Scoured Light

Scoured Light

Nothing is simple in the poems of James Schuyler, not even the formal austerity of looking out a window.


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:

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."


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.

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.


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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy