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Collected Poems

by James Schuyler

ISBN 0374126186 / 9780374126186 / 0-374-12618-6
Publisher Farrar Straus & Giroux (T)
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Born in Chicago in 1923, the late James Schuyler gravitated early on to Manhattan, where he came to be associated with such stalwarts of the New York School as Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery. Yet his work--unlike, say, Ashbery's, with whom he wrote a novel, A Nest of Ninnies--is eminently accessible. Indeed, Schuyler's Collected Poems functions as an exquisite illustration of how to write poetry with a crystal-clear surface. And he always remains a master of the light touch, even when he himself is in desperate straits.

In Schuyler's long pieces, such as "Hymn to Life," "The Morning of the Poem," and "A Few Days," he casually reverses the romantic position: anti-didactic, anti-epiphanic, he trusts his imagination and resists any psychological theorizing about why one memory, one perception, is connected to another. He mistrusts monumentality. Wisdom, he knows, is enervating: "Things should get better as you / grow older, but that / is not the way. The way is inscrutable and hard to / handle." But long or short, Collected Poems is a record of discoveries, and each one is marked by Schuyler's terrific antennae and gift of tonal rightness. (The same qualities are on ample, if more casual, display in the poet's diary.) There's no question that he is among the most formidable and most observant poets of postwar America. Indeed, his attractively quotidian elegy for W.H. Auden is a far more subtle poem than the endlessly quoted tour de force that Auden dedicated to W.B. Yeats:

I don't have to burn his
letters as he asked his
friends to do: they were lost
a long time ago. So much
to remember, so little to
say: that he liked martinis
and was greedy about the wine?
I always thought he would live
to a great age. He did not.
Wystan, kind man and great poet,
Nobody thought that James Schuyler would live to a great age. But the death of this "kind man and great poet" in 1991 felt no less cruelly premature. --Mark Rudman [via]