James Schuyler Essay - Critical Essays


James Schuyler was a keen observer of the most intimate details of the world around him and of the sensations they evoked in him. His poetry captures those detailed impressions and sensations, however ephemeral they may be. This very ephemerality is the singular distinction of his world, particularly in his presentation of nature. The individual poem lives not so much as a perfected piece of art, frozen under glass; rather, it shimmers with movement and conveys a sense of being nearly as ephemeral as the impressions it records. Sometimes, of course, the impressions and mood are so fleeting as to leave the reader with virtually nothing but random actions and details—or even only words. This is the danger of Schuyler’s method—one which its great advocate, O’Hara, did not always steer clear of himself. Thus, some poems read as little more than notebook jottings.

However, the method is also responsible for the brilliance of his two long poems, “Hymn to Life” and “The Morning of the Poem” (the title poem of the volume for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize). These poems ramble, it is true, down the streams of Schuyler’s consciousness, across several weeks’ time, from place to place, subject to subject, and mood to mood. However, each attains a remarkable unity through the skill and exactness with which Schuyler has captured his own voice, developed over the course of a rather short career (barely two decades of serious publishing), to penetrate and reveal his own mental and emotional states. His highly individual, warmly personal, and frankly intimate voice is characterized by unforced humor, gentle self-deprecation, eagerness, equivocation, wonder, doubt, and fascination. This is the voice, as well, of a series of simple and tender love poems, joyful and physical without being actually erotic, addressing another man with the greatest ease and naturalness imaginable. Schuyler’s achievements in evoking the processes of nature, love, and mind are praiseworthy, for producing not only such thought-provoking and appealing major works as the two long poems but also many shorter ones that are sure to enchant readers over the years.

Schuyler was a master of subtle changes—in growing things, in weather, in time of day or year, and in moods and thoughts. These he conveyed appropriately, without big effects, sudden bursts of insight, or harsh contrasts. Rather, his poems have the shimmering magical quality of familiar scenes and objects rendered in watercolor landscapes or still lifes, but they are anything but still: Even his most quiet and peaceful scenes contain movement, even if nearly imperceptible. Such constant, inevitable movement is the manifestation of life for Schuyler, and through his poetry, the reader too gains a more intense appreciation for the many wonders and delights of even the smallest details in this life, once a moment is taken to observe them.

In an interview, Schuyler once said, “Much of my poetry is as concerned with looking at things and trying to transcribe them as painting is. This is not generally true of poetry.” Evidence of Schuyler’s affinities to painting (which doubtless stem largely from his friendship with many painters as well as his own work in the art world) is abundant throughout his work, in his attention to color, light, texture, and other visual effects.

Besides being “very visual,” his work also “seems to be especially musical,” he went on to say. Indeed, he counted important composers such as Virgil Thomson and Ned Rorem among his friends and wrote about music from Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff to Janis Joplin and Carly Simon. His is not the music of the conventional sonneteer, however, although he made an obligatory gesture or two in that direction. Rather, his poetry, almost without exception, ignores regular rhyme and meter in favor of free verse, appropriate for his emphasis on endless change. His styles of free verse change radically too, from lines of only two or three syllables in his self-styled “skinny poems,” providing a slow, even, almost hesitant, occasionally fragmented pace appropriate for the meditative stance of some of these poems, to lines as long as each individual sentence unit requires (in “The Cenotaph”), to lines a page wide or more in the long poems. Line breaks are often capricious, but this very unpredictability allows him some splendid effects. For example, the minimally punctuated “Buttered Greens” has lines which make sense in one way, until the next line indicates that the last part of the preceding line is meant not as a completion of the preceding thought but as the beginning of a new statement: “inside all/ is not con-/ tent, yet/ the chance/ of it is/ there, free.” A reader automatically assumes that “free” modifies “chance,” but the next line suggests that it modifies the botanical noun: “there, free/ leaves fall.” Often he abandons punctuation altogether, and a whole series of sensory impressions flows down or across the page as unmediated sensory input (“A Sun Cab”). Sentence fragments, composed of nouns, adjectives, and prepositional phrases, are frequent in many of these shorter poems, reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, whom Schuyler acknowledged as an early influence.

However, musical aspects are present in occasional devices of structure and sound. Words or images are repeated, like leitmotifs; recurring themes and images are particularly important in the long poems, where depiction of rain or of sites in Washington, D.C., acts both as a cohesive device and as a counterpoint to other concerns in the poem. His free-verse lines often emulate the startling and open structures of much modern music. Finally, Schuyler does not neglect the traditional musical devices of sound; pleasing patterns of alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even exact rhyme (though usually internal and never long-sustained) appear casually in occasional poems such as “Song” and “Just Before Fall.”

Most of his poems purport to do no more than map the stream of his consciousness, whether it consists chiefly of external impressions which engage his full attention or of thoughts and feelings and whatever sensory recollections they invoke. Sometimes it is a combination of the two—external impressions giving rise to memories, which are in turn interrupted by more sensory input from the present moment. Schuyler’s is very much a poetry of the present. Nearly every poem begins directly in the present tense, often indicating the setting of place, time, and weather; recollections of the past may intrude, described in the past tense as appropriate, but their appearance is strongly grounded in the immediacy of the present moment, rather than being a meditation on “remembrance of things past” or “emotion recollected in tranquillity” undertaken as an end in itself.

Time is certainly a central theme for Schuyler, but with an emphasis quite unlike that of most other poets. It passes as quickly (or slowly) for him as for another, but he does not bemoan its passing. He is not without regrets, but these are for friends who have died, lovers who have left: He accepts his move ahead into age, not with resignation but as merely another stage of life, for “Life will change and/ I am part of it and/ will change too.”

Such an attitude informs his two longest poems, “Hymn to Life” and “The Morning of the Poem.” Each embraces and celebrates change, the prevailing force in his work, the dominant characteristic of all life itself. In the earlier poem, Schuyler takes the reader with him along the paths of his mind and experiences, recording his various thoughts and sensory impressions as time moves on. It begins the day before spring (that is, in March), then moves imperceptibly into April and May. These shifts occur not with an abrupt, secretarial ripping-off of the old month’s calendar page but with the gradualism of nature itself: This seventeen-page poem is not broken into sections as the time passes but reveals each new month’s presence only in mid-line, appropriately for the subtle recognition of something new in the air, a change that has occurred while one was watching but was perhaps momentarily distracted, watching the many wonderful details all around, so exquisitely conveyed in this poem.


Such unremarked changes, so lovingly dwelt on,...

(The entire section is 3435 words.)