OTHER FLOWERS: Uncollected Poems

James Schuyler
edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($28)

by Claude Peck

In a 1965 letter to his painter friend Fairfield Porter, poet James Schuyler mentioned his non-light summer reading, which included Proust, Dante, and Shakespeare. Schuyler liked Shakespeare’s late comedies best, with his favorite being As You Like It. “It’s so artificial,” he wrote. His elaboration speaks volumes about what makes Schuyler’s own writing so appealing: “It doesn’t make the faintest pretense that its existence was obliged, was called for. Bigger works of art always seem to threaten to help one in some way. As You Like It is just there, like the one red poppy across the lawn, pure excess of delight.”

Other Flowers gathers many poppies into a big, showy bouquet, artfully arranged and still fragrant with life nearly twenty years after the death of this first-generation New York School poet—a man who is perhaps, as critic David Lehman puts it, “the best kept secret in American poetry.” Tidbits of this book have appeared over the past two years in a tantalizing trail of petals: twenty-three previously unpublished poems surfaced in the glossy art journal The Sienese Shredder in 2008, with more poems following inHarper’sThe New YorkerNation, and Granta.

And now we have the book, with 161 poems (plus two translations). While Other Flowers contains fragments, curiosities, and failed experiments that Schuyler may have preferred were never seen, these “lost” works are far more than castoffs. To the contrary, many stand alongside Schuyler’s best. Open the book anywhere and you’ll discover the oddness and delight that comes from Schuyler’s discriminating, sky-scanning eye, his distinctive style and a voice equally attuned to the tender and the fierce, the gorgeous and the comical. “Short Poem,” for example, waxes eternal in just five lines:

My muse plays tennis
and has a body like a Greek god.
My muse wears glasses
and looks swell in them.
I could go on like this forever.

The New York School was never really a school in the sense that its voices sounded alike or shared stylistic preoccupations. There were common obsessions—visual art being perhaps the biggest one—but friendship, taste, timing, and geography united the New York School poets more than a joint aesthetic manifesto. Among its founding poets, only John Ashbery, at 82, lives and continues to publish. Frank O’Hara died young, in 1966; Schuyler in 1991 (he was 67); Kenneth Koch in 2002.

Since Schuyler’s death there has been a steady stream of published Schuyleriana, including his Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), The Diary of James Schuyler (Black Sparrow Press), Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler (Turtle Point Press), and Selected Art Writings (Black Sparrow Press). All of them, and especially the delightful Letters, are highly recommended and still available.

Other Flowers is gleaned from poems not seen in any of Schuyler’s five commercially published volumes of poetry, which include his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1980 book The Morning of the Poem. While those books usually contained a long poem, the poems in this book are all short, a page or two.

A “treasure trove” designation applies, even just based on the sheer volume of work: Other Flowerscontains about three times more poems than appeared in any of Schuyler’s previous stand-alone volumes. His Collected Poems, in fact, had just 259 works, including twenty-eight previously unpublished “Last Poems,” written late in life. That explains why this book is heavily weighted toward older poems.

While numerous poems lack dates, of the sixty-one for which editors James Meetze and Simon Pettet provide a date of composition, over half were written in the 1950s. This is when Schuyler, who was born in suburban Chicago and grew up in Washington, D.C. and the Buffalo suburb East Aurora, was a new New Yorker, working at a bookstore and rooming with Frank O’Hara.

Unlike the Harvard-educated others in the New York School, Schuyler had dropped out of Bethany College in West Virginia during his second year. He joined the Navy and saw active duty during World War II, but was dishonorably discharged after going AWOL and then revealing his gayness. Plagued by mental illness, Schuyler’s adult life was marked by poverty, unemployment, minimal recognition, and regular hospitalizations—along with, thankfully, a rich network of creative and supportive friends, a legendary wit, and dedication to writing.

A few postwar years spent in Italy exposed Schuyler not only to W.H. Auden, for whom he house-sat one winter, but also to the early 19th-century poet-philosopher Giacomo Leopardi. Other Flowers ends with two translations by Schuyler of Leopardi poems, and Schuyler’s own marvelous “Distraction: An Ode” gives it up to the melancholic and skeptical Italian:

who would not believe
what you could not believe,
I love you so!

Schuyler relates his and Leopardi’s musings on the night sky, 150 years apart. His sense of kinship and aesthetic constancy is touching and almost certainly reflective of a young poet’s search for creative influence:

Yet still the moon you sang
in the last song you wrote
on that volcanic slope—
how like a New York street . . .

The charismatic O’Hara had an electric effect on poets and painters in his crowd in the 1950s, when he began publishing his distinctive, French-inflected, pop-culture-obsessed, “I did this, I did that” verse. It’s easy to see his impact on the slightly older Schuyler, whether in the high-low chattiness of such lines as “it’s fantastic how people don’t love beauty / yet you love Hoboken” (“So That’s Why”), or the bizarre art-world similes in “Grousset’s China (Or Slogans),” where a Dubuffet smells like germicidal soap and a Giacometti makes “you want to slip an Ingres girl a feel.”

Ashbery-like dense wordplay and surrealism also crops up, but with Schuyler’s own unfailing sense for the sound of long and short vowels and consonants knocking around like big nails in a small can, as in “Love’s Photograph (Or Father and Son)”:

Detected little things: a peach-pit
basket watch-chain charm, an ivory
cross wound with ivory ivy, a natural
cross. The Tatoosh Mountains, opaque
crater lakes, a knickerbockered boy
who, drowned, smiles for a seeming ever
on ice skates on ice-skate scratched
ice, an enlarged scratched snapshot.

Though gay, Ashbery and O’Hara were less likely than Schuyler to write overtly about their love of men. Schuyler, on the other hand, was plainspoken about his gayness—a bold stand in the closeted years before Stonewall. When he crushed on the attractive painter John Button in the late 1950s, Schuyler waxed rhapsodic about him in “Having My Say-So”: “Surely it’s undignified for a gent to want to take another gent bouquets, and absurd? / Just as surely I could not care less.”

Other Flowers features numerous nature-observed poems. Skies, storms, flowers, clouds, trees, and seascapes were continuing fascinations for Schuyler, who spent years living with friends in leafy Southampton, coastal Maine, and verdant Vermont. Schuyler sparks a rush of recognition on the part of the reader with a sensitivity that can make us mere mortals, with our point-and-shoot cameras, feel half-alive, as in this Maine scene in “September Summer House”:

Out into the harbor mouth
sticks a rock blob
barred to shore by sea gunk
a bar stretched thin as pulled bubble gum
but it doesn’t snap back.

Also present are some forms and approaches long favored by Schuyler, including sestinas, a sonnet, letter poems, occasional poems dedicated to friends, and poems written in hospitals.

While not as dedicated as O’Hara was to the city as backdrop, Schuyler also wrote beautifully about New York. The terrific “Jack Frost Sugars,” set around a Hudson River dock in Queens, ends with a dynamic flourish worthy of Hart Crane:

Downriver, by the delicately webbed gasometers
and the antennae, frailly tensile,
lumber kindles into golden flames
curling like shavings from a plane.

Several poems in this book resemble nothing else in the Schuyler canon. Heightened anger and images of the agonies of madness—while they were states of mind with which Schuyler was intimately familiar—were rare in his published volumes, for example, but “The Exchange,” full of unsheathed nerves, lacerated lips, “barbwire hair,” and “a fishy curse,” offers a lyric somewhere between David Lynch and Céline. And the poet is overtly aware of his phobias and fixations in such lines as

. . . How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?”
(from “Via Della Vite”)

Overall, Other Flowers, with its thought experiments, surrealist probings, and denser textures, most resembles Schuyler’s first book, Freely Espousing. The better-known later books are more likely to combine an elegiac tone with more comic, conversational, free-associative amblings.

But really, by its nature, this book resembles none of the others. Created posthumously by others, how could it? The happiest outcome of its publication is that it injects a large number of new Schuyler poems into the universe. The saddest is that there are unlikely to be any more flowers from this sensitive and memorable poet of the small emotions—emotions that, as Van Gogh once wrote, are the captains of our lives.

Claude Peck, an arts editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is working on a book about James Schuyler.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010