November 10, 1923 – James Schuyler:
“In the past I have declined to comment on my own work: because, it seems to me, a poem is what it is; because a poem is itself a definition, and to try to redefine it is to be apt to falsify it; and because the author is the person least able to consider his work objectively. However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.”
He was a member of the New York School, an informal circle of American poets, painters, dancers, and musicians living and working in 1950s and 1960s New York City. They were drawn to the worlds of Jazz, experimental music and theatre, and especially, the goings-on of their friends in New York City. Gay poet Frank O’Hara was at the center of the group before his death in 1966. Others in the group included painters Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers (one of O’Hara’s lovers); and writers Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery. Except for Schuyler, all overlapped at Harvard University; except for Koch, all were gay, and all lived in New York during their formative years.
Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1980 for his collection The Morning Of The Poem. His number one subject was his own life, and he wrote openly about his own queerness.
Schuyler was the son of a reporter and a housewife. Born in Chicago, he spent his teen years in a small village in Upstate New York. His parents had divorced when he was six years old. Three years later his mother remarried. Schuyler fought with his stepfather, who disapproved of his stepson’s love of reading.
During World War II, he served on a destroyer in the North Atlantic. While on leave in New York City in 1944, Schuyler got drunk, missed his ship, and was declared AWOL. During the hearing that followed, Schuyler’s gayness was revealed, which led to a dishonorable discharge.
Among his lovers were the young Communist William Aalto, a member of Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a unit that volunteered to fight during the Spanish Civil War, and painter John Button. Button is known for his cityscapes, and probably our greatest painter of urban landscape after Edward Hopper. His male nudes are jaw-dropping. Aalto had a problem with alcohol and was a violent drunk, yet the two men stayed together for five years.
In 1947, Schuyler moved in with Auden and Kallman, living in their apartment on Forio d’Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, where he worked as a sort of secretary to Auden. Once at Auden’s place, a drunk Aalto attacked Schuyler with a carving knife. In his poem Dining Out With Doug And Frank (1980), Schuyler recalls the incident and describes Aalto as: “A dark / Finn who looked not unlike / a butch version of Valentino.”
Schuyler was manic depressive. He underwent years of psychoanalysis and withstood many traumatic events, including a “near death experience” in a fire caused by his smoking in bed. After returning to New York from Italy in 1950, Schuyler suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized at a sanitarium.
At a party in 1951, Schuyler was introduced to Ashbery and O’Hara, who quickly became close friends and the three poets moved in together and became frequent collaborators. Schuyler also met dance critic Edwin Denby, with whom he began an affair. Denby introduced Schuyler to pianist Arthur Gold. Poor Denby, Gold and Schuyler soon embarked on an affair that lasted five years.
Schuyler found much of his inspiration in the art world. From 1955 to 1961, he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He was also a critic for Art News. His time as an art critic, became the major inspiration for his work. In an interview, he said:
“I did learn an awful lot during those years, and then went on in the 60s writing occasional articles about specific artists and their specific strategies. Partly it was to make money, and partly because I wanted to write about painting, about art.”
Because of his mental illness and financial difficulties, from 1961 to 1973 Schuyler lived with one of my favorite painters, Fairfield Porter, and his family in Southampton, Long Island. Porter, who was bisexual, inspired Schuyler, and he dedicated his 1969 collection, Freely Espousing, to him.
Schuyler is noted for his ability to take things that are “normal”, expressions, that are “everyday” and bring out and celebrate them. He looked at things that many people may not see, or care to take note of, stuff like individual raindrops. Schuyler also has several works that are simply lists. He evaluated the ordinary and the way it works in relation to other things:
“It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in./ It’s a day like any other.“
After O’Hara’s death in 1966 (He was drunk and tired and heading home after a night partying in Fire Island Pines in the dark of early morning when he was runover by a jeep), Schuyler wrote O’Hara’s elegy, which makes use of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s transcendentalism and use of nature to express himself in the elegy.
The late 1960s and 1970s were the apex for Schuyler’s career, culminating in that Pulitzer Prize in 1980s. in the mid-1980s, he became increasingly reclusive, suffering more financial and health problems.
Freely Espousing was Schuyler’s first major collection of poetry. His other collections include The Crystal Lithium (1972), Hymn to Life (1974), and A Few Days (1985). Schuyler also wrote novels, including Alfred And Guinevere (1958), A Nest Of Ninnies, (with Ashbery,1969), and What’s For Dinner (1978).
His greatest love seems to have been Porter. It seems nearly impossible that they didn’t have a romance. Fairfield explored the edges of his sexuality on an extended trip through Europe. He considered himself bisexual. His wife sems to have been accepting of his affairs with men and women. His first emotional love relationship with a man was with an athletic Oxford student, Arthur Giardelli.
After Schuyler died in Manhattan following a stroke in 1991, among his papers was this letter:
I knew I had written a poem in the hospital, and that it wasn’t a bad one, but I never could find it. Of course it’s about the small painting you gave me. Now, much later than I meant to, here is a present of a poem about it.
You may be sure that John Ashbery is my best friend; I’m not.
I borrowed twenty dollars from Wystan Auden in my loss-hysteria. Art News has GOT to pay me!
Please show the poem to Anne and ask her if she likes it.
I miss you.
Here is the poem, also found in his papers:
The Matster Of The Golden Glow
An irregular rattle (shutters) and
a ferule tapped
on a blackboard—or where you come from
do they say chalkboard?—anyway it’s not any sort of pointer
it’s a sash facing west
wood and glass drummed on by autumn tatters.
Say, who are you
anyway? “I think we may have met before.
God knows I’ve heard enough about you.”
That largest maple—
half its leaves an undreamt of butter:
if only safflower oil
were the color of its name
the way olive oil is. “Why,
don’t you like butter?”
The doctor’s youngest son
paddles the canoe while he (the doctor) casts
for mud-flavored carp in the long brackish pond:
Agawam, meaning lake. Lake Pond,
Pond Lake, Lake Lake, Pond Pond,
its short waves jumping up and down
in one place with surplus energy to spend.
Somewhere, out of the wind,
the wind collects a ripe debris.
“I’ll tell you who I am: someone
you never met
though on a train you studied a boil on my neck
or bumped into me
leaving a late late party
or saw throwing bones in the ocean
for an inexhaustible retriever.
The wind drops. The sky darkens
to an unfathomable gray
and through hardware cloth one
leaf is seen to fall
describing the helixes of conch-shell cores
gathered in summer, thrown out in autumn.
More litter, less clutter.