By James Schuyler. Edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet.  (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)


James Schuyler’s poetry is so modest and casual in appearance that it can sometimes seem ephemeral; the posthumous publication of his correspondence and diaries, however wonderful, has in some ways encouraged this perception, making it seem as if Schuyler dashed off letters, journal entries, and poems with equal ease and equal carelessness.  But the uncollected and mostly unpublished poems in Other Flowers should help everybody tell the difference: this is what Schuyler’s ephemera looks like.  The majority of the items in the volume are drawn from the fifties and sixties, when Schuyler still identified himself primarily as a fiction writer and had yet to come into his own as a poet, and often feel like one-off exercises or pastiches that don’t so much fail as strain a little too hard for effect—the very opposite of the impression given by the effortless, elegant poems he chose to publish in his lifetime.  As James Meetze notes in his introduction, Frank O’Hara’s influence dominates: a poem like “Grousset’s China (Or Slogans)” has the kind of high-speed curatorial mania of O’Hara’s sixties work, name checking Tu Fu, Dubuffet, Franz Kline, Kurt Schwitters, Billie Holiday, Giacometti, and a half dozen others in long-lined arias of appreciation.  The sassy “Make Mock” exploits another O’Hara mode, that of idle cocktail chatter: “Did Bob misunderstand my misunderstanding / about mat fans? Now who put freesias  /  by Hortense’s photograph?”  These kinds of chatty, busy, formally quicksilver poems ironically make Schuyler seem more deserving of the “New York School” tag than his already extant work does, much of it written away from the city and more inspired by pastoral detachment than cosmopolitan absorption.  (The question of locale was apparently of central interest to Schuyler early on: a 1952 prose poem about “East Aurora,” the town in upstate New York where he spent his adolescence, displays a complex distaste for the suburbs, describing how “the sky changes its decoration like a housewife exchanging slip covers” and marveling “that there isn’t more rage, slaps, curses, plates of food flung across dinner tables at familiar diners.”)  While we get a good sense of the urban social whirl from Other Flowers, there is not quite enough of the lucid concentration that its author is justly famous for.  Most interesting, arguably, are the outright squibs, like “Jim Morrison,” a mock elegy ending with an apostrophe to the subject’s member: “Wave on, Jim’s dong.”  Still, despite its overall inconsistency, Other Flowers is welcome, if only to set off Schuyler’s other books and point us back to them.  The volume could have been half its current length and made a better case for Schuyler as a poet, but in its current form it gives those who already love his work a larger context for his familiar successes.

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