James Schuyler Essay - Schuyler, James

Schuyler, James

Schuyler, James 1923–

Schuyler is an American poet and novelist.

James Schuyler's new book [The Crystal Lithium] contains the best poems he has ever written. In a time when many poets have designs on the immediate and provisional, when verse has the air of first-person notation, journals and improvisation, his is naturally a valued presence. His work has the coveted directness, the openness to experience of his plainest declarations: "All things are real/no one a symbol." He is often offhand, but never merely so….

[His] is, as anyone can see, a poetry of nouns and adjectives, of apparent leaps, rags to nobility. If there is any point in mentioning the "New York School" of poets, where Schuyler began with the late Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, it is only to remark how, in his very best poems, Schuyler transforms their original joy in random surfaces to something more inward, more mysterious. This is one of the hardest kinds of poetry to write, depending on perfect pitch to keep it from sounding like lists for sightseers and shoppers. When you uncouple the sentence, when you exchange a syntax of memory and judgment for a syntax of simultaneity, when you stop saying, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up …," the electric spark must jump from noun to seemingly unrelated noun, from event to seemingly disparate event.

Schuyler's effects aren't easily explained; he is somehow tuned to the way the awakened mind moves, to its guarded flirtations and powers. To be composed is, for him, to be at the same moment alive to things that threaten his poise…. (p. 6)

David Kalstone, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972.

James Schuyler appears to set up within the poem a kind of one-to-one correspondence between the imagery and language and the reality going on, as it were, behind it. It is as though the poem were a sensitized plate held up to a real landscape, transforming the objects actually there into poetry and creating form which is dictated by the rhythms of the sights and sounds actually present…. (p. 8)

Schuyler writes what I have called cloth-of-life poetry. Life goes on in front of one's eyes and has a very complex and rich texture. The senses receive it and transform it into poetry….

One is right there, watching all this, and in its way it is extremely pleasurable. This poetry is close to a certain school of New York realist painting. Mr. Schuyler has lines which are like those paintings in seeming entirely representational and yet with a clear black-and-white beautiful purity like Chinese brush drawings…. (p. 13)

Stephen Spender, "Can Poetry Be Reviewed?" in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 8-14.

Schuyler looks a little to one side at the minor motions of external nature, of the people around him, and of his own fluctuating attention, curiosity, and compassion.

While so many other poets are shouting at the top of their voices, Schuyler speaks softly and carries no shtick at all. The moments of relaxed awareness, of a serenity achieved in spite of suffering ("I've known un-happiness enough"), moments that many other poets would ignore or fail to see as poetic occasions—these moments Schuyler preserves and explores. He is the observer of quietly unfolding processes, and nowhere does he chart the growth of feelings and of an awakening springtime world more beautifully than in the long title poem of [Hymn to Life]…. (p. 25)

If Schuyler is a philosophical poet, his "abstractions and generalities" are never allowed to soar off into the heaven of supreme fiction. He is not a heroic forger of myths in the tradition of Whitman or Wallace Stevens. Unlike Whitman, he does not cannibalize everyone else's experience; Schuyler, the tranquil observer, does not have cosmic ambitions. Unlike Stevens, he has not adopted the grand tone and syntax of metaphysical discourse; Schuyler remains chatty and his connectives are loose associations, often puns: "To live! so natural and so hard / Hard as it seems it must be for green spears to pierce the all but / Frozen mold…." But then why do I call Schuyler a philosophical poet at all? Could it be he is simply an autobiographical poet with an eye for nature?

I think not. He has not scrupulously effaced from his work all concern for the Big Questions. They haunt his verse like the smell of flowers that have just been removed from the room. He is always testing and trying on for size general ideas and then discarding them as poor fits. He considers religion as a refuge, then dismisses it ("But without the conviction of a truth, best leave / It alone. Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself"). He comes to doubt whether traditional ideas mean anything at all, or at least mean what they originally meant ("An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth / Become an idle thought …").

And yet, and yet Schuyler senses that time and nature are always about to surrender their meanings, if we could only decode them, the "untranslatable glyphs" of raindrops caught on a window screen or the gray April light that "spells out bare spots" on the lawn. We are surrounded by the stuff of meaning but we don't know how to fashion it into explanations. What we are left with are dark and bright scraps, with sumptuous, ordinary moments…. Schuyler may have written a hymn to life, but it is often in a minor key. No matter. He has found the only happiness that I, at least, can believe in. (pp. 25-6)

Edmund White, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), August 29, 1974.