‘Other Flowers’ by James Schuyler
Author: RJ Gibson
May 13, 2010
Let’s begin with a series of admissions: James Schuyler is my favorite of the New York School Poets (sorry, Frank.) He is, in fact, first among my handful of favorite late-20th Century poets. And though I love “Hymn to Life” and “The Morning of the Poem,” I favor his shorter lyrics. Finally, I’m glad to have more Schuyler poems in the world.
But while I’m glad to have more poems, it’s fair to say that the poems in Uncollected Flowers are not going to challenge or expand our idea of Schuyler’s best poems. Nothing here will supplant “Buried at Springs,” “Korean Mums,” or “This Dark Apartment” as crucial. There are fine poems throughout the book, particularly “Love’s Photograph (or Father and Son),” “Distraction: an Ode,” “Poem (Help Me),” “We See Us as We Truly Behave,” and “Short Poem.” What stands out as one goes through the poems is the sense of what it’s like to actually write poems: that the occurrence of a fine poem (not even a great poem) is rare indeed. More likely one finds a flash of fine or better-than-fine writing. There are many flashes of greatness throughout the poems collected here, even if the poems that house them aren’t particularly great.
We can’t fairly refer to the earliest poems here as juvenilia, given that Schuyler was well into his twenties when he began writing poems, but we can think of them as apprentice work. These earliest poems show the influence Schuyler was working with and against as he discovered his own poetics. Some read as avant experimentation, some as attempts to play with metaphor and other techniques, some as the work of someone figuring out what he does and doesn’t value aesthetically. Within many of these poems are those moments that signal the moves and gestures of discursion, description, and observation Schuyler would make in later poems. For instance, here are the first two stanzas of the poem “Scarlatti” dated April, 1957.
of pride and
goes on two
sky the clouds
move to a
an instrument not
an oboe, gray
on light-gray in
blue and green
The first stanza of the poem isn’t particularly good—the “castle/of pride and/egotism” is really a pretty awful metaphor. But the second stanza is where the fascinating moment is, in truth it’s the best moment of the poem. This moment of particularity “an instrument not/an oboe” synesthetically fused with another particularity “gray/on light-gray in/blue and green” wouldn’t seem out of place in a later Schuyler poem. That acuity in describing the particulars, especially the qualities of light and color, has always been a hallmark of Schuyler’s poems to me. Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to look at the way “Scarlatti” works on the page (the title functioning as the first line of the poem, the left-adjusted, skinny lines with seemingly awkward or careless line-breaks) and not think of how he used this same format fifteen or twenty years later.
If there’s a quibble to be had with Other Flowers it’s in the book’s nebulous editorial identity. (The quibble’s magnitude depends solely on individual bent.) It doesn’t quite exist as a pure chronological catalogue of unpublished poems intended for scholarly consideration. Nor does it really exist as a completed manuscript arranged according to some design derived from the work itself. Instead, Other Flowers seems to inhabit a space between. It makes a nod toward scholarly interest by supplementing the poems with nine pages of Notes, but these feel curiously incomplete. Some poems are noted with their date of composition (even that the poem is undated), while others are not. The lack of such information can be a little frustrating given the way that the book is ordered. In his “Editor’s Note,” Simon Pettet admits to ordering the book “not entirely according to chronology, not entirely according to theme, but, I hope at all times keenly respectful of both.” His ordering is based on his sense that “some sort of narrative is proposed so that each poem follows logically the poem that precedes it.” It’s a fascinating approach. This “logical” stitching together of work that spans roughly thirty years is a show of loving attention to a poet and his work. I would assume that such an approach would be that readers are to engage the poems as poems in their own right, not as mere literary ephemera or curiosities.
But I’m still unconvinced that it’s the best approach, or more precisely that it’s the approach that best serves the work. Part of the draw of literary ephemera, of diaries, letters, facsimiles, and drafts is that it can deepen or guide our understanding of a writer’s work and his development. Yes, a studiously chronological arrangement might become lifeless, arid, and dusty. But it also proposes its own narrative—of the poet’s becoming himself. Other Flowers offers that in abundance. The moments where Schuyler’s voice, what we have come to think of as his voice, asserts itself are startling.
And that’s really the draw here: being party to the process of Schuyler becoming Schuyler.
By James Schuyler
Edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet
Farrar Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, $28.00, 220p