It is equally easy to be attracted by this book or repulsed by this book, for the wrong reasons. Without question, those who collect “gay literature” for professional or personal reasons will find it unavoidable, worthier for inclusion on their shelves than Quentin Crisp’s memoirs, less worthy than Ronald Firbank’s novels. James Schuyler does not mind shocking and titillating, but any summary of the “good parts” would leave a false impression. Measured by expectations of the risqué, much of the book is dull and harmless.
Readers with contemporary common knowledge of the portrayal of homosexuals in literature, film and nonfiction and who have unabashed homosexuals among their acquaintances, may find nothing new or interesting in the most explicit passages of these poems. Further, the point must be made that the poems in this collection which have nothing to do with homosexuality have a consistently aesthetic voice, which intimates homosexuality to many readers, but does not automatically so hint to careful students of the aesthetic movement, as Martin Green makes clear in his admirable book Children of the Sun (1976).
This collection of poems is at an awkward crossroads in literary history and in its own self-conscious backtracking. This is not a book for those offended by homosexuality or its “intimations,” nor for those offended by homosexual self-caricature, nor for those who find the homosexual life-style a shop-worn, jaded subject. For those interested by these considerations, rather than offended or bored, the large issue remains: are these poems interesting in themselves, as poems? At least two views are possible.
The case can be made that Schuyler’s poems are simple, thin, lightweight, devoid of richness of any sort. He deplores poets who write “reams of shit” but he takes delight in product brand names and dated slang. His daily doings and reminiscences are self-indulgent and dull. It makes a difference to him what soft drinks he consumes and who starred in the television series “Mod Squad,” but such drivel can only interest readers who do not understand the purposes of poetry, who think that a poetic equivalent of the visual art of Andy Warhol is a worthy notion. With the economy of the Imagists and the richness of Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and W. D. Snodgrass available, however, a “happy medium” is not sought or needed. One who buries his deepest fears under caustic wit has not earned the right to call himself a poet.
That is one view. The opposite, positive case can be made from the same poems as data. Schuyler is spare, terse, direct, economical, devoid of allusion or obscurity. He writes as one who says “Creative writing has never been my trip.” The poems depict his daily doings and reminiscences of his childhood and youth. Apart from homosexual equivalents of heterosexual “crushes,” flirtations, affairs, and heartbreaks, his life emerges as extraordinarily ordinary. He strikes a nice balance: his poems are more fleshed-out than those of pure Imagism but without the painful ruminative self-consciousness of Robert Lowell or W. D. Snodgrass. Like Lowell and Snodgrass, he has depression and institutionalization to draw on. These are mentioned in passing, in black-humored medical memoirs such as those of Oscar Levant. All in all, Schuyler is as jolly a poet as America has produced, altogether too jolly to be lionized by academics and highbrows.
For the average readers, those two views will shift in and out of dominance, poem to poem and line to line, like an optical illusion which is either a black square with a white frame or a white square with a black hole in the middle.
Metrically, the poems are...