When James Schuyler's
extraordinary 60-page poem "The Morning of the Poem" appeared
in 1980, it marked the advent of his exceptionally long line: by the time
the poem was halfway through, the lines had swelled to virtually two lines
each. Although he clearly wasn't counting beats or syllables, there seemed
to be a reason, however unstatable, for every break not only the
official breaks but, remarkably, the runovers as well. In other words,
the lines were two lines each, as well as being single lines long
enough to pass for prose. Within this roomy framework, which recalled
Whitman, Schuyler established his own permissions to do pretty much as
he pleased, traveling smoothly and confidently on the strength of his
associations from one image or memory or aperçu to the next.
often turns out to be the case, this outsize line had precursors in the
poet's own work. "December" and "April and Its Forsythia"
as well as several others from his early book Freely Espousing
have lines that extend beyond the margin. The splendid title poems of
his next two books, the 6-page "Crystal Lithium" and the 17-page
"Hymn to Life," enlarged the scope of both poem and line, introducing
what might be called his Ongoing Style the format that eventually
resulted in his monumental poems.
Too cold to get up though at the edges of the blinds the sky
Shows blue as flames that break on a red sea in which black coals float:
Pebbles in a pocket embed the seam with grains of sand
Which, as they will, have found their way into a pattern between foot
"A place for everything and everything in its place" how wasteful,
It seems when snow in fat, hand-stuffed flakes falls slow and steady in
"Now you see it, now you don't" the waves growl as they grind
[The Crystal Lithium, p. 66; CP p. 116]
The colon ending the second line above and the absence of either punctuation
or connective word between the fourth and fifth lines are of the essence:
two of Schuyler's means, both within and outside his lengthy lines, to
keep a poem going. The colons, in particular, increasingly serve to push
the long poems ahead. As often as not a colon represents a large "as
if": it is as if this follows from that (it may, but it may not).
Without stanza breaks, with innocent-looking initial capitals and periods
wrapping up what are in fact disjunctions, the lines look conventional
and even prose-like on the page but that is the last thing they
are. As lengthy as lines get in "The Crystal Lithium" and "Hymn
to Life," it isn't until "The Morning of the Poem" that
they begin to run over apparently on purpose, even, as in the first half
of the poem, traversing the carriage return before absolutely necessary:
The exhalation of Baudelaire's image of
Not terror but the artist's (your) determination
To see things as they are too fierce and yet
too much: in
Western New York, why Baudelaire? In Chelsea,
July day. Why did Baudelaire wander in? Don't
love Heine more? Or
Walt Whitman, Walt? No, they come to my death-
and one by one take my hand
And say, "So long, old man," and who was it
in the Café Montana told,
In all seriousness, that the triumph of Mrs S.,
Duchess of W., was that
"They say she's a circus in bed." I like to
on that, the caged lions
And the whips, ball-balancing seals," And now,
[The Morning of the Poem, pp. 58-59; CP p. 260]
I like to dwell on that too, along with the rest of this wonderful passage.
I would also defend each official line break and each unofficial runover
to my dying day.
could, if one were so inclined, calculate what percentage of Schuyler's
lines split before the copula or after, how often he puts the important
word at the beginning (as critics tell us poets do), how many lines split
between preposition and object, or between modifer and noun (not how we
were taught, but part of the impetus). But Schuyler's subtle unfoldings
of music and meanings recoil from that sort of analysis.
terror but the artist's (your) determination
. . . . . . . . . . .
New York, why Baudelaire? In Chelsea,
don't know of any nomenclature to describe the effect of moving from "is"
down and left to "Not terror" or from "Smile" to "July
Day." But I know each feels absolutely right. Not that one must consciously
attend to each break, but that noticing how, for example, the curve of
a particular cadence fits or doesn't exactly fit the shape or length of
a line provides I want to say a unique pleasure; at the least,
a rare one involving ear, eye and even viscera. One feels a line
reach a stopping point, then one feels it continue on.
of the striking aspects of Schuyler's mastery is precisely that it is
demonstrable in outsize lines and in poems that go on for half a book
(not only "The Morning of the Poem" but the more recent "A
Few Days" as well). What other poets who operate in similarly open
territory Whitman, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Koch, Ammons have
line breaks on their minds? One thinks, instead, of Elizabeth Bishop's
beautifully crafted lines, and of Robert Creeley, whose early poems insisted
on their divisions. I think, too, of Frank O'Hara and of David Schubert,
whose seemingly casual lineation masks a knowing, muscular manipulation
of the reader's eye and ear. While Schuyler's lineation shares qualities
with that of each of these poets, no one, it seems to me, displays his
skill and resourcefulness in poems ranging from the thinnest lines to
the fattest imaginable.
on, in an uncharacteristic villanelle, Schuyler showed what he could do
with iambic pentameter:
I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display.
count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say.
[The Home Book, p. 8; CP p. 47]
His poems in Freely Espousing mixed long lines and very short ones.
The opening of his understated and moving elegy for Frank O'Hara, "Buried
at Springs," has always struck me as a pinnacle of the art of line:
There is a hornet in the room
and one of us will have to go
out the window into the late
August midafternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge
in being humane to hornets
but not much. A launch draws
two lines of wake behind it...
[Freely Espousing, p. 89; CP p. 42]
Lineation is of the essence here. Beginning with a deceptively conventional
four-beat line, Schuyler goes on to play against it with increasing feeling
and force. Nothing appears contrived, and yet the variety of effects is
remarkable. Frequently in the early poems Schuyler will set up a basic
rhythmic pattern and then, as it were, step out into the poem, departing
from the pattern at will. The beautiful, resonant "Salute" is
equally memorable for the subtle ease, efficacy, and centrality of its
is past, and if one
what one meant
do and never did, is
to have thought to do
Like that gather-
of one of each I
to gather one
each kind of clover,
in that field
cabin stood in and
them one afternoon
they wilted. Past
past. I salute
Espousing, p. 92; CP p. 44]
What I mean to emphasize is that in all of Schuyler's books, the "skinny"
(his term) poems are as masterful as the fattest: his short lines are
not less mighty than the long ones. Among the gems in The Crystal Lithium,
which somehow remains his central book in spite of the expanded scope
of the later work, is the extraordinarily skinny "Verge."
A man cuts brush
and piles it
for a fire where
fireweed will flower
maybe, one day.
All the leaves
are down except
the few that aren't.
They shake or
a wind shakes
them but they
won't go oh
no there goes
one now. No.
It's a bird
[The Crystal Lithium, pp. 56-57; CP p. 109]
Beginnings, endings, and middles along with internal and external
rimes are more obvious here than in the hyperspace of the very
long poems with their vast amounts of information, but the essential workings
are not, I think, different. The little jolts of pleasure, the surprises
and by contrast, how often one relaxes into other poets'
work come in virtually every line.
there are poems seemingly too narrow to remain standing (which they proudly
do), such as "Buttered Greens," which closes
us or for
of a house
of wood or
bone it is
[Hymn To Life, pp. 56-57; CP p. 175]
Who else can take monometer, albeit a loose version, seriously and convince
us to do the same? Schuyler can employ these skinniest of lines in love
poems as well. And he can, when he chooses, produce exemplary end-stoppings
to go along with all the enjambment, as in the simple-sentence music of
"The Cenotaph" [The Crystal Lithium] or his lovely "Song"
[The Morning of the Poem].
* * *
(Essay Question).There is little writing as exquisite as Schuyler's nature
diaries in prose. How does that square with a focus on his poetic line?
To me, it serves to underline the particular pleasures to be gained from
his poems, whose lineation is among the things that mark him as one of
our best poets by far as well as one whose mastery seems unusually
poetic, however unfashionable it is to say so.