“It’s This Line / Here” : Happy Belated Birthday to James Schuyler

schuyler nyc 1988 by chris felver

James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel, 1990. Photograph by Chris Felver.

I’d planned to write about one of my favorite James Schuyler poems in time for the centenary of his birth last November, but  

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. 

The tiny, beloved “Salute”—which is not the poem that I mean to discuss—both gathers and separates, does and then undoes what the poem says Schuyler meant to do but never did. (And isn’t this, the play of assembly and disassembly, to a certain extent just what verse is? How part and whole relate or fail to as the poem unfolds in time is a basic drama of poetic form.) Schuyler’s enjambments—at once distinct and soft, like the edge of a leaflet or the margin of a petal—are sites of hesitation where meanings collect before they’re scattered or revised. 

For a second I hear “Like that gather-” as an imperative: Do it that way, gather in that manner, before the noun “gathering” gathers across the margin. I briefly hear “one of each I”—each of us is a field of various “I”s—as the object of the gathering before it becomes the subject who has “planned” it. (The comparative metrical regularity of “Like that gathering of one of each I planned,” the alternating stresses, haunts these enjambments, a prosodic past or frame the poem salutes and breaks with, breaks up.) I am always slightly surprised when “to gather one,” at the end of the seventh line, repeats “of each,” as opposed to modifying a new specific noun, at the left margin of line eight. (This break makes me feel the tension or oscillation between “each” and “kind”—and a kind is a gathering of likes—between the discrete specimen and the class for which it stands, the particular dissolving into exemplarity, when you write it down.)

There is so much repetition in the short poem—“one,” for instance, appears five times, undoing the singularity; here it’s a person, here a number, here a specific afternoon. It’s as if the vocabulary were being restricted, held constant, so Schuyler can test what relineation might do to the music and meaning, “studying” each tentative arrangement of the small words he’s gathered. (There is a sense of provisionality and casualness and plain speech here and most everywhere in Schuyler, but it coexists with the implication of archival formal order; there’s the prosodic backdrop I mentioned, but there’s also the near syllabic regularity of the lines—eight of the fifteen are six syllables, for instance—or that long u sound at the end of the fourth and twelfth and fourteenth line, which provides some sonic architecture.) 

And then there is the crucial repetition of the tautology “Past is past,” a repetition (of a repetition) that affirms for me that the poem is testing how it might make difference out of sameness, transforming the phrase by delaying the verb across the break when it recurs. The past returns with a difference: “Past is past” does not equal “Past / is past.” So much depends on that nonidentity. The latter instance of the phrase, while still melancholy, has a heartbeat: the silence at the break is felt, possesses its own duration, the form happens in the renewable present tense of reading, so that—to take a phrase from Jack Spicer—the “thing language” of the poem overcomes its content, and the line no longer laments time that is simply lost. I don’t mean to make the poem sound triumphant, to imply that time is unequivocally regained, for a “salute” can be a salutation or an elegy (as in a funeral salute), and it’s the oscillation—I’m going to run with the word—between those modes that lends the poem its tender force. Still, one is grateful Schuyler only meant to gather specimens so that the field, in all its variety, is intact.


But I meant to talk about another poem, another flower, “The Bluet,” in time for his hundredth birthday. 


And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,
the air crisp as a
Carr’s table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: “It’s this line
here.” That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.

Instead of beginning with the past, we start with “and,” in medias res, evoking the epic the poem obviously isn’t, although the question of stamina—of effort and its prolongation—seems consonant with the generic marker, and, from the perspective of something “so small,” unseasonably pushing through the soil is pretty epic.

It’s remarkable how much erotic or at least potentially erotic language the poem begins with, but without sex overwhelming the lexical field. I dare you to put the following terms in a Google search: “stamina,” “freaks,” “splashed,” “creamy,” “throat.” All this makes the “Quaker lady” sound a little like a freak, maybe in drag, but then such a reading is cut by the proximity of “lady” to “lake,” which makes it literary, idealizing, Arthurian (epic). So there is oscillation between scales, including of genre, and between the carnal and the courtly. And then “stamina” is also a plural of stamen, which is the pollen-producing male reproductive organ of the Quaker lady (of the Lake) in question. The grammar of the line keeps the botanical sexual sense from being the primary one, but it’s there. The words themselves waver between being plain and literary, thingly and allusive, while the diction is at once talky and taut, a little heightened. 

I like that “held” at the end of the seventh line, how “held” just manages to hold the splash of sky before it spills over the precipice of the right margin. You can almost see it tremble with the effort, buttressed by the comma. All three of the words in the line end in d, and all the letters of “held” are held by “splashed,” as if they splashed out of the longer word. “[P]etaled” in the subsequent line seems to synthesize the sounds of “splashed” and “held,” and what a lovely definition of a petal: a splash of color that held, that holds, until it withers. (The l sounds of “petaled” will later be held still in “still,” after resting in “apple,” then break into a “ripple,” and then continue to ripple through the poem, viz. “oriental.”)

The “paintbrush,” that important kind of flower in “Salute,” is so called because it is said to resemble brushes dipped in bright red or orange-yellow paint. And I think the bluet in this poem is both an actual blue flower in the world and, invariably, the blue flower of art, the Blaue Blume of Novalis. There is another crucial oscillation, then, between nature and culture, between a particular blossom and a poetic symbol. Schuyler himself might discourage this reading: “All things are real / no one a symbol,” begins the poem “Letter to a Friend: Who is Nancy Daum?” and in an interview Schuyler said: “I’m not … interested in the idea of the rose as it occurs on and on throughout literature, I’m interested in roses, in Georg Arends, and a new rose.” But even in (these very Williams-like) disavowals of the flower as symbol, there is a blurry boundary between nature and convention: the “new rose” is brought into existence via the horticulturalist’s art, the flower is named for its “author” (Georg Arends), it is ornamental. And what could be more literary than to be fascinated by the name of the rose, obsessed as Schuyler was by the nomenclature of flowers? (Schuyler’s “Horse Chestnut Trees and Roses,” for example, is as much a celebration of the names of cultivars as the flowers themselves.) So while the flower is never merely a symbol in Schuyler, it could be said to symbolize the meeting of nature and culture, of the given and the made, of the discrete things and the kinds that language makes. 

 Maybe it’s more to the point to say that Schuyler’s description of the flower transforms it into art, and that this kind of transformation is his signature poetic activity; it happens again and again in his poems: he describes what he sees before him as if it were a painting so that observation of the natural world becomes ekphrasis. That’s why—to skip down a little—the leaves are likened to a rug, crossing outside and inside, nature and culture, and those leaves “set off” the gray the way a painter or sharp dresser uses one color to set off or complement another, why the air is like a made thing, too, if one you eat, and why the bluet is called “the focus,” the way art critics say something is “the focus of the composition.” Schuyler’s words are paintbrushes, what he describes becomes a painting (though he treats it as already painted)—paint, a medium that splashes and then holds. There are examples of this everywhere in his books. In “Evenings in Vermont,” for instance, a rug again mediates between inside and outside, art and nature: “I study / the pattern in a red rug, arabesques / and squares, and one red streak / lies in the west, over the ridge.” In “Scarlet Tanager,” the bird in the tree provides “the red touch green / cries out for.” In “A Gray Thought,” “a dark thick green” is “laid in layers on / the spruce …” And so on. Touches, layerings: color as paint, natural phenomena perceived as art.  

There is a mild modernism here that reenchants the world—barely, briefly—by converting what’s merely there into significant form so that the landscape becomes a history of small artistic decisions. Whose decisions, whose touches and layerings? Not God’s, and not quite Stevens’s “major man” reinvesting the world with meaning through the powers of poetic imagination. But not not that either: It’s more like a minor man, who has looked at a lot of good paintings, and also looked—in a lot of pain—out of the window (another frame) of Payne Whitney (the mental hospital where Schuyler spent some time; “Salute” was written in Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains). Williams said “no ideas but in things,” Stevens said that poetry’s power is “the power of the mind over the possibilities of things,” Schuyler oscillates between them. Schuyler is closer to Williams in the attention to mundane speech and the mundane things at hand (e.g., a Carr’s cracker; which is not to say Stevens had no concern with dailiness, or “ordinary evenings”), crucially closer to Williams in enjambment as the foundational poetic technique (I think of Spring and All: “so that to engage roses / becomes a geometry—”). But Schuyler is a little more like Stevens in the project of imaginative redescription: bluet, blue flower, blue guitar. The literary genealogy doesn’t really matter (and one could configure it differently); my point is that the magic of Schuyler is that you feel nature becoming art as you read. Or you feel the effort to make it so, its fluctuations, often its failure. 

Of course, he’s not describing an actual painted image, but making a poetic one; Schuyler is composing the scene, the small decisions are his, but it feels like he’s engaging another medium, and so the poet’s act of creation is smuggled in, as if he were just looking at somebody else’s representation of the view. This gives his voice a kind of secondariness, a kind of modesty—I’m not the visionary, I’m just reviewing the visions for Art News (where he was an associate editor). This in part accounts for how his tone is simultaneously matter of fact and metamorphic. Schuyler makes his writing seem like he’s “reading” a painting, but this kind of secondariness actually becomes a species of immediacy because his ekphrastic language also describes his own verbal form, the poem we’re reading: the splashes and holds, the falls from margin to margin. This means that Schuyler’s “reading” and our reading of Schuyler correspond, our acts of attention are calibrated across time. 

(I assume it’s obvious that I’m not suggesting Schuyler is the only poet who makes the world seem like a made thing, like art, or that he’s the only poet whose unfolding perceptions are transferred to poetic form so that, as we attend to his work, author and reader are in a sense coeval; on the contrary, some version of such transformations and transfers are present in the writing I love across genres and eras. But that’s why I’m trying to describe and celebrate Schuyler’s specific, quiet style, his techniques and tonalities; in his minor way, he makes contact with something fundamental.)

(And here I might mention that, while they are very different writers, Schuyler’s tendency to reframe nature as art is a characteristic shared with his friend, the brilliant Barbara Guest, and while Schuyler’s talkiness and dailiness have more in common with O’Hara—who couldn’t, as he wrote in “Meditations in an Emergency,” “even enjoy a blade of grass” unless he knew “there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life”—Schuyler is in many ways closer to Guest in his tendency to redescribe nature as culture, to present the merely contingent as arranged. As with Schuyler, this transformation in Guest often involves a window—a frame through/in which natural phenomena might appear as the touches or layerings of the compositional. Art and windows are often paired in Guest, as in her great poem, “The View from Kandinsky’s Window,” or the title of her collected writings on art, Dürer in the Window. Has someone written an essay on the windows of The New York School? I think of Ashbery’s “October at the Window” or “The New Higher”—“… the window where / the outside crept away”—and O’Hara’s small “Windows”: “this space so clear and blue / does not care what we put // into it …” One way Schuyler has a significant aesthetic affiliation with these other writers—as opposed to just a social one—is in his experiments with what one can put into the window: “put into” because the frame of the window stands for the transformation of contingency into composition. For his part, Schuyler is clear and modest—sometimes to the point of quiet comedy—about the centrality of the window to his compositions. Interviews get answers like this when they ask him about his method: “[T]here are things all through the poem that are actually what I’m seeing out the window in Southampton,” “The things described in it are what I was seeing out the window in the house in Maine,” and so on.) 

But to return to lateness and its undoing: “Past is past,” “late, late”—belatedness is the traditional theme that “Salute” and “The Bluet” indulge and, in their small way, defeat or, better, gently suspend. The bluet can be assigned to the last spring or the next one, that doesn’t matter, since it’s happening now, unexpected as a “tear” (rhymes with dear) that we’re not entirely sure isn’t a “tear” (rhymes with dare, like the torn or jagged right margin of a poem) until it’s tuned—made decisively lacrymal—by the “here” arriving at the left margin in the third to last line. “Tear” itself remains suspended between being a drop (recalling the drop of sky the flower holds) or something rent “so as to leave ragged or irregular edges” until it drops over the irregular edge of the poem. “It’s this line / here.”  

Except it isn’t, or it is and isn’t: “this” refers (at least at first) to the fourth to last line, the “here” begins the third to last. The line about the line that caused the tear is torn across the margin, it’s in both places at once, or it’s in neither place, a Schrödinger’s cat of a line. Last line, next line, what does it matter? One way it matters is that the formal irony—the way the line break renders “this” and “here” paradoxical, undecidable—means that these deictics seem ultimately to refer to the unnameable break itself, that little moment of hesitation that we use a virgule to denote in prose, a felt silence, the white space that is the drop of sky or teardrop no longer held or contained within the terms of the poem; emotion is instead expressed by formal motion. (Dramas of lineation are further heightened by the fact that this poem—like “Salute”—is a single stanza; there are no larger breaks, no other species of segmentation, competing with the irregular margins.) “Past is / past,” “It’s this line / here”—all of poetry is for me in these little delays, catches in the breath, delays that both formally enact belatedness and, by making it felt in the embodied present tense of reading, undo it. 

In both instances—“Past is past” is a cliche; “It’s this line / here” is quoted speech from a friend or lover—Schuyler is breaking up received phrases, found language, showing how lineation, how art, can alter the given, how secondariness isn’t just lateness but an opportunity for imaginative transformation. The person Schuyler quotes has to point to the line that moves him; it escapes description or paraphrase. (I think of the “him,” whatever the biographical facts, as a lover because of the erotic language earlier in the poem, where the drops of sky, why not just say it, might also be sexual fluid.) It’s a wonderful feedback loop of reading and writing (or a Möbius strip in which the two become a single practice): Schuyler writes the poem that moves the lover, Schuyler is moved that the lover is moved, the lover’s language about being moved—indicating a line we never see—is then so movingly arranged, broken up in a second poem that breaks me up each time I read it. So mere belatedness is replaced with a chain of feeling to which we readers can add links. Another poet would sound self-aggrandizing—look how my poems move men to tears!—but what I hear is Schuyler’s melancholy gratitude, admiration, for that openness, receptivity, which his poem communicates, makes available in the “/ here” of poetry. (Schuyler’s “this line / here”—the indication without quotation of the line in question—reminds me of Denise Levertov’s “The Secret,” another poem in which the poet is moved by readers’ capacity to be moved, and in which the adventure of enjambment—the way poetic form happens—is celebrated for its inexhaustibility: “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry. // I who don’t know the / secret wrote / the line …”) That “/ here” is what I hear described in Schuyler’s thank you poem to Kenward Elmslie for the gift of a letter opener in “A Stone Knife,” a poem that recalls “Salute,” and that both celebrates and enacts the renewable “surprise” of poetic form:  

the surprise is that
the surprise, once
past, is always there:
which to enjoy is
not to consume. The un-
recapturable returns … 


Schuyler’s breaks, his sense of the line, are precious to me, and yet he was matter of fact to the point of dismissiveness about how they came to be. “I don’t really know how I happened to get into writing such very thin poems,” he told an interviewer. “I was writing in very small notebooks that I carried around with me, and it was easier just to write like that …”

I think I started it because I wrote in John Ashbery’s living room—I was on my way to Southampton and Vermont—a poem called “Who is Nancy Daum?,” which is in The Crystal Lithium, and I had written that in a very small notebook, thinking that I could rearrange the lines if they weren’t long enough for whatever lines I intended. It was the kind of notebook you carry in your jacket pocket. And then when I came to type it up, I thought I would leave it the way it was, in jagged lines. 

Some feel this is evidence that Schuyler’s poems are haphazardly composed, and so it’s some kind of misreading to be moved by this or that “line / here,” but I find this casual account of lineation entirely compatible with the complex and delicate effects his enjambments produce. When a painter decides on the size of a canvas to stretch, we don’t then discount every other compositional decision she makes as random. That’s how I think of those notebooks in which so many of the poems I love were made: that Schuyler was often negotiating a miniature, objective margin in real time as his acts of observation unfolded strikes me as another way we might meaningfully speak of him as painterly (often a supremely meaningless adjective for a poet), another way the presence of a frame structured his compositional technique, whether he took the notebook en plein air or worked indoors, looking back and forth from notebook to window. Notebook and window, his two frames. It makes me think of one of my favorite of his uncollected poems, another poem that echoes “Salute,” and its pasts that are and aren’t past: “A Blue Shadow Painting,” dedicated to Fairfield Porter, that begins by describing “an evening real as paint on canvas.” When the painter in this poem loads his brush and concentrates, it’s “as though he saw neither the work in hand nor the subject”—he makes quick, perhaps only semi-conscious decisions in the time of composition, thereby managing to store some of that time in art, where it awaits us: “The day / is passing, is past: multiple and immutable came to live / on a small oblong of stretched canvas … ” 


img 5333

Darragh Park, Portrait of James Schuyler, 1996, ink on acetate, 10 x 8″. Private collection.

There are, of course, a range of forms (and moods and modes) in Schuyler—long poems, poems with very long lines, poems that incorporate a lot of white space, not to mention the novels—but my Schuyler will always be the miniaturist of “Salute” or “The Bluet” (or “Korean Mums,” and other flowers). In these poems in particular Schuyler possesses a kind of soft Midas touch in which everything his eye alights on becomes art, becomes composition as he describes it, and then his own compositional decisions—especially his enjambments, his unexpected tears (rhymes with stairs)–bring our attention in line with his, so that we feel we are looking together across time, and so the past is not merely past, but always present in the form, available as the present of form, which is never consumed. 

But again I feel I’m making him sound too triumphant, as if losses were ultimately overcome. I say it’s a Midas touch because often in Schuyler the poem, the art, is a document of emotional suffering and isolation. The drama of part and whole so central to poetry is also a drama, in Schuyler, of holding it together; the threat of falling apart is emotional, not just technical. (I’ve always been struck by the injunction: “Compose yourself,” a cruel and revealing thing to say to an upset person.) Sometimes the lines seem to tremble with the effort; sometimes the desire to bring the outside inside, to press nature into art, has a quiet desperation, as in these last lines of the last poem I’ll quote in its entirety, “February 13, 1975,” one of the poems written in Payne Whitney:  

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s:
tomorrow I’ll think about
that. Always nervous, even
after a good sleep I’d like
to climb back into. The sun
shines on yesterday’s new
fallen snow and yestereven
it turned the world to pink
and rose and steel blue
buildings. Helene is restless:
leaving soon. And what then
will I do with myself? Some-
one is watching morning
TV. I’m not reduced to that
yet. I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.

So many of the oscillations I’ve described are happening softly here. Do you read the first line as talky, as matter of fact, or as iambic tetrameter, evoking a traditional prosody that the poem will then break up? (I hear the last line of the poem as echoing and revising the meter; to my ear, it’s trochaic tetrameter, though my friends hear it differently.) There is the plain speech (and ghosts of made phrases: nothing new under the sun; “yesterday’s news” is almost there in the sixth line) coexisting with the archaic literariness of “yestereven.” This casualness, the talkiness, is also cut by the sonic relays—”into,” “new,” “blue,” “soon,” “do,” “reduced”that help hold the form together. The world becomes a made thing when the sun turns it into “steel blue / buildings.”  (And even the small surprise of “TV” at the left margin of the third to last line, where “morning” reveals itself to be an adjective and not the object of someone’s watching, is another instance of nature becoming culture.) And again we have the temporal tensions, glitches across the margins, as in “yesterday’s new / fallen snow.” What was new yesterday is already old, the new fallen is the recently belated, especially if you make the “new” pause for a moment before it falls. The poem (like every poem?) is late and early (like a spring flower in October) as it is written in lonely anticipation of tomorrow, Valentine’s Day, and all this leads to the fantasy of art existing outside of time, of a “yet” that could be pressed, the snow preserved between the pages like a flower one planned to gather. 

And is not to have thought to do / enough? 


Ben Lerner’s most recent book is The Lights. This talk was delivered as part of a new semiannual lecture series at the Poetry Society of America in Brooklyn.

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