Wayne Koestenbaum on James Schuyler

Epitaph on 23rd Street: The Poetics of James Schuyler
Parnassus 21.1/2 (1996): p33-57. Rpt. in

Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale.
Full Text:

[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Koestenbaum suggests that if the individual pieces of Collected Poems were read as one long poem, the reader could trace Schuyler’s evolution as a poet from a condition of self-loathing to one of self-acceptance.]


Byron: “I hate tasks.”

Quoth a plaque on Manhattan’s 23rd Street: “DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY / OF JAMES SCHUYLER / POET AND PULITZER PRIZE WINNING / AUTHOR OF THE MORNING OF THE POEM AMONG / OTHER WORKS, WHO LIVED AT THE CHELSEA HOTEL / FROM 1979 UNTIL HIS DEATH IN 1991 / PRESENTED BY / FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX / JULY 1993.” On a public epitaph, words divided into centered lines, broken, resemble poetry, if only visually.


His Collected Poems dropped into the reading universe and met a familiar silence, the void that usually greets poetry, particularly if its monumentality is of the disguised, offbeat kind. The plaque substitutes for the acclaim his work deserves; makes a connection between residence and poem; asks that we, readers and pedestrians, remember where Schuyler lived and what he lived for; rebukes us for having taken his incarnation, in a hotel at once sleazy and legendary, for granted. The Collected Poems communicates pathos of a covert “Eroica”: craggy masterwork of the deaf, misunderstood, unlovely shut-in. The silence surrounding Schuyler was not as immense or discouraging as the neglect encircling most dead or living poets. After all, he won a Pulitzer. He stayed in the country homes of wealthy friends. Influential figures championed him; and he used silence–the state of being ignored–as ore and material. Catatonia of an indifferent public was an atmospheric buzz against which his protected, hothouse verse could become audible to itself.


Rumble that contributes to the Schuyler-enabling room hum is the white noise of adjacent typewriting, including the posthumous critic’s, the fellow poet’s, or the boardinghouse crazy’s: “From the next room / the friendly clatter of / an electric typewriter.” How characteristic of Schuyler to interpret the neighbor’s typing as amicable not competitive. It is pleasant to write when you think that a comrade, equally anonymous, is making a literary racket in the next room.


If you read the Collected [Collected Poems] as one long poem, a narrative of a troubled, hypersensitive soul’s evolution, then you will believe, as I do, that with age Schuyler grew to like–or tolerate–himself; that self-loathing warmed into self-knowledge.

Stopping and starting: Poetry’s favorite device is the line break, which prose shuns. At the line break, the poem engages in self-regard, echo, hesitation; it eddies. A prose reader begins to fall asleep; a poetry-lover feels a rising blush. For with the line break, a poem has revealed its chant stigmata. The line break is, aesthetically, an endangered species. In the neglect surrounding poetry, hear the death of the line break; hear a culture’s decreasing solicitude toward the line break’s fortunes. The lost line break is a little match girl, a degraded relic. For Schuyler, it is ballast: The heart of his poetics is erratic, tender, skittering enjambment. Truism–each line break is a little death, which Schuyler faces stoically and serenely. Imagine that the verse line is a jump rope; Schuyler skips rope, pondering the break when his feet are midair. He is both light on his feet, and performatively clumsy–a kind of oafishness which, like Chaplin’s, is a high variety of grace. From “The Bluet”: “Unexpected / as a tear when someone / reads a poem you wrote / for him: ‘It’s this line / here.’ That bluet breaks / me up, tiny spring flower / late, late in dour October.” The line break before “reads” reminds us of reading’s oddness, reminds us that our hands are a reader’s. The line break after “unexpected” warns that every line break had better deliver a surprise if it wants any supper. “It’s this line / here”: The fleshy finger points, saying, “Here, reader, the line breaks.” “[B]reaks / me up”: Line’s schism demolishes “me,” also induces the aesthete’s admiring tears. How late in the day I am noticing these tiny miraculous instances.


Schuyler’s lines are tight and nervous but also sometimes long and self- and universe-loving. Certainly he grew to forgive his own silence as well as his own overflow. He wrote fat poems, but also skinny poems; for the fat ones, he surmounted the line-ending’s curtailment and succumbed to a physiological, shameful explosion: “… when my bladder flashed the message that I had to go and / I had to go now, not in two minutes. …” This is how “The Morning of the Poem” ends: he remembers urine gushing forth, “piss all over Paris, not / To mention my shirt and pants, light sun tans: why couldn’t it / have been the depths of winter, and me in heavy / Dark overcoat?” To write a fat, long poem, he must surrender to the memory of flood and embarrassment.


“What a long time since I wrote a poem” (Schuyler, in “Four Poems,” dedicated to Frank O’Hara). The time between poems is always a long time, as the time of the poem is always short, or long, or concerned with the difference (negligible) between abbreviated and endless.


Schuyler commonly and lazily uses the verb “to be”; he identifies. This is this. “The scars upon the day / are harsh marks of / tranquility.” Do not oppose scar and happiness.

He thinks (and transcribes and dignifies) “Mme. de Sévigné / -type thoughts,” and what thoughts would not yearn for such an isolate and opal pedigree? By calling them “-type thoughts” he acknowledges derivativeness, eagerness to mimic the great lady, satisfaction in being a copy. He must have loved Proust’s taste for Mme. de Sévigné: I, too, adore the exiled éclat of a woman who, far from the loved one, must be satisfied with sent commonplaces.


Like Hart Crane, Schuyler is fond of the word “bluet,” repeats it, and therefore repossesses it. He indulges the words he loves, as he wishes each passing day would pamper him. Some typical titles: “June 30, 1974.” “Dec. 28, 1974.” “February 13, 1975.” “August first, 1974.” Each day is an eclectic collection of moods and circumstances, potentially catastrophic; toward a ruined day’s end, cheerfulness sometimes breaks through. The movement of his thought owes more to the diary’s or letter’s amplitudes than to the poem’s parsimonies. And Schuyler’s politics–if he had any–found body in formalist questions. Adorno would have deplored Schuyler’s gorgeous sentimentality but would have appreciated his resistance to the received and the manufactured, even if his poetic manipulations strive to look like onanism crossed with haiku. Schuyler opens up “poem” to gay air; changes the dull wallpaper; lets light fall on a neglected corner; solves the question of garbage collection–how to handle a day’s waste, how to convert indolence into literature.1 Indolence is more than a temperament. It is a religion. The indispensable poets have cultivated it. Byron: “I smoke and Stare at Mountains.” Schuyler: “A nothing day full of / wild beauty. …” Nothing days are collected poetry. Any day I read Schuyler or try to write this essay becomes a nothing day. Keats wrote: “this morning I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to Mouth a Nectarine …” A few days later, Keats will fill “To Autumn” with mythic fruit, but so much richer is the letter’s inclusion of the actual, accidental, adjacent Nectarine! Schuyler’s poems, like Keats’s letters, include the contiguous object, the Nectarine in the sinister hand.

To include the fruit beside the blank page, the page on which one is about to write a sentence, is to be indolent enough to notice wild beauty, to stare at it, to wonder what words might begin to be useful in a description of it, but to stop several steps short of actually writing the words down.


His one ostensibly political poem, about Vietnam, is a failure. (“May, 1972.”) He writes: “The war / must end. It goes on.” He raise his voice to an unaccustomed public pitch; generally comfortable with things that “go on” (beauty, langour, moods), he cannot enjoy war’s ongoingness.


Breakdown, mental illness, social withdrawal: In “A Few Days,” Schuyler admits to having sat wordless at a dinner party chez Ashbery. Why are his poems, then, so voluble? Paradoxical, that this most socially inept of writers should have composed poems that play the peerless hostess, charming posthumous guests.


Fifteen years ago, I would have been praising Frank O’Hara, and my love for his poems would have included a desire, physically, to embrace or incorporate his glamour. Now (approaching middle age, or inhabiting it), I write about Schuyler, the least physically “cute” of the so-called New York School.


His poems include the perception and the moment of the perception’s correction, when he discovers it to have been mistaken, wrongsighted: “Tearing and tearing / ripped-up bits of paper, / no, it’s not paper / it’s snow.” He loves to mis-identify. But on the crest of an identification (this is a poem) he is content to say “no” (this is not a poem), and stop. Hence his respect for silence: his more than merely rhetorical or perfunctory gesture of making room for catatonia, failure, and indolence within the ripped-up poem’s vise. The silence he incorporates is sage and incompetent–the quietness of “writer’s block,” the dolor of deep trance. Turning away from the poem he is in the midst of writing, he stares, dumbly, at the wall.


His prose diaries, published only by small presses, fed the poems. Two indispensable treasures are the DIA Art Foundation’s chapbook of diary entries from 1968 and 1969, plainly titled James Schuyler, and The Figures’s compilation of journal entries, Early in ’71. Logically the Collected Poems should include these prose-poem sketches. (I await–I demand–their publication in a single handsome volume.) Framed, above my desk, is a typescript page of a Schuyler journal (Memorial Day, 1988), including the following paragraph, which is a poem because it exposits and then corrects itself (“Maybe not”), and which also, because of the way Schuyler typed it, visually resembles poetry. I reproduce his exact lineation:


last night, after dinner in that agreeable res-
taurant in Housatonic, where the poet brothers Gizzi
wait table, I had a passionate desire for some-
thing forbidden–not what the others were having
and I was not: a martini, wine, the kind of dessert
called something like “Chocolate Suicide”–
a cigarette, one lousy cigarette. Does this go
on forever? Maybe not: right this minute, I do
not want a cigarette.

The war goes on, but does this desire for a cigarette (a word he repeats, happily, three times) go on? Yes and no. He hovers between moving on and stopping. “Go / on” is a kind of line break, lost in prose, as is “I do / not want.” It’s possible that Schuyler considered his prose diaries to be mildly broken into poetic lines but lacked the energy to decide about all the breaks so left entries in prose paragraphs whose arrangement on his typed page was nonetheless fastidious. Evidently he perceived continuity between his prose and poetry, for he combined the two in his sweetly anomalous Home Book,published by Z Press, which features such precious oddities as “The Infant Jesus of Prague,” “The Custard Sellers,” and “Shopping and Waiting,” all absent from the Collected–which, to its credit, does include “The Fauré Ballade,” defined in an epigraph as “An anthology of [prose and poetry] quotes, misquotes, and (no doubt) misremembered remarks.” Stein told Hemingway that remarks are not literature. One “remark” that, pace Stein, Schuyler considers luminous is Thoreau’s “I am a parcel of vain strivings.” Acknowledgment of writing’s vanity and necessary incommunicativeness underlies Chelsea Hotel and Walden Pond, twinned symbolic residences. Also in Chelsea Hotel, some years earlier: Robert Mapplethorpe, fellow gatherer, collecting tricks and flowers.


Schuyler’s love affair with the fragment led not only to chains of miniatures, but, repeatedly, to long poems that recall Keats’s defense, in a letter, of the extended poem as bazaar, playground, wilderness: “Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer?” Of this genre–the many-acred playpen, crib, or continent; the pasture for grazing, for marveling at the freak acrobatics of an indolent poet expanding and contracting the line’s bellows, creating the sine curve of remembering and forgetting–Schuyler’s masterpieces are “Hymn to Life,” “The Crystal Lithium,” “The Morning of the Poem,” and “A Few Days.” I do not overstate: there are few poems I know in English (“The Prelude” and “Flow Chart” are two) that successfully achieve this degree of openness to the grace of fact and accident, and the felicities that come only from receptivity to failure. Greatest among Schuyler’s long works is “The Morning of the Poem”–because it spins into prose, or totters on the brink of it, and therefore secures a foothold in the vertigo-land called poetry; because it amply folds in details of his life, and thereby admits Mme. de Sévigné-type thoughts into the otherwise autistic field of “poem”; because it is long as hell; because it staggers, like a good drunk; because it embodies happiness and yet is extremely eloquent about unhappiness. I repeat: If I encourage students to read and write poetry, if I write and read and review poetry and think about poetry while walking down the street or before falling asleep, it is at least in part because of the example set by “The Morning of the Poem,” even if, when I first read it, in 1981, I took its extraordinary effects for granted, as if such extravagances as Schuyler offered were poetry’s norm. Then, I assumed that there were branches full of fruit as plump as “The Morning of the Poem,” ready to be plucked. Now I know how few, and how difficult to find. Happily this poem’s splendors defy unpacking. Schuyler piles up questions (“Whoever knows what a painter is thinking?”) and impossibilities (“I wish / I could send you a bundle of orange lilies / To paint”). If he could send the lilies, he wouldn’t need to write the poem.


“Hymn to Life” ends: “‘What are the questions you wish to ask?”–leaving us with the silence of the many, many questions the Collected asks of a life, that my life and other interested lives ask of his Collected. His long poems, in Dada mode, stun the artistic enterprise into silence (“I hate tasks,” “I smoke and Stare at Mountains”).


Silence: “Is this the moment? / No, not yet. / When is the moment? / Perhaps there is none. / Need I persist?”


“Sitting. Staring. Thinking blankly.”


Against blankness, these creamy particulars: “Cazenovia Creek,” “mothwing strokes of Sviataslov Richter’s / steady fingers,” “A tall cold glass of Vichy,” “A brown that isn’t purple, gamboge, celadon lined / with jade.” These details, sonorous, could have been James Merrill’s. Schuyler signs them with a self-correcting “isn’t”: “A brown that isn’t purple.” Why point out what brown isn’t? Because he respects description’s failure; he admires brown’s likeness to purple and the urge to equate the two colors, but he prefers the last-minute realization that they are not identical.


He knows the names of flowers, forgets their names, remembers them–the drama of retrieval and amnesia that Proust brought to long prose’s fore: “Pink rose of Marion, I / wish I knew your name.” We congregate in literature’s arbors because we want to fall asleep, and to wake from sleep with the names of flowers on our lips; we want to drift away from known words and then rediscover them.


His first book, Freely Espousing, was published in 1969, the year of Stonewall. (Frank O’Hara was already dead.) Then, after this belated debut, the work came quickly: The Crystal Lithium (1972), Hymn to Life (1974), A Nest of Ninnies (co-written with John Ashbery, 1976), The Home Book(1977), What’s for Dinner? (1978), the great Morning of the Poem (1980). And then A Few Days(1985). The meaning of this sudden flowering is mysterious and I won’t question it too closely, but I would be a clod not to mention that the 1970s was a decade of gay explosiveness, and that certainly Schuyler’s poetics must have been warmed by that flame. (I almost called the flame “collective,” but nothing in Schuyler’s work speaks to the communal spirit–only to the communion of writer and writer, reader and reader.) An aesthetic history of the gay 1970s needs to address not only the explicit (Mapplethorpe’s sexual collections) but the arch and the adjacent (Merrill’s ecstatic séance gatherings, Schuyler’s temperamental potpourris).


Perhaps his single most memorable (or liable to be anthologized) poem: “Salute,” from Freely Espousing. The poem concerns collecting, the failure to collect, and the desire to include failure in the poem.

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 gathering
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.

Noticeable line breaks: “is / not to have thought to do / enough?” Break certainty in half; disturb the finality of “is” with a cancelling “not.” “Like that gather- / ing of one of each I / planned.” Disturb the relation between subject and object by dividing “I” from the verb “planned”: Nothing can be planned, or one must leap across the line hole to make the posited event happen. Split the word “gathering”; disembowel it. Therefore inspire the reader to tread across the line breaks, to regather what has been dismembered.


Keats on the verge of death wrote a letter only because he feared that later he would not be able and would regret not having done so while he had the strength: “I thought I would write ‘while I was in some liking’ or I might become too ill to write at all and then if the desire to have written should become strong it would be a great affliction to me.” Half the urge to write is the premonition that later the thought I am now having might disappear, so I had better write it down while I have the inclination, however overshadowed this desire is by indolence. Thoughts disappear. Sometimes it is fine if they vanish. Schuyler remembers an act of poetic collecting he wanted to perform, and then tells us that he never accomplished it, but of course in so telling us of his omission, he commits the lost act. Not all poems need to be written. Part of the beauty of the lyric enterprise is that one can stare at verse from across a rift of silent inaction and remark on the unwritten poems. Sometimes it is enough to have thought to do. The act of saluting suffices. Anyway, gatherings can’t be planned; collections must be spontaneous. (If one obeys that dictum, it is impossible ever to write.) What do Jean Rhys, Robert Creeley and James Schuyler have in common? They alter and truncate thoughts: “Is / not.” The line break is the cancellation stamp.


Imagine Schuyler committing the act of study that he postulated but never rose to. Picture the poet holding the flower, scrutinizing it. What does it mean to “study” a flower or a poem? It is particularly difficult to examine Schuyler’s poems, because they are at once “studied” (mannered) and spontaneous: Shiny and easy (but also, in their sleight-of-hand syntax, baffling), they deflect the interpreter’s wiles. Does any meaningful segment of a nation, queer or otherwise, study Schuyler? Do we salute Schuyler? Isn’t “salute” an implicitly patriotic gesture? If so, what hybrid patriotism includes Schuyler’s isolated stammering, his Ponge-like quest to uncover a flower’s unreproducible sine qua non? Schuyler salutes the poems he never wrote, the thoughts he never had, the lovers he never adequately cherished, and the vocation he imagines he never entirely occupied. The literature I pursue is deathbed utterance: written–and read–on a figurative border of sentience and extinction, the moment you say to yourself, “I lacked the temerity, diligence, and inspiration to pick those flowers and study them. Past is past. I salute the art I never made, the artifacts I never sufficiently appreciated.” The plaque on 23rd Street salutes Schuyler. In Freely Espousing, his apolitical book, which broaches the possibility that this alone yet befriended poet might espouse a creed, or (homoerotically) find a male spouse, or (like a lady gardener) cultivate flowers, he silently acknowledges a field whose blossoms he was too distracted, lazy, or burdened to gather. If the “field” is American poetry as a living art; if America, as Richard Howard has recently suggested, is no better than its poetry; then the field I salute, by extolling Schuyler, is a recklessly utopian vers libre approximating thought’s freedom, the democracy of “a commingling sky” (the first words of his first book), of solitudes assembled in taboo congregations (“Marriages of the atmosphere / are worth celebrating”). He advocates accuracy: “the sinous beauty of words like allergy.” “[O]n the other hand I am not going to espouse any short stories in which lawn mowers clack.” Thus Schuyler’s poems are at once photographically hyperreal, and symboliste as Pan’s pipe.


One can enter Schuyler’s creed of freedom to espouse through his least free poem, his divinely flat villanelle, self-consciously yet humbly titled “Poem,” which I read (arbitrarily?) as an implicit address to John Ashbery, or to the aesthetic of voluptuous opacity that Ashbery was at the time championing. Imagine Ashbery and Schuyler as two participants in a Socratic–Wildean, Yeatsian, Gidean–dialogue about words and meaning, transparency and secrecy. Here is Schuyler’s half of the debate, rendered in a form, the villanelle, which traffics in paired puzzled refrains:


I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display.
Words’ meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say.
You would hate, when with me, to meet by day
what at night you met and did not think wrong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.
I sense a heaviness in your light play,
a wish to stand out, admired, from the throng.
I do not always understand what you say.
I am as shy as you. Try as we may,
only by practice will our talks prolong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.
We talk together in a common way.
Art, like death, is brief; life and friendship long.
I do not always understand what you say.
What is, is by its nature, on display.


Think of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous “One Art” (also, significantly, a villanelle): “One Art” and “Salute”are two great postmodern statements of the poetics of the closet. Bishop wrote: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Simile (“like”) is about to happen; self-consciousness (or writing block) interrupts the line. Similarly, Schuyler hiccups between “what is” and “is by its nature.” Is, is. Like, like. At the center of definition, exposition, or declaration, lies a stuttering repetition.


A prose paraphrase of Schuyler’s “Poem”: I thought I was your aesthetic opposite, J. A., but actually we’re allies, alongside. Sometimes I can’t understand your poems. Why not “display” yourself? And yet even masks can’t help but disclose. We reveal, against our will. J. A., principle of hiddenness, you permit by night what you shirk by day. Is it our “nature” to display, to flaunt? Is our “nature” natural? I love the natural world though I am a man of interiors (hotels, indolences). J. A., why do you wish to stand out, admired, from the throng of poets–to attract acclaim by virtue of your fear of display? Our poems are conversations with each other’s. I am display, you are secrecy; my poems can’t be read apart from yours, nor yours apart from mine, nor ours apart from Frank O’Hara’s, who displayed everything, by night and day. We use common speech. We also follow a shared–communitarian–path. If what is, is by its nature, on display, then why bother writing poems? Won’t the world display itself, without our earnest boosterism?

Hearing Ashbery and Schuyler read together at New York’s Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, in the late 1980s (the evening marked Schuyler’s return, after years of no public readings), I observed separated corpuses converging, as both writers described atmospheres, cloud cover, the “changeable / silk” of sky and mood. Ashbery had never seemed more concerned with the comic, the gracile; Schuyler had never seemed more metaphysical.


Long and short lines alternate in “The Morning of the Poem,” producing a sexed rush. “Our” culture forbids the line break by ignoring it. I mean, poetry is what social critics would call “marginalized,” and public discourse takes place in prose, as if the line break, terrifying and other, had the power to convert sensible democratic speech into anarchic blather. In “Morning,” Schuyler himself almost disregards the line break but then turns back to it, pours his thought over its topiary hedge, and this experience of “pour” (for reader and writer) is like having sex after you’d sworn it off, or like having poetry after aesthetic abstinence, or like visiting the country after years cooped up in the city. The line flow weds blank-verse monumentality and gossip’s languid shuffle, an oscillation between public and private, an alternation of roles (Big/Little) like a springy mattress to be enjoyed, not obeyed:


There are not many islands I really
Like, the ones where the rocks are slithery under the
thick seaweed when the tide is out, where the
Heart of the island beneath tall trees is all overgrown with ferns
and moss begemmed with fog and is silent, spongy
To walk on: on other days, a scented springy mattress to stretch out on.

Hear the all-important “is”: “Heart of the island beneath tall trees is all overgrown with ferns / and moss begemmed with fog and is silent.” The “is” functions as a mystical aporia: Where a reader wants or expects an action verb, a development, a motion, instead Schuyler delivers a fey equivalence, a swish.


In “The Morning of the Poem,” the short lines get longer as the poem progresses, so that by the end they are almost as long as the long; while toward the poem’s beginning (he couldn’t have foreseen the poem’s eventual massiveness), the short lines are nicely brief:


… the day when I arose
Seemed lost and trash-picking for a meatless morsel,
a stinking
Bone, such as in this green unlovely village
one need never
Seek or fear and you descend to your studio
leaving on your roof
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: in
Western New York, why Baudelaire? In Chelsea,
why not?


Explanation: Darragh Park, the poem’s dedicatee, is painting in Chelsea; Schuyler is writing in western New York. The poet in the country needs the idea of a painter in the city, just as art needs faraway referents in the real, and just as, in a poetry of systolic-diastolic movement, of expansion and contraction, long lines need short. (The long lines recall blank verse–Stevens–while the short recall Williams, and a certain “feminine” Imagism.) Flamboyance needs the closet. Expenditure needs thrift. A writing life needs silence. Not-understanding needs display as painter needs poet, as realism needs the real, as city needs country, as Mme. de Sévigné needs her daughter, as Keats needs the Nectarine, as Schuyler needs Ashbery and Ashbery Schuyler, as long lines need short, as short poems need long, as morning needs poems, and as poems need death (a poem rushes toward monumentality–or toward acute brevity–only because death supplies the parenthesis).


His last long poem, “A Few Days,” ends with the death of his mother: “Margaret Daisy Conner Schuyler Ridenour, / rest well, / the weary journey done.” The weary journey of poem-making? The weary journey of pretending that love existed where it was absent.


And so I won’t be
there to see my Maney
enearthed beside
my stepfather:
once when I was
home a while ago
I said I realized
that in his way he
loved me. ‘He did
not,’ my mother said.
‘Burton hated you.’
The old truth-teller!


Of James the son we might say the same: truth-teller! Truth the mother tells is truth the son is unafraid to include in the poem: Burton hated you. Some of the many truths that Schuyler told: I am lazy, I enjoy cigarettes and Guerlain’s Imperiale, taxi-rides and lists, gifts and letters, quotations and flowers, names and fantasies, houses and boredom. I like to read but also to half-read: “Riding along in the beautiful day (there go two / blue enamel silos), half-reading about marvelous / Chamfort. …” Reading Schuyler I’m also half-reading him: noticing inattention’s radiance.


All the poems James Schuyler never planted: Past is past. Each poem marks the place where there might also have been others, but these shadow poems live inside the ones that remain, making the Collected a set of epitaphs for undisplayed sentiments.

Displayed poem stands in for the veiled experience, as a named rose placemarks the real rose and eventually replaces it. Schuyler loves words and therefore he often forgets and must search for them–the process of retrieval is the unfolding of “poem”:

But oh dear: I forgot the five Old China Monthly
roses, and I always wish I’d planted Félicité
et Perpétue–it’s their names I like. And
Climbing Lady Hillington.


And–line break–Climbing Lady Hillington is not a rose but a name. Schuyler salutes roses, but also rose books, the veritable flower buried in its epitaph, and he shows no remorse that fossil memorabilia conceal the tangible petal: “I didn’t plant / a winter garden, but the book led on to his / rose books: ‘The Old Shrub Roses,’ ‘Shrub Roses / of Today,’ and the one about climbers and ramblers.” Old rambler, old truthteller!


Another “is,” from an early poem, “Fabergé,” to prove that the climactic Schuyler act is to espouse an equivalence, to correct a perception, and to reclaim the beauty of the prior misapprehension: “Here, just for you, is a rose made out of a real rose and the dewdrop nestled in a rosy petal that has the delicate five-o’clock-shadow fuzz–blue–is not a tear.” That was a prose sentence. Studying Schuyler, one reconsiders the difference between poetry and prose, revisits the line break and asks what it hosts.


Words in his short lines float, stressed, atop the line’s surface, bubbles or corks sometimes bumping against each other, more buoyant than most poets’ solo syllables. Now as I search through the Collected for an example of syllable flotation, I am surprised to note that many of his feet are iambic (“the other dark”) so what explains the not-rising not-falling weightlessness of the opening of, say, “Korean Mums”

beside me in this garden
are huge and daisy-like
(why not? are not
oxeye daises a chrysanthemum?),
shrubby and thick-stalked,
the leaves pointing up
the stems from which
the flowers burst in
sunbursts. I love
this garden in all its moods …


His trick is parenthesis; he performs an act of metaphor (this is this, this is not this) which gets interrupted or reversed, so the simple act of identification (Korean mums are Korean mums–but this tautology climbs no ladder of definition) turns into a mis-identification, a voyage away from the readily nameable. Korean mums turn daisy-like, “in” bumps into its across-the-linebreak cousin “sunbursts.” “Beside me”: The poet writes with one hand, holds a figurative Nectarine in the other hand, and admits the fruity distraction into the poem. (Stein’s credo: Use everything.) He allows the stuttering “why not? are not?” to suffice as a line, and shoves the meatier words “oxeye daisies” and “chrysanthemum” into a separate line, thus segregating flat stammer syllables (“why not? are not”) from gorgeous flower names nearly composing an iambic pentameter line: “oxeye daisies a chrysanthemum?”


Schuyler’s poems exemplify. They are salesman samples, shopwindow displays of what is possible in poetry and what is not feasible in life, or what miraculous acts quicken in the actual because he found a way to break them down into lines. Here, in “Growing Dark,” simple syllables in a short line glow because metaphor or misidentification has happened–nature displaying itself but also seeming not to mean what it says. “The grass shakes. / Smoke streaks, no, / cloud strokes. / The dogs are fed.” Shakes, strokes, streaks: The words sound alike but aren’t; and yet the words exist in relation. They have experienced lovely nepotism. The incest of assonance. Endogamous consonance.


One of the only Schuyler poems in numbered parts is the great “Dining Out with Doug and Frank.” I don’t want to force him into “great” even though I think he deserves that designation, more often reserved for writers with occluded, unchatty vision; instead, Schuyler loves the marmoreal possibilities of the instantaneous, the slow duration of the nothing-in-particular. The poet tells us that J. A. once asked him: “‘I don’t think James Joyce is any good. Do you?'” Schuyler remembers: “Think, what did I think! I / didn’t know you were allowed not to like James / Joyce. The book I suppose is a masterpiece: freedom of choice / is better.” (Consensual reading: consensual sex. Freedom to espouse.) Like Schuyler’s simplest sentences, “Dining Out with Doug and Frank” is devoted to postponement. It begins with a gesture of turning away from the act of exposition or narration. Soon I’ll tell you about dining out with Doug and Frank, but not yet. Let me digress, first, to ephemera, queers, and soap. “Not quite yet. First, / around the corner for a visit / to the Bella Landauer Collection / of printed ephemera: / luscious lithos and why did / Fairy Soap vanish and / Crouch and Fitzgerald survive? / Fairy Soap was once a / household word!” Rule of thumb: Before the poet writes, he or she must say, “Not quite yet,” and go around the corner to visit a collection that will always remain marginal (yet connected) to the poem; a realm (like Keats’s Nectarine) that the poem gestures toward, but that can only enter language through hesitations, detours, self-cancellations, and self-chastisements. (“Write it!”)


Will Schuyler–his poems–survive only as printed ephemera? On the survival of his cakes of line-broken fairy soap rests the life or death of poetry. To say it melodramatically: In order to write poetry, one must cultivate belief in the continued life offered by the line’s end. One must imagine that there are readers eager for the silence it proposes. One must turn away from a busy, beguiling, media-rich world that does not revere or notice or propose a use for our Cain mark, the line break. To read Schuyler is to envision its death, if only because his are so deft and neurasthenically self-conscious–aware, in their delicacy, of the indifference and scorn surrounding all hypermodulated, hypernuanced sensation and utterance. The death of the line break: “Millay wrote a lovely poem about / it all. I cannot accept their / death, or any other death.” Or: “Why is this poem / so long? And full of death?” One feels sorry for the line break, as if it were a dying heroine, or consumptive Keats, spitting blood in Rome. “Millay wrote a lovely poem about / it all”; poems are about “it all.” After the “about,” what comes but an empty gesture, “it all,” signifying the things that neither Millay nor Schuyler, who accepts his Millay-like “minor” status, has the mastery to put into words?


Secret stoicism of Schuyler’s keenly observant eye: In “The Payne Whitney Poems,” he admits enough details of the context–nervous breakdown, time in mental hospitals–for the reader to gather how much is left out of the other poems, despite their apparent intimacy and casualness. (Recall those famous 1950s and 1960s poetries of breakdown, and observe Schuyler’s difference; with Bishop he stands apart from the “confessional”–though what poet has not broken down, what poetry worthy of the name has not originated in an experience of break down, if only indirectly echoed in the line break’s swan’s down?) From “February 13, 1975”: “Some- / one is watching morning / TV. I’m not reduced to that / yet. I wish one could press / snowflakes in a book like flowers.” Pronoun is broken down: “Some- / one.” One can’t preserve real snowflakes in a book, and can’t include, in a poem, the Nectarine. Hear the sound of the ward in these lines from “What”: “What’s in these pills? / After lunch and I can / hardly keep my eyes / open. Oh, for someone to / talk small talk with. / Even a dog would do.” Not melodramatic, not hysterical. “Talk” and “talk” monotonously cohabit one line: “talk small talk with.” The first “talk” is a verb, the second, a noun. On its measly mental-institution day, “talk” performs two separate tasks. Dreadfulness of the inner life leads him to ask, in a beautiful, if fragile, poem, “What is a / poem, anyway.” Contemplate the line broken between the article “a” and the noun “poem”: Poems can’t be so important, if the word “poem” isn’t allowed to embrace its petty indirect article in the self-same line. Probe the meaning of “anyway,” the throwaway word. The poem’s earlier question: “And what / is that generator whose / fierce hum comes in / the window?” The generator outside the window, fiercely humming, is the force that through the sick mind drives the flowers. As Dickinson would say, “that is poetry.”


I slept two hours and woke up thinking, “My aesthetic health depends on describing accurately what is remarkable about James Schuyler’s poetry.” But I wonder if aesthetic health is an imaginary, repressive category, serving to divide unfit from able specimens. Reliable witnesses attest that Schuyler was mentally ill. But he was the picture of poetic wellbeing: pink and prime. Maybe my constitution depends on not describing, on letting the object of pleasure remain unexplained. Does Schuyler require the sanction of explication? Wanting, like a plaque, to announce a location on 23rd Street where Schuyler, and poetry, once lived, I open (more or less at random) to the following line from the Collected Poems: “I pick up a loaded pen and twiddle it.” How to avoid twiddling? How to explain the contiguity of poetry and twiddle, and Schuyler’s deep affirmation of indecision, error, and illness?


An early line from Schuyler: “Then the moon goes crocus.” He coldly yet exultantly notes the moment of metamorphosis: the moon turning crocus. Crocus is a flower, not a color. I salute the long “o” of “goes” and “crocus,” words to sit on. “Then the moon goes crocus” is the last line. How do you know when to end a poem? When the poem goes crocus, it’s time to stop.


“All things are real / no one a symbol.” Schuyler must have known leaden hours when the soul is not present to itself, and he must have been grateful for moments when sensation, through poetry, returns, when reality pours its warm oil back into the seeing “I,” and when one becomes nominal–a citizen, a voter, a head of a household; when one (I, Schuyler) matters; when oddball, loner, bachelor, fag, or fatty deserves to observe the snow, figures highly enough in the Family of Man to ask “Who is Nancy Daum?” Take the poem “April and Its Forsythia.” In it, observe that for Schuyler and reader, the barest retinal moment (I see snow) counts, makes the seeing “I” count. Observe with what alacrity Schuyler’s democracy grants citizenship. The census taker describes Schuyler (authorizes him as a citizen, head of a household) only after Schuyler, first, notices her. Schuyler as census taker affirms you, reader, authorizing your residency in the crowded republic:

It’s snowing on the unpedimented lions. On ventilator hoods
white triangles. It evens up wrinkled tar roofs,
smooths out rough concrete coping, showing the shape
of a wall side between coping and roof. The census
taker was just here. She had on transparent overshoes, coat and
hat: are clothes less secret? Less snowlike?
Snow isn’t secret, showing further aspects, how small
cast lions would look if they grew maned, tame yet whitely
fierce; how the center of the sidewalk is always a path
steps tend to, as across a plain, through a wood; how cars
swing out heavily and big at a corner, turning voluminously
as a fleshy dancer. That census taker. I’m the head of a household.
I am also my household. Not bad.


It’s snowing. Schuyler is writing a poem. The census taker comes. He notices her transparent clothes. He thinks about secrets. He has many. His homosexuality, so-called, isn’t a secret, yet it grows more important to his work as the decade progresses. And the census taker must take note of his singularity, his voluminous bachelorhood. Also she must see (so must we) his not-badness, his O.K. aspects, and we must observe the census taker’s interruption of the poem’s time: The lines conceal her visit inside their purse. The poem, snow, evens up wrinkled surfaces and hides age. In the poem it continues to snow and Schuyler continues to be head (“not bad”) of his household.


As I write these words, I am living on 23rd Street right next to James Schuyler’s Chelsea Hotel and the plaque honoring him. From evidence in the poems, I’ve reconstructed that his apartment looked northward, toward 23rd, while mine faces south, toward 22nd. (This may be untrue.) The light in my room, when I have the energy to notice it, is not damned. I think of it as Schuyler’s light. “What can one write / between the lines? Not one damn thing.”


Schuyler light: noticed and therefore put into poems, even as it–the light–goes:

This beauty that I see
–the sun going down
scours the entangled
and lightly henna
withies and the wind
whips them as it
would ship a cloud–
is passing so swiftly
into night.


What are withies? Willows with flexible branches. The keynote of a withy is its willingness to be whipped. Beauty enters the room, the self, the poem, only to scour the surface: to punish it. He writes “it goes, it goes.” What goes? Beauty. This beauty that I see, goes. This poem is called “Poem,” and it dwells in a section of Hymn to Life entitled “Elsewhere.” Schuyler’s beauty has now gone elsewhere: onto the inanimate, withy-invoking page. Into the mind of a reader flexible enough to be entangled by the nearly obvious. Schuyler was “just able” to collect, into lines, what he saw.


… This
beauty that collects
dry leaves in pools
and pockets and goes
freezingly, just able
still to swiftly flow
it goes, it goes.


So it goes, into the uncollectable. Reading Schuyler’s Collected, one hears and admires–one loves–the “just able,” the almost not able: a poetics on the verge of not emerging; a poetry on the verge of not being able to exist.


A more complete quotation from the Lord Byron letter excerpted at this essay’s beginning: “So you and Mr. Foscolo &c. want me to undertake what you call a ‘great work’ an Epic poem I suppose or some such pyramid.–I’ll try no such thing–I hate tasks–and then ‘seven or eight years!'”


Writers depend on what other writers have thought but not transcribed; writers depend on between-the-lines ecstasies and fears of other writers. Rapport between a dead and living scribbler is not agon but identification, a sequence of heady questions: All I want from Schuyler’s poems is that they speak, even if I can’t quite identify the nature of this speaker, so profuse in what he espouses, so diffuse in what he displays. From Schuyler’s “Amy Lowell Thoughts”:

Draped one,
Are you a larch?


Schuyler depends on Amy Lowell having had Amy-Lowell-type thoughts: inscrutable, unstudied, unsaluted. Draped poet, I want to know what you were thinking on a certain silent afternoon, a nothing day. I want to hear the gnomic thoughts that passed and dispersed before poetry, the enemy of loss, found the means to incorporate them.

Many, some, or a couple of his poems end with the word “goodbye.”


1. See Willard Spiegelman’s new study, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, published by Oxford University Press.