Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
Born in Chicago to a family with extensive roots in America, James Marcus Schuyler (SKI-lur) grew up in Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and East Aurora, New York, the family seat to which he returned. He attended Bethany College in West Virginia, served in the Navy in World War II, and worked for Voice of America in New York City before traveling to Italy, where he attended the University of Florence and lived in W. H. Auden’s house in Ischia, typing some of the elder poet’s manuscripts (as he notes in his obituary poem, “Wystan Auden”). After he returned to New York in the early 1950’s, he became involved in art and poetry circles and took a curatorial position in the Department of Circulating Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, organizing a number of shows. He also served as associate editor of Art News, for which Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery also worked; together, and with a number of other young poets, they changed the poetry scene in New York and became a major force in contemporary American poetry. Close friends as well as colleagues, they often referred to one another in their books and poems and sometimes collaborated. Painters and musicians are included in this group; various artist friends of Schuyler are not only mentioned in his poems but also contributed cover illustrations for several of his books. Schuyler suffered personal traumas in the 1970’s, and his recovery from a nervous breakdown is recorded in poems in The Morning of the Poem; he also sustained severe burns after falling asleep while smoking in bed. Nevertheless, in the late 1970’s he began reading publicly for the first time. Schuyler died in New York City in 1991 after suffering a stroke.
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 propounder, Frank O’Hara, did not always steer clear of himself. Thus, some poems read as little more than notebook jottings.
Yet 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 in 1981). These poems ramble, it is true, down the streams of Schuyler’s consciousness, across several weeks’ time, from place to place, subject to subject, mood to mood. Yet each attains a remarkable unity through the skill and exactness with which Schuyler captured his own voice, developed over the course of a rather short career (barely two decades of serious publishing), in order to penetrate and reveal his own mental and emotional states. His...
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