Sunday, April 21, 2013

Poem: James Schuyler

James Schuyler, by Fairfield Porter
I don't think I've ever posted a poem by James Schuyler (1923-1991), a poet I was quite fond of when I was younger, and whose name and work are probably as well known as those of his great peers in what came to be known as the New York School of poetry: Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and of course, the still-living, extraordinary John Ashbery. Schuyler probably was the least well-known during much of his writing life. He gave few public readings, never taught for any extended period of time, and did not receive acclaim until late in life (he received the Pulitzer Prize for the long, chatty, sometimes hilarious, often profound long poem The Morning of the Poem in 1981). But his work has a way of drawing almost any reader in, seducing you with its insistent, intimately colloquial tone and seemingly casual construction, until you pay attention and begin to notice what a skillful maker he is. He had a gift for giving heft to life's va et vient.

In thinking of poems having to do with the night there are a number in Schuyler's Selected Poems that might qualify, but I like the one below quite a bit, even beginning with the title, which places the reader in medias res, on a tip of something unfolding, while also placing her immediately within that first-person lyric consciousness: "I". But as with the poetry of O'Hara and Ashbery, to a different degree, there's so much that's still unclear. Who is "Darragh"? Why is the poetic speaker there? Why should we care? By the end of the poem, much as time has shifted from night to day, our understanding has grown, and this speaker whose memories, musings about nature and his interior world, reels us in.


lie in bed and watch the night
rise slowly, implacably, out of
evening, darkening
the lance-shaped leaves of that
nut tree whose name I never
can remember: only, those leaves
are too wide to be called
lanceolate: why, they're oval!
(A childhood memory, the
cookies that were called "fruited
ovals," molasses with a
white icing, that came from the
grocer, not made at home, and
oval.) When a firefly dances
into my view (a black window):
another childhood memory:
in Maryland we used to catch
them and put them in jars
and watch their silent, sexy
signal. We also used to tear
their phosphor off: children
can be real fun people!

Or I sit on the porch as
a light rain slants down
onto the pond Darragh made,
the wind riffling the water
and the rain making rain rings
on it. Oriane, the lurcher,
wants in, wants out, full
of the va et vient of life
(speaking of French, did
you know that in Paris bi-
sexuality is known as
voile et vapeur? I
like that).

Then we all pile into
the Toyota and rive off
into the
World of Roses.

Copyright © James Schuyler, from Selected Poems, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988. All rights reserved.

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