The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

“The Morning of the Poem,” James Schuyler’s longest poem, extends to forty-four pages and is the title poem of the book for which the author won the Pulitzer Prize in literature in 1981. The lines, except those in a few short sections, are long, and the appearance of those lines is nearly uniform, most extending to a second line of indented text. The poem is written mostly in free verse.

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The event that has propelled the poem into being is Schuyler’s awakening one morning, in July, 1976, at his mother’s home in rural East Aurora, New York. Domestic pleasures and comforts abound, nature provides opportunities for reverie and entertainment, and the poet’s mother is not overly intrusive: “Then to the kitchen to make coffee and toast with jam and see out/ The window two blue jays ripping something white while from my mother’s/ Room the radio purls.” Schuyler, however, misses New York City, where his life is centered and where his friends are. The painter Darragh Park, to whom the poem is dedicated, is especially on Schuyler’s mind; the “you” addressed in the poem is often Park, whose relationship with Schuyler seems ambiguous. The two appear not to be lovers, exactly, but they are probably more than good friends: “How easily I could be in love with you, who do not like to be touched,/ And yet I do not want to be in love with you, nor you with me,” Schuyler writes.

By the conclusion, July has slipped seamlessly into August, and Schuyler is anticipating his return to New York City. There has been very little action, but the reader has learned much about Schuyler. In this poem, which closely resembles a personal journal, Schuyler records quotidian events such as trips to the toilet and petty squabbles with his mother; reminisces about erotic encounters, which occur less frequently as he drifts into later middle age; thinks fondly of his friends, most of whom, such as the painter Fairfield Porter and the poet John Ashbery, were or are closely connected with the New York art world; and delights in both the beneficence and occasional cruelties of the natural world. (It should be noted that Schuyler, Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara constitute the nexus of the “New York School” poets, all of whom have in common, to varying degrees, an involvement with the work of New York-centered artists of the middle of the twentieth century such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.)

The structure of the poem is loose. Schuyler’s impressions of the physical world, memories from childhood, thoughts of friends, and occasional travel notes (“in New York City you almost cannot buy a bowl/ Of oatmeal: I know, I’ve tried”) do not occur in any clear order but are noted in a stream of consciousness. The poem’s beginning and ending, with vivid descriptions of the poet urinating, constitute the most concrete elements of traditional structure. As critic Stephen Yenser notes, “He seems to mock the notion of aesthetic unity by virtually framing the poem with trips to the john.” Schuyler is much concerned with the ordinary, the mundane, the flotsam and jetsam of daily life, but he also addresses issues many readers may consider more serious: Deaths of friends, especially of Porter, and more ominously, his own death, which may lie in the not-too-distant future, are a constant refrain.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Schuyler laments the dearth of good poets. The problem is that most have “No innate love of/ Words, no sense of/ How the thing said/ Is in the words, how/ The words are themselves/ The thing said . . .// A word, that’s the poem./ A blackish-red nasturtium.” Schuyler is perhaps echoing the American poet William Carlos Williams, whose dictum “No ideas but in things” influenced later generations of American poets.

“The Morning of the Poem” employs few poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, or symbol. For Schuyler, the “thing said” is interesting enough in itself, and there is little need to obfuscate through abstraction. As The Diary of James Schuyler (1997) reveals, Schuyler was drawn to the writings of naturalists and diarists, often from the previous century, whose appeal rests much in their powers of observation. Roses can never be roses for Schuyler. They are, instead, “Bunches of roses on/ The dining table, Georg Arends, big and silver-pink with sharply/ Bent-back petals so the petals make a point . . ./ or Variegata di Bologna, streaked and freaked in raspberries and cream.” The poetry is both in the description of the rose and the name of the rose; it is in a similar spirit of collecting and recording that Schuyler reproduces a shopping list or recounts a childhood erotic experience. However, words are not important in simply their power to name or describe. “How the words are themselves/ The thing said” refers as well to the sounds of words. The following lines illustrate:

     the pigs were big and   to be kept away from: theywere mean: on the back porch was the separator,   milk and cream, luxuriousIce cream, the best, the very best, and on the   front porch stood a spinetWhose ivory keys had turned pale pink: why?

Schuyler employs a number of poetic sound devices in this selection. The reader notices the internal rhyme in “pigs/big” turning into assonance, or near assonance, and consonance in “milk/spinet/pink.” Similarly, the reader may appreciate how the repeated long e and m sounds in “mean” and “cream” (twice) carry into “ivory,” repeating the long e, losing the m, and picking up “cream’s” r. There is a certain resolution in “keys,” again repeating the long e and also the k sound established in words such as “kept,” “back,” “milk,” and “luxurious.” The plaintive question “why?” is given poignancy by Schuyler’s preparing the reader, in terms of sound, by the long i assonance in “ice” and “ivory.”

The passage quoted above is not unique in the poem. The careful reader, noticing Schuyler’s complex use of sound devices, may avoid the error of reading the work as a disorganized compendium of sense impressions and memories but may instead appreciate how Schuyler’s art, while appearing, upon casual inspection, to lack the kind of linguistic artifice people may associate with poetry, is, in its own subdued way, wrought with great subtlety.

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