Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Schuyler's Other Flowers - The Iceberg Floats Up

One thing that's always troubled me about reading, reviewing and thinking about poets' collected works, is that by the time these books are published--either toward the end of the poets' lives, or posthumously--we tend to think of these men and women as old. Certainly people do get old, and their poetry may get old, too. But I think it's always important to remember that they were young and energetic and uncertain and hopeful once, that their best work often is the product of their youthful enthusiasm and ambition, and not the guarded, careful summaries of old age. 
How it is that publishers seem not to be aware of the whole collected oeuvres of authors whose work they publish, is not clear to me. Perhaps it is a desire to capitalize on the reputation of writers, now dead or soon to be, while their fans are still around to purchase their books. In any case, this pattern of "uncollected works"--which we have seen in the cases of Frank O'Hara, Jack Spicer, and Charles Olson--neglected or "discovered" among the poets' papers after their death(s)--seems a recurrent phenomenon. 
Schuyler's Collected Poems was published 17 years ago by Farrar Straus & Giroux. At 429 pages in length, there was no practical reason for readers and lovers of Schuyler's work to think that there might be anything else, except perhaps a handful of scattered "lost works" or rejected drafts. In addition, given the sequence of Schuyler's publications during his life, and the logical progression of his style--moving from a cosmopolitan and casual descriptive style in the 1950's, to an increasingly confessional, extended narrative mode--there was no reason to suspect that there might be lurking a whole phalanx of finished, unpublished poems written in an entirely different and novel manner.                    

Like most poets, Schuyler's work began in confusion and diffuseness, and moved towards concision, necessity and wider implication. His first trade collection, Freely Espousing [Doubleday, 1969] was noteworthy for its refreshing, unpretentious, sensually uninhibited, painterly qualities. Slightly camp in its ironies, it offered a conversational tone and a rustic, bumptious spirit--all aspects which placed it squarely within the context of the coterie with which the Author had come to be associated, the First Generation New York School-ers John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara. It was a "late" collection as well, issued when Schuyler was already 45 years old. This was followed by The Crystal Lithium [Random House, 1972]. The advance over the earlier volume (in just three years), was impressive. The title poem, which appeared in the Paris Review, written in a long, Whitmanic style, rhythmic and sharply etched with vivid imagery, was like an epiphany. In three subsequent collections, Hymn to Life [1974], The Morning of the Poem [1980], and A Few Days [1985], he extended his claim on the long, autobiographical narrative poem, with increasingly personal details and candid, flagrant idiomatic turns. 
Despite this flowering, Schuyler had given no hint that he was interested in exploring less traditional modes of expression, or that he was willing to risk a marked departure from the stylistic successes of the 1970's and '80's. 
Schuyler was an unstable personality, frequently falling victim to delusional, bi-polar episodes which led to institutionalizations, and a regimen of regular psycho-active medication. He dealt with these problems openly in his verse, and it often may have seemed to readers that this instability in his character may actually have facilitated the free-floating associations and intense perceptual impressions which made his work so bright and sharp. This frankness, along with a certain colloquial ease, lent his work a liberated character. His work almost seemed to thrive on jeopardy, and uncertainty.                          

All of which makes the appearance of Other Flowers [Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010] a complete and unmitigated surprise and mystery. James Meetze, the Editor of this collection, explains in his Editors' Notes, that these poems were simply "waiting" to be discovered among the Author's archived papers in the Special Collections of the University of California at San Diego. If it is true that these poems were, in effect, known at the time of the publication of the 1993 Collected Poems, their neglect strikes one as fairly irresponsible. 
There is the natural conflict between honoring a dead author's desire to exclude works from publication, which he/she may have felt did not warrant inclusion, and acceding to the reading public's desire to see this rejected material. An author may have left these questions unanswered at death, or it may seem that the value and quality of previously unknown work outweighs any contrary wishes of the now-deceased artist. 
In this instance, it isn't clear what Schuyler wanted, since the Editors don't mention any publication issues. It does seem safe to assume, however, at least to a certain degree, that Schuyler's decision not to include these poems in any books during his life, probably means he thought they were either unworthy, in some way, or so unlike the "public" persona he had established, that they simply couldn't be allowed to be seen.    
A favorite critical pastime is noting the contradictory tendencies in an author's work, as evidenced by the contrast between intentional, and unintentional, effects or content. This may be made dramatic in cases where the work withheld during life, comes to light after the poet has been laid to rest. What would we be likely to think of Sylvia Plath's work, had we never have known of Ariel? Or, if, given a different sequence of disclosure, it had been withheld from view for an additional decade or more? Schuyler's Other Flowers strikes me as just such a kind of bombshell, not just because of its impressive mass, but because of the eccentric, challenging style in which it is written. 
Reading the poems in Other Flowers, I'm struck by their similarity--of voice and subject and occasion--to the work we were familiar with before--but also their difference. It's turned up a notch. There's a greater degree of abstraction and density here.
Love's Photograph (or Father and Son)
Detected little things: a peach-pit
basket watch-chain charm, an ivory
cross wound with ivory ivy, a natural
cross. The Tatoosh Mountains, opaque
crater lakes, a knickerbockered boy
who, drowned, smiles for a seeming ever
on ice-skates on ice-skate-scratched
ice, an enlarged scratched snapshot.
Taken, taken. Mad charges corrupt to
madness their sane nurses. Virginia
creeper, Loose Tooth tanned black snake-
skins, shot crows for crow wings for
a black servant's hat, lapped hot milk,
flung mud in a Bible reader's crotch:
"You shouldn't read the Bible nekkid!"
Family opals, selfishness changes hands.
Tatoosh Mountains, opaque crater lakes,
find me the fish skeleton enclosed in
a fish skeleton (fish ate fish) he had.
The Editors offer no information about this poem in their Notes, but place it among the earliest ones in the book, contemporary with work written in the early 1950's. The Tatoosh Mountain area is within the Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. In 1946, Martha Hardy, a "lady lookout" ranger, published an account [Tatoosh, New York: Macmillan] of her time there. It seems likely, to me, that Schuyler must have seen this book, given the date, since he never as far as I know traveled there himself. Tatoosh is a Chinook Indian jargon word meaning breast. I have never seen this book, but I suspect it may contain further hints to the details Schuyler mentions in the poem. What most strikes me about it is its profoundly elliptical concision, of physical properties--textures and surfaces, its adamant stuff--which so often constitute the distillate of a Schuyler poem, overwhelm any programmatic argument one might rationally deduce from it. It's almost like Stein in its suppression of sequence and narration; it's all surface and texture and no manners or philosophy.
This all comes down to us from Williams and Stevens, of course, this tapestry of physical enumeration and energetic/imagistic dynamism. But Schuyler's poems go beyond that, to a state that makes of his poems sculptural objects: They aren't the performance of a protagonist in a dialectic with an imagined audience, but constructions made out of the raw stuff of sensation. In a sense, they are what they describe. In the poems in Other Flowers, Schuyler carries this tendency a step further than we suspected he had in the work previously published.
Schuyler, like Koch and O'Hara, wasn't considered avant garde because of his abstruse language or syntactic exploration(s), but because of his approach to content. But these unpublished poems show us a side of his composition that widens our apprehension of his work, and gives us more than just a glimpse of a newer kind of writing--one more post-avant that we would have given him credit for being.  
Now how who won all know
the game's for the tell-
tale teller. The spice isles
gemmed the ocean groin
nicely, hove to view, slack
sailed. "This dressing's 
to be changed: Bite 
the tube." Pain unfurled
like paper. School of schools
Sargassan, eel us home.
Vixens blunder the bluffs
pink palms shelving moustache
eyebrows: girls girls girls
us await. Yes, oui, us. 
Necessity invented intention,
that without which then
coupling's a loose-lip joiner.
Philosopher's tone, dancer's
prance, sway down the briney.
Tropics. Trance. Pines.
Morgan. Smith. Jones.
The ice-stream phosphor of
sea-beasts, coffin the fathoms.
We abroad no more.
Time shrinks in shell.           
A chantey, of course, is a song sung by sailors to the rhythm of their movements while working. Schuyler had been in the Navy during the war, in the North Atlantic. But this isn't any old seafarer's ballad. It's a a highly abstract, syntactically adventurous work! "Gemmed the ocean groined...eel us home...vixens blunder the bluffs, pink palms shelving moustache/eyebrows...coupling's a loose-lip joiner...the ice-stream phosphor of sea-beasts, coffin the fathoms...time shrinks in shell." These kinds of constructions push the syntactic envelope far beyond the limits which Schuyler had established for himself in his "public" work in the 1970's or '80's. They are, dare one say, almost like "language" poetry?--in their playful semi-referentiality, their playing loose with meaning (what is this thing talking about?). If you're unconvinced, check this one out--
Unnerve me sir, trounced to a boneyard
bedded sheer gulley slide side. The raft
drifts nude space placed, ruddering bags
lousing creek creeper skimmers. Simmer
samovar, juicy steam unlooked love put
upon the put upon. You quarried of me
a nickel worth o' ore, O fool: scummed
water flow full, typhic, highway-viewed.
"Be back come dogwood and jay scream."
Go go go go go...
Reel wheels, roads, whipper, our car, a
way away. Strasse us Phoebus abedward,
nourish soft-shoulder flounce of Pennsy,
Mount Joy valley view. Thoughtfully sewn
of corrupt flesh the fair brittle hair,
willow twig dipt, babble toned, you go.   

"typhic" (in line #8) by the way means spell of sickness or malaise

What is immediately apparent, from this and other instances in this book, is that Schuyler's range of expression was much odder and more unusual than we knew. It's possible to see in this the same kind of risible poly-morphic verbalizations which made his "straight" verse so fresh, albeit in a more non-specific setting. Schuyler's imagination was stimulated by the syllabic dance of sound the same way Ashbery had been in his Tennis  Court Oath, though he never was willing to foreground this flavor of his work to the general readership. How would we have thought about him, if he had?
I have said elsewhere, and more than once, that any contemporary notion of the completeness of our own awareness is an illusion. Just as 19th Century contemporaries "knew" nothing of Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins in their time, we "knew" nothing about the real James Schuyler--in his particular case, not because he was invisible, but because we knew only half the story. What history unearths are the embarrassing facts we either tended to ignore, or hardly guessed were taking place in our midst. We think we can write our own literary history, but this is a dangerous illusion. We can't predict what posterity is going to make of our time, anymore than we can predict how technology or morality will tend and bend down the road. It's imponderable. In the meantime, we have poems like this--
Blank Regard
Crystal flesh, starry lice,
gilded silver scows, ivory
death-mask fall feathered,
wrists' anemones, eyes' dials,
a viol slashes currant-red
damask love-seats and lapis
spittoons. Riots. Axe's drip
drip, a basket of heads. Of
embassies, of retaliant tunes,
hawkers, harpers, chronicle.
Dusty oxen scamper in hills,
greened, spiked, wheel cut.
Time, bite your tail, hoop
snake the steak-sliced neck.
(Can't find a definition for "retaliant"--perhaps it's a made-up word?) Unusual weeds keep showing up in the garden, transplants or foreigners or volunteers riding in on the air currents. Who knows what chance may bring? Do you think you know who's writing what these days? Not bloody likely. And even if you do, it's doubtful you'll "understand" what it "means" 50 or 100 years from today.     



TC said...

Well, Curtis, "retaliant" is indeed a word now, as of this post.

Whether or not it remains a word tomorrow and beyond will probably depend on how many people who read this post pick it up, find it useful and insert it into their vocabularies.

So I guess that makes two of us, so far.

The whole issue of posthumous "uncollected" collections is a bit problematic. One always wonders whether the poets knew the works in question were in the back of the drawer, and whether, if they did know, that's where they would have wanted them to remain.

The Olson "A Nation of Nothing but Poetry", for example, struck me as a mistake. And there are other such "uncollected collections" I could think to nominate.

My favourite in this new Schuyler, at any rate, was a wee one that seemed, how shall I say it... perfectly Jimmy: Starlings.

Curtis Faville said...


There are lots of "typical" Jimmy poems here, and they're appreciated. What's really earth-shaking, though, are the ones that are so unlike what we thought we knew about him. These are slightly "over the edge" of acceptable "taste"--they'd have caused consternation and suspicion among the usual desks.

That's partly what I think of with "other flowers"--other kinds of poems. There's that old anthology "other men's flowers". Wild flowers, maybe, that we didn't cultivate. They just snuck in.

phaneronoemikon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

The work of another V.I.F. (Very Important F*g) on...Curtis

Creative genius, or psychotic? You be the judge. Modern Ahht means never having to be coherent....

Steven Fama said...

I enjoyed this write-up, particularly the ability to contextualize or encapsulate Schuyler's poetry while still giving full on focus to the particular achievement of the new book.

We corresponded more than a year ago, Curtis, you may remember, when I was puzzling about what "Collected" and "Complete" mean, when used in a poem-book title.

I think you (and others) schooled me that there is no certain definition. It all depends. That said, I think often "Collected" or "Complete" means everything that's been published.

As such, these new poems would never have gotten into the first big book of Schuyler.

I agree with TC that there's a question about whether the publishing after death of previously unpublished work raises the question of what the poet intended with the work. It raises the question front and center. Did you address this in the Eigner editorial material published with the volumes. My memory says it was not addressed. Too bad.

Curtis Faville said...

Thanks for commenting, Steve.

Yes, we thought long and hard about the degree of inclusiveness with the Eigner. There was a relatively small--I say relatively, but the number was not inconsiderable--number of early poems which Eigner himself had never seen fit to publish, but kept in notebooks and folders for possible later revision and salvage. Most of these we rejected. But our tendency was almost always to try to err on the side of inclusiveness, since to see and know what might not have been worthy, is better than not to know and to wonder about. Even with seemingly "marginal" material. Larry's work was often so abstract--especially the material in the late 1950's, that it was difficult to judge the relative success or strength of any given individual poem. Sometimes we threw up our hands in confusion. Larry wrote a great deal, and didn't throw much away. He never set about to make a collected, and the earlier selected was done by a third party (Charters), so we had nothing to guide us on what his selectivity might have produced. My hunch--and I think Bob shared/shares this--is that Larry himself never had a fixed idea about the whole work, except in the sense that he worked very chronologically, and thought of all of his work as of a piece.

I would probably have addressed this issue, but Bob took on the introductory and textual notes tasks, and he didn't go into that.

Variorum editions--such as the Yeats--profit by the Author's care in honing and shaping his oeuvre during his lifetime. By the end, Yeats had a pretty sharp picture of what his collected poems would/should/could look like. That was certainly NOT the case with Eigner.

Because Larry's work was edited and arranged and shaped by so many other hands during his life, we felt that any integrity these individual books may have had--as separate events--should be set aside in favor of a whole (holistic?) expanse which both "levelled" and unified it. It's rather like Leaves of Grass. Hard to think of chunks of Whitman having the total grand effect of the LOG itself. I like the Calamus section, but it really belongs together with everything that surrounds it, no?

There's a new apprehension possible with Larry's work in our Collected, as a result of the individual poems all being integrally laid out end to end, which no "selection" or group of favorites makes possible. This larger mosaic is a way we thought Larry's work somehow made more sense, than excerpting and rearranging to suit some other external purpose.

I hope this answers part of your question.

Steven Fama said...

Yes, thanks Curtis. I understand forsaking the individual books in LE's work, if as you say he had little to do with what in those books.

The BIG question is the "all-in" approach. I think you give an answer by saying that LE thought of all his work as piece. So long as that "all" includes the unpublished . . .

Curtis Faville said...

Eigner clearly had an "inclusive" approach to the world, as opposed to an "exclusive" one. He tended to see poems not as performances (though of course he enjoyed showing occasionally what he could do) but as various aspects of the continuity of the world, and of our various responses to it. Lots of his poems are about very "small" things, hardly noticeable in one sense, but it was all part of the whole.

Whitman is very much the model, I think. Each instance is an increment in the serial process of living in time. Creeley had much the same concept. Duncan had it too, but expressed more classically.

Larry probably had as little to do with how his work was organized and published--during his lifetime-- as any other figure of his magnitude in recent memory. He was truly "generous" in this sense, accepting this necessity with gracious permission. I think it may have bothered him somewhat, but there was a kind of passivity--both in his work and in his bargain with the occasions of publication--that allowed him to find peace and pleasure in all of it.



Thanks for thoughts on Other Flowers (some new views of Schuyler), and the following conversation re: LE.