Authors: James Schuyler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet


Born in Chicago to a family with extensive roots in America, James Marcus Schuyler (SKI-lur) grew up in Washington, D.C., Buffalo, and East Aurora, New York, the family seat to which he returned. He attended Bethany College in West Virginia, served in the Navy in World War II, and worked for Voice of America in New York City before traveling to Italy, where he attended the University of Florence and lived in W. H. Auden’s house in Ischia, typing some of the elder poet’s manuscripts (as he notes in his obituary poem, “Wystan Auden”). After he returned to New York in the early 1950’s, he became involved in art and poetry circles and took a curatorial position in the Department of Circulating Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, organizing a number of shows. He also served as associate editor of Art News, for which Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery also worked; together, and with a number of other young poets, they changed the poetry scene in New York and became a major force in contemporary American poetry. Close friends as well as colleagues, they often referred to one another in their books and poems and sometimes collaborated. Painters and musicians are included in this group; various artist friends of Schuyler are not only mentioned in his poems but also contributed cover illustrations for several of his books. Schuyler suffered personal traumas in the 1970’s, and his recovery from a nervous breakdown is recorded in poems in The Morning of the Poem; he also sustained severe burns after falling asleep while smoking in bed. Nevertheless, in the late 1970’s he began reading publicly for the first time. Schuyler died in New York City in 1991 after suffering a stroke.{$I[AN]9810001596}{$I[A]Schuyler, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Schuyler, James}{$I[tim]1923;Schuyler, James}

James Schuyler

(© Thomas Victor)

Schuyler was a keen observer of the most intimate details of the world around him and of the sensations they evoked in him. His poetry captures those detailed impressions and sensations, however ephemeral they may be. This very ephemerality is the singular distinction of his world, particularly in his presentation of nature. The individual poem lives not so much as a perfected piece of art, frozen under glass; rather, it shimmers with movement and conveys a sense of being nearly as ephemeral as the impressions it records. Sometimes, of course, the impressions and mood are so fleeting as to leave the reader with virtually nothing but random actions and details–or even only words. This is the danger of Schuyler’s method–one which its great propounder, Frank O’Hara, did not always steer clear of himself. Thus, some poems read as little more than notebook jottings.

Yet the method is also responsible for the brilliance of his two long poems, “Hymn to Life” and “The Morning of the Poem” (the title poem of the volume for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981). These poems ramble, it is true, down the streams of Schuyler’s consciousness, across several weeks’ time, from place to place, subject to subject, mood to mood. Yet each attains a remarkable unity through the skill and exactness with which Schuyler captured his own voice, developed over the course of a rather short career (barely two decades of serious publishing), in order to penetrate and reveal his own mental and emotional states. His highly individual, warmly personal, frankly intimate voice is characterized by unforced humor, gentle self-deprecation, eagerness, equivocation, wonder, doubt, and fascination. This is the voice, as well, of a series of simple and tender love poems, joyful and physical without being actually erotic, addressing another man with the greatest ease and naturalness imaginable. Schuyler’s achievements in evoking the processes of nature, love, and mind are praiseworthy, not only for producing such thought-provoking and appealing major works as the two long poems but also for many shorter ones that are sure to enchant readers over the years. Schuyler won several awards other than the Pulitzer Prize, including the Frank O’Hara Prize from Poetry in 1969; he received grants including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and an Academy of American Poets fellowship.

In an interview, Schuyler once said that to him, “much of my poetry is as concerned with looking at things and trying to transcribe them as painting is. This is not generally true of poetry.” Evidence of Schuyler’s affinities to painting (which doubtless stem largely from his friendship with many painters as well as his own work in the art world) are abundant throughout his work, in his attention to color, light, texture, and other visual effects.

Schuyler also wrote or cowrote three novels that deal with upper-middle-class life and show a good ear for the trivialities of ordinary conversation. What’s for Dinner? is his most substantial novel; it traces an alcoholic’s recovery in a mental hospital and her husband’s affair with a widowed friend. Three of Schuyler’s plays have been produced as well, and he wrote art criticism for Art News during his time as an editor there.

BibliographyAuslander, Philip. The New York School Poets as Playwrights. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Although the focus of this volume is on plays, the chapter on Schuyler also examines his poetry, including his link to the New York School.Corbett, William, and Geoffrey Young, eds. That Various Field for James Schuyler. Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1991. A good overview.Schuyler, James. The Diary of James Schuyler. Edited by Nathan Kernan. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1997. Schuyler’s diary is a devastating account of his decline into mental illness and a narrative of his achievements. Includes bibliographical references.Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Poets. 3d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. The entry on Schuyler, by Michael Andre, identifies his artistic leanings and his prolific writings. Calls Salute representative of his poems, which are “sensitive and perceptive.” Notes that much of Schuyler’s poetry describes what he sees and what he loves–and that is not New York.Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave, 2001. An account of the key figures of the New York School including Schuyler. Ward provides up-to-date material on the group and its influence on postmodern poetics. Includes bibliographical references and index.
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