Sorting, Wrapping, Packing, Stuffing

by James Schuyler

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

“Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing” is a poem in free verse, its sixty-five lines divided into seven stanzas of varying lengths. The title strongly suggests the poem’s method and tone by signifying busy activity, the four consecutive participles accumulating into a sense of hurry and culminating in a sense of fullness. The poem is written in the first person, yet the role of this person is not so much to reveal his character or emotions as to be the instigator and then the witness of the poem’s events. He appears to the reader more as a performer than as a speaker.

“Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing” begins with a disorderly catalog of tacky domestic trivia, such as “dirty socks in dirty sneakers.” The atmosphere is one of carelessness and transience; then this atmosphere is startlingly transformed by the ringing of a “great bronze bell.” The sound elevates the tone of the poem to one of importance, of some unnamed crisis in which the soiled ephemera of the opening lines must be reassessed and sorted out. This emergency surprises the speaker in the midst of his own domestic trivia, just as he is making some instant coffee and a sandwich. Suddenly he is compelled to judge and to rank his belongings, to choose from among them those he will rescue from the still unnamed crisis. The madcap pressure of his situation is epitomized by what is apparently his most prized possession, “a blue fire escape”: How can such an object be packed and, itself a means of rescue, be rescued? This pressure prompts the speaker to make avowals that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and profound, avowals that express the impregnability of the human heart even as they attest its ordinary materiality: “All there is/ is blood and thump.”

Offering no transition, the speaker announces that it is now the next day and that the fire escape has somehow been successfully packed. There is no diminution of the crisis, however, because every next day is still a today, and every future eventually becomes a critical present, an ordinary but strident domestic situation of weeds and weather. The speaker considers the conventional escape of a trip to Florida, but chooses to remain in his city, there to dwell among the unexotic but irrepressible details of the life he apparently knows so well. This decision seems to elevate the status of everything in sight to a stellar level, and the speaker’s life comes “unpacked,” illuminated, as though his rubbish were the Milky Way or the northern lights.

This transformation is celebrated by a hurried sequence of nonsense exclamations punctuated by promises of further revelations. Abashed by the chaos, the speaker quickly calls a halt to the sequence, declaring that the “time is getting out of hand,” a phrase that, in this case, is literally true. The poem concludes as it began, with a catalog, this time of imaginary books whose comic titles suggest the reconciliation of seriousness and absurdity, of imaginary and ordinary life, a reconciliation that, it is now obvious, has been the poem’s purpose all along and that is affirmed by the closing words’ declaration that “the world will fit.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

A founder of the New York school of poetry (along with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest), James Schuyler expertly employs the most characteristic technique of that group: a verbal equivalent of the methods of such painters as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. As these painters treat their canvases as fields across which the paints move nonrepresentationally in unpremeditated patterns, so does Schuyler treat his page as a white expanse over which his words are free to group and regroup without being restricted to any conventional narrative or expressive plan. Schuyler trusts that words, having definitions, can never become meaningless, and so he literally finds his meaning in the actions of language—the sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing of his title, for example. Schuyler desires for his words the freedom of stars, which can be imagined in countless changeable variations called constellations. This is perhaps the reason that his blue fire escape becomes a Milky Way when it is unpacked.

Schuyler’s action technique does not signal a complete divorce from conventional poetic devices; it is instead a reanimation of those devices. Chief among these in “Sorting, wrapping, packing, stuffing” is the key metaphor of the “blue fire escape.” Like Schuyler’s words, it seems at first to be an object of use reduced to nonsense. What possible point is there in painting a fire escape blue? How could it get into someone’s eye, much less be removed therefrom by a druggist? Most tellingly, how could it be packed and carried off in an emergency, only to be unpacked somewhere else? The answers to these questions provide much of the poem’s meaning and prove that Schuyler’s nonsense is really the elevation of the mundane to the level of true metaphor, since here a usually unregarded means of exit is transformed, by the poet’s affectionate attention, into an entrance into new worlds of perception and understanding.

Schuyler’s other principal poetic devices all participate in this process of transformation. The catalog was originally a convention of epic poetry, as in the catalog of ships found near the beginning of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Schuyler employs catalogs, such as the one that opens “Sorting, packing, wrapping, stuffing,” in order to constellate ordinary or absurd articles into sudden clusters of meaning invested with the kind of dignity that accompanies meaning. His catalogs are more than lists; they are challenges to one’s perception of one’s own individual methods of sorting and categorizing in the creation of meaning, just as, upon viewing a Jackson Pollock painting, one is challenged to perceive a pattern in seemingly accidental drips and swirls of paint. In a similar device, Schuyler embeds these catalogs within the larger context of a continuously shifting poetic tone and vocabulary. His unexplained transitions from narrative to declamatory to nonsense language and then back again charge his poem’s atmosphere with a busy energy that compels readers to keep their eyes constantly moving forward, their interpretive faculties constantly revising and so enlarging their understanding of the poem.

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