James Schuyler Schuyler, James (Marcus) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James (Marcus) Schuyler 1923–

American poet, novelist, and playwright.

Schuyler is a poet of the New York School along with Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. A former art critic, he claims that "much of poetry is as concerned with looking at things and trying to transcribe them as painting is." His The Morning of the Poem, which won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is outstanding for its open and personal projection of a poet interacting with the world.

Schuyler's novels, particularly What's for Dinner? and Nest of Ninnies, which he wrote with Ashbery, disclose the hypocrisy in suburban life. Schuyler's harshest critics argue that his prose is typical "ridicule the establishment" fiction. Schuyler's defenders say that his dialogue is so accurate and masterful that ridicule, if it exists, comes from the mouths of his vivid characters.

(See also CLC, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

Edwin Kennebeck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Alfred and Guinevere] is a delectable little book about two children, a deft and funny creation of a high quality somewhere between the terror-haunted humor of Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica and the placid, presumably unself-conscious amusements of Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters. James Schuyler's story consists entirely of conversations and excerpts from a diary kept by Guinevere….

Guinevere's brother Alfred is perhaps three or four years younger than she, but the two often manage to bridge the chasm of time between them with a mutual respect as generous as the sympathetic understanding with which they tolerate the adults in their lives…. These children, quite evidently a cut above the level of their friends, are capable of outlandish fantasies and defiances and hatreds, but they have a clear strain of sense, of charity even, of the ability to respond to sense and charity when, as sometimes happens, these virtues are practiced among grownups. (p. 86)

Edwin Kennebeck, "Between Terror and Humor," in Commonweal (copyright © 1958 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVIII, No. 3, April 18, 1958, pp. 86-7.

Jane Cobb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is much that is charming, accurate and often very funny in "Alfred and Guinevere." It is a tenuous little summer's tale. The protagonists are a brother and sister, and the action is conveyed either through dialogue or by Guinevere's diary….

Mr. Schuyler has an excellent ear for young dialogue, and one of the chief charms of the book is the deadpan conversation, repetitive, rhythmic, delightfully recognizable….

Throughout the book there is an all-pervading sense of the pull between affection and irritation in what is drearily known as "sibling rivalry"—a pedantic term which somehow seems to have no connection with the realness of the two children. Mr. Schuyler is to be congratulated on an amusing book….

Jane Cobb, "Things Kept Happening," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1958, p. 34.

Kenneth Koch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Schuyler, who is a poet, has written a remarkable novel. A casual glance—at an illustrated page, at the cover, at the blurb—is likely to give one as false an idea of what his book is about as the New York Times book review section evidently had when it treated this exquisitely comic work of art as a children's book which was good fun [see excerpt above]. Alfred and Guinevere does, in fact, tell the story of a few months in the lives of two children, a brother and sister. Pride and Prejudice is about a dance, a carriage ride, some rural marriage arrangements; and Moby Dick is about a whale. Mr. Schuyler's book is witty, truthful, simple, lively, and musical. One has to go to the really best poems of our time to find writing with as much skill in language, rhythm, refrain, the whole paraphernalia of poetry, as one finds here. The whole aim of the book is poetic—as though its author had set out to write a novel which would never violate for moment his ear, his eye, his sensibility. The problem for poets writing novels is that they become bored (and so do readers), but Mr. Schuyler has transferred the excitements of poetry to his prose; something (witty or prosodic) is happening at every second. It is NOT, not at all, "poetic prose"—any more than is Jane Austen's. It is, rather, prose as poetry really should be: among other things fresh, surprising, artful, and clear; and with a great deal of its joy and shock...

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John Koethe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Freely Espousing is [James Schuyler's] first major collection of poems. Coming upon a mature body of work without much prior warning is always a perplexing experience requiring an effort of accommodation, but in Schuyler's case this effort is amply rewarded, for not only is Freely Espousing a collection of extremely good poems, but it also embodies the sort of vision that periodically reawakens us to the infinite range of possibilities open to the poet. Schuyler's most visible concern is not with linguistic innovation and the reader does not have to penetrate a difficult surface—indeed the first effect is almost the reverse, for the poems are disarmingly open…. (p. 54)

The actual range of his subject-matter is not broad (though it is certainly inclusive within its range), and consists mostly of casually approached pastoral details, though urban and domestic scenes crop up frequently. But one feels afterwards that Schuyler has more deeply confronted a great range of experience than if he had grappled with it head-on.

In all this, Schuyler seems closest to poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore, though less hermetically sealed than the former and less impersonal than the latter. Though his imagination is constantly rummaging around in the attic, he goes about his business light-heartedly enough, and in addition to the inanimate objects that are brought to light in minute and portentous detail,...

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Alan Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Home Book, a] collection of previously unpublished or hard-to-obtain poems and prose pieces written between 1951 and 1970 makes a fascinating introduction not only to an individual writer's work but also to the principal virtues and vagaries of the New York School aesthetic which James Schuyler has helped both to develop and to articulate. The book is not wholly characteristic of its author. Even the two dozen poems and short prose "meditations" printed here make few of those strange lyrical and abstract transformations from the natural world which [exemplify his work]…. The rest of The Home Book is a bit of a ragbag too…. Within this uneven assortment, however, there are several moments of simple, fresh and confident vision of a character never seen or attempted in contemporary British writing.

"A Picnic Cantata" … celebrates effectively the simple joys of going out for the day with friends. A similarly satisfying directness is to be found in "What to Do? A Problem Play (After Feydeau)" which lightly explores a love triangle, and "At Home with Ron Padgett" is a delightful encounter with the aged poet…. [The danger is that] the distinction between enchantingly innocent and boringly non-eventful disappears. Most of Schuyler's playlets are naive and banal, and some of his poems leave a reader uncertain whether or not the art is beautifully simple or bathetically trite….

More serious problems arise from neo-dada and surrealist influences. What one imagines was an early struggle in Schuyler between freedom and formalism has interesting results in his use of sonnet and villanelle; in four of the poems these stiff forms are made to soften to the relaxed tones of natural speech.

The two stories go the whole hog, but the initial increase in imaginative energy is totally dissipated by a wilfully subjective anti-rationalism which refuses to admit any common shapes or system into life or art….

What is most exasperating is the feeling that here once again is a considerable American poetic talent much of which, in the hollow names of total freedom and fidelity to life's arbitrariness, has been sacrified to half-baked theory.

Alan Young, "Keep It Simple," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3947, November 18, 1977, p. 1354.

Eve Ottenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like his last novel, A Nest of Ninnies (co-authored by John Ashbery), which is set in the immortally uneventful Kelton, New York, [What's For Dinner?] also presents an easy and humorous middle-class world betwixt shopping center and commuter train. The sense of well-being, however, is very shortlived in What's For Dinner? Buoyancy, wit, a poet's ear for the way various people talk—all of Schuyler's strengths serve here to thicken the gloom of the psychiatric ward, where a third of the story takes place. A boozy housewife, Lottie Taylor, clambers onto the wagon, befriends other hospitalized suburbanites, comments on the sundry, unpleasant effects of personality-altering drugs, and subjects...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In this quietly scarifying, very funny, and wonderfully compassionate novel ["What's for Dinner?"], the poet James Schuyler invents overlapping scenes describing middle-class suburban Americans leading some of them "normal" and apparently healthy lives and others lives which are "mentally disturbed."… Normal and disturbed gather in the "family group" therapeutic sessions which take place in a wing of the large general neighborhood hospital….

The figure connecting the normal with the mentally disturbed is Charlotte (or Lottie) Taylor, who combines in herself both….

Mr. Schuyler's characters speak exactly as one would expect them to do in "real life," except that what they say...

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John Ashbery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What's for Dinner?] is one of those small masterpieces destined to gain a permanent cult following…. Schuyler focuses a Flaubertian magnifying glass on a very ordinary bunch of suburbanites who like to dissect each other's doings with the perseverance of Compton-Burnett characters, but whose speech is American split-level. Alchoholism, insanity and death are on the menu, along with sweet-and-sour domestic bliss, and a great deal of boredom, but the final effect is gentle and funny, thanks to Schuyler's wonderful knack for putting words together: he is, of course, one of America's foremost poets.

John Ashbery, "In Absentia: Some Books of the Year; 'What's for Dinner?'"...

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Alfred Corn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since Wordsworth, every Romantic poet's dream has been to speak poetry at will; to write, then, would simply be to record. James Schuyler, by dint of long training (read, see, listen to everything, live—and write thousands of poems), has managed that feat, making of himself an Aeolian harp played on by all the winds of circumstance and the spirit. Fortunate in his gifts, his friends and (for the most part) his experience, he has in several books generously given back his version of the world to the world.

Was it inevitable that this good luck brought with it a heavy cost in suffering? The obverse side of sensitivity to pleasure is susceptibility to pain—which is recorded only slightly less...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Schuyler's ability to write self-consciously without injecting any hint of pompousness or self-satisfaction makes [The Morning of the Poem] succeed. At the heart of many of his poems is a powerful sense of self which simultaneously observes and writes, thereby initiating a process which charges the relation-ship between the poet and the world with an unusual intensity. The best result of this technique are his observations on the texture of the dynamic world…. The book ends with its long title poem, an autobiographical letter which examines the tragic content of Schuyler's experience as a source for his poetic material. (p. 100)

"Notes on Current Books: 'The Morning of...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery, Schuyler started life as a poet in the New York School, and has always sought to make a virtue of observing [and recording] random details and attitudes as simply as possible….

The point of this style is that it transforms nothing. And that, as Schuyler must be fed up with hearing, is also its problem. Sentimentality, mawkishness, stupidity and boastfulness are all writ large—so much so that they dwarf the occasional intelligent remark or moment of lyrical intensity. But the consequence is not only pulverising boredom for the reader—particularly in the 60-page title poem. It's also frustration for the writer. The ostensible purpose of concentrating on the...

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Stephen Yenser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While Schuyler knows exactly how the orthodox modern lyric operates, he is much more likely to ask "What is a / poem, anyway?" and to keep on trying to concoct one out of fleeting impressions, thoughts that they trigger, bits of useless information …, quotes from conversations, and whatever else turns up on the nonce. His poems [in the Morning of the Poem] often resemble journal entries, and he continually flirts with the dangers of going flat, turning cute, getting sentimental, thin, or prolix. Hence a part of his charm and fascination. He invites us to challenge him, to test his sensibility, to catch him in a weak moment. Ideally, a Schuyler poem keeps mildly startling us…. Sometimes [its] movement is a...

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Paul Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Schuyler's poetry, like Louis Simpson's, is close to prose, but it is far more playful. Whereas Mr. Simpson is almost puritanical in his desire to set down the truth devoid of ornament, Mr. Schuyler wants to be amused, and he wants his reader to be amused as well—an impulse that can result in preciosity. But "The Morning of the Poem" eventually disarmed me. It does have its moments of preciosity, when it takes the gee-whiz-isn't-it-all-amazing tone of Kenneth Koch at his worst….

But upon finishing the book, one does not remember these lapses so much as the consistent play of wit, sharp observation and brilliantly evocative language….

The title poem … is especially...

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Alice Notley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What's For Dinner? is a comedy of manners all about alcoholism, insanity, adultery, drugs, moderate incest, and death. I mean it is all about how its characters talk to each other while what would be these big novelistic events of their lives take place: they say things like "What's for dinner?" Also they do talk about feeling enraged or crazed or sexy. They also get to talk about their furniture and their bridge games and the rainbow in the water pitcher. Someone's tennis-shoes problem and the medication problem of a someone else in the nuthouse seem to take up about the same space of talk. The book really is mostly conversation; a room or a chair may be described, and as beautifully as if it inhabited one of...

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Vernon Shetley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whole, humanly scaled satisfactions have almost disappeared from poetry in the present age. The studied avoidance of affectation preached and practiced in the workshops has produced much leaden whimsy and vers libre list-making, but little in the way of poetry. The added attraction of rarity, then, attaches to James Schuyler's work, work that is not of the first order in power or invention, but which nevertheless gratifies by its harmony and balance. These poems [in The Morning of the Poem] full of rueful good humor and always appropriate to their occasions, yield a kind of pleasure that seems destined, not many years hence, to be as much a memory as civil conversation or unpretentious cooking.


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Hugo Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Schuyler is [one] of the New York School poets, whose ideas come out of Abstract Expressionism. Schuyler, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, believe—it seems—in putting down the first (or last) thing that comes into their heads because any correction comes out of a new moment and is therefore a different poem, which they also write of course. The snag to this is that words, unlike paint, don't automatically assume a convenient abstraction—and hence a spurious form—when slapped on any old how. They just look slapped on.

This not to say that Schuyler's poems [in The Morning of the Poem] don't sometimes have a lame-duck charm. "He's extremely, almost pathologically shy," Ashbery said of...

(The entire section is 331 words.)