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Journal, Day One
Anxiety with literary lightness goes deep.
So I’m in one of my periodic James Schuyler manias (it’s seasonal: like William Carlos Williams, he wrote the very best poems about winter turning into spring) and I idly reread a couple of reviews of his Selected Letters. . . .
. . . August Kleinzahler in the London Review of Books—the same magazine to which he sent a scathing letter when they favorably reviewed the letters of his bête noire, Robert Lowell—says “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.” W.S. Di Piero in Poetry is even more ambivalent: “Schuyler’s poetry is like attention deficit disorder turned to lyric advantage. . . .” That stuck in my craw the first time I read it, as did his describing the poems as “runny” (like eggs), “attic-clutter,” etc. even though he was writing as a self-professed fan. Maybe it’s more anxiety of influence than anxiety with lightness, but I don’t like the feeling, reading these reviews, that their authors are preempting Schuyler’s critics. Schuyler’s critics can go screw themselves. There is nobody better than Schuyler.
Di Piero does attempt something rather difficult: he tries to account for the genius of a poetry whose charms are so much on the surface. But just as Schuyler’s apparent casualness was constructed as any sestina, his apparently conventional “scenic” mode was actually composed of a lot of odd, small discontinuities. Di Piero is right to point this out. So what about the charges of “kitch-cuddling,” “queered-up rowdiness,” “culture-vulturing”? “The trivia seems to clutter the space where an inner life should be, until one realizes that it was his inner life. . . .” What about the apple-crumble?
It reminds me of the first time I read a letter by Frank O’Hara. It was published in That Various Field for James Schuyler (Edited by William Corbett & Geoffrey Young, published by The Figures in 1991) and I was slayed by the dizzying references:
Granados’ Goyescas, Rimbaud’s “Memoire,” Helen of Troy with Jacques Sernas and Jean Marais and Rossina Podesta, Samson et Dalile, Art News, Oistrakh, Hugh Amory’s The Bandeirantes, Susan Lennox, Tennessee Williams’s One Arm, and W.C. Williams’s Autobiography. At the end of a postscript whose references I can’t pinpoint at all, O’Hara bursts out “I wish it were art instead of life!” It seems that all the “culture-vulturing” comes down to this one cri de coeur. I have to say that James McCourt’s Queer Street can probably shed more light on this aspect of Schuyler’s and O’Hara’s letters than Kleinzahler or Di Piero, and I wish they had acknowledged sociology in their reviews rather than mystified it with the literary; if there is a gulf of taste and sensibility between heterosexual and homosexual men, they don’t want to explore it. I’m only worried that this serves to obfuscate in general the varieties of literary experience.
Of the composer Granados O’Hara says in his letter: “The ‘Love and Death’ section of Goyescas is the biggest thing I’ve ever heard, including the Ring. On the sleeve the guy refers to Granados as a ‘miniaturist,’ s’il vous me croyait!” He and Schuyler knew what they were about; what the rest of the literati dismisses as miniature, or kitchy, or light, is not only the very heart of the matter, it is only as light as any structure built to soar.
And if that’s too exuberant, let me end by quoting again: “Maybe I should write a sleeve someday and completely alienate the listener from the music by my enthusiastic ravings.”