From Freely Espousing
by James Schuyler
"a commingling sky
a semi-tropic night
that cast the blackest shadow
of the easily torn, untrembling banana leaf
or Quebec! what a horrible city
so Steubenville is better?
the sinking sensation
when someone drowns thinking, “This can’t be happening to me!”
the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the Romans
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of
pill when used as in
“she is a pill”
on the other hand I am not going to espouse any short stories in which lawn mowers clack.
No, it is absolutely forbidden
for words to echo the act described; or try to. Except very directly
bong. And tickle. Oh it is inescapable kiss."
I first encountered - and eventually fell in love with - James Schuyler's poetry in a college bookstore in the late 1980s. Periodically browsing the oh-so tiny "Poetry" section for incoming delights, I found Schuyler's Selected Poems but was initially repelled by the goopy watercolor painting that spanned the entire front cover (the packaging too seemingly reminiscent of some kind of sentimental/inspirational poems collection). I eventually returned to read the author bio and immediately purchased the book as soon as I realized Schuyler was a member of the so-called New York School of Poets (Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery are perhaps the biggest stars of this loose historical/geographical conjuncture). Like O'Hara (a sometime roommate), Schuyler's poetry often comes off as conversational, improvisatory, delicate. And like O'Hara and Ashbery, Schuyler was as influenced by the contemporaneous art world (he was a curator at MOMA for a brief period in the late 1950s and an art critic during much of the first half of his adult life).
What impressed - and continues to impress - me so about Schuyler's poetry is the way straightforward evocations of the quotidian explode and reframe experience, but never fully leave the specific material moment. His work is never simply celebratory or feel-good. A brief encounter with Schuyler's poetry might too easily suggest trivial evocations of simple moments. The attentive reader though is faced with a tendency for things and language to fall apart. I believe that it's always important to historically situate a writer's work and we can see the same kinds of destabilization in Schuyler's poems that are omnipresent in TV's Madmen and the world of white-collar professionals in the late 1950s/early 1960s - the as yet unrealized economic and social rot at the heart of urban white middle-class existence.