James Schuyler in the Spotlight

A New York School poet with a flair for the dramatic.

by Eric Ziegenhagen
James SchuylerJames Schuyler. Image: Getty Images

I’m a theater guy. In my field, in my business, when a character addresses the audience, there are two options: he or she is on the stage itself, in front of us, telling a story (see Our Town, Swimming to Cambodia), or the character is speaking to us from a specific place and time other than onstage and right now. The actual actor is always in the present, on the stage, but the character, more often than not, is somewhere else—some other location at some other moment—addressing us from there.

Someone once excitedly told me about seeing a play by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, one in which a guy tells his long, crazy story directly to the audience and then, at the end, puts on a necktie. Suddenly, the audience knows he’s going out, or going to court, or wherever. The reveal is that he is not just talking to us in some nowhere place, or on the stage, but actually speaking to us from somewhere in the world of the story, and that the story is still happening as it is being told.

That feeling—the story happening as it’s being told—times ten, times a hundred, is what first struck me about James Schuyler’s poems: a specific time, place, room, garden, season, all happening in the present with the kind of balance, detail, and occasion more typical of a painting than a diary. That’s how Schuyler’s poems work for me, what gives them their own charge. The poems are grounded in a day, in a place, and sometimes written not for an abstract reader but for a specific person, on a specific occasion. In an essay about naturalism and theater, playwright Steven Dietz once wrote that if people actually talked the way they do in David Mamet’s plays, it would cost $17.50 to get into Chicago. Similarly, if any Joe’s recorded observations read like James Schuyler poems, every grocery list and seed packet would deserve its own chapbook.

Reading Schuyler’s Collected Poems, the theater guy in me thinks of Stanislavski’s method for acting—the speaker of the poem, like a character in a play, has an objective and a motivation, but he also has obstacles that stand in his way (long distance, depression). The act of writing the poem is a solution—but not just because the poet is emoting. He’s specifically, purposefully, creating the poem as a project or a gift, a love letter, a postcard, a birthday present. Often with Schuyler, the postcard poems—like those in the “Loving You” section of The Crystal Lithium (1972)—are more of a wish-I-were-there than a wish-you-were-here. Even more often they are a here-I-am-and-I-will-tell-you-in-every-way-inside-and-outside-me-what-“here”-is-this-morning with some gallows humor and some memory or longing thrown in. It’s landscape with emotional baggage. But in the end, there’s a purpose to recording the “here,” a purpose for getting through the day—an activity or a break. They’re lunch hour poems that take all day.

Schuyler’s poems increase in tension as their specific purpose comes closer to the surface. In Schuyler’s last long poem, the glorious “A Few Days,” there is the sense of the preoccupied host making conversation but conveying anxiety. He’s talking about the weather and mundane plans, but he has a particular, nervous pitch that leaves the companion—the reader, the listener—wondering what’s going on here? What’s going on upstairs? Something shifting, hurried, aiming-to-please, distracted, and also entertaining is happening here—shades of Warhol and Capote, or at least how they have been portrayed on film. And then the picture becomes clearer:

It’s no day for writing poems. Or for writing, period.
  So I didn’t.
Write, that is. The bruises of my face have gone, just
  a thin scab on
the chin where they put the stitches. I’m back on Antabuse:
  what a drag. I
really love drinking, but once I’m sailing I can’t seem
  to stop. So, pills
are once again the answer. . . .

There’s a sense all through “A Few Days” of searching for the right chemical, the right transformative experience, and that it is within arm’s reach—or if it is not, there is nothing to do but wait for a new day. The holy is in the mundane, and the holy can be reached from time to time through life’s static—static from the brain, static from the body.

But the static is not the primary focus of Schuyler’s poems. In “A Few Days,” he writes:

Let’s love today, the what we have now, this day, not
  today or tomorrow or
yesterday, but this passing moment, that will
  not come again.
Now tomorrow is today, the day before Labor Day,
  1979. . . .

So many of his poems seek the specifics of the day. “Advent”—along with the long poems, one of my favorites by Schuyler—does this in a haiku-like manner: specific emotion, specific weather, specific season. In “Overcast, Hot,” he memorializes, maybe as a joke, the summer of ‘81:

It’s a hot day:
not so hot
as the days before:
it’s that July,
the one in 1981,
the hot one. . . .

In the end, however, he captures a view from a specific place more than a public history, more a postcard than a public document. The effect is not unlike Richard Avedon’s portrait of W.H. Auden. Or, just to take this a little further: other people’s poems remind me of Avedon’s standard portraits—white background, no context to when and where it was written. Schuyler’s poems remind me of the rare work that Avedon did outside the studio. With Auden, Avedon ground the portrait in a specific day and a specific place instead of suspending a vague, unspecified whiteness. Or, to make another analogy and compare contemporaries, while John Ashbery disorients and constantly surprises the reader like Godard, Schuyler is Eric Rohmer. He sticks to chronology and captures emotional and physical texture. He believes in the ability to capture people and objects in an impressionistic manner, to record actual motion in the world. It’s as simple as (in “A Few Days”): “The phone rings./And is answered.” But then also: “I’ll soon forget it./What have I not forgot?”

The nine poems by James Schuyler in the current issue of Poetry—taken from Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, to be published in 2010—also chart the evolution of his style, as well as experiments and occasions.  “Poem (The day gets slowly started)” captures Schuyler’s mature style, gracefully balancing the observational, the overheard, the textural, the emotional, and the cerebral:

The day gets slowly started.
A rap at the bedroom door,
bitter coffee, hot cereal, juice
the color of sun which
isn’t out this morning. A
cool shower, a shave, soothing
Noxzema for razor burn. A bed
is made. The paper doesn’t come
until twelve or one. A gray shine
out the windows. “No one
leaves the building until
those scissors are returned.”
It’s that kind of a place.

These poems also show Schuyler outside his wish-I-was-there mode, actually being there, out of domesticity, at a concert in “Scarlatti” and in Italy itself in “Foreign Parts.”

If I immersed myself in Schuyler-like immediacy and transparency here, I would write about having one pint of beer, sitting at a counter at Whole Foods, facing Halsted Street in Boystown in Chicago on a Friday night in fall 2009—but it wouldn’t be the same. Or would it be, or who am I to say? And if I rewrite this paragraph a week later in a different place—externally, internally; different part of town, after an argument with my girlfriend—do I include that or stick to the original location, the original feeling, and try to deepen that? Do I keep the illusion of a single draft, or capture the layers of revision?

And now I also fight the haze that I sense Schuyler fought as well: the effort to write the next line, the next thought—although the recent unpublished poems, letters, and journals indicate that maybe it wasn’t a struggle. Maybe the rest of his life was the struggle, and writing, after the struggle of getting up, was an easy reprieve.

Originally Published: November 2, 2009


On November 3, 2009 at 5:05pm John C. wrote:
I haven't read Schuyler's work, but the description of it in this essay reminds me of one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, Busy Doin' Nothin'". There's an entire verse, for instance, where Brian Wilson is simply narrating the directions to his house, a wonderfully quotidian moment that also roots the song in a particular place and time (since it's doubtful he still lives there).

On November 3, 2009 at 5:28pm Sarah wrote:
This is a great article! James Schuyler is definitely one of my favorite poets and I like what Eric wrote about the way Schuyler captures specific places. I'm doing a project that is inspired by Frank O'Hara, also of the New York School, and by Robert Mapplethrope's Polaroids. I'm excited to take a second look at Schuyler's work to see if it can push me in a slightly different direction.

On November 4, 2009 at 9:11am Lori Shine wrote:
How wonderful to see an article about Schuyler, one of my very favorite poets, and such an incredibly important thinker about art and temporality. It made me go looking for something Ann Lauterbach wrote in her Denver Quarterly essay on Schuyler's work.

She writes: "Some years ago, I saw a retrospective of Fairfield Porter’s paintings and it occurred to me that Porter painted air; that he could see air. The paradoxical result of this was a sense of the insubstantial quality of things, objects, persons. Schuyler does something similar: he writes time. In writing time, he creates space. . . . The temporal, for Schuyler, is visible, and the visible is memorable, and the memorable stirs up other visualizations which are woven into the poem’s presentation, its “various field.” The poem presents its own present like a
transparent layer (Porter’s air) of time laid out across the reader’s present."
(Lauterbach, Denver Quarterly Spring 1990, p. 220).

On November 10, 2009 at 6:22pm david shapiro wrote:

Love Jimmy's work, one of the reasons I tried for a NYanthology by l962. We were close friends and traded poems. Took a long time to get Antho and I fought to have more women and include Barbara, who remained a friend.She said she knew I was for her. But Foundation, if you exist and can hear: What about putting in the poet Joseph Ceravolo, an influence on everyone since about l962; Frank Lima, a love of Frank O"Hara and Kenneth Koch, who wrote memorable poems while in jail; at l7. I would also like to be part of your NY gang since I was collaborating by l962 with everyone. I know there are umpteen representatives, but it would seem kind--I'm 62 and have written almost 40 books of poetry and criticism, the first book onJA, etc. By the way, strangely, Other Flowers is the title of a poem I wrote at l5. In l962 Kenneth and I as friends never talked of the 2nd generation, we were peers or at least we were all treating each other as friends and workers.!! Second generation sounds like a painting to prove one is of a certain race-- 'it's a little disgusting even if it helps some people. Make it more inclusive.

On November 15, 2009 at 8:11pm Mia wrote:
This article is very well written. I have not read Schuyler's work, but now I have a good sense of his style and subject manner. I like the comparison of his work to a painting or an Avedon print rather than a diary.

On November 17, 2009 at 6:08am Richard Taylor wrote:
Insightful take on Schulyer - I love his work...the long poems and the Picnic Cantata he did. It was made into a short opera but I have never heard it.
His work does have that sense of immediacy. Ashbery, who was his friend, is more abstract (and is good in a different way), O'Hara, another mutual friend lies somewhere in between. He references Gide's diary a lot. His process is diaristic and dramatic.
A great poet.

On November 17, 2009 at 11:20pm Curtis Faville wrote:
One of the key elements that draws
Schuyler together with O'Hara and Koch
and even Merrill (with whom he is not
often associated) is the bland
conversational tone he feels most
comfortable inside.

His poems are indeed dramaturgical
"performances"--in the same sense that
O'Hara's often are--like listening to
someone describe their day over
drinks--but it's the "everyday-ness",
the ease with which he vouchsafes his
exquisite images and witticisms--the
relaxed delivery, the calm off-
handedness, that really makes it all
work. There's a little bit of Williams in
there--speaking of the ordinariness of
daily experience, and of the casualness
of a letter to an intimate but distant
friend. Wheelbarrows and tree bark
and boat-wakes and hornets against a
window-pane. He makes those things
as clear and distinct as if seen in a
painting (by Porter), because he takes
down the screen from the window--it's
a real illumination, a flask from which
all trace of pretense has been removed
(or so it seems--that too is a marvelous

Also, there's this sense of a person
beside you. The little flinches and
winks and eye-rolls and tics people do
with their faces--self-consciousness,
achieved through effective asides and
arch caveats and qualifications--not the
sort of stuff you expect in poems, but
which is perfectly natural when you're
conversing one-on-one--which he made
work through deft timing.

In a sense, Schuyler was often
conversing with his imaginary self--sort
of an ultimate self and soul (-search)

In the end, Schuyler's "naturalness"
turns out to be just as studied and
strategic as high utterance, just as
abstraction (when done well) turns out
to be as carefully thought out and
executed as straight representation.
It's just a different language. I used to
love his work, but over time fewer and
fewer of his poems work(ed) for me. I
still like most of the things in Freely
Espousing--more than the later stuff.

On March 17, 2012 at 7:01am Carole wrote:
I agree, and this actually is on the same topic as the quote I petsod from TT. I think asking the question of who would care? is important in poetry, even though sometimes it seems like the answer is well, me. thats who. which kind of goes back to words working in the poem vs. whats in reality.

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Eric Ziegenhagen is a stage director, playwright, and musician based in Chicago.

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