Thin as it is, Other Flowers provides a valuable correction to the idea of Schuyler as an unmediated straight shooter. One gets the sense sometimes that he is loved as an anti-Ashbery (which is strange, since the two poets were devoted to each other and each other's work) and that his art was merely a matter of getting out of the way of his beautiful feelings. Schuyler himself seemed to approve this image in a contributor's note he wrote for Best American Poetry 1990: "Like many other of my poems, ["Haze"] is about what can be seen out the window: except here, though nothing is said about it, the poem combines the views from two windows, and several times of day. I do not usually take such license."
That is indeed the sort of poet one encounters, often, in the great works of the Collected Poems. Other Flowers emphasizes a different poet: the experimenter. Schuyler wrote sestinas and acrostics and jokes in the vein of other game-playing New York Schoolers. And like his friends in that oft-misunderstood grouping, he made it serve that most Keatsian directive: soul-making. An early poem about his father is titled "Love's Photograph (or Father and Son)":
Detected little things: a peach-pit
basket watch-chain charm, an ivory
cross wound with ivory ivy, a natural
cross. The Tatoosh Mountains, opaque
crater lakes, a knickerbockered boy
who, drowned, smiles for a seeming ever
on ice skates on ice-skate-scratched
ice, an enlarged scratched snapshot.
Taken, taken. Mad charges corrupt to
madness their sane nurses.
The private associations of this list would overwhelm any sense of communicative pleasure were it not for the pitch-perfect musical play, the sprezzatura of the collaged effect and the breathless turns of register from heartbreaking to humorous to heartbreaking—the same characteristics, in fact, of "Light From Canada." The poem preceding "Love's Photograph" is "Mother's Land," more opaque yet equally engrossing, with its étude-like music. These pendant parent poems are worth the price of admission to Other Flowers. They are also rare, for Schuyler would reject an overly private poetry as he matured. As James McCourt wrote of him, "He wanted more than anything else to be understood by the Common Reader (as designated by Virginia Woolf, a writer he greatly admired)."
For all his modesty—the aw-shucks-I'm-just-looking-out-the-window variety—Schuyler was ambitious; he wanted to reconcile near-incommensurable things. The impulse to memorialize one's unique experience collides with the desire to communicate with the Common Reader, which stumbles over the aspiration to make an artistic object, which knocks against the memorializing impulse. In 1959 Donald Allen was editing the influential anthology The New American Poetry, 1945–1960, and he asked Schuyler about the literary influences on the New York School. Schuyler's response is characteristically amused: "But if you want to represent the influence of readers as systematically omnivorous as Frank, John A., Prof. Koch and, me too, well: wow." Schuyler explained that "Stevens and Williams both inspire greater freedom than the others, Stevens of the imagination, Williams of subject and style." Another influence was Hart Crane: "very much, and perhaps for extra-poetical reasons that aren't so extra. But he has exactly what's missing in 'the poetry should be written as carefully as prose' poets: sensibility and heart."
Sensibility and heart are key. In the same letter, he avowed that "Pasternak has meant more to us than any American poet. Even in monstrous translations his lyrics make the hair on the back of one's neck curl." This love of Pasternak (regarded now as then as "sentimental" by reductive avant-gardists) trumps formalism. Even so, it is clear that International Modernism underlay Schuyler's plain style, or as Marianne Moore put it, "plain American which cats and dogs can read."
"February," from Freely Espousing, is perhaps Schuyler's most well-known casual snapshot of the view out his window. Nothing happens in the poem, and yet it swells to a close that is both prosaic and glorious:
I can't get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She's so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It's getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.
It's the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It's the shape of a tulip.
It's the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It's a day like any other.
Schuyler explained the genesis of this poem to Nancy Batie, a reader in Vancouver who wrote him a fan letter about it:
It was late February and I had very recently returned from Europe, where for the first time I had visited Palermo, and made an excursion to see the temples at Agrigento (where there were also wild snap-dragons in blooms among the lion colored drums of fallen columns), a rather dusty and disappointing affair at the time, but on which it was a pleasure to recollect. The day on which I wrote the poem I had been trying to write a poem in a regular form about (I think) Palermo, the Palazzo Abatelli, which has splendid carved stone ropes around its doors and windows, and the chapels decorated by Serpotta with clouds of plaster cherubs; the poem turned out laborious and flat, and looking out the window I saw that something marvelous was happening to the light, transforming everything. It then occurred to me that this happened more often than not (a beautiful sunset I mean) and that it was "a day like any other," which I put down as a title. The rest of the poem popped out of its own accord. Or so it seems now.
The account rings true. Yet it underscores the intensely synthetic nature of the lyric process. While the poem did indeed "pop out" as in our wildest dreams of spontaneous creation, this only followed upon hours of labor on a very different sort of poem: a recollection—a recollection of ancient ruins, no less—and one in "regular form." How un-Schuyler-like! Rereading "February" in light of this letter, the quintessential "what can be seen out the window" poem is really about the intrusion of memory on the present. Early in the poem he remembers "the sun was on the sea/by the temples we'd gone to see." The memory of this destination blends with the here-and-now in which a mother and baby appear in a window. Now we don't know anymore if the lions that face each other at the corners of the roof are in New York or in Palermo ("wild snap-dragons in blooms among the lion colored drums"). Is he describing a prewar building in midtown or a palazzo? Is that an ordinary mother and baby framed by a window, or is this Madonna and Child iconography come to life?
Nothing is simple, not even the formal austerity of looking out the window ("I do not usually take such license"). This was Schuyler's shrewdness: to develop his gift for spontaneity in the direction of elegy, and simultaneously to sublimate his sense of loss in keen attention to the present. Spontaneity looks forward; elegy, backward. Spontaneity is light; elegy is heavy. The weight of the world is a ballast against the levitating effect of James Schuyler's courteous English, which made him our most angelic poet: full of air, intelligence, light.