Sorting, Wrapping, Packing, Stuffing Analysis

James Schuyler

The Poem

“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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)