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Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again

James Schuyler's letters require patience, but there's soul under the gossip.

"It’s September, 1958, and James Schuyler, who started writing art criticism in 1955 and will continue until 1975, is visiting Leland Bell’s studio for an Art News profile."

Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951-1991.
Ed. by William Corbett.
Turtle Point Press, $21.95.

It’s September, 1958, and James Schuyler, who started writing art criticism in 1955 and will continue until 1975, is visiting Leland Bell’s studio for an Art News profile. Bell, of the generation of Milton Resnick and Robert De Niro Sr., is a familiar, polemical character in the New York art scene. He draws the figure at a time when Abstract Expressionism is still very much on people’s minds, though Pop, in its morosely naughty way, will soon break up everybody’s party. The day of Schuyler’s visit, Bell is working on a sketch of Rubens’s “The Outbreak of War,” which he has seen in the Pitti Palace. Schuyler’s art writing has a certain affect: exact, measured in its enthusiasms, responsive to the sensuousness of line and structure. He reckons that Bell has been working on this particular drawing for months, not to produce a finished work but “as a means of exploring Rubens’s composition—to trace, if not to solve, the mystery.”

Schuyler’s poems move that way: even when writing as a voluptuary, especially of the green and growing world, he doesn’t linger too long on an object or effect. What matters is the tracery—anti-eloquent, light-handed, gestural. Some poets write about art because it’s a dummy setup that lets them state or test notions about the work of poetry. But the alignments between Schuyler’s poetry and art writing are too plumb to be accidental. In Bell’s pictures he sees “passion, largeness, openness: a lot of the struggle is inward, in the cultivation of a scrupulous and discerning eye.” That’s his own eye:

A cardinal

Passes like a flying tulip, alights and nails the green day
Down. One flame in a fire of sea-soaked, copper-fed wood:
A red that leaps from green and holds it there.
               —From Hymn to Life

Listen to what I pay attention to, his art writing tells us, and you will learn to read my poems.

* * *

How could I have known in 1963, when my senior English teacher used Reader’s Digest articles to teach us speed reading—skate your finger like a polygraph needle down the center of the page—that I’d dust off the technique years later to get through the letters of a poet whose poetry I’ve liked so much for so long? After fifty pages of Schuyler’s recently published letters, I practically gave up, they are so syrupy with kissy gossip, daily weather patterns, his amours and those of friends, his (literary, musical, pictorial, movie-going, culinary) tastes, what Fairfield and Frank and John and Kenneth are up to these days, and O the way they do the things they do.

He camps it up more in the letters than the poems. He becomes Jimmy “the fag,” Jimmy the (sort of) dandified flâneur, the amateur botanist who falls in love with roses and writes about others’ affairs with the terrier snappiness of a society columnist. The trivia seems to clutter the space where an inner life should be, until one realizes that it was his inner life, or a major dynamic of it anyway. These skittish letters, smartly edited by William Corbett, frilly with goodwill and at times giddily obscene, are really reports from a fragile being who functioned best at the margin of things but who still possessed the sturdiness and resolve to write a lot of superb poetry in his sixty-seven years of life.

The nonstop name-dropping, though, can induce a kind of mild food disgust. In a brief stretch of letters in the mid-sixties, Schuyler mentions Raoul Walsh’s 1936 picture, Klondike Annie, starring Mae West, Michael McClure’s play Billy the Kid, Xavier Cugat, Emmanuelle Khan (a fashion designer), Arlene Francis, Ernest Thompson Seton (co-founder of the Boy Scouts), Charles Ives, Margaret Fuller, John Garfield, and Ferruccio Busoni. Enough already? The poems are another matter, or a confluent matter: in them the days’ trivia and culture-archiving become life essences. The this-and-that delirium begins to seem one demonstration (or symptom) of a mania, which, in its pathological expressions, caused Schuyler great soul-pain in his life. But now I realize I’m speed-reading ten pages of letters, then slow-feeding on ten more, then pausing over a few, and I get the sense that he’s reading me, my patience, sensibility, and low tolerance for culture-vulturing. In any event, the voice of the letter-writer eventually gets confounded with the poet whose offerings I’ve fed on for so many years, wry or piercing about life’s more dreadful moments, catty, erudite, fussily ecstatic about gardens and flowers—a voice that seems more exhalation than utterance.

* * *

Good descriptive poems are like perfumes made tactile. When I first lived in San Francisco in the late sixties, the floral medicinals that dripped in the air, especially in heavy fog or after rains, drove me crazy—eucalyptus, star jasmine, fruity pittosporum. The other day, walking with a friend new to town, I picked things along the way: eucalyptus buttons, camphor leaves, medlar and lemon blossoms, the scotch broom that Leopardi (whom Schuyler translated) wrote about in “La ginestra,” and held them up for her to smell. “You’re erheben-ing!” she said. I’m what? It’s German (she explained) for raising or lifting but suggests something selected and held up, singled out. It’s what a woodworker might do, or Rembrandt. Schuyler’s best poems do that. Bittersweet Jimmy—the only poet of the bunch that included Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and Guest whom we feel we can call by his nickname, so elegant, impressionable, and sadly manic is the voice of the poems—likes to erheben:

I love
this garden in all its moods,
even under its winter coat
of salt hay, or now,
in October, more than
half gone over: here
a rose, there a clump
of aconite.
              —From Korean Mums

Description isn’t just a way of telling us what the world looks like, of making what Pound called “accurate reports.” It expresses the feeling a poet has for the look of things. Like Hardy, Frost, and Edward Thomas, Schuyler is essentially a scenic poet. For all of them description is the psyche’s graphic: words bite like acids into the given world’s copper plate. Those older poets are scenic in patterned, rhetorically constructed ways, and the constructedness is part of the pleasure. Schuyler is more vagrant and combustively casual. His way of describing flowers or city streets or interiors is like a display of neural firings haphazardly networking with other clustered firings, every observation barely or lightly tethered to the one before or after. The congested, antsy skittishness we hear in the letters becomes in the poems a technique of elided disclosures, and whenever Schuyler makes statements of consequence, they sound like accidents not essences, accents incidental to the drift of the lines.

The poems are often runny and loosely structured, so his formal task is to hold the cognitive networks together in some sort of elastic pattern or to carom scenic elements off each other in a foxy way. Here’s the opening of “The Crystal Lithium,” a title which, he says in a letter to Koch, he took off a postcard: “an old-timey spa, somewhere in the south Kaintuck, I think.”

The smell of snow, stinging in nostrils as the wind lifts it from a beach
Eye-shuttering, mixed with sand, or when snow lies under the street lamps and on all
And the air is emptied to an uplifting gassiness
That turns lungs to winter waterwings, buoying, and the bright white night
Freezes in sight a lapse of waves, balsamic, salty, unexpected.

The poem’s skeleton—an almanac of months and weathers—is rubbery enough to tolerate impacted perceptions, daffy facts, and twisty syntax, all in service to a report on “that which is, which is beyond/Happiness or love or mixed with them or more than they or less, unchanging change.” He veers this way and that, inside poems long and short, early and late, “Fatso” Jimmy with the weight problem staying light on his feet. In 1956, putting out in four days a dozen exhibition reviews while on the tranquilizer Miltown, he tells a critic-correspondent: “No one takes his lightness more seriously than I.” He relishes the fact that New York bums commonly address strangers not as “Bud” or “Pal” but as “Jimmy.”

* * *

The dog returns to its bowl. The letters’ gossip occasionally puts me off my food, but in the poems I lap it up. And even the letters deliver unexpected goods: one sitting I’m exasperated by the chit-chat, next sitting I’m caught up by the apparent breeziness of his day-to-day life. (He doesn’t talk much about his mental illness, though the letters he wrote while in Payne Whitney Hospital are among his best.) The letters’ salt-and-pepper facts about starlets, operetta singers, comic strip characters, and the like, are essential to the “play” in his life, to his conversation with life’s come-and-go needs, which is one of the intimacies poets’ letters disclose. His self-aware jollity and shared delights can be very winning. In a poem from the sixties, “Dining Out With Doug and Frank” (“Doug” is Douglas Crase, whose first book of poems, The Revisionist, was then the new new thing), I feel I’m reading a typically Jimmy-esque account of life lived at its nerve ends, life so eventful in its seeming uneventfulness that it makes me feel I’ve been sleepwalking in my own life. In the poems generally, the newsy tidbits and cultural stuffing and Jimmy’s ongoing state of being, plus today’s prevailing winds or rain, while they seem merely to occur to him during the process of composition, all get cannily textured and tissued together. The poems blend—aspirate, really—herky-jerky rhythms and honeyed tones, fluid utterances and broken continuities. Schuyler spreads his seemingly rambling, wistful, fact-hounding, “Ain’t this something?” manner across the picture plane of the poem with a sly evenness. In “Afterward” he spreads a spilled bottle of pills, a Diet Pepsi he’s drinking, his new Olivetti portable, a fire he started by smoking in bed, the subsequent third-degree burns and hospitalization, then this: “when I came out/feeling great wham/a nervous breakdown: four/weeks in another hospital.”

* * *

Jimmy the Religioso? Until he converted to Episcopalianism not long before he died, Schuyler was a nonbeliever, though he liked to joke that he was a “crypto-catholic.” In “The Morning of the Poem” he says, “I can live, it seems, without religion,/though I have never wanted to.” The poems hold up physical reality, its sheer materiality, as if it were a glazed spiritual expanse, a thinly-spread condensation of some other energy state. His religious passion, if I can call it that (one of his strangest letters, written in 1985 to Ann Porter, recounts a visionary episode in which he felt protected by the “wind in the wings of your words”), is the constant awareness of the world’s simultaneousness of actions. His apparently naïve scrumming of this-and-that was actually a fiction for binding the poems together, to keep them from flying apart from their own vividness. They would otherwise have become (like useless gossip) random facts skimming gamely and fecklessly across the surfaces of things.

A tennis ball is served.
A horsefly vanishes.
A smoking cigarette.
A day (so many and so few)
dies down a hardened sky
and leaves are lap-held notebook leaves
discriminated barely
in light no longer layered.
              —From Song

Schuyler’s poetry is like attention deficit disorder turned to lyric advantage, a way of weaving the vapors and bulks of sensation and thought into a meditative squirminess, a repining restlessness that keeps tossing him back upon the world’s bosom: “Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself.”

* * *

What Schuyler wrote about Robert De Niro Sr.’s paintings, that “the world presents a continuous skin to our sight, first as color and mass, then as feature and line,” describes the responsiveness of his poems, which tease out his preoccupation with interrupted surfaces as well as interrupted writing and lives and psychological balance. This preoccupation is the source of his melancholy. One of his themes is the melancholy of distance, of places (and faces, objects, weathers) recalled as if they were immanent presences: poems that are, as de Kooning described his pictures, “slipping glimpses,” moments when uncalled-for events shuffle into the current instant: “Why that/dinner table is /this breakfast table.” Here he is, making breakfast in a friend’s house: “Let me tell you/that this weekend Sunday/morning in the country/fills my soul/with tranquil joy.” The merry blending of Wordsworth and William Carlos Williams aside, his scanning of the morning’s events and sensations restores to him the previous evening’s gossip, a shopping expedition, today’s favorite shrub (bayberry), the cat that killed the goldfinch, the healthfulness of coffee (!), and his desire for a long swim. But the chain-linking of events can break: “Discontinuity/in all we see and are:/the same, yet change,/ change, change.” The effort of the work is to find and make a pattern that holds together the uncountable and unaccountable data which experience floods our way: to make of hazard a pattern of sense.

In “The Morning of the Poem,” written while he was staying at Fairfield Porter’s summer house on Great Spruce Head Island in Maine—he lived with the Porter family for eleven years, in Southampton and Maine—he keeps rounding back to the melancholy of distance. The shifting sounds of the poems can at any moment drop him into a melancholy so profound that we forget the sassy ironies and kitsch-cuddling he sometimes indulges in, a darkness he’s lost to until his wits seine him back to himself, to hope in life and writing.

* * *

I don’t like “painterly poetry,” the sort that pants after beauty, drooling a little, delicately, while calling attention to the exquisite sensibility we are all fortunate enough to behold. The painterliness that matters in poetry lies in a structured suppleness that hums in response to what Cézanne called the “little sensation” physical reality stirs in us. Words as merely self-aware marvels and wonderments make for decadence. Poetry is patterning, something made thus and thus, words shape-shifting into a surprised and surprising sense that conjures the amazements of the ordinary. Schuyler secretes the scene as he goes along:

Traffic sounds and
bells resound in silver clangs
the hour, a tune, my friend
Pierrot. The violet hour:
the grass is violent green.
A weeping beech is gray,
a copper beech is copper red.
Tennis nets hang
unused in unused stillness.
              —From Song

This is painterly: it reimagines a shared reality as a trace in consciousness, alarmed by feeling. Schuyler doesn’t fashion a mental image as an art object positioned for our admiration but as something restlessly ambiguous, kneaded into daily life. A poem has “depth” if it’s rich in consequence within the actions and feeling zones of the poem itself and if it’s contiguous and confluent with how we look at the world, how we live in and talk about it. How the phenomenal world engages our attention, how it leads us through the here and now—these are Schuyler’s subject and style. He liked Apollinaire’s remark about poetry combining discipline with personality. Schuyler’s discipline of seeing and writing was so casual as to seem no discipline at all. Leland Bell’s reservation about Alberto Giacometti, whose work Bell loved, was that he made art look too hard. Schuyler made it look easy.

* * *

Physical letters, unlike email (easy street for artful dodgers and control freaks), bear a certain weight of personal moral residues. Even if cool or newsy or prankish in content, one knows that a hand folded the sheet and sealed the envelope, and in that hand lies a style and psychology more or less transparent. When gossip and name-dropping aren’t inducing tedium, Schuyler’s letters can be plaintively self-aware, funny, and prodigal. (We know from Justin Spring’s biography of Porter that in person Jimmy could be manipulative, mooching, testy, and petulant.) His crowded, fluttery, tic-cy mind sprints through experience, trying to make room, as he does in the poems, for every little thing. He certainly knew that nothing is quite so boring as a description of one’s pain, so he doesn’t go on about his “vale of Soul-making,” the episodes of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that started in 1951 and made his later years hell. And when he does, he decontaminates the chamber with send-up humor.

Sometimes he tips his hand. In letters while hospitalized for several months in Vermont in 1971—“Baby Sweetness blew his cool again”—he records the incoherence and pain. In these choppy, piecemeal communiqués to the outside world (you always feel he’s writing from an island, real—like Manhattan or Spruce Head Island—or internalized) we hear his purest genius, which runs just this side of word-salad, a daintily controlled speed babble. When he’s in his right mind, he’s a seducer with a very acute eye. In one letter, after a list of I-do-this-I-do-that reports, he says, “And so the days wear away.” That could be a phrase from one of his poems, which, like the letters, braid with loping, stuttered urgency the trivial with the sublime. We hear about what he’s writing, what’s on TV (“I’m in the circular TV freak-out lounge,” written during a hospital stay), how friends are doing, that “lilac” derives from a Persian word, what the latest stereo equipment goes for, and isn’t Carly Simon great, but is she greater than Cat Stevens? The letters teem with generous tenderness towards others and the natural order, garlanded with little epiphanies of nuance, mood, or atmosphere. To Joe Brainard, who is minding the Porters’ Southampton house, Schuyler stipulates that the begonias are best watered with a particular white enamel tea pot to be found in the cupboard, then mentions his current passion for field grasses, especially Quaking Grass: “[it] makes the best 18th century trembler I ever saw look clunky. (Have you ever seen a trembler in motion? A piece of jewelry with some of the stones mounted on fine wires, so they quiver all the time.)” He’s someone on whom, like Henry James’s ideal artist, nothing is lost. He also knows the trouble it brings: “To live, to live! So natural and so hard.”

* * *

From early on, Schuyler was preoccupied with what he called an achieved style. Replying in 1954 to a remark by Porter about self-parody, he wrote: “It’s often hard to say which flower [among poems by a contemporary] bloomed first, and whether one is wax. So much of art is an exercising of an achieved style—there are so many Monets I would like singly and together, without finding a special uniqueness in any of them. The uniqueness seems to me between the total work and the rest of the world.” He separates this from manner when talking about artists (though it fits poets, too) who, in their twenties and thirties, contrive a signature manner they ride throughout their career. “I don’t say their work is without merit, but I think it’s mostly an achieved manner, and manner, en masse, makes for ennui.”

We all know poets who won’t surprise us with a different sound because they’ve become habituated to a manner and the critical attention the manner attracts. If there’s restlessness in such work, it’s only wind rippling a pond—it doesn’t kick up bottom sand. Schuyler could have settled into a manner of pleasurable flat-line energy, engaging but responsive to experience in predictable ways. What saved him from the monotonous butcher-block whacking of, say, Lowell’s History was a stylistic restlessness responsive to emotional and intellectual instability. “Style in art,” he said of Proust, “is not a matter of study, practice, revision or refinement of diction (means) but of vision.” And in a letter to John Button, a painter Schuyler met and fell for in the fifties: “There is a line which you sometimes use which... if it’s undesirable, it’s because it gives off a look of ‘finish,’ and a work should not look more finished than it intrinsically is.” Schuyler was aware of his own sleight-of-hand gesturalism, which makes of irresoluteness and uncertainty a chased “finish” and exasperates some readers of his poetry, yet he knew that a poem’s “finish” depends on internal dynamics, not shellacked surfaces.

So that I don’t leave the impression that Schuyler the letter-writer was a long beard, I have to quote the closing of a letter he sent to Button and Frank O’Hara: “I want to finish pricking out the silouette of my dick and am going to put lipstick on my sphincter so I can plant a nice kiss on the outside of this letter.” The letters tumble together this kind of queered-up rowdiness with the wounded pleadings, lubricity, and droning darksome bittersweeetness—the sugared vinegar—that we hear in the poems.

* * *

The most excruciating and uncharacteristic letter is addressed to one Nancy Batie, a Vancouver woman about whom little is known but who by 1969 was a passionate, well-informed reader of Schuyler’s work. (Breakdowns, hospitalizations, and migrations from one SRO hotel to another resulted in very few letters from 1973 to 1979.) “Jimmy” vanishes in a jinn’s vapor of politeness and formality that’s unsettling because it’s the kind of writing—stuffy, self-explanatory exposition—that came least naturally to this man who wrote such wicked-smart art criticism. The sentences squirm with discomfort: weirdly formal, almost ventriloquist, composed by Herr Professor Schuyler.

But he does give some things away. Defending his attic-clutter poems, he admits he’s partial to art “where disparate elements form an entity” and that he especially likes Kurt Schwitters’s collages, made of “commercial bits and ‘found’ pieces but which always compose a whole striking for its completeness.” He doesn’t so much talk about writing as demonstrate what goes into making the poems, the agitatedness and bemusement, the self-inventiveness and improvisations, the processual piecing together of this and that. It’s clear that his writerly ambition was the one Baudelaire attributed to the modern artist: to find the eternal in the transitory. The Batie letter was found among John Ashbery’s papers. Schuyler wrote but never sent it.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Poetry magazine


  • W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of...

Prose from <em>Poetry</em> Magazine

Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again

James Schuyler's letters require patience, but there's soul under the gossip.


  • W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of...

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