Slowly/Swiftly

Michael Hofmann

  • Last Poems by James Schuyler
    Slow Dancer, 64 pp, £7.99, January 1999, ISBN 1 871033 51 9
  • Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
    NYRB, 141 pp, £7.99, June 2001, ISBN 0 940322 49 8

Not first sight, often enough, but a second look – it is a mysterious thing with poetry that it finds its own moment. The poets that have meant most to me – Lowell, Bishop, Schuyler – all, as it were, were rudely kept waiting by me. I had their books, or I already knew some poems of theirs, but there was no spark of transference. Then it happened, and our tepid prehistory was, quite literally, forgotten beyond a lingering embarrassment at my own callow unresponsiveness. It was as though they had always been with me, and I found it difficult, conversely, to remember our first encounter. It is a slight relief to me that James Schuyler, who writes about reading almost as much as he writes about seeing, confesses to a similar sluggishness of feeling:

Twenty-some years ago, I read Graham Stuart Thomas’s
‘Colour in the Winter Garden’. 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.

(‘Horse-Chestnut Trees and Roses’)

It is this dilatory or sidelong compliance I am talking about. Here follows my own belated winter garden to the American poet James Marcus Schuyler, pronounced ‘Sky-ler’, 1923-91.

The first time I was aware of James Schuyler was in one of those rather windy American ‘Best of’ annuals. At the back of the book, the poets comment on their own poems, in every shade of vainglory and modesty, pretentiousness and Aw shucks! The only comment I can remember from a decade’s worth of these books is Schuyler’s, to the effect that while his poems were usually the product of a single occasion looking out of a window (his version of the unities), the poem in question (I think it was ‘Haze’) departed from this by using more than one window and more than one occasion. ‘I do not normally permit myself such licence,’ the poet sternly ends. This stood out: for its idiosyncrasy and scrupulousness, for its thoughtful rebellion against unthinking unassumingness, for its (I am somehow convinced) borrowed plumminess. There’s something enjoyably performed and bewigged about it. That was in 1990. From then I date my public espousal of the ‘poem out of the window’ – though that’s an old cause with me – and a little later, I finally began to read Schuyler.

It was on a morning in Manhattan, the book was The Morning of the Poem (typically, I don’t know how it came to be in my possession), and the poems that convinced me (it’s unusual to remember this) were a sequence of 11 short pieces called ‘The Payne Whitney Poems’. The Payne Whitney, I knew from reading about Robert Lowell, was a New York mental hospital, in the same way I knew from reading Lunar Caustic that the Bellevue was a New York mental hospital, and here was a clutch of texts fit to set beside Malcolm Lowry’s book, or Lowell’s ‘Waking in the Blue’ or his sequence ‘Hospital’. Intact records of damage, frail hints at a central neural mystery, words newly out of bandages:

Arches
of buildings, this building,
frame a stream of windows
framed in white brick. This
building is fireproof; or else
it isn’t: the furnishings first
to go: no, the patients. Patients
on Sundays walk in a small garden.
Today some go out on a group
pass. To stroll the streets and shop.
So what else is new? The sky
slowly/swiftly went blue to grey.
A grey in which some smoke stands.

Typical of Schuyler are the adjustments and corrections – like Bishop’s, only more sweeping (and yet just as mildly carried out, ‘no, the patients’, ‘slowly/swiftly’). Also the small thoughts and whimsical, half-experimental notations, before they are countermanded: ‘This/building is fireproof,’ ‘Today some go out on a group/ pass’ – this last reminding me unfortunately of someone’s altogether more robust sneer (is it Berryman?), ‘nuts in groups about the room’. There is a clear and real external scene, a view or ‘subject’, and yet always stronger is one’s sense of the poem as being made, like a painting: the quick, nervous applications of paint, and the quick taking of it back. Schuyler is a painterly poet, descriptive and objective, and at the same time he uses all the subliminal, microbial quirks of language.

The poem attempts perhaps to find something to affirm, but everywhere there is either fear or envy (of the patients on their exeat) or a crippling feeling of fatuity. Something as ‘normal’ and ordinary as ‘To stroll the streets and shop’ can rarely have sounded as hesitant and borrowed and speculative as it does here. The infinite wistfulness of the infinitive. To know her is to love her. To walk and chew gum. To pass through the eye of a needle and enter heaven. No wonder it takes the patients straight out of the poem, leaving the speaker with the self-interrogation which, one senses, he has been avoiding as hard as he can. From shame, from weakness, from ‘shakiness’ – a condition referred to in one of the other poems – or perhaps from lifelong aesthetic preference, the speaker, it seems, would prefer to stick to external, middle-distance things. His speech feels like remedial speech, the words sound odd and insecure. Having asked his question – doesn’t it sound like a visitor’s, easy to ask, hell to reply to, that he’s unhappily parroting to himself? – he heroically interposes ‘The sky’, so perhaps as not to have to offer information about himself. Unluckily, ‘The sky’ sounds like a play on the poet’s name, and the predicate may perhaps offer clues about his condition (I have seen both the following ascribed to Schuyler): the schizophrenic ‘slowly/swiftly’, or else the bipolar ‘went blue to grey’, a past verb – more, painful, relearning of language – suggesting the change, which of course the speaker has no hope of quantifying, from depressed, ‘blue’, to medicated, ‘grey’. ‘A grey’, the information carries on, in a rather unlooked for way, ‘in which some smoke stands’. The last word, wholly unexpected, makes the poem. Not that one had any doubts about the poem being made – it makes itself throughout – but such an ending, dutiful, dominant, at no stage seems remotely within its reach. Here is the unlooked for affirmation, a new physics in which smoke ‘stands’ while windows ‘stream’ and brick is ‘white’ and ‘fireproof; or else/it isn’t’. And of course, there is the platitude: ‘no smoke without fire’. The patients are the first ‘to go’, and so this one, humorously, has ‘gone’.

What looked like a static scene – a view out of the window – is instead a little drama. The interest of the poem – fully held by the minutely controlled to and fro, paint and scrape of the sentences, its terrible, casual sensitivity – is in its naked tact and its secret optics. The form of the arch had Kleist’s admiration for being kept up by the desire of every individual part of it to fall. ‘Arches’ is the poem of someone with his glasses off, or his brain decoupled, of the infinitely delicate return of matter, manner, humour, humanity. What we think of as ‘a journey’, Kafka said, is ‘a wavering’ or ‘dithering’. ‘The Payne Whitney Poems’ (pace Heaney) waver into sense. They take very small steps tremendously irresolutely. At the beginning of ‘Arches’, the speaker recognises or discerns nothing; by the end, he sounds wise. Not just that, he seems to be under very low pressure. There is painfully little forward momentum. Most rhetoric is based on repetition: Schuyler uses repetition that is only repetition, that is without rhetoric. The title – ironically – falls into the poem, and the poem shuffles from ‘buildings’ to ‘building’, from ‘frame’ to ‘framed’, from ‘the patients’ to ‘Patients’. If Lowell or someone had written within such parameters, it would have had tremendous power (say, ‘tops of the moving trees move helter-skelter’) – no power accrues to it here. Rather, the miracle is that the frailty, even the lightness of the thing is not impaired. It is someone taking these tiny steps, backwards and forwards, and not treading on anything, not hurting anything.

However halting, impaired, almost uncommunicative the poem, I still have the perverse sense that the station to which it is tuned, however low, is merriment. The sentences may be mumbled and reluctant and short and full of wrong turnings, but there is still a low ebb of wit in them – in the macabre speculation, in the observation of others like or unlike himself, in the unexpectedly fluent linkage of smoke and fire. It is, in other words, and perhaps again unexpectedly, literary; and I have come to think that Schuyler is everywhere literary. It seems to me not inappropriate to be reminded of other poems and poets by ‘Arches’, by the other ‘Payne Whitney Poems’, by Schuyler passim. ‘Her hair dressed with stark simplicity’ (from ‘Let’s All Hear It for Mildred Bailey!’) is Horace. ‘Buried at Springs’ anticipates Bishop’s ‘North Haven’, and there is no shortage of other ‘Bishop moments’, such as ‘More litter, less clutter’ from ‘The Man with the Golden Glow’ or ‘The bay agitatedly tries to smooth itself out./If it were tissue paper it would need damp and an iron’ – which then corpses into ‘It is a good deal more than damp./What a lot of water’ (‘The Edge in the Morning’). ‘An Almanac’ is Brodsky, but in 1969, before there was Brodsky: ‘Shops take down their awnings;/ women go south;/few streetlamp leaners;/ children run with leaves running at their backs./In cedar chests sheers and seersuckers displace flannels and wools.’ Rilke is a pervasive presence: ‘men with faces like happy fists’ (‘Scarlet Tanager’), or the thought in ‘The best, the very best, roses. After learning all their names – Rose/de Rescht, Cornelia, Pax – it is important to forget them’ and ‘When I/was born, death kissed me. I kissed it back’ (both in ‘Hymn to Life’, which is like a stray elegy). Frank O’Hara, Schuyler’s friend and sometime flatmate, is very obviously there (I’ll keep myself therefore to one example): ‘Look, Mitterrand baby’ (‘Simone Signoret’). O’Hara aside, this is not a matter of being influenced – or influential. The quotations are not borrowings, but convergences or congruences: they affirm a conventionality that, with all their wacky freedoms, Schuyler’s poems also satisfy. It’s not that they are touchstones – something I had thought of saying about ‘Arches’ – but that although they are not conceived as touchstones they are every bit as good as touchstones.

When I began reading Schuyler, I thought it wasn’t possible for anyone to occupy so much of O’Hara’s territory without looking pallid; then I thought I liked him better than O’Hara: less strenuous, less riotous, more depth and stamina in the personality, more like that ‘something to read in normal circumstances’ (Pound) that I generally crave in poetry. After a while, I thought I hadn’t liked anyone this much since Lowell; then I had the (for me) heretical thought that perhaps I even liked it better than Lowell. Still, Lowell is part of my picture of Schuyler, who is, I think, or can be, Lowell by other means. This is an inconvenient or irregular thought: a distaste for Robert Lowell and all his works seems to be axiomatic for Schuyler’s admirers. There is a reflex opposition to Lowell in O’Hara and the New York School that seems to me only partly just, and I don’t think they can take Schuyler with them on this. Their view of Lowell seems to be stuck in 1955 and their (unsuccessful) espousal of Schuyler, who is almost unknown in England and underappreciated in the States, rarely goes beyond perplexity and adulation. A typical sentence is Howard Moss’s ‘How Schuyler manages to be absolutely truthful and an obsessed romantic at the same time is his secret.’ Well, perhaps the critic should have tried harder to get it out of him. Lee Harwood in his afterword to Schuyler’s Last Poems enthuses about ‘poems where the poet is not an isolated heroic figure but a social creature enjoying or enduring the “ordinary” experiences of life’. Harwood doesn’t mention Lowell by name, but it’s easy to imagine he’s thinking of him in that ‘isolated heroic figure’. But what is the speaker of ‘Arches’ if not ‘an isolated heroic figure’? And how ‘ordinary’ an experience is hospitalisation anyway? I read and admire Schuyler with the same part of me that reads and admires Lowell. To make sense of ‘The Payne Whitney Poems’, I contend that it helps to have read ‘For Sale’, ‘Waking in the Blue’, ‘The Mouth of the Hudson’, ‘Myopia: A Night’, perhaps even ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’. Yes, Schuyler has a different register, his words emerge either slower or faster than Lowell’s, more sparingly or more drenchingly (in ‘Arches’, it is slow and spare), but both are in the same business of forging a written voice or making print that sounds. It doesn’t seem to me justifiable to set the author of ‘I keep no rank nor station./Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small’ against the author of ‘Arches’ – besides, Elizabeth Bishop was a great admirer of both.

From ‘The Payne Whitney Poems’, I ranged happily over the rest of The Morning of the Poem (1980), and then the Selected and Collected Poems of 1990 and 1993. The Collected was never published in the UK, but the large and late and very good Selected was done by Carcanet in their ‘beautiful hardback’ period: copies are available, and I earnestly recommend it. Schuyler readers have fared rather well since his death, in 1991. Black Sparrow brought out The Diary of James Schuyler in 1996 and the Selected Art Writings in 1998; in 1999 Slow Dancer published as Last Poems those pieces that had been included in the American Collected but not the Selected; and the New York Review of Books Classics series adopted a delightful novel called Alfred and Guinevere, his first book, from 1958, and republished it in 2001, with an introduction by his friend John Ashbery.[*]

Schuyler is first and last a poet, but the other books shed interesting light on the poetry. ‘For readers of his poetry, the idea of the Diary of James Schuyler might almost seem like too much of a good thing,’ begins Nathan Kernan’s introduction – too much because the poems have so much of the particular and the quotidian about them. The Art Writings – Schuyler followed Ashbery and O’Hara to Art News, and wrote for it, off and on, from 1955 to 1978 – show a well-tempered, diversely appreciative critic, with an apparently inexhaustible range of ways of saying things (on Alex Katz: ‘the first in the “allegorical” style that showed the painter and his wife Ada and small son striding smiling out of a summer landscape; like the end of a Russian movie when the wheat crop has flourished’) and an unexpectedly fervent commitment to a minor-Ruskin aesthetic that also informs the poems (on Jane Freilicher: ‘that passion for prettiness that can charge a lyric gift with the greatest potency of beauty’). One thinks of the New York poets as associating with the Abstract Expressionist painters, but a lot of Schuyler’s enthusiasms – not to mention his book-jackets – tend to be for rather pretty and watery figurative work. O’Hara may have claimed not to be able to enjoy grass or trees ‘unless there’s a subway handy’, but Schuyler was a rather more wholehearted visitor to Long Island, a long-time resident of Vermont and Maine and Upstate, and in many of his New York City poems celebrates a rus in urbe pleasantness. The novel, finally – Schuyler wrote a couple of others, one with Ashbery, but I haven’t read them – is quite an extraordinary piece of work, chronicling an uneasy period in the life of a brother and sister, seven-year-old Alfred and 11-year-old Guinevere. There is no narration, beyond ‘he said’ or ‘she said’; the whole book is kept in speech, occasional letters (Alfred has to dictate his), and Guinevere’s monstrously precocious diary entries (‘When I take up smoking remember about lemon juice removing stains’). It lives in the frighteningly accurate contrast between the two voices (two ages, two sexes, but also, two individuals) and, almost more, in that between written speech and writing (which, to me, is also an area where Schuyler’s poetry makes a great showing). Rather remarkably, Alfred and Guinevere was originally published, mistakenly, with illustrations, as a children’s book.

Talking about the poetry of someone like Schuyler – almost devoid, I sometimes think, of any exterior mannerisms – is nearly as difficult as talking about an entire person. What can you say? There is the jagged early poetry, the exceedingly narrow middle poetry (one or two words a line in ‘Buttered Greens’ or ‘Mike’ – as though done with masking tape) and the wide, Whitmanish lines of the long poems, ‘The Crystal Lithium’, ‘Hymn to Life’, ‘The Morning of the Poem’, ‘A Few Days’. Over time, I suppose he became more subdued. A sense of style is all-pervasive, but nothing is determined or excluded, it seems, on stylistic grounds. It’s as though everything has been read or played through, but also let stand; typical of this are the geometrical line-lengths, where some breaks are interesting and suggestive, and many are not.

There seems to be nothing that Schuyler cannot or will not say, but he is not a provocateur like O’Hara. Most characteristically, he is a sweet, decorous and witty writer: but he is just as capable of being the opposite. Whichever, he seems not to have to operate under any imperative – no ‘I must make this charming/characteristic/peculiar/off the wall’. He often writes, as I noted of ‘Arches’, under very low pressure, with minimal invention and exuberance – which is one of the things that makes him hard to quote from. There are wonderful jokes and moments of outrage, but in a sense they are untypical, and I certainly wouldn’t want to pretend he’s all like that. He has that extremely rare thing, the ability to write interesting description. The ‘Andrew Lord Poems’ is a sequence in Last Poems about pottery, not a subject to set the pulses racing, but the reader doesn’t take against it here. Nor, conversely, is a subject used to sell a poem: ‘Buried at Springs’ is Schuyler’s elegy to O’Hara, but one almost wouldn’t know it. Even irrelation, in Schuyler’s hands, becomes a form or type of relation, and informality is a version of formality, inaccuracy of accuracy:

There is a hornet in the room
and one of us will have to go
out the window into the late
August mid-afternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge
in being humane to hornets
but not much . . .

(‘Buried at Springs’)

Look, Mitterrand baby, your telegram
of condolence to Yves
Montand tells it like it is
but just once can’t some high
placed Frenchman forget about the
gloire de France while the world
stands still a moment and all
voices rise in mourning
a star of stars:
Simone Signoret was and is immortal
(thanks to seeming permanence
yes the silver screen l’écran?)
Simone Signoret, a.k.a.
Mme Yves Montand, is dead . . .

(‘Simone Signoret’)

All the leaves
are down except
the few that aren’t.

(‘Verge’)

These carelessly chosen quotations – they could be varied by hundreds, thousands of others – all have in common the idea of impermanence (‘immortal’ gets a line to itself). Schuyler, it seems to me, responds to the challenge of impermanence, accommodates impermanence, sings impermanence more than any other poet, and that’s why he’s a classic. In the long, tangent-driven poem-fleuve ‘Hymn to Life’, Schuyler finds himself suddenly remembering Washington, where he spent part of his boyhood:

Odd jobs, that stretch ahead, wide and
mindless as
Pennsylvania Avenue or the bridge to
Arlington, crossed and recrossed
And there the Lincoln Memorial crumbles.
It looks so solid: it won’t
Last. The impermanence of permanence, is
that all there is?

There is a sort of drollery here, beginning with ‘crumbles’. Schuyler has lost the thread of his thought, the boring vistas of odd jobs, and has allowed himself to take up – perhaps through aesthetic animus – almost a contrary position. Much dearer to his heart always is the opposite: the permanence of impermanence.

Hence the importance of tone in Schuyler (often wit), and of surface detail (prettiness). Both are secondary qualities, emanations like Yeats’s ‘wine-breath’ in ‘All Souls’ Night’, and both, in a sort of mathematical way (not change, but change in the rate of change), exhibit a constancy in inconstancy, like the revolutionary ‘grey in which some smoke stands’. Ephemeral things are sung in the most ephemeral way, and the effect is of permanence (though not the dreary permanence of the Lincoln Memorial). And here, too, is Schuyler’s literariness, aere perennius. Poem after poem – utterly variable, unpredictable, scatty meanderings, often on next to nothing, or on the most inconsequential things – is, in fact, a monument: ‘Milk’, ‘Now and then’, ‘A blue towel’, ‘Korean Mums’. Instability of language, of level, of approach, of attention (‘Dining Out with Doug and Frank’ begins, ‘Not quite yet’; its second section begins, ‘Now it’s tomorrow,/as usual’) seems to be the response, instead, of a vast style. There is no gilding or freeze-drying, no E-numbers, the perishability is in the language. You wouldn’t say, I wouldn’t say: Schuyler is a proponent of ‘the best words in the best order’. And this freedom of address is actually – as I don’t think it is in Ashbery and not often in O’Hara, apart from ‘The Day Lady Died’ – responsibility.

Where it shows most, and most surprisingly, is in the endings of the poems. Again, this is hard to show by quoting, but time and again a poem that looks to be this, then that, then the other thing, will have a proper ending. A knock-out, a result, a return to the beginning, a few 16ths of an inch along a light-meter, a colour chart, a diary or a biography. The effect is terribly moving. It unexpectedly restores the personal, the artistic, the controlling hand. It’s at times as though there was one sideways genius ramifying, digressing, surprising – and then another intervened, with an implacable insistence on pushing the whole thing forward. While looking like our jumble and our aporia, a Schuyler poem is always an advance. The short poem ‘Closed Gentian Distances’ begins, in the way dozens of Schuyler poems seem to do, ‘A nothing day’ and ends with two lines that Heraclitus or Heaney (the pun on ‘stream’) would have been proud of (as well as a different version of simplex munditiis – this one goes ‘crisp in elegance’): ‘Little fish stream/by, a river in water.’ So much, then, for nothing. ‘The Night’ begins, ‘The night is filled with indecisions/To take a downer or an upper’, and ends: ‘It’s true/We do we/Love each/ Other so.’ The first stanza of ‘October’ goes: ‘Books litter the bed,/leaves the lawn. It/ lightly rains. Fall has/come: unpatterned, in/ the shedding leaves’; and the last sentence is: ‘The books/of fall litter the bed.’ An extraordinarily slight, deft and lovable piece of patterning. An alternative type of ending, just as conclusive and controlled, is when Schuyler reaches a point so bizarre, often, or so delicately foolish, that it makes further writing impossible. It sounds strange, but I can think of no better way of describing the ending of, say, ‘The Walk’:

I love
their white
scuts when they
bound away,
deer at horseplay.

Or ‘Today’:

Everything chuckles and creaks
sighs in satisfaction
reddens and ripens in tough gusts of coolness
and the sun smites.

After ‘smites’ rien ne va plus.

[*] Selected Poems by James Schuyler (Carcanet, 292 pp., £16.95, 1990, 0 85635 852 5).
The Diary of James Schuyler, edited by Nathan Kernan (Black Sparrow, 325 pp., £25 and £12.99, 1996, 1 574230 26 3).
Selected Art Writings by James Schuyler, edited by Simon Pettet (Black Sparrow, 310 pp., £25 and £14.99, 1998, 1 574230 77 8).