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Scoured Light

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Spring suggested that Schuyler became the great elegiac poet we know today because he lost this paradise: his arrangement with the Porters ended in 1973, and he bounced around for several dissolute years in temporary apartments and single-room-occupancy hotels. In 1979, and again with considerable financial assistance from his friends, he set up residence in Room 625 of the Chelsea Hotel and stayed there, struggling with a variety of health problems, until his death from a stroke in 1991. A plaque at the entrance of the Chelsea commemorates him, alongside other famous habitués such as Dylan Thomas. As difficult as those later years were, Schuyler was nonetheless adored and fêted. His great works, "Hymn to Life," "The Morning of the Poem," "A Few Days" and the novel What's for Dinner?, were written during this era. He'd had the approbation, early on, of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop as well as Howard Moss, Bishop's editor at The New Yorker; in 1981 he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Morning of the Poem. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1988 he gave his first-ever public reading at the DIA Foundation, a short walk from his Chelsea abode. The line for it coiled around the block.

Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems
By James Schuyler.
Edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet
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About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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In the years since Schuyler's death there has been a steady trickle of posthumous publications under prestigious imprints. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his Collected Poems in 1993. Black Sparrow gave us his Diary and Selected Art Writings a few years later. His and John Ashbery's collaborative novel A Nest of Ninnies became a cult classic on its reissue by Ecco in 1997. New York Review Books reprinted his two novels, Alfred and Guinevere and What's for Dinner? as NYRB Classics. Turtle Point Press published his Selected Letters and then, in a separate volume, his letters to Frank O'Hara. Now James Meetze and Simon Pettet, who edited his art writings, have edited a volume of previously unpublished poems, Other Flowers. The title refers, of course, to "Salute."

Schuyler wrote poems on flowers all his life—poems of appreciation, without heavy-handedness, yet he knew that a wealth of literary, anthropological and evolutionary portent dwelled in the gesture. The salient thing he learned from flora was that beauty is inextricable from brevity. Here is one of his art reviews in its entirety:

Vieira da Silva (Knoedler; October 3-26), Portuguese-Parisian abstractionist of international reputation, winner of the top prize in the 1961 Sao Paulo biennial, is seen in atmospheric scourings sunk in rubbed greys. Striking among the large canvases is Winter Voyage, like a crowd of tears on a train window. She has given up her old preoccupation with a shifting network of depth: forms now float to the surface and rest there, as in the lovely White Night. The white crackling August suggests a sun-smitten fishing village. Often a single color is fractured through a painting, the way water dissects light. The new emphasis on brush stroke seems to release a native painterliness hampered in the past by ideas. Least successful are some purely calligraphic paintings: a little too Paris 1961.

Schuyler's diary, too, telegraphs mood and intention through tight, lyrical descriptions; entire entries are devoted to weather, which is always meant to communicate something about internal weather as well: "Clouds shaped out of white and drama and what skies! Cobalt; sea-faded; a vivid, faint, blue green that tastes like salty lips. The whole room seems to quiver, physically tremble, from the play of light-in-leaves." If paintings can be described like the weather, and the weather like painting, it is not because of that old chestnut the "pathetic fallacy," which John Ruskin inveighed against. The weather does not sympathize with the human soul, but Schuyler well knew the human soul synchronizes sympathetically with the weather.

Qualities of the fleeting blossom and the mercurial sky infuse the poems in Other Flowers, which is rife with exercises, sketches, collages and pastiches. The many dedicatory poems to friends, especially Ashbery, suggest bantering amusements, inside jokes. Yet even readers who embrace this poet's celebrations of ephemera may be skeptical of inclusions like the three-line "Starlings": "The starlings are singing!/You could call it singing./At any rate, they are starlings."

It would be precious to defend everything Schuyler wrote, and he would have been the first to agree. In the late poem "A Few Days," he remarked of a notebook poem he wrote for Ruth Kligman, then discarded: "when I'm dead some creep will publish it in a thin/volume called Uncollected Verse. It will be a collector's item. I hate to think/of the contents of that volume." This unexpectedly steely glint gives a hint of Schuyler's rigor. One may have wished for a little more rigor in the editorial apparatus of Other Flowers. Simon Pettet admits to organizing the poems "not entirely according to chronology, not entirely according to theme, but, I hope, at all times keenly respectful of both." This is waffling.

 

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