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David Kennedy reviews

Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951–1991
edited by William Corbett
470pp. Turtle Point Press. US$21.95 / £13.99. 1885586302. Paper.

James Schuyler: Selected Art Writings
edited by Simon Pettet
310pp. Black Sparrow Press. US$17.50. 157423076X. Paper.

This review is 2576 words
or about 5 printed pages long

‘Simply, Freely, Clearly’

However you try to tell it, the history of twentieth-century poetry in English seems to keep coming back to the same kinds of choices. Waldo Frank wrote fifty years ago, in the context of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, that while ‘The majority of his fellow citizens prefer to conceive of Brooklyn Bridge as a passage made of iron from one borough to another’, the poet reads it ‘as the mythic symbol of how man in his works shall immanentize and realize creation.’ [Orig. emphasis] Frank’s preachy and pompous ‘shall immanentize’ assumes that poetry is an ‘all or nothing’ business. In the words of another mid-century critic, R. P. Blackmur, the art of poetry was distinguished by ‘the animating presence… of a fresh idiom: language so twisted and posed in a form that not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality.’

It almost seemed as if poets and poetry should be filed under ‘h’: hieratic, hierophantic. And the poetry that couldn’t be described by ‘h’ words got filed under ‘b’ for Brooklyn Bridge because it was as well-made as the bridge and took you efficiently from somewhere you knew to somewhere else from where you could look back at your starting point and see that it was noticeably but not uncannily different from how you’d always imagined. Fifty years ago, you could say these sorts of things about poetry and they still made sense. It’s important to recreate just how much sense they made in order to understand just how different the work of the New York poets was. When James Schuyler writes about New York he often seems to conceive of it a manner akin to Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1926 painting ‘Shelton with Sunspots’ in which a skyscraper appears as a dream-like hybrid of plant, erotic object or body part, and divine revelation. When James Schuyler writes about New York, the Chrysler Building is ‘silver, soluble’; City Hall ‘gleams like silver like the magnolias in the moonlight’; and the UN building is a ‘green wave’. Similarly, in ‘Moon’ from A Few Days (1985), ‘the sun shines / down in silent brightness, / on me and my possessions, / which I have named, / New York.’ There is nothing twisted or posed about these descriptions – ‘silver, soluble’ is about as close to it as they get. Their idiom is, we might say, all freshness, the freshness and transience of the conversational ‘ooo, look, that’s just like...’

In the context of ‘Moon’, though, possession is precisely what Schuyler’s poetry doesn’t offer – how could it when the self is the city? Indeed, perhaps only a late-twentieth century city dweller could write, as Schuyler does in ‘June 30, 1974’, ‘Discontinuity / in all we see and are: / the same, yet change, change, change.’ No mythic symbols here, then; perhaps more a kind of ‘fort / da’—but, as William Watkin, has pointed out in a careful re-reading of Freud’s famous game, the real game is ‘proximity/metonymy’. For Watkin, ‘proximity’ is best understood by the title of Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘A Step Away From Them’. The poet’s dead friends – Bunny Lang, John Latouche and Jackson Pollock – ‘are close, just a step away, but what a step he seems to be suggesting, a distance wide enough to remove their presence from our world permanently.’ Proximity: the closeness of distance—and the inverse is obvious. Proximity becomes, then, ‘not a measurable or geometric distance’ but a kind of restlessness brought about by the presence of death and loss and one’s responsibilities in the face of them. In O’Hara’s great elegies, the restlessness is literal: walking through Manhattan, looking and shopping. Shopping and buying gifts for friends is useful way of understanding metonymy, that is, the way that objects and behaviours come to stand for the whole operating system of our desire.

Part of Schuyler’s own ‘fort / da’—the part that registers so acutely and wittily the moods and movements of the city—can perhaps be adduced to the mental illness and money problems that plagued him all his adult life. For the greater part of his life, Schuyler relied on the kindness of friends to give him a sense of belonging and of a settled place in the world. Part of it is probably to do with the deliberate disproportion at the heart of camp. But in the poetry it’s more to do with trying to make a poem out of something without changing it; and with a particular take on the confessional. As he wrote in a piece on Jane Freilicher for Art News in 1966, ‘The scale of objects goes unadjusted...If a bowl is too big, that is how big it is; if stems are floppy, then let them slump.’ In Lacanian terms, it’s a rejection of the idea that when one starts to write poetry, one is entering a pre-existing symbolic order and submitting one’s libido to the systemic demands and pressures of that order. Scale is also important to the confessional aspect of the poetry. As John Ash once observed to me during an interview, Schuyler was ‘kind of the confessional poet of the New York school though he’d probably have hated the label.’ But there’s nothing of the kind of doubled voyeurism of Berryman, Lowell, Plath or Sexton where the reader is invited to peek at the poet peeking at his or her own imminent implosion which seems as much desired as feared. When Schuyler talks about himself he does so directly. As he says in a letter to Kenneth Koch advising him how to tackle a review of Marianne Moore’s O, to be a Dragon, ‘I think you should say what you think, simply, freely, clearly.’

L to R: James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch,  August 1956

L to R: James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, August 1956

Unadjusted scale and entry on one’s own terms are characteristic of many of the letters collected in Just the Thing, a book whose first words are ‘Dear John Ducks’ and whose last are ‘I’d best stick with my perilous elevators’. This is camp but camp as a way of enjoying life and of helping others to enjoy it too. The many letters to John Ashbery are generally delightful not least for the alter egos of Ashbery and Schuyler himself. Ashbery is variously ‘Blue Eyed Winner’, ‘Gentleman’s Relish’, ‘Piccolo Pete’, ‘Prince of Fiddlers’ and ‘Rich Freeze-Dried Coffee Chunks’ while Schuyler is ‘The Fag at Bay’, ‘Military Pickle’, ‘Sam, the old accordion man’, ‘Stubborn Stains’ and ‘Starling F. Scruggs’. What these letters bring to life is the buzz of the New York artistic and literary scenes in the 1950s. A letter from October 13, 1959 is fairly typical. Schuyler tells Ashbery that ‘the discovery of one undone Chinese puzzle ball in a paper bag is food for an evening’s conjecture on what plans you might have had for it’ and then goes through a fast montage of Kenneth Koch editing the proofs of Ko, or, A Season on Earth, Marianne Moore reading her poem about the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio, the current New York fashion for the bulky-knit sweater, and what he’s been watching on TV. It’s the same world and take on life that are portrayed in detail in Brad Gooch’s O’Hara biography City Poet but because that book was written post-AIDS Gooch gives you the activity with the buzz taken out.

Such buzziness characterizes Just The Thing as a whole but there is a discernible shape nonetheless and that seems to be determined by the presence of letters to Ashbery. These predominate up until the late 1960s and tingle and spark with the currents of a particular cultural moment. From the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the dearth of letters to Ashbery has the effect of making Schuyler’s world seem to contract. Principal addressees become Joe Brainard, Kenward Elmslie and Ron Padgett and the tone and content become generally chattier and more everyday. For most of the 1970s, editor William Corbett points out, ‘Schuyler wrote fewer letters than at any other period in his writing life’. He suffered a number of nervous breakdowns and moved several times until finally settling in the Chelsea Hotel in May 1979 where he lived until his death in 1991. At the same time, Corbett reminds us, Schuyler published four books in the 1970s and wrote ‘The Morning of the Poem’ which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The later letters settle down again and it’s good to read of Schuyler getting much-deserved attention and success through grants and readings. Just The Thing is hugely enjoyable, particularly if you’ve time to keep dipping into it so it’s like you’re getting a new letter every few days. Like Joe LeSueur’s posthumously published memoir Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, it helps to block in the back-story and remind us that these nearly mythical New Yorkers were real people. William Corbett has done an excellent job identifying the huge array of characters and references and has provided potted biographies of the major players.

L ro R: Reuben Nakian, Frank O'Hara (wearing bow tie) and Elaine de Kooning at the Nakian opening, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966. Photo George Cserna.

L ro R: Reuben Nakian, Frank O'Hara (wearing bow tie) and Elaine de Kooning at the Nakian opening, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966. Photo George Cserna.

Schuyler’s Selected Art Writings have been out for a while but reading them in tandem with the Corbett volume helps one grasp what Schuyler meant by his memorable observation that ‘New York poets, except I suppose the color-blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.’ As fewer and fewer painters rise above the horizon of cultural attention, art history gets shortened and narrowed to the careers of major figures like Kline or de Kooning. So it’s good to have a sense restored of just how much art was going on in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, Selected Art Writings is almost worth reading just to find out that there was a leading Expressionist called Robert de Niro! You probably need to know a lot about mid-twentieth century American art to recognise all the people reviewed here but the book has around forty black and white illustrations of paintings and painters and these help to make history less opaque.

At first sight, though, it’s hard to fathom Schuyler’s and other New York poets’ liking for figurative and/or realist painters such as Jane Freilicher, Darragh Park, and Fairfield Porter. These painters are delicate colourists but can just as often seem clumsy and artless. How could the poets really have got it so badly wrong, one wonders, or were just they being wilful? Were they just bigging up their homies? On closer inspection, the fascination becomes a little clearer. First, all these painters were or are concerned with looking at what’s in front of them. Schuyler sums up Porter’s work with the comment “Look now. It will never be more interesting.” (17) Second, their work doesn’t ‘do’ politics. Schuyler on Porter’s paintings again: ‘Their value is not one connected to class. Class is an active relation to production between at least two groups...These paintings have no concern with production.’ Finally, Schuyler viewed New York-based figurative painters like Freilicher, Porter, Robert Dash and John Button as members of a ‘non-school’. (58)

It’s difficult not to keep reading such comments as analogs for Schuyler and the other New York poets. Schuyler’s and other New York poets’ liking for figurative and/or realist painters is analogous in another important sense. In his review of Just The Thing in London Review of Books (17 November 2005), August Kleinzahler observed that ‘Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch all have difficulty with seriousness.’ But that isn’t quite right: what they all have difficulty with is what’s supposed to be serious and prized for being so. It’s clear that the poets recognised a similar attitude in painters like Freilicher, Porter et al. In amongst the crashing surf of Abstract Expressionism and the hyper-real surfaces of Pop, they kept on painting interiors, landscapes and people. Never mind the subject and emphatically never mind about me, their work seems to say, it’s about how the paint is handled. Indeed, Fairfield Porter’s comment that “The right use of color can make any composition work” and Schuyler’s gloss that ‘in fact the color is the composition’ are more than halfway to pretty good descriptions of New York school poetry if you substitute ‘language’ for ‘color’.

Schuyler, though, was interested in and sympathetic to a huge range of work and he was especially generous to older painters whose work had never been fashionable and who were coming to end of their working lives. His art writing is a model for anyone trying to write about painting. Most of the pieces gathered here are barely more than a page but it’s surprising how informative they are. There are three reasons for this. First, Schuyler knew how to look at paint for technique and an individual artist’s relationship with it. Second, he could see where an individual artist’s originality was located. Finally, he could locate that originality historically. A relatively late piece on a 1974 Roy Lichtenstein show is exemplary in all these respects. So Lichtenstein simultaneously looks like ‘our de Chirico, replacing mystery and melancholy with good humour and quizzical surprise’ and ‘utilizes Matisse’ but takes ‘the Parisian’s lightness’ and ‘[translates it] from spontaneity to control.’ There is something like a complete history of one trend in twentieth century American painting waiting to be unpacked there and it is backed up with attention to the surface of the pictures – ‘the thick black lines’ that ‘securely lock’ each part of the picture in place, say, or the use of ‘out-of-scaleness’.

Throwing ‘out-of-scaleness’ at the New York poets might at first sight seem as glib as saying that Lichtenstein is ‘our de Chirico’ but that’s because we’ve forgotten what that ‘out-of-scaleness’ once meant. We’ve folded ‘out-of-scaleness’ into our culture. We live in an age when anyone who can write a shopping list thinks they can write an ‘I do this, I do that’ poem. Similarly, as Ian Gregson has pointed out, when Ashbery started writing his ‘camp stress on the aesthetic was crypto-political’ but now camp is part of the mainstream ‘it has been drained of that political content.’ Camp was necessary because huge areas of American culture—from, say, Pollock to Plath or Berryman to Balanchine—were just one giant vanitas. Maybe once Warhol had rubbed American culture’s nose in its obsession with death, camp started to be less urgent. And, of course, now America’s death culture has become a fully acted out death politics, camp seems hugely irrelevant. Not that reading Schuyler’s letters and art writings should make one nostalgic for the golden age of camp—how camp would that be? In Schuyler’s best poetry ‘out-of-scaleness’ is, anyway, scaled down. This was the poet who wrote somewhere in The Crystal Lithium that ‘All things are real / no one a symbol.’ Schuyler didn’t hide his vulnerability inside symbols. He probably knew it was one of the sources of his insight and good humour.


William Watkin’s re-reading of Freud is in On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp.164-5 and 194-5. His discussions of proximity and metonymy are on pp.62-3 and pp.223-4.

My interview with John Ash is reprinted in Talking Verse: Interviews with Poets (St. Andrews and Williamsburg: Verse, 1995).

Joe LeSueur’s book on Frank O’Hara’s poems was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2003.

Ian Gregson’s discussion of Ashbery, O’Hara and the changing politics of camp can be found in The Male Image: Representations of Masculinity in Postwar Poetry (Macmillan, 1999).

David Kennedy’s most recent collection is The Roads (Salt, 2004). Newer works,in collaboration with Christine Kennedy,can be seen at ‘LitTeR’ and Ahadada websites. A book on elegy is forthcoming from Routledge.

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