Essay

A Human Being!

Philip Schultz is more than just this year’s lesser-known Pulitzer winner.

by Michael Atkinson

For Philip Schultz, dogness is no small factor. Photo by Monica Banks

The politics of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in the last decades have tended to favor two groups: either established sophisticates in need of an Oscar-like lifetime-achievement nod, or newish voices embodying various sorts of hermetic intellectualism that fall largely beyond the purview of Mr. and Mrs. Reading-Poetry-for-Pleasure. Perhaps as a co-phenomenon with popular Billy Collins–style humanism, this seems to be changing. Claudia Emerson and Natasha Trethewey, both plain-speaking poets of experience and personal history, won Pulitzers for their third books in 2006 and 2007, respectively. This year the Pulitzers saluted Robert Hass after 35 years of frankly explored internal weather. And co-winning with Hass, in the prize’s first tie, was Philip Schultz, for a volume entitled Failure.

Failure: Poems
By Philip Schultz
Harcourt, 106 pp., $23.00
At 63, Schultz is the little-noticed author of five volumes of poetry, a Long Island family man and dog lover, a fond picker at family scabs, a griever for losses and for the communalism of grief itself, and a back-patting heart-bleeder for his unexceptional fellow man. That one never has to guess at, or assemble a theory about, his agenda, and at the same time never need tolerate ineloquence or lack of concision, is a tall-cocktail refreshment amid the hectic bazaar of the modern poetic project. Schultz is a mensch, in the Billy Wilder meaning of the word (defined, in The Apartment, by a Jewish landlady as “a human being!,” with a basic moral imperative implied). His poems eschew abstractions and poses and philosophies in favor of pure personal voice. (Ironically enough, Schultz’s own 21-year-old writing program, The Writer’s Studio, encourages writers to ‘try on’ different narrative voices or personas, often different from their own personalities.)

Of course, no poet is completely honest in their use of voice – the history of American poetry is filthy with poets who have idealized their own sensitivity and traumas and epiphanies. A poet’s persona is his public personality, the one that finds beauty in an animal’s death or rue in a child’s skip, not the private self that picks her nose and undertips waitresses and resents more successful writers. This goes without saying to a large degree, and for good reason—contemporary poetry, even the so-called confessionalist cataract of Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and the like, grips the mind and the throat when it reaches for the perhaps impossible hope of meaning in human life, not when it carps and bellyaches. With Schultz, we’re shaking hands and standing beside a lovably vain self-effacer, a man who flaunts his modest failings and writes verse simply, as if careful of confounding a single reader, and writes it in an effort to fathom the basic things that bedevil him. Schultz doesn’t seek to impress; he seeks sympathy as modestly as he dishes it out.

Hence, the quotable first lines, endlessly reiterated in the press, of "Failure," a melancholy rumination on Schultz’s unsuccessful father, climaxing after a fashion with these lines:
One called him a nobody.

No, I said, he was a failure.

You can’t remember

a nobody’s name, that's why

they’re called nobodies.

Failures are unforgettable.

It can’t get much simpler than that, and yet the Chekhovian acres of unexplained history between the last line and the one that precedes it are enormous. Too much in the prize’s wake was made of “Failure,” and of the idea of a Pulitzer-winning volume being titled Failure, as if in the media’s eyes the prize was awarded only for honest modesty, not for excellence. Far from being mutually exclusive in the modern era, these qualities may be necessary to each other, and may be the truest legacy of the confessionalists. Too often, contemporary poets are praised for elliptical grandiosity, just as Plath and Co. were too rarely commended for their assiduous self-deprecation. The word “failure” is used by Schultz both explicitly and ironically, and runs so thoroughly through the book like a rogue’s yarn that it comes to signify its own antithesis, as in the old-school love poem “Husband,” which considers
. . . the I of me, the she

of her, the us only we know, alone together

all these years. Call it what you like,

happiness or failure, the discreet curl

of her bottom lip, the hesitant green

of her eyes. . . .

Genuinely, Schultz is focused not on “images” as such but on the essence of experience we’re all familiar with. (As Robert Lowell, or perhaps Elizabeth Hardwick, said, why not say what really happened?) His words are tools, and he prefers the old, simply engineered, wood-and-iron variety. This summation of life with his pathetic father in “The Summer People”—
He never cut our grass or knew

what grade I was in. He worked days,

nights, and weekends, but failed anyway.

Late at night, when he was too tired to sleep,

he’d stare out the window so powerfully

the world inside and outside

our house would disappear.

—cuts out moments as if out of weather-toughened oak, in a way that a fifty-dollar word or pungent metaphor might soften. Likewise, in “My Wife,” which recounts Schultz’s wife’s grief over her brother’s death by overdose, plainly sees her in the graveyard “pulling weeds.” It concludes with this bully of a stanza, inconclusive and, like a good husband, present and understanding:
At night she walks in the dark downstairs.

I know what she wants, to go to him the way

she goes to our boys when they’re frightened,

to place herself between him and the pain.

Schultz’s earlier work, naturally, is rangier, more allusive, and both livelier and less concise; his 2004 book-length memoir, Living in the Past, exudes a TV miniseries worth of boisterous tales, ethnic midcentury flavor, and vivid working-class personas, while the poems of The Holy Worm of Praise (2002) tend toward the hyperbolic and furious (the title poem, technically a birthday toast, is a geyser of abstract nouns and maddened millennial confusion). But now, in his 60s, Schultz prefers the present, haunted by the past (often literally; ghosts are ubiquitous, and welcomed) but getting greedy for the warmth of the now.

Dogness is no small factor in this scenario: in Failure Schultz reveals himself to be an unembarrassed dog lover/anthropomorphizer, but while “My Dog” may be the simplest and saddest dog-mourning poem of the modern era (or perhaps since John Gay’s “An Elegy on a Lap-dog”), the book’s climactic epic, the 54-page first-person narrative “The Wandering Wingless,” becomes immersed—fictionally—in the bruised persona of a Manhattan lost man, a dog-walker who can find solace and relief only in the fellowship of canines. Strolling in concentric circles around 9/11, the nameless protagonist (who is, Writers Studio stratagem or not, quite Schultzian in voice) bounces back from a poisoned and violent past to a stricken present filled with selfish dog-owners, the empty shells of dog-walkers, and dogs. They “don’t believe / they’re geniuses,” we’re told, and Schultz’s rhetorical passion issues forth when he’s evoking the habitations and essentialities of dogs, who
don’t withhold judgment,

cultivate opinions,

mobilize their defects,

become paralyzed

with nostalgia,

or disappear

inside their delirium.

The weather may be a dog-walker’s bane, but it “is never deceitful,” he tells us at one point, limning in a second what might have required scores of wasted pages in a novel. In its entirety, “The Wandering Wingless” accrues a few too many deliberately mundane passages on its way toward dramatic coalescence, but it leaves its bruises, and leaves one reconsidering its titular concept all over again, somewhere beyond Schultz’s princely reappraisal of life and into the region of listless anomie.

Like us all, Schultz can approximate the sound of a deflating balloon when climaxing a poem in the proximity of words such as “forgiveness” or “improbability” or “paradise.” And he falls victim to the inclination to putter out, to shorten a poem’s lines from pentameter-esque to loose dimeters as he heads toward the end, as if in a panic to dramatize what might otherwise get stranded in the longer lines. Sometimes Failure seems to suffer from a lack of adventure, in subject or perspective, as Living in the Past does not, but given Schultz’s creed and temperament, such griping would be like criticizing a man for his morning coffee habit or midlife paunch. Anyway, some kind of idea of Keatsian perfection would never find its way into Schultz’s program; here, poetry is for living, like food, and the basic suchness of poetry, of art, is to fuel the tension between the petty messiness of human existence and the idealized order that creation endeavors to impose upon it. It’s poetry we may have use for, in an age when so much verse strives to erase its own connections to the rest of the world.
Originally Published: May 23, 2008

COMMENTS (3)

On May 31, 2008 at 7:10am joeyarof wrote:
very nice keep it up

On June 8, 2008 at 11:48pm violetta wrote:
Poetry anyone?

.....

I felt hungry for it, how about you:)

sorry

couldn,t help

oldlysyfartdude

On January 14, 2010 at 10:19am James Reiss wrote:

 In preparation for Philip Schultz’s “The God of Loneliness: Selected and New Poems,” which will come out this April, I went back to Michael Atkinson’s perceptive appreciation of Schultz for The Poetry Foundation. Overall, I have plenty of praise for Atkinson’s essay— and for Schultz. There’s one fly in the ointment, a contradiction: Four lines from the bottom of his second paragraph, Atkinson writes, “[Schultz’s] poems eschew abstractions.” In contrast, four lines from the bottom of the fourth-to- last paragraph, Atkinson writes that the title poem in “The Holy Worm of Praise” “is a geyser of abstract nouns.” Part of the wonder of Schultz’s work is that it revels in gritty particulars at the same time that it continually reaches for ideas. Inasmuch as Schultz describes a 1950s neighborhood boardinghouse, “where everyone stank of sardines and spat in the sink,” he ends this poem, “The Displaced,” by describing a boarder, Mr. Schwartzman, having pinned a maxim, “Live outwardly, objectify!” to his necktie the day he hangs himself in his closet, only to be found by the 12-year-old poem’s speaker. (Ironically, in “Almost Every Night” from “Living in the Past,” Schultz quotes the note pinned to Mr. Schwartzman’s tie as “One does not perish among Jews.” And in still another poem from “Living in the Past,” Schultz quotes Mr. Schwartzman’s lengthier ruminations about displaced persons.) Over and over Schultz pays attention to the stench of things—as well as to the sweetness of “the heat of lilacs”—even as he is busy explicitly trucking out words like “pain” and “despair.” His gnomic brilliance rivals that of Robert Frost’s in such lines as “innocence / is the darkest place in the universe.” Schultz’s being a mensch depends of course on such lines as “Grandma stuffed her fur coat into the icebox.”

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Biography

Michael Atkinson is the author of six books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press), and a debut volume of poetry, One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train (Word Works).

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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