I picked up James Schuyler’s Selected Poems at the Brooklyn Central Library because the cover was beautiful. It was a watercolor painting of a man sitting on a yellow couch, gazing at something unseen with his head against his hand. The man is pensive and polite, but his eyes are far away, like his thoughts have better places to be than the cover of a book.
I took the collection home and the next morning, I carried it outside to read. My stoop doesn’t get any sunlight so I crossed the street and sat on a stranger’s instead. As I opened to the first page, a man opened the door behind me. I froze. “I’m sorry, I’m reading poetry,” I said, as if the fact that I was reading an underdog art form made my sitting on his steps more acceptable. “It’s okay,” the man said. His dog sniffed my feet. “What are you reading?” he asked.
History says James Schuyler belongs to the New York School of poets, but what that really seems to mean is that in addition to knowing many brilliant people (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest), the city was a major influence on his writing. He knew the rumbling sound of the subway that shoots up from the grates. He knew the flattened look the leaves get, run over by countless car tires. He knew the silent sublimity of looking out a window in SoHo and seeing hoards of commuters walking home from work. Time passes in his poetry like time on a crosstown bus. His poems are not often long. They could have been written in the time it takes to walk cross Central Park. They are situated in his mind, but are always looking out. He sees beauty in the sight of two men installing an air conditioner.
“February” opens by giving life to the inanimate: “A chimney, breathing a little smoke.” The poet sees into the secret life of things. It’s five p.m., he writes, and there is “A gray hush / in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue / into the sky.” Trucks rolling into the sky…the image is beautiful. And yet before we consign this poem to a twinkly shelf of poetry where ugly cities are turned into magical playgrounds, the poet admits, “They’re just / going over the hill.” Schuyler’s writing often swerves between wonderful or surreal observations and the facts of a plain reality. It’s as if he can never decide which is more real.
The speaker goes on to notice the green leaves of the tulips on his desk and the streak of cloud beginning to glow out the window. “I can’t get over / how it all works in together” he writes. The poem presents itself like an attempt to figure how nature works together, but it’s also an attempt to figure out how a poem comes together. As if trying to locate the origin of color—and this poem—he sees a baby in the distance and wonders, “Is it the light / that makes the baby pink?” No, it’s not that. “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.” Which one is it? Life, and the poet’s art, lives in any and all of these things. It leaves him with one answer, which is the final line of the poem. “It’s a day like any other.”
I held up the book to the man and his dog. “James Schuyler,” I said, showing the man that beautiful cover. He nodded. “Never heard of him,” he said.
“February” appeared in Freely Espousing, the poet’s first collection. He went on to publish more than 20 books, win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981 and become a Guggenheim Fellow. But James Schuyler isn’t a household name. He was gay and manic depressive and he spent most of his life wandering between friend’s cottages, guest bedrooms, and cheap hotels. Time after time, he returns to the city and the unexpected interactions it provokes.
In a poem like, “An East Window on Elizabeth Street,” one finds the poet observing the city like a miracle of adjectives. “Mutable, delicate, expendable, ugly, mysterious,” he writes. Once again, he watches the city. This time, he sees, “seven stories of just bathroom windows” and “a man asleep, a woman slicing garlic thinly in/ oil/ (what a stink, what a wonderful smell).” Influenced by the Abstract Expressionism of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Schuyler considered the mind of the poet to be a worthy subject for art.
“Hymn to Life” is one of James Schuyler’s great, long poems. It begins with a series of simple observations. “There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk.” He sees colors, crocuses, and a cat with a torn ear. The tone is wistful and interwoven with memories. The 50-year-old Schuyler remembers sitting in a rocking chair and watching the sun come up. He remembers standing on an ocean liner and watching the waves. He remembers waking up and seeing the tonsils a doctor had removed from his mouth. He’s sorting through the story of his past, trying to figure out what is worth holding onto. “A/ Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and/ One wonders if these ideas that seemed handed down/ are truly what they were?”
“Hymn to Life” rewards multiple readings. As if attempting to solve the problem of life’s inconsistencies, the poet urges the reader to “Attune yourself to what is happening/ Now, the little wet things, like washing up lunch dishes.” Schuyler struggled with mental illness for most of his life. “Hymn” is not an accumulation of pretty phrases. It is a vital reminder to pay attention. Each sentiment carries with it a strong sense of its own necessity.
When death appears in the poem, it is sly and mundane. “In the delicatessen a woman made a fumbling gesture then / Slowly folded toward the floor.” Death is natural and gentle. Listen to the comforting “o” sounds in “Slowly folded toward the floor.” He makes the woman’s ailment as poignant as a flower forced to bend in wind.
Schuyler’s themes stretch to fit time, mortality, memory, and love. In “A Blue Towel,” he writes about a perfect day at the beach in all its ordinariness and tiny wonders: “why are not all days like/ you?” In “A Stone Knife,” the poem takes the form of a thank you letter for a letter opener. Read it closely and it doubles as an ars poetica. It is “just the thing” the poet writes, “an/ object, dark, fierce/ and beautiful in which/ the surprise is that / the surprise, once / past, is always there.”
James Schuyler didn’t have a permanent home in the city, not a real one. If he wasn’t staying at a friend’s place upstate or the Chelsea Hotel, where he spent the last 12 years of his life, he was sitting in his apartment on the East Side, looking out the window for whatever pieces of life he could find and put down on paper.
As I closed his book and crossed the street to go home, I saw the city through Schuyler’s eyes. The stranger’s stoop was no longer strange. The city belonged to each and every one of us. I can only hope that my discovery of this poet might happen to someone else. It could happen to anyone, on “a day like any other.”