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

‘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:

New York poets, except I suppose the colour-blind, are affected most by floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble. Artists of any genre are of course drawn to the dominant art movement in the place where they live: in New York it is painting. Not to get mixed up in it would be a kind of blinkers-on repression, like the campus dry-heads who wishfully descend tum-ti-tumming from Yeats out of Graves with a big kiss for Mother England (subject of a famous Böcklin painting: just when did the last major English poet die? Not that Rossetti isn’t fun …): The big thing happening at home is a nuisance, a publicity plot, a cabal; and please don’t track the carpet.

A letter to Donald Allen in September 1959 lists his influences, and those of his New York pals. These include Auden (‘though if Auden doesn’t drop the word numinous pretty soon, I shall squawk’), Pound, Eliot and Marianne Moore (but ‘after a bout of syllable counting, to pick up D.H. Lawrence is delightful’), Stevens and William Carlos Williams (‘both inspire greater freedom than the others, Stevens of the imagination, Williams of subject and style’). Then Schuyler says that ‘Continental European literature is, really, the big influence,’ mentioning, among others, Reverdy, Max Jacob, Breton, Supervielle, Apollinaire and, somewhat surprisingly, Pasternak, who ‘has meant more to us than any American poet. Even in monstrous translations his lyrics make the hair on the back of one’s neck curl.’

The ‘monstrous translations’ may well be those of Lowell, in his collection of loose translations, Imitations. It’s unclear what excites Schuyler about Pasternak, or at least what influence Pasternak had on his poetry. There are certainly affinities between the poetry of Pasternak and Lowell, but Schuyler and his friends have intractable problems with the seriousness of Lowell, which they find unconvincing, while they are moved by Pasternak, particularly by his elegy for Anna Akhmatova, which Lowell translates:

You ache for the calm reaches of Ladoga,
then hurry off to the lake for a change
of fatigue. You gain nothing,
the shallows smell like closets full of last summer’s clothes.

The dry wind dances like a dried-out walnut
across the waves, across your stung eyelids –
stars, branches, milestones, lamps. A white
seamstress on the bridge is always washing clothes.

I know that objects and eyesight vary greatly
in singleness and sharpness, but the iron
heart’s vodka is the sky
under the northern lights.

Perhaps the New York poets admired Pasternak’s invisibility.

Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch all have difficulty with seriousness. It is a difficulty that, when they engage with it, creates the most interesting tension in their work. These four poets insist on a tone of off-handedness, a casualness which, when it hardens into mannerism, as it often does, is no less obnoxious than Lowell’s straining after the transcendently poetic, as in ‘Skunk Hour’:

I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town …
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
‘Love, O careless Love …’ I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat …
I myself am hell,
nobody’s here –

only skunks …

This poem would set O’Hara off:

I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem, and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty. Why are they snooping? What’s so wonderful about a peeping Tom? And then if you liken them to skunks putting their noses into garbage pails, you’ve just done something perfectly revolting. No matter what the metrics are.

O’Hara and Schuyler shared an apartment on and off from 1952 until the beginning of 1957. Never lovers, they had a very close, quite difficult relationship. O’Hara was an electric presence, the straw that stirred the drink in whatever social situation he found himself. Schuyler was no less ambitious, but quite happy to let others lobby on behalf of his genius, and they did. There were jealousies and suspicion, at least on Schuyler’s part. Here is a 1957 letter about their relationship from O’Hara to Ashbery, which appears in David Lehman’s useful The Last Avant Garde (1998):

I don’t see any use in either of us going through the strain of pretending we like each other as much as we once did. I don’t know why, for instance, he has singled me out for the accusation that I’ve put him in the shade as a writer, or whatever he said, except that I have been more handy than you or Kenneth … but he apparently wants to blame it on me for allegedly damaging his self-confidence, so that’s the way it is.

O’Hara and Schuyler finally fell out in 1961, not long after Schuyler had to be admitted to a mental hospital again. When O’Hara died in 1966, Schuyler was shaken, although it’s not terribly evident in the letter he wrote to Ashbery three days later:

I feel stunned by Frank’s death. If you feel equal to it, I would like to know a little more than is in today’s Times: who he was staying with? Or anything you think I might want to know. But if you would rather not write about it don’t …

It was a dream come true to have you here, and unfortunately as quickly passed. Joe writes that ‘you got some dishes’ – what are they like? Also, how long does the bus trip from Vermont (Burlington?) take?

Schuyler wrote two poems in memory of O’Hara, the first a stunner entitled ‘Buried at Springs’; the other, ‘To Frank O’Hara’, from his 1974 book, Hymn to Life, was written after his style had turned wooden. The earlier poem begins:

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 …

The poem describes a summer’s day at Fairfield Porter’s summer house on Great Spruce Island in Penobscot Bay, Maine, which O’Hara visited a number of times. The poem mentions O’Hara briefly, sitting at the desk where Schuyler is now writing the poem, taking in the sounds of the water, the crickets, looking out at the spruce, the ‘new seaweed/ on the low-tide rocks’. It is a day, Schuyler writes, ‘subtle and suppressed/in mounds of juniper enfolding/ scratchy pockets of shadow’. The poem concludes:

Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,
a day tarnished and fractured
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.

Robert Lowell also had a summer home on Penobscot Bay, in the village of Castine. ‘Skunk Hour’ takes place there. It’s worth comparing the tone and method of Schuyler’s elegy for O’Hara with Lowell’s poem ‘For John Berryman’:

I feel I know what you have worked through, you
know what I have worked through – we are words …
John, we used the language as if we made it.
Luck threw up the coin, and the plot swallowed,
monster yawning for its mess of potage.
Ah privacy, as if we had preferred mounting
some rock by a mossy stream, and counting the sheep …
to fame that renews the soul, but not the heart.

Lowell memorialises his friend by pitching the diction towards the heroic; Schuyler, as he so often does, locates his emotion in a landscape, finding something like an ‘objective correlative’ there, resistant as he would have been to the term.

There is only one letter to O’Hara in Just the Thing, and it is addressed not just to him but also to John Button, the painter and object of Schuyler’s affection at the time. The O’Hara estate promised to provide the Schuyler letters but failed to deliver them. I wonder how much they would add to this book. Here’s part of the one letter there is, written by Schuyler from Fairfield Porter’s home in Southampton on Long Island in the summer of 1956:

Dear ‘John’ and ‘Frank’,

(Or should I call you by your camp names in a letter.) I loved your antiphonal psalm – it was like getting a jeweller’s box with a sparrow in it that had been fucked to death by John Simon … So I thought I’d let Schiz and Oid, the two halves of my personality, collaborate and bake you both a plate of my favourite cakes. (‘Take one crater of goat piss and crumble in it enough camel dung to make a workable paste. Pat into cakes and put aside to rest. When an iridescent sheen like that in the eye of a peacock feather appears, bake the cakes in a fast oven, garnish with rabbit berries and serve hot in a napkin. These tasty morsels are the Quiffquiff spoken of so highly by Lawrence of Arabia …’)

My, we really are just like the Brontë sisters …

So you’ve seen some movies have you, you rats. Out here they are following up The Catered Affair, which I drew my tiny line at, with Diabolique.

The letter ends:

Well, Sieve-lips and Paddle-tongue, I sure hope for all our sakes that this doesn’t fall into the hands of the Feds!

Love from yo’ ol’ Mammy,

Jimminey Yuk-Yuk

Depending on your appetite for camp, reading the Schuyler letters from beginning to end may make you feel as though you’ve been living on apple crumble for a week. Apple crumble of a very high order, but apple crumble nevertheless. His many letters to Ashbery, for instance, are addressed to alter egos, such as ‘Kewpie’, ‘Blackie Cinders’, ‘Grinling Gibbons’, ‘Purvis’, ‘Regency Rake’, ‘Painless Parker’, ‘Tempest Storm’, ‘Beany Bacon Dip’, ‘Rich Freeze-Dried Coffee Chunks’ and ‘Piccolo Pete’. The letters themselves, both to Ashbery and Koch, though they leak generously with keen observations, literary, artistic, personal and otherwise, chiefly document the social comings and goings of the very busy, fizzy gay end of the very busy fizzy New York art world of the 1950s. In fact, it would be impossible to get through this volume without a programme guide, such are the couplings, B-movies, art openings, concerts, fallings out, parties, bon mots, weekends in the country etc. The editor, William Corbett, who spent 13 years putting this collection together, has provided an admirable equivalent in his extensive footnotes, glossary and index, along with a sharp introduction.

The best letters, for my money, are to the less central characters in Schuyler’s life, or the more ephemeral ones. His attitude towards letter-writing is obliquely described in a letter to John Button from 4 May 1956:

The first use of drawings is the same as that of notebooks and letters for a writer: practice and keeping your hand in it: Kyriena’s finger exercises. So if I object to titles, it’s merely that it verges toward an attitude of which Gide is such a perfectly sad example, keeping your diary for the public; it might imply that one had a preconceived idea in the back of one’s mind, that when one was most private one had, to a small degree, limited one’s perfect freedom.

This is part of a long, revealing letter that is far more interesting than most any of the letters to Ashbery and Koch. Schuyler goes on:

About your drawings: I rather question the kind of drawing paper you use: it somewhat resembles photographic paper, and its gloss tends to kill the lightness of a line made with hard graphite. When smudged, it gives a very pretty atmospheric tone, but one which seems more inherent in the paper and graphite than something put there. I find it, in a word, impersonal.

There is a line you sometimes use in your drawings which is stunning because of its speed, but which does not always tell as much as it appears to: if it’s undesirable, it’s because it gives off a look of ‘finish’, and a work should not look more finished than it intrinsically is … A deeper trouble with the speedy kind of line I mean is that one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees but to find out what it is one sees.

The artist who also writes criticism, whether about his own art or someone else’s, will, inevitably, tell you what he himself is up to, or at least aspires to. Praising a work by Fairfield Porter, Schuyler writes: ‘The most forceful quality of this particular painting is the artist’s willingness to be clumsy.’ Of all the letters here, those to Porter, the first dated Bastille Day 1954 and the last 9 August 1972, are the clumsiest and most interesting. In them he casts about, struggling to find a register in which to engage the older artist:

And while I’m at it, I’m also rather put out by this youth and age stuff. In so far as I think of you as ‘older’, I feel honoured and benefited by your friendship; but if it turns out that you feel odd in bestowing it, I feel snubbed. I don’t, though, think of you as ‘older’ so much as I do a friend who has had a life very different from mine (but if I must think about it, then I say that I think I’m a man over thirty, past which age one might hope to have gained the right to mingle with one’s elders &/or betters).

Schuyler’s finest poems, with the exception of the long poem ‘The Crystal Lithium’, are landscapes and interiors, paintings in language, and quite unlike the poetry of O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch, or anyone else who comes to mind, apart from his epigones. When asked once if he had ever written any poems about Porter’s paintings Schuyler replied that he hadn’t but that he’d written a number of poems like Porter’s paintings. ‘Going’, from Freely Espousing, is a good example. It begins:

In the month when the Kamchatka bugbane
finally turns its strung-out hard pellets white
and a sudden drench flattens the fugitive
meadow saffron to tissue-paper scraps
and winds follow that crack and bend without breaking
the woody stems of the chrysanthemums so the good of not disbudding
shows in lower smaller flights of metallic pungency,
a clear zenith looks lightly dusted and fades to nothing
at the skyline, shadows float up to lighted surfaces
as though they and only they kept on the leaves
that hide their colour in a glassy shine.

Later we move to an interior:

Early, in the middle
of the afternoon, the light slants
into rooms that face south-west: into this room

across a bookcase so the dead-brown gold-stamped
spines look to be those to take down now:
Hodge and His Masters, The Cereals of America.
If a leaf of gold were beaten to transparency
and all that here roots and extrudes were tarnished silver
and blackened bronze – bumped and brushed against
here and there into highlights –
were seen through it by the wind-flickered quick-setting sun,
October would look no different than it looks.

This poem was almost certainly written at the Porters’ house in Southampton, Long Island, where Schuyler was not only a regular guest but for a time a member of the family with his own room. Anne Porter, Fairfield’s wife, said that Schuyler came ‘for a weekend and stayed 11 years’.

As a figurative painter, Porter would seem to have been the odd man out among the Abstract Expressionists associated with the Tibor de Nagy gallery. But de Kooning and the others revered him because of the way he handled abstract elements in his landscapes and domestic interiors. Porter once said, according to Schuyler, that ‘“The right use of colour can make any composition work,” and that in fact colour is the composition.’ Schuyler’s principal interest as a poet was colour and light, and he paid attention to the weather and the landscape, transforming the ordinary and everyday into something luminous and enduring, but without inflating his subject-matter: he was determined not to poeticise the material. In a piece about Porter in the journal Arts in 1976, Louis Finkelstein wrote: ‘Subject-matter must be normal in the sense that it does not appear sought after so much as simply happening to one.’ This sums up Schuyler’s poetry too.

Fairfield Porter died suddenly in 1975, the one person, Schuyler maintained, who had never let him down. By this point, Schuyler had moved out of the Porters’ house and was drifting around New York from rooming house to nursing home to psychiatric hospital, more or less living off the kindness of friends, finally settling at the Chelsea Hotel in 1979. When asked by the Village Voice why he lived there, Schuyler wrote:

When I was 20 I came to New York because it was the centre, I guess. I was coming from west New York State, a place called East Aurora. It’s still the centre. I stay because I have friends here. I suppose I’d really rather live in the country, but I can’t afford a house, so I live in the Chelsea. It’s comfortable here and I have a balcony and it’s convenient. Convenient to what? John Ashbery.

James Schuyler died of a stroke at the Chelsea in April 1991. There’s a plaque by the hotel entrance with his name on it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences