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Scoured Light | The Nation

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Scoured Light

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James Marcus Schuyler wrote like an angel. That is, he fashioned poems from flawless American English ("English" and "angels" are parties to an old pun, if not to a shared etymology) and made it look like the easiest thing in the world. A case in point: "Light From Canada," from his collection The Crystal Lithium (1972). His caressing eye is accurate; his words are pithy and elegant; and his emotional tenor is of someone striving for a state of grace, though pain is always near—and fresh as paint:

Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems
By James Schuyler.
Edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet
Buy this book

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...

Also by the Author

How was Emily Dickinson able to be frugal and fruitful in her art?

Denise Levertov’s poetic communion with the world.

A wonderful freshness, air
that billows like bedsheets
on a clothesline and the clouds
hang in a traffic jam: summer
heads home. Evangeline,
our light is scoured and Nova
Scotian and of a clarity that
opens up the huddled masses
of the stolid spruce so you
see them in their bristling
individuality. The other
day, walking among them, I
cast my gaze upon the ground
in hope of orchids and,
pendant, dead, a sharp shadow
in the shade, a branch gouged
and left me "scarred forever
'neath the eye." Not quite. Not
the cut, but the surprise, and
how, when her dress caught fire,
Longfellow's wife spun
into his arms and in the dying
of its flaring, died. The
irreparable, which changes
nothing that went before
though it ends it. Above the wash
and bark of rumpled water, a gull
falls down the wind to dine
on fish that swim up to do same.

Schuyler may have written like an angel, but he would never write of angels. He was an empiricist. As with Elizabeth Bishop and Lorine Niedecker, Charles Darwin was one of his favorite writers—and there Darwin is, in "Light From Canada," in the gull and the fish who meet at the intersection of mutual hunger. The great pleasure and sense of health the poet takes from the air (the bedsheets-on-a-clothesline simile, the "scoured" air, the unclumped bristles) is undeniably invigorating. It is also ambivalent. The force that drives the air down from Canada is a harbinger of winter and death, which Schuyler rises to meet like the fish. Under the guise of twentieth-century free verse, this poem snaps shut with a (visual) rhyme as neatly as any sonnet.

The courtliness of Schuyler's verse sprang miraculously from the shambles of his life. He was a late bloomer, 46 years old when his first full-length collection, Freely Espousing, was published in 1969, and each successive volume of poems seemed wrenched from an ever more precarious existence. Schuyler enjoyed scarce advantages to begin with. He was born in 1923 in Chicago to Midwestern, middle-class parents who were divorced by the time he was 6. He was forced to take the name of his antagonistic stepfather after his mother's remarriage and rarely saw his father (a "heavy, jolly, well-read man") again. (He changed his name back in adulthood.) He attended Bethany College in West Virginia—not Harvard, like his future New York School confreres Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Having fared poorly in his studies, he left Bethany without a degree and in 1943 joined the Navy. That ended with a dishonorable discharge: he went AWOL on a drunken bender, and at his hearing it came out that he was gay. All his life Schuyler would struggle with alcoholism and manic depression, with hospitalizations paid for by friends—W.H. Auden and James Merrill among them.

Schuyler was Auden's secretary during a sojourn on Ischia in 1949. "Well, if this is poetry, I'm certainly not going to write any myself," he reminisced in an interview late in life. His long apprenticeship must have frustrated him; he developed antagonisms toward his mentors, including his friend and occasional roommate Frank O'Hara. They had a falling out that remained unresolved at O'Hara's death, in 1966, at the age of 40. Schuyler's elegy for O'Hara, "Buried at Springs," starts with a shock: "There is a hornet in the room/and one of us will have to go/out the window into the late/August midafternoon sun. I/won." It was O'Hara's highly enjambed lyrical monologue "The Three-Penny Opera," published in Accent magazine in 1951, that moved Schuyler to try his hand at poetry. The big revelation: "it's the matter of where the line turns," Schuyler explained to himself in his diary. One of his most emblematic poems, "Salute," was composed at the Bloomington mental hospital in White Plains that year:

Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute
that various field.

"Salute" has all the earmarks of a mature Schuyler poem: an eye for nature, an ear for "where the line turns," a sense of spontaneous utterance and of scrupulous proportion. His technique would loosen as he aged (the tone of his last collection, A Few Days, from 1985, was downright chatty), but right from the start he made well-spoken middle-Atlantic vernacular speech the ground of the poem. It didn't need the metrical apparatus of the English (Audenesque) tradition; its rhythms materialize in the enjambments. And if the enjambments looked arbitrary at first glance, so much the better: the ragged edge of the arbitrary, provisional or contingent is exactly where the poet communicates his lyrical vulnerability. A prosodic and tonal balancing act replaces mastery in the old sense. William Carlos Williams tried to theorize free verse into something called a "variable foot"; Charles Olson tried to theorize it into a "composition by field"; Schuyler simply wrote the poems, and his view of a "various field" crystallizes his sense of style without pontification.

Schuyler thrived as a pastoral poet, even when he lived in Manhattan. He modeled his themes after the paintings of his friends Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, who modeled their work on Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, painters of domestic happiness whose insignia was the floral centerpiece. To Schuyler, painting epitomized the pure joy of being. The happiest period of his life was the twelve or so years he lived with Porter and his family in Southampton, New York, and on Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. The poet's childhood was scarred by a broken home, and his mental illness made it impossible to create a home for himself in adulthood. But when, following a breakdown, he was taken in by the Porters, he achieved a measure of stability that allowed him to develop his gift. According to biographer Justin Spring, Porter's interest in Schuyler was romantic. (In turn, Schuyler referred to Porter, who wrote art criticism for this magazine, as his "best friend.") Anne Porter—who bore Fairfield five children, managed the household single-handedly and was an accomplished poet herself—embraced him nonetheless. Their works became as intertwined as their lives. Schuyler is portrayed in several family paintings from the era; Freely Espousing is dedicated to Fairfield and Anne. Fairfield wrote to O'Hara: "Jimmy is writing a new novel, and sometimes I hear him typing and often I hear a woodpecker and think that it is he."

 

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