Things as They Are: James Schuyler’s Unashamed Reality

painting by Porter Fairfield

painting by Porter Fairfield

The fourth major player in our survey of New York School poets is James Schuyler. He’s a bit of an odd one out: “Helen Vendler contends that notwithstanding ‘superficial resemblances in form,’ Schuyler is essentially different from the other New York School poets. ‘Schuyler is not radically allegorical, like Ashbery, but literal; he is not a social poet, like O’Hara, but a poet of loneliness; he is not comical and narrative, like Koch, but wistful and atmospheric.'” (from David Lehman,  The Last Avant-Garde, p.277)

While condensing the work of any poet or artist down to one or two adjectives is always a dangerous enterprise (Who likes to fall victim to generalization? Nobody, I say.), Vendler’s observation does make clear the odd position Schuyler finds himself in. The other New York School poets read and enjoyed his work, much like he read theirs, and they gave each other feedback and socialized and collaborated, but from the outside, Schuyler was a late bloomer.

He was the only non-Ivy-leaguer in the group. His first book of poems did not get published until 1969, when he was already forty-six years old, while the others already had several larger publications under their belt. As for readings, while Schuyler was being read, he would not perform his first public reading until 1988. Lehman describes him as shy, and of precarious mental health, which made it considerably harder for him to perform and become a public figure like the others.

Portrait of James Schuyler, by Fairfield Porter

Portrait of James Schuyler, by Fairfield Porter

However, poetry wasn’t Schuyler’s only project. By 1958, he had published his first novel, Alfred and Guinevere, and he would publish one more on his own, and one in collaboration with Ashbery, A Nest of Ninnies. While “the New York Times Book Review treated it as a children’s book” (Lehman 252) it is really not written for children, it is an experiment with the format of the novel and the conventions that rule book-length fiction. (Follow the link above to read more about this one in an older blog post.)

Lehman compares Schuyler’s writing to the work of painter Fairfield Porter, pointing out the (implicit and explicit) importance of light in the work of both. And there are other parallels: “Like Porter, Schuyler operated on the principle that the best criticism is simply the best description. Like few other poets, he committed himself to the task of painting what’s there and only what’s there. In his poems accuracy is raised to a high form of praise” (273).

In his chapter on Schuyler, David Lehman refers to Howard Moss’s distinction between “mirror-writers” and “window-writers” as the two types of writers we encounter, regardless of genre. Moss continues, “In America, the two schools stem from two major figures, both poets, who may be viewed as their source: Emily Dickinson, the mirror, and Walt Whitman, the window” (266).

The Mirror (1966), by Fairfield Porter

The Mirror (1966), by Fairfield Porter

I find this distinction quite useful. Schuyler fits the category of the “window-writer” in that he tries to show things as they are, whereas Ashbery, for instance, is a “mirror-writer.” Lehman explains that “what is most singular about Schuyler’s poetry is his Keatsian conviction that true things truly observed will provide all the beauty one needs in a world however fallen” (278). Schuyler was very much interested in reality rather than fancy or imagination, and anchored in this fascination with what is real there was a fascination with language itself.

Quoth Lehman: “Where O’Hara’s ‘I do this I do that’ poems are full of frantic activity, parties, meetings, and phone calls, Schuyler’s poems are calm and mild, pastoral even when situated in an urban scape; a change in the weather is all the drama that he requires” (254). Schuyler’s most well-known collection is The Morning of the Poem, which won him the Pulitzer Prize (1981).

Unlike Ashbery, Schuyler was open about being gay. As Lehman points out, in the climate of the gay liberation in the 1970s, “the steadily climbing rise in his readership has something to do with his unflinching portrayal of homosexuality” (259). His frankness about his sexuality fits with how he is described, and how he characterizes himself through his own comments: it is something that is real, something that must be part of his writing if he is to portray reality.

poet James Schuyler (right) with painter Fairfield Porter (left)

poet James Schuyler (right) with painter Fairfield Porter (left)

Part of this fascination with what is real is accepting that what is real can be different from what is generally acceptable or generally considered beautiful. Lehman quotes Schuyler’s recollection of an incident in the early 1950s: “We were walking along the beach at sunset, heading for a cocktail party. The sun was casting those extraordinary Technicolor effects on the sea and sky. John [Ashbery] turned to me and said, ‘I always feel so embarrassed by these gaudy displays of nature.’ I didn’t feel embarrassed at all” (260).

"gaudy display of nature" -- a sunset in Hawai'i

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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