November 9, 2014
Many postures by which American poets have attempted to justify their existence were foreign to JAMES SCHUYLER (1921–91), including strict formalism (which he gave up on after an early stint as Auden’s typist), shamanism (he wrote to Allen Ginsberg that “I… haven’t a clue/when you say ‘poet is priest’), and collective political engagement: A poet who could blithely write “Nineteen-sixty/eight: what a lovely name/to give a year” was unlikely to man the barricades. Schuyler also battled the psychic instability that some poets court: though he was frank about the manic depression for which he was periodically institutionalized (“The Crystal Lithium,” “The Payne Whitney Poems”), clarity and balance, not disorientation, were his artistic mainsprings. (Schuyler’s condition also prevented him from holding a job more taxing than freelance art critic after the early 1960s; for the last decade of his life, he resided in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, with care and financial assistance from literary friends.) From his first, full-length collection Freely Espousing (1969), published at the belated age of 46, through the unexpectedly Pulitzer-winning The Morning of the Poem (1980) and the late work gathered in a posthumous Collected Poems (1993) – and in his fiction, criticism, and journals – the watchwords of Schuyler’s writing were undramatized attentiveness and concrete, moment-to-moment observation, whether expressed through campy precision about horticultural terminology (“What Ails My Fern?”) or measured transcendentalism (“Buried at Springs,” his great elegy for Frank O’Hara). Not given to aesthetic manifestos, he came closest to issuing a typically unfashionable one in “Empathy and New Year” (1972): “Not knowing/a name for something proves nothing.”
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New God (1914-23) and Postmodernist (1924-33) Generations.