Thought Catalog
July 12, 2010

You Could Call It Singing: James Schuyler’s Other Flowers

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Stéphane Mallarmé’s essay “Crise de vers” (“The Crisis in Poetry”), published in 1896, is a foundational statement of modernist poetics. Though the particular crise Mallarmé had in mind was French, involving the breakdown of the venerable twelve-syllable line, neither the essay’s influence nor its bracing sense of moving on from an exhausted tradition have been bound to a single language. The most celebrated passage sets out a conception of the work performed by the act of poetic utterance, and of the peculiar function of language in literature: “I say: A flower! And….there arises, musically, the very idea in its delicacy, that which is absent from every bouquet.”

There is no perfect consensus as to exactly what Mallarmé meant by this formulation, or how radically he meant to distinguish the grubby, everyday use of language “to exchange human thoughts” from the sublime arrangement of connotation and association on the plane of the imagination. But most who have taken it to heart will agree that only a reactionary or a Babbitt would any longer insist that a poet’s references to a flower – or to any object – be taken on the same terms as those in practical or, in Mallarmé’s telling word, “commercial” discourse. Some, impressed by the arbitrary, convention-bound relationship between things and our names for them, will go much further in asking whether words, in their poetic or practical usages, succeed in referring – that is, pointing at – anything out there in what we’re pleased to call “the world” at all.

Other Flowers, the title chosen by editors James Meetze and Simon Pettet for this new and unexpected volume of 163 poems left uncollected (and, with few exceptions, unpublished) at the time of James Schuyler’s death in 1991, happens to use the same image that illustrates Mallarmé’s point, but to an opposed purpose. In the poem “Catalog” (for which the editors give no date), the question from which the title is taken is answered by a surrounding array of names, probably found in a horticultural publication. Here’s a patch from the middle:

The poem’s collagey, typewriter-tabbed look are unusual for Schuyler, though not completely unprecedented. The technique has roots in Mallarmé’s own typographical experiments, though the more immediate affinity is with Charles Olson’s “open field” poetics – one doubts the pun was lost on Schuyler. But the precision of, fascination with, and trust in, acts of naming are characteristic, even defining qualities of Schuyler’s writing. Though this “point and shoot” aspect, as he once described in a letter to the artist Joe Brainard, is rarely made the poem’s sole generating principle as it is in the admittedly featherweight “Catalog,” it is consistently present. For Schulyer the language that we possess is, on occasion, adequate to the tasks – here naming, elsewhere description or even expression – to which a poet, or anyone, might bend it. This conviction makes Schuyler something of a rarity among modernists, for whom suspicion toward language’s capacities (and exposure of its limitations) are more familiar attitudes.

I don’t mean to imply that Schulyer is unique in writing as though nouns, generally speaking, work as advertised, and it seems unlikely that he held his position in staunch theoretical opposition to the one expressed by Mallarmé. Schulyer, a college dropout and aspiring novelist who came to poetry in early middle age, after an apprenticeship as W. H. Auden’s typist, did not have the refined literary education of his “New York School” fellows John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, or Kenneth Koch – Harvard men all. That said, the poem “A Blue Shadow Painting” does take explicit aim at another modernist shibboleth, this one Ezra Pound’s: “not Make it new, but See it, hear it, freshly.” (It’s no coincidence that the poem’s subject is turn a painting by its dedicatee, the brilliant but unfashionable realist Fairfield Porter.)

The just-quoted passage aside, heavy, manifesto-like pronouncements of method and principle were not much in Schuyler’s line. That he held, and had thought about, the position on language I’ve ascribed to him may best be seen in moments which put that thought to the test. One of these comes early in the first poem of 1972’s The Crystal Lithium, in lines John Ashbery used in 1988 to introduce Schuyler’s first-ever public reading:


….Not knowing
a name for something proves nothing. Right
now it isn’t raining, snowing, sleeting, slushing,
yet it is
doing something. As a matter of fact
it is raining snow….

Another is tucked, almost unnoticeably, into the same book’s “A Vermont Dairy,” a mixture of prose and verse adapted from Schuyler’s journals of the time:

…kinds of grass in
tufted rays or with blades
folded in purpose cornupcopias—
low-growing bedstraw and
others to you nameless—
pushing out for room,
radiating, starring the muck.

Here, the decisive words are the to you (the poet, that is) in “others to you nameless.” Where many poets would treat their arrival at the limits of their own linguistic conceptual knowledge evidence of experience’s ineffability, Schuyler simply takes it that the grasses under observation have a name that he doesn’t happen to know, and moves on, without concluding that contingent ignorance must have dire metaphysical consequences: “Not knowing a name for something proves nothing,” just as, in “Catalog,” the question “what other flowers are there?” isn’t rhetorical; it gets answered.

To this store, the main addition in Other Flowers is “Starlings,” a three-line poem (or three-sentence prose-poem, if the distinction matters):


The starlings are singing!

You could call it singing.

At any rate, they are starlings.

The haiku-like observation is also an economical bit of argumentation, as the confident, overtly poetry-ish exclamation of the first line is deflated by the second, which I hear as dryly sarcastic (emphasize the “could” or the “call”), questioning whether the speaker – is this a dialogue? – has found quite the word for what the birds are doing. The last line, in turn, replies with an affirmation, though the lyricism of the first line has been replaced by the tetchy, unmusical “at any rate”: We don’t know that, but we do know this. The poem’s tight focus on an idea that speeds by in the other passages quoted gives it weight, while the play of tone and diction, as well as the unforced rhyme (even inside “singing”), hold it together as a small but completely realized piece of writing, rather than a fragment.

Schuyler’s conviction that linguistic categories do, indeed, sometimes apply, can make one wonder if he’s actually a modern poet at all, or a more traditionally-minded realist writer that happened to move in avant-garde literary and artistic circles from the 1950son. Poems like “Starlings” and the related passages just quoted, which demonstrate that his positions were held self-consciously and not uncritically, and that he understood accuracy to be an achievement, not a given, help show that suspicion to be misguided.

Still, there can be something Old Testament about this insistence on precise nomenclature, precisely used. The poet Eileen Myles, who worked as Schuyler’s assistant in the 1980s, late described visiting 10th Avenue florists with him: “He would name the flowers for me, correcting my admiration. No dear, those are delphiniums. It was like standing in paradise with God.” In Other Flowers, and just as certainly in the poetry he did publish, this air of infallibility is balanced with qualities that mark his kinship to New York School writers: wit, spontaneity, comfort with a range of informal, un-“heightened” tones and dictions. His willingness to allow what shows up in the vicinity of the occasion of writing the poem to be the poem is of a piece with Ashbery’s, while O’Hara is the major source of his essentially pragmatic approach to form. Editors of Schuyler’s published letters and diaries have noted that the boundaries between these para-literary writings and the poetry as such are porous, and a mid-1960s “Letter Poem to Kenneth Koch” finds Schuyler both celebrating and poking fun at the immediacy of “the new form/only the initiate can tell from prose.”

Other Flowers includes ample evidence of all these qualities and moods, and much else, good and not-so-good, besides: A chatty, country-house sestina (“Le Weekend”);observations of the Upper East Side (“Yorkville”); a fugal, uncharacterically abstract, set of “Variations”; assorted one-offs that remind us of Schuyler’s friendship with proto-Language poet Clark Coolidge, among others. The love poems, like those he published, are not coy about his gayness, and strike attitudes that range from the wry and slightly damp (“Surely it’s undignified for a gent to want to take another gent bouquets, and absurd?”) to the erotically humid (“Stele,” which would sound merely pornographic on brief quotation).

Unless these count, poems on topical or political subjects are entirely absent. Though Schuyler’s attention, observation, and description are activities, this is not a poetry about changing the world, or even, most of the time, the ways that the world is changing. The few attempts I have seen to argue otherwise are not convincing. A poet who could write, without irony, “Nineteen-sixty-/eight: what a lovely name/to give a year” is not a poet easily claimed for “engagement.” And would it be too much to detect a link between the apparent obliviousness to the various crises of that year and Schuyler’s failure to be gripped by the linguistic, post-Mallarméan variety?

For all that the book adds to our understanding and, more significantly, enjoyment of Schulyer, I disagree with early reviewers who have suggested, in a fit of hard-sell exaggeration, that the book is as good a place as any to begin reading him. (And he should be read – both a Collected Poems and a sizable Selected are in print, which concludes my sales-pitch.) It isn’t merely that the present book includes weak or uninspired work – Italian travel poems that don’t come off, near-juvenilia that imitates Auden at his most gnomic – that may nonetheless be of scholarly interest. The real difficulty is that the book, necessarily, contains nothing remotely as ambitious as the much longer poems that anchor (and title) his books of the ‘70s and ‘80s: “Hymn to Life,” “The Morning of the Poem,” “A few days.” These bring his eye and ear to bear on larger structures and more sustained themes, and without reference to them, the new
reader is too easily misled into mistaking Schuyler’s skill as a miniaturist for the whole of his achievement.

All told, the existence a volume of (mostly) lesser Schuyler may not be a bad thing. Its inconsistencies help cut against the godlike all-knowingness that tints Myles’ reminiscences, as well as similar writings by others in his circle. This tendency, and that of overpraising Schuyler’s personal and poetic air of serenity and acceptance, both stem from an understandable protectiveness. As most of his readers know, Schuyler went many rounds with mental instability, variously diagnosed as schizophrenia and depression, from the 1950s on, and his ability to live outside of institutions was, for much of his adult life, largely thanks to the hospitality and financial help of solicitious friends. While his suffering figured in his writing (as in “The Crystal Lithium” and “The Payne Whitney Poems”), it was not its creative wellspring; the poems are not visionary, and do not aim to blur the line between sanity and madness. Yet he is often written about as a somewhat saintly figure, especially in later years, a holy fool with an effortless connection to his art.

That’s an idea Schuyler probably wouldn’t have cared for. One of the genuine keepers in Pettet and Meetze’s harvest is 1959’s “The Village,” more or less another “letter-poem,” this one to Allen Ginsberg. Bemused by the Beat icon’s shamanistic posturings, Schuyler admits: “sincerely I admire you/and haven’t a clue/when you say ‘poet is priest’.” The fullest use of Other Flowers may be as a reminder that Schuyler, like other mortals, wrote both well and badly, and mostly, though not infallibly, knew the difference. TC mark