JUNE 30, 2011
“SOMEBODY LOVES US ALL,” promises Elizabeth Bishop at the conclusion of her poem “Filling Station.” Since his death in 1991 at the age of sixty-seven, James Schuyler’s poetry and prose have been loved by enough of us that publishers have brought forth his Collected Poems, compiled selections from his diaries, letters, and art criticism, and reprinted his two indispensible novels, Alfred and Guinevere and What’s for Dinner? The latest posthumous addition is Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet. Meetze and Pettet gather 200 pages’ worth of Schuyler’s unpublished poems, and their devotion to their subject recalls Schuyler’s own devotion to W.H. Auden. As Auden’s secretary in the late 1940s, Schuyler “fished his drafts of poems / out of the wastepaper basket.” Meetze found the poems that comprise Other Flowers not in the wastepaper basket but in the Archive for New Poetry at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library. Poets who don’t want their unpublished poems to see the light of day should — as Schuyler reports that Auden did once he discovered what his secretary was up to — take to “burning them.” In the 1980s, Schuyler himself contemplated the survival of a notebook full of his own “stinker[s]” with discomfort:
I’ve got to find that
notebook and tear it, when I’m dead some creep
will publish it in a thin
volume called Uncollected Verse.
Despite its subtitle, Other Flowers isn’t the book that Schuyler anticipated. Meetze and Pettet play fast and loose with the term “uncollected,” which in a strict sense denotes work published in a journal or limited edition, but not republished in book form; the editors neglect some of these while including some never published. Readers intrigued by Schuyler’s poem “Along Overgrown Paths,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2000, for instance, won’t find it here, but what they will find, mingled with the “stinker[s],” are enough indisputably fine poems to make Other Flowers essential reading for anyone interested in American poetry after 1950.
In one of Other Flowers‘s best poems, “A Blue Shadow Painting” (1961), Schuyler “ache[s] to have the gift / for dusting off clichés: / Not Make it new, but See it, hear it freshly.” Schuyler’s fans — whose ranks Meetze and Pettet aspire to increase — will welcome these lines’ combination of gee-whiz guilelessness and Romantic ardor as one greets a long-absent friend. Here, as in so many of his more familiar poems, Schuyler eschews the Modernist poets’ vatic dicta in favor of a less ambitious, homelier aesthetic rooted in the everyday world where even “an earthworm’s crawl / has a familiar friendly wriggle.”
But what is the “it” that Schuyler hopes, with characteristic self-deprecation, to merely apprehend, rather than create? As its title suggests, the poem is an ekphrasis, responding to a painting of a scene — probably one by Schuyler’s lifelong friend, Fairfield Porter, to whom it’s dedicated. “Freshly,” in this context, literally denotes paint — “squelch, a brush / of pigment from the thick glass palette” — and not, primarily, the clear-sightedness of the poet’s visual and auditory perception. Yet the true subject of “A Blue Shadow Painting” isn’t really the painting, but the poet’s imaginative re-creation of its composition:
as though he saw neither the work in hand nor the subject,
the painter began. A rapt away look, like a woman at the theater
who sorts laundry, makes a mental note, while the stars anguish,
to buy a bottle of Scuff-Coat tomorrow at Bohacks.
Schuyler, whose poems consistently reject “anguish” in favor of the everyday, reflects here on his own method by setting us up with visionary words like “concentrated” and “rapt” only to compare “the painter” with a theatergoer who can’t keep her mind off her to-do list. In making space for a shopping trip in the midst of an aesthetic experience, “A Blue Shadow Painting” anticipates Schuyler’s later work. “The truth is,” he writes in “Hymn to Life,” a long poem published in 1973, “that all these household tasks and daily work … are beautiful.” The even longer “Morning of the Poem” (1980) is capacious enough to include a “shopping list: / watermelon wedge / blueberries (2 boxes).”
But isn’t this very emphasis on the everyday itself one of the clichés of twentieth-century American poetry that desperately needs “dusting off”? Surely Schuyler’s “bottle of Scuff-Coat” and blueberry boxes belong with “the janitor’s poems / Of every day, [and] the wrapper on the can of pears” in Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” with William Carlos Williams’s famous “plums / that were in / the icebox,” or with Frank O’Hara’s “hamburger and a malted” and “a bottle of Strega.” In the end, “A Blue Shadow Painting” is neither an ekphrastic response to Porter’s painting nor a celebration of the mundane, but what Stevens called a “poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice.” In this way Schuyler’s poems resemble those of his great friend and occasional collaborator John Ashbery, although the latter’s poems more explicitly track mental processes. The “act” Schuyler evokes is his own response to the painting, a response as dynamic as the painting itself:
It’s like this: the orange assertions, dark there-ness
of the tree, malleable steel-gray blueness of the ground; and sky;
set against, no, with, living with, existing alongside and part of,
the helter-skelter of rust brown, of swift indecipherables. The day
is passing, is past: mutable and immutable, came to live,
on a small oblong of stretched canvas. Blue shadowed day,
under a milk-of-flowers sky, you’re a talisman, my Calais.
As Schuyler (echoing Stevens’s “Autumn Refrain”) exclaims elsewhere in Other Flowers, “Great grackles”! These lines capture both the on-rush of excitement with which Schuyler’s speaker responds to the painting and the unmoving “there-ness” of the painting itself by using what the late literary critic David Kalstone called “a syntax of simultaneity.” What Kalstone calls Schuyler’s “poetry of nouns and adjectives, of apparent leaps, rags to nobility” uses surprisingly few verbs, or, more precisely, it uses adjectives and (to particularly brilliant effect here) prepositions to imbue nouns — in this case, the “assertions,” “blueness,” “rust brown” and “indecipherables” — with a sense of action. The action is the improbable coexistence of the “mutable and immutable” in Porter’s “small oblong of stretched canvas” — and, indeed, in Schuyler’s poem itself.
It’s lovely to imagine that Other Flowers contains only such first-rate poems that Schuyler somehow neglected to publish; but alas, at least three-quarters of these poems were justly consigned to the semi-oblivion of the poet’s archive. That only a quarter of Other Flowers is worth reprinting, is not bad, really, especially for a poet who published only five full-length books of poetry in his lifetime. But Pettet is wrong to claim that Schuyler’s Collected Poems “have just been pleasingly and stunningly and gorgeously expanded.” Diluted is more like it. Nor do most of these poems rise above, as Pettet also claims, the level of “secondary juvenilia.” Many ofOther Flowers‘s poems date from the 1950s, when Schuyler undertook a lengthy apprenticeship to his peers in the so-called New York School, especially Frank O’Hara who (Meetze reports) “first inspired him to begin seriously writing poetry” after a decade of writing fiction. For those who value the New York School as much for having produced an unclassifiable poet like Schuyler as for its other merits, the “playful early experiments (acrostics, collages, verse plays, zany epistles), parodies, and pronouncements” of Schuyler’s 1950s output are a salutary reminder of how much Schuyler himself valued this circle and was formed by it — even if the experiments themselves often fail. Schuyler’s early goofball villanelles like “Le Weekend” spurs me to re-read Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” only to discover how much better at this kind of antic poem Ashbery is, and Schuyler’s mid-60s playlet “Birdland (or Caligula-Caligulee, or Come into the Garden Maud, the Grass Needs Mowing)” partakes of the same faux-surrealist spirit as Kenneth Koch’s One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays. (Editor Trevor Winkfield’s selection of Schuyler’s unpublished or little known works in The Home Book Poems and Prose, 1951-1970 easily bests Other Flowers in its representation of Schuyler’s New York School-style output; I wonder how much of Other Flowers‘s contents he passed over.)
Schuyler’s mature work, from about 1960 onward, can seem as gloriously uneven as O’Hara’s. His published books are littered with what I think of as fictive bad poems — that is, poems so (deceptively) slight and occasional that they risk skittering off into inconsequentiality. They begin, literally, where the poet does — “I sit down to type” — and conclude when he finds something better to do — “I / think I’ll make more toast” or even (yuck) “I think I’ll go / and take a dump / in my snowdrop-colored bathroom.” Both poets’ “very notion of the aesthetic courted failure as a method” (that’s William Logan on O’Hara), but for Schuyler, failure becomes, if not a theme per se (these poems steadfastly resist having themes) then a precondition. As Ashbery points out, the “indictments of [Schuyler’s] disappointing life” include “chronic poverty, bouts of mental illness, and a vicarious existence as a houseguest for years on end.” For Schuyler, such disappointments function less as an opportunity for complaint than as occasions — no less or more important than the birthdays, departures, and changes of season that limn all of his work.
Even when his poems — like O’Hara’s — contemplate New York City and its attendant immediacies, Schuyler often trains his sights far off, as in the undated “Jack Frost Sugars,” another one of Other Flowers‘ indisputable keepers. Like so many of Schuyler’s poems, this one is “about” looking out of a window, probably the window in the apartment where he “lived /on East 49th, first / with Frank and then with John” and with “a lovely view of / the UN building and the Beckman Towers.” He describes this view again in a later poem:
Hidden in overcast,
an onion tower or steeple
so far — it must be Brooklyn by then —
is now discriminable.
Downriver, by the delicately webbed gasometers
and the antennae, frailly tensile,
lumber kindles into golden flames
curling like shavings from plane.
Here the act of looking is anything but passive as the speaker’s gaze moves farther and farther along in time (“then” / “now”) and space (“downriver”) to mingle with those “golden flames.” I’m reminded of Robert Lowell’s “Mouth of the Hudson” in which a solitary figure looks out on “across the river” and “drifts with the wild ice / ticking seaward down the Hudson, / like the blank sides of jigsaw puzzle.” In contrast to Schuyler’s quietly visionary “shavings,” however, Lowell’s puzzle pieces evoke a terrifyingly indecipherable mid-century America. Schuyler revels in the very industrial Tinkertoy tableau that Lowell, with horror, calls “the unforgivable landscape.”
On my first reading of these lines, “discriminable” struck my ear as a bit odd. Why not, in a poem ostensibly devoted to visual perception, use a word that more literally denotes sight, like “visible” or “discernible?” But to discriminate means “to distinguish, differentiate,” and so “discriminable” may indicate the speaker’s attempt to distinguish the shape of an onion tower from the shape of the steeple. Or perhaps the structure, whatever it may be, is barely “discriminable” from the surrounding skyline (the poem reports that it is a “rainy morning, so grimy / and sodden”). Or, if this act of apparent description is really, as in “A Blue Shadow Painting,” a “poem of the act of the mind,” then the specifically mental aspect of discrimination — which can also mean to “distinguish with the mind or intellect” — may be as important, if not more important, than the speaker’s ability to see the structure. In fact, Schuyler constantly discriminates one shape, one color, from another seemingly similar shape or color. Some of his best poems do, or seem to do, only that. In The Crystal Lithium‘s “Vermont Diary,” a “gray thought / ponders on three kinds of green” for the entire poem. In Other Flowers‘ undated “In Shad Roe Time,” Schuyler notes that “the tulips … are of two sorts”:
modest, faintly penurious,
pale, lipped with red except that one
has a green stripe
voluptuously deep and burning
can two reds be so unlike?
When Fairfield Porter characterized his brother, the photographer Eliot Porter, as an artist who “distinguishes endlessly and [who] dares not ignore,” he might as well have been talking about Schuyler.
But Other Flowers‘ editors don’t — and probably don’t want to — distinguish the poems from each other in terms of quality. Instead, they present them to us haphazardly, ordered “not entirely according to chronology, not entirely according to theme.” Although the book’s rather piecemeal structure grew on me, I wish the editors had established the poems’ chronology more thoroughly. The notes provide certain dates for some poems, conjectural dates for others (often based on unspecified “internal evidence”), and no dates for others. Poems whose dates the editors can’t establish and which contain no references that require glosses don’t appear in the notes at all. Through some amateur scholarship of my own, I conjectured dates for some of these unpublished poems by their traces in published poems. The “antennae, frailly tensile” from “Jack Frost Sugars” show up again in the final lines of The Crystal Lithium‘s “An East Window on Elizabeth Street.” Did Schuyler write both poems around the same time and ultimately decide that the latter was more suitable for publication? In “An East Window,” as in “Jack Frost Sugars,” the poet looks out from a window over a cityscape
burgeoning with stacks, pipes, ventilators, tensile antennae —
that bristling gray bit is a part of a bridge,
that mesh hangar on a roof is to play games under.
But why should a metal ladder climb, straight
and sky-aspiring, five rungs above a stairway hood
up into nothing? Out there
a bird is building a nest out of torn-up letters
and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.
The furthest off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running.
I can see — or rather hear — why Schuyler might have been drawn to play with the words “antennae,” and “tensile” whose shared “ten” and long vowels make them stretchy, like the antennae. This is a small but significant (although Schuyler, who declares “it is the infinite and therefore the smallest thing,” probably wouldn’t interpose a “but” between those two adjectives) instance of Schuyler’s self-professed “innate love of / Words,” his “sense of / How the words are themselves / The thing said.”
Was Schuyler right to publish “An East Window on Elizabeth Street” instead of “Jack Frost Sugars”? I think so, but I’m grateful to Meetze and Pettet for giving readers the chance to compare the two, and now I couldn’t do without either. The latter poem’s closing lines — “lumber kindles into golden flames / curling like shavings from plane” — might have seemed too “poetic” to Schuyler, with their decisive simile, strong verbs, end rhyme, and clearly discernible iambic tetrameter. In contrast, the last three lines of “An East Window” find the poet more tentative but paradoxically more precise in his use of figurative language. He focuses less on people per se than on his attempt to describe them: seeds, bugs, pinpricks. In the final sentence — “A pinprick of blue / plainly is a child running” — Schuyler uses the “syntax of simultaneity” to evoke how the far off shapes suddenly become recognizable, but also to show how the “pinprick” and the “child” remain autonomous from each other, in the poet’s mind at least. Prior to that, the passage brims with what Bishop (whose work Schuyler revered) called “untidy activity,” including several literary allusions, as when Shakespeare’s “sky-aspiring and ambitious thoughts” (Richard III) becomes a humble “metal ladder … straight / and sky-aspiring.” One could spot literary allusions in Schuyler’s poems all day, however, and still get no closer to apprehending the source of their genius. “That’s my secret,” he avers in another poem. “Yes, my secret, and I’m going / to keep it that way.”
Schuyler may have had his secrets, but from Freely Espousing — published the year of the Stonewall riots — onward, his homosexuality wasn’t one of them. In 1975, Bishop called him “one of the few poets who writes good love poems these days,” referring to the sequences of explicitly gay love poems, each titled “Loving You,” that appear in The Crystal Lithium (1972) and Hymn to Life (1974). As it turns out, however, Schuyler did suppress his gay love poems from the 1950s. Scattered throughout Other Flowers is material for an earlier “Loving You” sequence that equals the two later ones. In my favorite, “Having My Say-so” (1956), Schuyler stakes out a place in literary history for such poems (“I never expected to feel like Elizabeth Barrett Browning again”) and writes what must be the sexiest paean to a unibrow ever:
Not less than any lover who ever wrote I want to describe
his looks, the way his wide eyebrows uniquely die away in a haze of
fine short hairs on the east and west slopes of his forehead,
the way they join in a tuft, a small explosion of longer hairs above his
nose, the crinkled pink of a new scar, still touched by the
black recent stitches,
the fullness of his lower lip, like the excess that shaped the pear, sulky
and determined, boyish and sweet,
Greek, before they got refined …
These joyfully Whitmanic lines strike a proud, jaunty note that is less audible in Schuyler’s later love poems, which makes their inclusion in Other Flowers all the more valuable and pleasurable. They fulfill the promise of Whitman’s great Calamus sequence: “I proceed, for all who are, or have been, young men, / To tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades.” For Whitman’s “comrades,” Schuyler substitutes “gents”: “Surely it’s undignified for a gent to want to take another gent bouquets, and absurd? / Just as surely I could not care less.”
By the 1960s, Schuyler was as likely to “describe” the flowers and trees he saw on a walk in Vermont or the seashells he collected along the beach in Southampton as he was to depict his lover’s face. But even in these so-called nature poems, Schuyler recalls the Whitman of Calamus, who ambles “along the pond-side … now by the post-and-rail fences, where the old stones thrown there, picked from the fields, have accumulated, / Wild-flowers and vines and weeds come up through the stones, and partly cover them,” and “collect[s] for lovers” what he finds there. In Other Flowers‘ “Catalog,” which breaks up the Whitmanic long line into fragments while maintaining its expansiveness, Schuyler walks in Whitman’s footsteps:
blood root and shy hepatica
in thin grass
at the edge of a wood
or dogtooth violet
what other flowers are there?
As if in answer to Schuyler’s question — from which Meetze and Pettet derive the book’s title — Whitman declares, “twigs of maple, and a bunch of wild orange, and chestnut, / And stems of currants, and plum-blows, and the aromatic cedar.”
About John Clare, the nineteenth-century British “peasant poet,” John Ashbery once wrote: “Though the effect of [his] poetry, on me at least, is always the same — that of re-inserting me in my present, of re-establishing ‘now’ — the means he employs are endlessly varied despite the general air of artlessness.” I imagine Clare, who wrote legions of poems about birds’ nests, would have delighted in Schuyler’s evocation of a “bird … building a nest out of torn-up letters / and the red cellophane off cigarette and gum packs.” Like the bird, Schuyler seems to make a poem out of whatever is at hand, what he calls “a flicked off bit / of a moment.” In Other Flowers‘ less-inspired moments, the flicked off bits don’t come together, but there are enough fully realized poems to redeem the book’s preponderance of what Clare called “little scraps” — especially since a certain scrappiness is essential to Schuyler’s poetics. Along with the poems I’ve discussed so far, a future, expanded edition of Schuyler’s Collected could include, at a minimum, another two dozen from Other Flowers. I’ve written at length about only a few of my favorites because — as the reader has doubtless divined — I love Schuyler’s poetry. And “what does love come from,” Fairfield Porter asked, “if not just this scrupulous respect and close attention?”