Saturday, May 07, 2016

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: James Schuyler

James Schuyler, Selected Poems
Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1988, new edition 2007

One of the best and grandest days of being a college student, more than 20 years ago now, was the afternoon I sat in the big white tent at Naropa and listened to Eileen Myles read poems by James Schuyler and tell tales.  She had been his assistant for a time -- indeed, he chats about her in several of these poems.  Because I am such a glacially slow learner, I just thought this was all very cool -- it took me a couple decades to perk up to the fact I had to actually read the poems.

I read all the other New York School Poets first and still wasn’t serious about reading Schuyler until I read David Lehman’s discussion of him in The Last Avant-Garde, which seems to me a very beautiful and helpful introduction.  Since then, I’ve read these poems endlessly, over and over again.  The 3 long poems, in particular, seem to me essential -- absolute proof that the long poem can be the very opposite of epic bombast.

Excuse me for quoting Ashbery’s blurb: “Schuyler’s poems are seldom ‘about’ anything in the way poetry traditionally is; they are the anything.”  Or, as I said to a friend in a vastly more stupid style, “It’s all very ordinary in a completely inexhaustible way.”  (How excellent it would be to walk into a bookstore and announce to the staff, “Please, I must have a new book of poems!  But I don’t want poems that are ‘about’ anything!”)

Since I am something of a traveling hobo, I can only carry one book of poems.  Day after day, I am so very grateful that it is this one.  If you are already interested in the New York School of Poets, don’t let the bright lights of O’Hara, Ashbery and Koch delay you too long in getting to Schuyler.  Much as I love the others, Schuyler is, for me, the poet most suitable for reading endlessly.

from “A Few Days”:

                     A few days: how to celebrate them?
            It’s today I want
to memorialize but how can I?  What is there to it?
          Cold coffee and
a ham-salad sandwich?  A skinny peach tree holds no
           peaches.  Molly howls
at the children who come to the door.  What did they
           want?  It’s the wrong
time of year for Girl Scout cookies.
My mother can’t find her hair net.  She nurses a cup of
            coffee substitute, since
her religion (Christian Science) forbids the use
            of stimulants.  On this
desk, a vase of dried blue flowers, a vase of artificial
            roses, a bottle with
a dog for stopper, a lamp, two plush lions that hug
           affectionately, a bright
red travel clock, a Remington Rand, my Olivetti, the
            ashtray and the coffee cup.”

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