December 14th, 2009

of a bird less cold

Selected Poems / James Schuyler / Response Paper / Jeff T. Johnson

“After learning all their names­— / ... / it is important to forget them.”

James Schuyler, Hymn to Life (Selected Poems, p. 151)

We talk to poems as we talk to each other—not always having the same conversation, not always on the same page. When we read James Schuyler’s poems, we get the voyeuristic thrill of listening in on gossip, sharing recollections, picking up dropped names; we would love to be part of the conversation, but we are really just listening in. Like Schuyler’s absent (dead, lost or other) friends, we cannot talk back—not so he can hear us. At any rate, if we are listening in on Schuyler’s speaker,[1] he does look our way and smile; he knows we’re there.

In truth, we are and are not there. We have this in common with Schuyler, and the absent friends he addresses have it in common with us all.

“Most things, like the sky, / are always changing, always the same,” writes[2] Schuyler in “Greenwich Avenue” (p. 118). “They are always different; they are always the same,” John Peel[3] said (at least) once about his favorite band, the Fall. The next selected poem after “Greenwich Avenue” is “Just Before the Fall.” Hymn to Life, which includes these two poems, was published in 1974, just before the Fall was formed (1977). The Fall still exists, but singer Mark E. Smith is the only consistent member of the group. The Fall is, like spring, always different and always the same, and so are we. Or maybe the differences we perceive in spring correspond to the change in season from fall, rather than marking a distinction from previous springs. Or perhaps it is we who have changed, gotten older, while spring returns to another youth, though it carries the memory of winter (old age) with it: “It / Is spring. It is also still really winter” (“Hymn to Life,” p. 147). On Saturday, October 25, it will be five years since John Peel died. How can that be possible?

We talk to many poems this way, but when we read Schuyler’s poems we think we’re talking to him. We’re wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter.

Schuyler, too, is always willfully confusing himself for someone else:

galaxies and you my

bright particular,

my star, my sun, my

other self, my bet-

ter half, my one

That’s how “Letter Poem #3” (p. 100) ends[4]. Schuyler perceives the oneness we move toward and fall away from in our relationships with others, with our ideas about love, with nature, with ourselves and with poems. He gleefully (if with melancholy because it can’t last) collapses the I and the you, which is further permission for us to sneak into (or up to) his poems. “Is it too much to ask your car to understand you?” he asks in “The Crystal Lithium,” which reads like a dry run for the more successful long, discursive, irreducible meditations he will write later on (“Hymn to Life,” “Morning of the Poem”). It probably is too much to ask, but ask anyway. Oh but isn’t “Letter Poem #3” a funny title? How many letter poems has he written in The Crystal Lithium? Certainly more than three—not that the late placement of this poem in the book is an indication of sequence; it’s just funny in its understatement, which comes off as self-awareness.

Indeed, Shuyler’s chatty, catty knowingness is vital to his poetry’s charm, and it is enriched by extending to self-awareness:


the temptation

to show off—to

make a show

of knowing more,

than, in fact, I

know, is very real:

(“Our Father,” p. 109)

Let’s skip to page 126, so I can talk about Schuyler’s broken lyricism. “In Wiry Winter” shows off the following broken lyric:

of ice. The shadow

of a bird less cold.

This is what Schuyler does best in his skinny poems—breaks up lyrics into fragments that retain their prosody and cohesion while simultaneously going their own way.[5] Sometimes Schuyler’s gift for lineation has less to do with disrupting (or distracting) lyricism than with performing (and sculpting) his meaning, as in one of his better-known poems, “To Frank O’Hara”[6] (p. 112):

so you: even your lines have

a broken nose. And in the crash

And here we expect an explicit reference to O’Hara’s fatal encounter with a buggy on Fire Island, but we are happily rescued by the following:

of certain chewed up words

I see you again dive

into breakers! How you scared

us, no, dazzled us swimming

in an electric storm

which is what you were

Well, OK, this too is broken lyricism.

I can’t end without mentioning two more astonishing passages. The first returns us to “Hymn to Life,” which opens with a sort of reverse simile in which the wind is personified, then compared to a “you” who rises from the beach to brush away the sand.[7] Later, on page 150, Schuyler writes, “I would like [/][8] to stroke you”

As one strokes a cat and feels the ridgy skull beneath the fur

and tickles

It behind its ears. The cat twists its head and moves it

toward your fingers

Like the lifting thighs of someone fucked, moving up

to meet the stroke.

Schuyler’s movement from an arresting observation about the way we absentmindedly fondle a cat’s skull as we stroke its head (which subconsciously makes us think of our own mortality), to a frank and startling comparison of the cat’s pleasure and that of someone pushing into the stroke of a lover’s thrust, well, thrills.[9]

Finally, I want to draw attention to another virtuosic moment of broken lyricism, from “Dining out with Doug and Frank.” On page 173, Schuyler tells us, “Take my word for it, don’t” then playfully interrupts his ambiguous advice with an eight-plus-line aside in which he shamelessly flirts with the reader by pretending to withhold a comi-tragic story of a friend who “effectively threw / himself under a train,” after which Schuyler re-boards his train of thought to double back on “Take my word for it, don’t” (which seems to tell us to take his word not to take his word) to conclude “listen to anyone else.”

We will!



[1] I’m going to acknowledge here that the reader can’t assume Schuyler is the speaker in his poems, and then I’ll likely forget that counter-assumption (unless it suits my argument to recall it), because it doesn’t matter, as Schuyler reminds us—I don’t remember where—about memory.

[2] We want to use “writes” and “says” interchangeably when we talk about Schuyler’s poetry.

[3] BBC Radio 1 DJ

[4] Though I am excerpting from the poem, I can’t help leaving the front of the first excerpted line unclipped. Schuyler’s lines are as delightfully cut as a rose in full blush, cut from its bush, and I can’t bring myself to cut the stem again, even if it will make the bloom last longer in its vase.

[5] Matthea Harvey’s hinged lines in several of her Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form poems owe Shuyler’s broken lyricism a few drinks.

[6] Below the title is the dedication “For Don Allen,” which is a delightful compression of reference, an economy of namedropping that qualifies the poem’s apostrophe. Schuyler is addressing the late (but also present as subject and influence) O’Hara via Donald Allen, who edited The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Of course, Schuyler is also addressing O’Hara’s poems, and/or the Frank O’Hara of Frank O’Hara’s poems.

[7] We wish Schuyler could be addressing an actual Frank O’Hara getting up to dust himself off after being hit by the buggy that (un)kindly stopped for him.

[8] I use this to denote a soft line break, as will be illustrated in the following passage, where there is room for a line to continue but it is broken and indented as though there were not room for it on the page. Perhaps there isn’t room for a line, but the point at which it is broken so it may conclude its run seems judiciously designated.

[9] to borrow from the end of an earlier poem, “Freely Espousing,” a more modest evocation of intercourse