should be: aloof, impersonal, fragmented, and profoundly concerned with its own methods. An admirer of Ashbery could conceivably respond that his poetry may be some or all of those things yet remains deeply human and moving; James Schuyler certainly thought so. If it’s true, however, that formalist poetry in the manner of Ashbery can be emotionally engaging, it’s equally true that nonformalist poetry in the manner of Schuyler can be aesthetically sophisticated. All things being equal, I’m inclined to favor an aesthetic of more readerly regard. In “A few days” Schuyler confesses that he has “always been / more interested in truth than in imagination.” Me too. Anyway, I’ve learned not to feel bad for forswearing the sort of daunting poetry that John Ashbery writes. A few days are all we have.
Accessible as it is, Schuyler’s work is still, blessedly, poetry. That means that the blanks are not always filled in, the references not always explained, and the transitions not always explicit. Schuyler starts the poem; the reader completes it. A fine example is “Buried at Springs,” an elegy for Frank O’Hara that, in its mixture of modes that add up to a unity of feeling and form, almost achieves the status of Polonius’s categorical idea: tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. In a lyric of sixty-five lines, “Frank” is named only once, and that in a passage that subsumes his presence to the larger process of nature, time, and mutability:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same.
The determinedly urban O’Hara might have been surprised to find his presence evoked amid the flora and fauna of coastal Maine, which he visited once as a guest of Fairfield and Anne Porter before hurrying impatiently back to Manhattan. (Schuyler, by contrast, came to visit the Porters and stayed on for eleven summers). Whether or not O’Hara would have noticed the needles on the spruce, he, like all of us, belonged to nature. Therefore the poem balances its grief, as it must, with an acceptance of death as a return to nature, which Schuyler describes in terms more matter-of-fact than mystical. Frank O’Hara couldn’t go to the movies anymore or write splendid poems about them, but he could be laid to rest, as he was, in the earth that gave him life and commemorated in a poem that conjoins the eternal and the transient. O’Hara was definitely on the transient side of the equation, which is why the poem, for all its calm and humor, ends with images of tears and blood:
Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,
a day tarnished and fractured
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.
Who is “Frank” anyway, where is Springs, and is that the same place where Frank “sat at this desk”? The answers to these questions (O’Hara, Long Island, and no) are nowhere given in the poem. It’s an elegy, not an obituary; inference and suggestion do the work of narrative and chronology. Still, Schuyler’s original readers – all those first names that pepper his lines like punctuation – wouldn’t have needed to infer anything. With titles like “Looking Forward To See Jane Real Soon” and “Tom’s Attempt To Seduce Big Brother Steve,” his work can seem damnably incestuous. Yes, it must have been fun to hobnob with artist friends at the Museum of Modern Art and attend Frank O’Hara’s famous parties, but that coterie is long gone, and I wouldn’t have been invited to the parties anyway. Why should I care about that little world, now merely an archeology of gay bohemian New York for a few decades after the Second World War?
In the first place, it’s not so little. The flowers, trees, birds, clouds, and effects of light that Schuyler describes with such élan, even if only glimpsed from the window of his apartment, could easily be transposed to the poetry written in Japan or Persia many centuries ago. Even more, his culture and learning, worn so lightly as almost to pass unnoticed, link his verse to other and larger traditions, as in this reflection on Baudelaire – clearly intended as an artistic credo of sorts – from “The Morning of the Poem”:
The exhalation of Baudelaire’s image of
terror which is
Not terror but the artist’s (your) determination
to be strong
To see things as they are too fierce and yet
not too much.
Seeing things as they are might mean looking at his history of addictions and suicide attempts with the same clarity of expression and effort at understanding that he brought to everything else. (From “Trip”: “When I think / of that, that at / only fifty-one I, / Jim the Jerk, am / still alive and breathing / deeply, that I think / is a miracle.”) Or it might mean taking an appreciative look at his surroundings, even in surroundings as unlikely as his niece’s bedroom. (From “A few days”: “It’s essence of teenage / girl: soft lilac walls, colored photographs of rock stars, / nosegays of artificial flowers, / signs on the door: THIS ROOM IS A DISASTER AREA, and / GARBAGEDUMP.”) The expansiveness of Schuyler’s attention – his determination to see things as they are – opens his world well beyond the boundaries of West 23rd Street and the coast of Maine. Rather than feeling excluded by all those references to “Wystan” and “Chester” and “Fairfield” and “Anne,” I find myself drawn in by the inclusive sweep of his meditations on the common life. He’s not the only one who used to watch The Mod Squad.
Furthermore, the larger world of history and politics occasionally rubs up against Schuyler’s world of relaxed bohemianism. How could it not? Schuyler, who noticed everything, could hardly fail to notice the “well-remembered but unpracticed step[s]” of the veterans marching down East 95th Street in 1967 in support of the Vietnam War (“Scarlet Tanager”). Less an anti-war than a pro-peace poem, “Scarlet Tanager” takes due note of the veterans’ ineffectual gestures of patriotism in a deplorable cause yet characteristically imagines them ‘march[ing] for the fun of marching / to an inward tune like Mahler’s happy / happy children’s song.” Those same veterans might not have been too pleased with his uncloseted homosexuality, another social fact that gets weighed in the balance with all the other social facts – no more, no less. To paraphrase Schuyler, there is a certain challenge in being humane to homophobes (actually, he says “hornets”) but not much. A passage from “A few days,” relating a story told to him by a former lover named Brian, nicely encapsulates not just Schuyler’s no-sweat attitude toward his sexuality, but his open, undismayed, and resilient attitude toward life in general:
an American officer
that he was a clandestine homosexual. The officer knocked
him to the barroom floor.
Brian looked up and said, “That proves it.”
There’s plenty of loneliness, fretfulness, and boredom in Schuyler’s work. Depression darkened his life. “The Payne Whitney Poems,” for example, which describe a residence (not his first or last) in a Manhattan mental institution, rival Robert Lowell’s treatment of similar material in Life Studies. Yet it’s typical of Schuyler that he ends this harrowing sequence (in a poem called “What”) with a sudden and unforced turn toward the redemption offered by nature and culture. He’s still half-mad and the redemption is hardly complete, but there they are: life, light, and beauty, the données of everyday experience, every bit as real as their opposites:
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
The daffodils, the heather
and the freesias all
speak to me. I speak
back, like St. Francis
and the wolf of Gubbio.
David Lehman, in The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets, has written about “the tremendous psychic repression that Schuyler endured in order to write so convincingly about happiness.” Whether a mentally unstable and highly medicated depressive is likely to have a keener appreciation of happiness than a more conventionally “adjusted” person, I don’t pretend to know. I do know that an apprehension of happiness in all its banal wonder and surprise is at the heart of James Schuyler’s poems and that reading those poems makes me very happy. For a man who suffered episodes of psychosis, the burden of his life’s work constantly affirms a whole and humble sanity:
We have it in us
to triumph over hate and
death, or so
the suburban spring suggests.
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.