Living on Apple Crumble

August Kleinzahler

  • Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-91 edited by William Corbett
    Turtle Point, 470 pp, £13.99, May 2005, ISBN 1 885586 30 2

‘I am well. How are you? It is wonderful here,’ the first letter in this selection begins, and goes on: ‘I love it here; real mad fun. Especially the evening game of gin rummy before beddy-by (9.30); the 8 p.m. cup of cocoa.’ The letter was written on 15 November 1951, a few days after James Schuyler had been admitted to Bloomingdale Hospital, a mental institution in White Plains, New York. Schuyler still gets his semi-colons right, and his appetite for gossip is undiminished: ‘Is it still Connecticut, the dear deer, the steady lay, the unprivate walls?’ His correspondent, John Hohnsbeen, an art-dealer friend, was having an affair with the architect Philip Johnson, and the ‘unprivate walls’ are those of Johnson’s famous Glass House.

Schuyler was 28 and this was his first serious mental breakdown. He had only recently arrived in New York after an extended stay in Italy, where he worked for a time as Auden’s secretary in Ischia, typing up, among other things, the poems that became the collection Nones. Schuyler later claimed that working for Auden made him think: ‘Well, if this is poetry, I’m certainly not going to write any myself.’ But over the next twenty-five years or so he produced some of the most brilliant and distinctive poetry written in English in the second half of the last century, as well as a remarkable novella masquerading as a children’s book, Alfred and Guinevere, and a body of art criticism, mostly written for ARTnews, which contains some of the most perceptive commentary on the downtown Manhattan art scene of his time.

Through the poet-friendly Tibor de Nagy gallery, which opened in a cold-water flat on East 52nd St in 1950, the year before Schuyler’s breakdown, Schuyler met John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, who had been friends at Harvard. The ‘Harvard wits’, he called them. Schuyler had attended Bethany College, a small college in West Virginia affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, where he had devoted himself to bridge and then flunked out. The four poets became known as the ‘New York School’, a tag thought up by the gallery’s director, John Myers, who was described by James Merrill as ‘an ageless, hulking Irishman with the self-image of a pixie’. They certainly didn’t consider themselves a ‘school’, but they were smart and talented, as were the painters associated with the gallery: William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Alfred Leslie, Larry Rivers, Norman Bluhm and Fairfield Porter. It all made for a vigorous little scene, a fair bit of it played out at the Cedar Bar, then on 9th St in Greenwich Village, where, as O’Hara would later write, ‘we often wrote poems while listening to the painters argue and gossip.’ It’s a world generously chronicled, and in the most informal of ways, in this very ample and entertaining collection of Schuyler’s letters.

Auden and his crowd had provided Schuyler with his entrée into the world of serious artists. About Auden himself Schuyler had mixed feelings. He wrote an affectionate, not very good elegy, ‘Wystan Auden’, which appears in his 1980 collection, The Morning of the Poem, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. He deserved a Pulitzer many times over for his first two collections, Freely Espousing (1969) and The Crystal Lithium (1972), but the collection with the Auden elegy in it isn’t much good. The years of Milltown, Nembutal, Thorazine, lithium and the rest had coarsened Schuyler’s matchlessly delicate touch.

Schuyler wasn’t too keen on Auden’s later work. ‘It is The Old Man’s Road you are reviewing, isn’t it?’ he wrote to Kenneth Koch in January 1957:

I read some of it and dropped it with a little whinny of disgust. He really is a pig. Well, now let’s see. First, he wrote the poems at the end … of his self-exile in ‘Amedica’. He has the chair of poetry at Oxford, his bally old university … Well, he has always been envious of Eliot, and if The Old Man’s Road is no 4 Quartets it may be, in a nasty sort of way, his Ash Wednesday (why should the aged beagle stretch its legs, he yawned, scratching himself with his singing bone) … The poems are probably also the expression of a periodic self-disgust (another instance is the kind of mutilation that got into his Collected Poems: putting camp titles on serious poems; tearing apart The Orators; ripping choruses out of plays he has written with Isherwood …) Now, you like his early work. Isherwood had a great deal to do with it: he criticised his poems, cut them to pieces and so on. It’s all in Lions & Shadows. But as the boy grew older, there wasn’t anybody bright enough to keep up with him … And he has little faculty for self-criticism (which is a quality – if it is worth anything – one might expect a poet, an artist, to develop rather than possess innately).

While Schuyler and his circle tolerated Auden, Robert Lowell and his reputation gave them fits. Schuyler would define his poetic project, at least in part, by opposing it to that of Lowell and the other gloomy campus darlings of the New Critics:

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