In the radical simplicity of James Schuyler’s poetry, the world is constituted each morning in the form of what is here: a cup, an ashtray, a Korean Mum. The job of the poem is to converse elementally, without judgment or hierarchies, but with a saintly respect for the small details that bring us to life. Martin Heidegger, one of the philosophers most amenable to the New York School of Poets, made a plea against tracts exhorting large changes in society, but which in turn slight the present as "relatively impotent appearance,” "suggest[ing] that the fragile and transitory can safely be neglected." Schuyler’s style emulates that of artists Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher—both working against (Abstract Expressionist) fashion to represent the ordinary extraordinary of every day. (I include here images of two of Frielicher’s beautiful paintings—to this day she is represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery—and Fairfield Porter’s portrait of John Ashbery and James Schuyler.) In its intense interest in accepting the windows offered us, Schuyler’s poetic method implements in words Freilicher’s method of composing through gentle attention. Often in her work, the domestically pastoral (vases and paint jars of flowers) consorts with the matter of the containing city. (Freilicher was once offered a fellowship to travel anywhere in the country to paint a scene: she choose to stay in her apartment to make a new window scene.)
Graduate poet Annette Boehm talks about Schuyler’s “unashamed reality”:
Part of this fascination with what is real is accepting that what is real can be different from what is generally acceptable or generally considered beautiful. Lehman [in The Last Avant Garde] quotes Schuyler’s recollection of an incident in the early 1950s: “We were walking along the beach at sunset, heading for a cocktail party. The sun was casting those extraordinary Technicolor effects on the sea and sky. John [Ashbery] turned to me and said, ‘I always feel so embarrassed by these gaudy displays of nature.’ I didn’t feel embarrassed at all” (260).
I think that Schuyler might enjoy hearing the journals from our class, the students’ daily observations of his work. Here is literature student Anna Williams (we are using the FSG Selected Poems):
“March Here.” I like this poem for the way it positions the natural environment/weather with neon signs and tall towers. The wet of spring/March aligned with the wetness of “the hard-running river” and the “damp/from your bath.” I’m sure there’s a way to critique commodity culture in this. Also, the blurring of the lines between human and nonhuman worlds is critically rich. “December.” “Each December! I always think I hate “the over-commercialized event”/and then the bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink above the entrance/to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all/the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops/and how can I help falling in love?” Yup. Commodities are dazzling and tempting. And to a certain extent I think that’s ok…I mean, it’s necessary to be aware of the implications of commodity culture, but we do have to live in this world. However if we enjoy something, I think it’s good to know what we are enjoying/where it came from/why. Significant that the wrapped boxes are “empty.”
“Thinness” was a great read. I’m loving Schuyler’s preoccupation with weather/seasons. “February expects others to be nicer/than it is itself: knowing this/about itself makes it a nice month/You have a pretty good character, February.” Peace out, February. “your arms are so long/for such a short month.” See ya in 2015.
“Now and then.” I absolutely freaked when I started reading this poem. For my critical sensibilities, it is perfect. Seriously, I would read a stanza, freak, look away from the book in disbelief, and then start reading again like “no way no way no way how can this be so perfect?”
- and the dark tranquility of hemlocks encroaching on untilled fields
“You can’t make a living
plowing stones” subsistence
farming is well out of style: “You can’t call it living
without the margin”
“Horrible Cold Night/Remain at Home”/”Clear and Beautiful/Remain at Home”
Lots of great natural world imagery in this poem juxtaposed with industrial life. Love it. “Remain at Home” no matter the weather, because you need to recharge yourself for your boring job the next day! Just be apart of the system muuuaahhhahahahahahaha. I’m tired. I’ll bang this out critically better later, possibly in next class. It’ll be great fun. – Anna Williams
And here is graduate fiction writer Jennifer Brown:
Like Koch, this first poem in his book is an odd one.
I like his poems so far. He is more philosophical than Koch or O’Hara, but more coherent than Ashbery. Less coherent than O’Hara and Koch, who are still my two favorite of the group, I think.
His weirder passages have more of a feeling of meaning than Ashbery’s weirder passages. They seem like they’re devised to elicit a certain feeling or create a certain image, and the words within the passages seem more connected to each other, and the passages more connected to the whole poem.
“…I am very sick really of all
the little concrete words such
as names of colors and effectively
used as in Art Reviews”
(Four Poems, 68-69)
It’s funny that he says this two lines after referring to plants as green. I like that the New York School poets will write passages into their poems that give insight into their own choices when writing poetry. This one helps me better appreciate and understand Schuyler’s choices of words, and it just makes me notice what a good job he can do evoking images without using the usual words associated with that image – a much better job than a description that uses those words would probably do.
I like how he names colors sarcastically or hyper-creatively sometimes. “A robin’s-egg blue robin’s-egg.”
“I do not believe in legends of food,
I believe in the food.
It is not what carrots are like,
It is the carrots.”
I like this passage. It seems Schuyler wants to move past conventional poetry, or what was conventional at the time, to get at something more real than what can be described or conveyed through metaphor. This would apply also to the above passage about colors. I’m not sure whether or not he gets there, but I can see a path toward it, or at least a longing for it, and the result is something worth reading whether it fully achieves what he wants or not. Thinking of it like that also helps me to understand Ashbery better. I still don’t like him as much as the other NYS poets, but his poetry seems less alien and meaningless when thought of that way. Maybe he and Schuyler were even working directly from one another’s ideas about what poetry should strive to achieve and had failed to achieve using conventional descriptions or through metaphors and other traditional poetic devices. - Jennifer Brown
Here is Annette Boehm, graduate poet, speaking of Schuyler in her own blog, Outside of a Cat:
- Whether he is in the city or in the country, Schuyler always notices the weather, the season, the flora and fauna. Very few poems do not mention at least one or two of the above. Even music becomes plant-life for Schuyler. Take this passage from “Like Lorraine Ellison:”
- And through the snares / sexily come saxes: through / solid shadow-green / of brushing leaves, clear / as a blues, violet sage, / flowering saxes. I / send you all the love
- “I never miss the garden section. / It describes heaven to perfection,” explains the speaker of “A Picnic Cantata,” and with all the very specific plant names, at times even taxonomy, and the detailed descriptions and observations of nature we find throughout Schuyler’s poetry, this could very well be him. The ever-changing view of trees, flowers, shrubs outside his window can capture his mind as much as any human interaction.
- In the exuberant “Hymn to Life,” even the sun is alive, “Comes out from behind unbuttoned cloud underclothes — gray with use –” and while the plants become animal-like (“at the Reflecting Pool, the Japanese cherries / Bust out into their dog mouth pink”), animals become plant-like: “A cardinal / Passes like a flying tulip, a lights, and nails the green day / Down.”
- Life cannot sit still, it constantly flows from one form to another, like water moving from solid to liquid to gas with great ease. It is as much in Hodge the cat’s ripped ear as it is in pear blossoms or the seizure he witnesses in the delicatessen. I love the ending of this (long) poem (including yet another personified month): “I like it when the morning sun lights up my room / Like a yellow jelly bean, an inner glow. May mutters, “Why / Ask questions?” or, “What are the questions you wish to ask?” It seems to echo, again, in “Good morning,” which ends on this question: “Silver day / how shall I polish you?”
- Lest you get the wrong impression, people also appear in Schuyler’s poems. We get to see through his eyes, for example, in “The Morning of the Poem,” a former lover: “he stood across / The street, in tweed, a snappy dresser, feet apart, head turned / In an Irish profile, holding an English attaché case, looking for / A cab to Madison Avenue, late, as usual, looking right out of a bandbox, / As usual.” And of course there are also his friends, his fellow poets and painters, — there’s a lot less name-dropping here than in, say, O’Hara, but the familiar names are all there. One person is omnipresent in these poems, the unnamed ‘you.’ Again in “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler explains that “When you read this poem you will have to decide / Which of the ‘yous’ are ‘you.’ I think you will have no trouble, as you rise from your chair and take up your / Brush again and scrub in some green, that particular green, whose name I can’t remember.” Like a painter knows his countless shades of green, even those that might be too faintly different from each other for the untrained eye to distinguish, Schuyler knows his friends will know how to read his ‘yous.’
- Schuyler’s poems come as they are, in diverse body-shapes, skinny as rakes and only two, three words wide, or fat and full and covering numerous pages. Often, they are sweet notes, or bittersweet notes to a beloved or a friend. The poem “Steaming Ties” contains some very tender moments: “when I’m alone it’s hard / at times to know how unalone / I am, loved by you,” explains the speaker, and further on, he confides “ties are, even ties, / are silk and real. Your / voice to me is silk and rustles.”
- While at times, Schuyler comes across as more contemplative and calm than his fellow New York poets, his sense of humor is intact, though at times wry and dark. There is also a child-like exuberance, like in this passage which, again, is from “The Morning of the Poem” (probably his best-known poem):
- Rain! this morning I liked it more than sun, if I were younger I would have / Run out naked in it, my hair full of Prell, chilled and loving it, cleansed, / Refreshed, at one with quince and apple trees.
- It’s one of the moments where I really felt a kinship — the right kind of rain is wonderful and makes me feel the same way (though I don’t plan Prell into it). I like the passage for another reason, too, — apples and quinces. I like both, very much. The apples and quinces make a repeat appearance a few pages later in the same poem, this time linked to growing up and growing old: “the apple and quince trees / Looking so old, so unkempt: I remember planting them, they were just seedlings, or do I mean saplings?”
- In “Letter to a Friend: Who Is Nancy Daum?” we’re told that “All things are real / no one a symbol” — very much a summary of Schuyler’s poetics of writing what is real and observing what is there. That’s not to say that there is nothing that could be read symbolically in his poems — there’s plenty. I also don’t claim that he takes no flights of fancy now and then — some of his images are fantastic and imaginative — but what I think it means is that it’s all rooted (like plant life) in the dirt and grit of the everyday. - Annette Boehm.
Not to be ignored, “A blue towel” stands as title to a poem of lovers at the beach—no gap between it and the poem’s body: “went with us to the beach. / You drove the Green Bomb, / your panel truck.” As in Freilicher’s paintings, the day is a collaboration between the natural and the manmade, a collaboration Schuyler finds supremely comfortable and comforting: “We spread the towel / where we could lie and watch / the fierce and molten wonder / of the water.” In the poem’s choreography, the temporal and the eternal have a love dance: “waves” almost get “sneakers”; the men see “how a log was / almost hurled ashore then / taken back . . . .” As the day and poem begin to end, flies play a prominent part:
. . . “These
insects are too much:
let’s go back.” The blue towel
and your trunks I hung out
on the line. You took a
shower. I made drinks. Quiet
ecstasy and sweet content,
why are not all days like
you? Happy with someone,
and that someone you, to-
gether on a blue towel
on sand beside the sea.
I think that “together” is intensified through separation, and that this poem invites us to share the conviction of simplicity—even to teach it to the angel, as Rilke does in his Ninth Duino Elegy (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,
serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing–, and blissfully
escapes far beyond the violin.–And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
Big thanks to The Best American Poetry for welcoming me here. And thank you, Students, for making these entries with me. Tracie Dawson, graduate fiction writer, took the photos of the class. And Susan Elliott, graduate poet, has set up a Facebook page for the upcoming Moorman Symposium on New York School Poetry and the South—the event our class is leading up to: https://www.facebook.com/2014moormansymposium. Lastly, thanks are due the late Charles Moorman, Medievalist and Academic Vice-President of the University of Southern Mississippi, for establishing funds whereby senior professors can engage the public with art and scholarship. Charlie was also a poet, with a great sense of humor. -- Angela Ball