what's this ?
what's this ?
excerpts here
excerpts out
peer review
Click on a tag above to see relevant excerpts from this site.
Click on a tag above to see relevant excerpts from other articles in the mesh.
Search this article for any word:

    By 1974 citizens of the United States were well aware that President Nixon had lied to them—had looked them through the eye of their own television sets forthrightly and insistently and spoken: "People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook." At some level, Nixon's insincerity is a question of semantics, about the precision of language, about being objective. He had technically not been convicted of a crime. In the same year, James Schuyler published his book of poems, Hymn to Life, the title poem of which also raises its own questions about precision, about objectivity and about sincerity. And while Schuyler was not a political poet (even regarding his homosexuality during the rise of gay-lesbian politics in the 1970s), his poetics do offer an interesting contrast to Nixon's rhetoric. Schuyler's brand of objective poetics, resistant to "sharp attacks / Of harsh reality" and in espousal of "the pure pleasure of / Simply looking" do not seem haunted by Nixon's lies, but maintain attuned to the quiddity of the world. In fact, it might appear ironic that Schuyler mentions Washington D.C.'s urban design, architecture, and flora, but not its political landscape in "Hymn to Life." Still, critiquing his passivity or a-politics are not as central to the work of this paper.
    At one level, this paper will argue that, despite Charles Altieri's unformalized view that the aesthetic of the New York School of poets is more symbolist, James Schuyler's poetry, and "Hymn to Life" in particular, enacts an Objectivist notion of sincerity. If sincerity, as Zukofsky writes, is the expression, posture or intent behind a poetics attuned to the "accuracy of detail" then Schuyler's insistence to "Attune yourself to what is happening / Now" carries the imperative of sincerity. Or when Zukofsky states that "writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with things as they exist," one might begin to understand the origin of Schuyler's a-politics. In other words, there is no "thingness" to Nixon's statement, to his authorizations, to his status as liar, or diplomat. At a very basic level, these are only subjective abstractions which do not lend themselves to Schuyler's particular poetics. As another point of discussion, Adorno's position on the lyric poem as paradoxically social will assist in accounting for Schuyler's politics and the politics of Objectivism.
    While William Watkin's book In the Process of Poetry alludes to Schuyler's place within the Objectivist tradition, Watkin does not explore it as a definitive component in Schuyler's poetics. Equally for David Lehman, in The Last Avant Garde, Schuyler's poetics are placed within the context of his contemporaries and not within a more historical trajectory. Therefore, one intention of this paper is to generate discussion on the continued significance of Schuyler, with particular attention paid to his place within scholarship around the Objectivist tradition.

            A quick search in an appropriate database can prove that since the year 2000 "sincerity" and "poetry" were two intersecting nodes that gave rise to scholarship warranting doctoral status.  Thus, we needn't look as far back as Lionel Trilling or Henry Peyre, to imagine its continued significance.  Nonetheless, a discussion of the broadly conceived but continuing question of sincerity in poetry is for another time.  And yet, in the context of the 1970s sincerity seems to invoke its opposite”for when I began imagining this paper on James Schuyler, a poet I intend brandishes a sincerity taken somewhat for granted, it occurred to me that he was writing his best work, the bulk of it,  represented by three long poems, while the United States was being deceived and lied to by the President.  What danger then, or difficulty, in maintaining or sustaining sincerity in light of Nixon's crookedness? Or how to not let Nixon's deception strike a cord which might ring cynical all day long become very real questions, perhaps again more broad than I can broach here.  Thus, I should say that in the more broadly conceived version of this paper, I  draw on Adorno's notion of lyric poetry and society in order to increase the depth of contrast between Schuyler and Nixon, or really to examine the ethico-political edge to Schuyler's work, with sustained attention paid to the paratactic relations between George Oppen and James Schuyler only briefly gleaned here.  Also, to examine the otherside of this question about Objectivism, meaning not simply sincerity, but the relations between seeing, optics,  and a more thoroughgoing analysis of the continued effectiveness of "objectivist" rhetoric, strategy and poetics.   

            Still, because Schuyler's poetics must really be gleaned from the poetry, the letters and the diaries, one of the strategies for contextualizing his poetics, the way I begin to understand them then is in light of not his cohort of the New York school, but the Objectivists,  a loose configuration of writers (despite Zukofsky's roster),  characteristically post-Imagist, morphing within the American scene and spanning at least fifty years.  Treating Schuyler as objectivist has either occurred in very matter-of-fact terms, or dismissed without sufficient consideration of objectivism.  William Watkin,, for example, in his book on the New York School, In the Process of Poetry, suggests that "there is little doubt that Schuyler is a self-consciously objectivist poet" citing one of the various instances in his poems of the 1970s where Schuyler advocates an engagement with things as they are (footnote 266).  But, Watkin argues that Schuyler's works transcend any sort of objectivist or Romantic agenda. Also, John Koethe writes that "Unlike some latter-day imagist or objectivist, his gaze is not limited to the perception of the external world" (33).  H. Meili Steele similarly associates his work with Objectivism but quickly bypasses that for an insistence that Schuyler be taken on his own terms.  I will not argue that Schuyler does not warrant singular and exceptional attention, but there is something of poor scholarship in such fly-bys.  As such I wish to heed Charles Altieri's advice that there is something about the language of Objectivism that "might still prove significant."  In particular, I am interested in the concept of "sincerity" as appropriate for this reappraisal of James Schuyler's poetics, with specific reliance here on his long poem from 1974, "Hymn to Life."

            Rarely, in all of the essays about Schuyler is the word "sincereity" invoked explicitly.  Even Schuyler's friend Kenneth Koch, uses a word like "honesty" in a way that he is even quite uncertain about, but which I think can prove especially fruitful in articulating what "sincerity" might mean for Schuyler.  Koch writes that "I find James Schuyler's poetry honest in a way that poetry rarely is.  But what can I mean by honest, for a work of art?  Maybe honesty is partly an impression I get from richness and smartness and inclusiveness and speed"  (23). Koch's tenuous declaration is marked by a similar maneuvering as Schuyler himself, a kind of unassuming rhetorical questioning that only leads us further to wonder, and the kind of clarification which comes with more information rather than less.  In Koch's example, one might find in Schuyler the "preoccupation" with a "precision" that Zukofsky equates with "sincerity."  And here I think of early in "Hymn to Life," where Schuyler registers his tone, his theme, his syntax:

The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence

And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made:

There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk and, not here, but

Not so far away, a scream so rending that to hear it is to be

Never again the same.  "Why, this is hell."  Out of the death breeding

Soil, here, rise emblems of innocence, snowdrops that struggleEasily into life and hang their white enamel heads toward the dirt (CP 214)  

The music of the lines:  relying on alliteration and repetition which establishes what Koch calls speed, and despite the length of the lines, a controlled sense of syntax which opens and enhances the particularity of detail, what one might describe as an ironic economy of the long line:  again what Koch calls both smart and rich.

            On the other hand, Koch's choice of words, "smart," "rich," "inclusive" and "speed"might be condensed into a term like agility. The peril then is that a word like agility taken rhetorically becomes problematic, because it also suggests or alludes to other words like manipulation, or persuasion or dissemblance.  And this is a much broader question:  exuding sincerity versus merely appearing to, which I must ditch and leave for retrieval at this paper's end.

            Nonetheless, it is helpful I think to parallel Koch's notion of "honesty" which I can temporarily define as a kind of agility, with how Michael Heller characterizes objectivist sincerity.  Heller calls sincerity a "bearing, a grace under pressure of alternative consoling, imaginative schemes" (5).  In other words, as Stevens discusses the pressure of reality upon the imagination, or the pressure of form upon the poetic, to be sincere, means to resist gracefully what Oppen calls the "imposition" of form, opting for the primacy of the feeling toward an object.  In being a bit more constructive rather than aversive, Zukofsky writes of such grace as the ability of "thinking with things as they exist" rather than seeking metaphorical or symbolic resonance. And Schuyler, in an interview with Carl Little, says something similar to Zukofsky: "I've always like writing about things just as you find them" (174).  And with deference to the relation between things and sincerity, I want to cite Lionel Trilling who, in writing on sincerity in literature, suggests an "old and merely fanciful etymology" of sincerity.  "Sine cera" or "without wax [is a translation which] serves to remind us that the world in early use referred primarily not to persons but to things" (12).  To some degree, then, sincerity is a manifestation of the poem as it generates its own form, its own impulse, out of attention to the "things" which prompt response.  "The [objectivist] poet's precise function" Michael Heller adds "is in arriving at—not in dictating—some language (the poem) which embodies the skillfulness in apprehending the present" (105).  Arriving at a poem is also informative for understanding Schuyler's insistence that the reading of his poems is like their actual writing, a discovery process which I would hate to call a conflation of a "spontaneous output of powerful feelings" and their recollection in tranquility.

            While I would aver that the relationship between quiddity and sincerity is a central premise here, I do also want to discuss Schuyler's prosody as it relates to sincerity to the use of the line in "Hymn to Life."  Although he used a long line first in "Crystal Lithium" in a classical Whitmanian fashion, in "Hymn to Life" we have as much a syntactical unit as much as a linear unit.  And this, in terms, of an objectivist position, makes one think of Oppen's statement that "'Forging a style,' if one is sincere is forging a syntax.  We recognize it as syntax when we recognize it as sincere" (190).  Or as Zukofsky writes about "minor units of sincerity, Schuyler, using both line and sentence allows him to double his efficacy showing the kind of control, the kind of precision, the kind of trust in using the poem for saying what must be said that Koch seems to have indicated as central to his use of the word "honesty."  But, take briefly for example, the line "The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence."  To end the line with the word "silence" multiplies its meaning, in spite of the fact that it occurs mid-sentence.  While only minor, it is suggestive of the precision of detail so often attributed to Schuyler in general and the Objectivist poetic in particular.

            Getting away from style for a moment however,  I tend to like, Gillian Conoley's insistance that Schuyler's sense of sincerity is one of conviction.  "Schuyler" she writes, "is a poet courageous enough to try to mean what he says.  A poet so interested in the very act of perception, in precision" (43).  Conoley, a poet herself, offers an assessment most reassuring for my argument however unconscious she might be of the kind of objectivist rhetoric she utilizes.  But, I think  "meaning what you say" seems perfectly justifiable in judging sincerity, because her key point aligns Schuyler with what Oppen would indicate as the essence of sincerity:  conviction.

            So far I have been insisting that what Kenneth Koch named "honesty" in Schuyler is closer to sincerity, but one reason is because even Oppen does as much in his own discussions of sincerity.  In an interview with L.S. Dembo, Oppen uses them synonymously, and goes on to define sincerity coming out of "a moment, an actual time, when you believe something to be true, and you construct a meaning from these moments of conviction" (174).  Thus, for an objectivist, sincerity is about embracing all of the ambiguity of a word like "present"—something momentary, something empirical—what Schuyler elsewhere calls a "palpable fact." 

            Palpable facts are not simply observational data however, though they are things.  In "Hymn to Life," Schuyler writes: 

All, all is forgotten gradually and

One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?

An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth

Become an idle thought, like, "Shall we plant some periwinkles there

By that bush?  They're so depended on."  (CP 216). 

So palpable facts—or as also he writes here "ideas handed down"—are not absolutes, they are not even abstractions, they are constructed in or of "moments of conviction."  They are also perhaps what Zukofsky would call "contemporary particulars."  Indeed, facts can become as Schuyler writes further on in "Hymn to Life" "useless truths" which "blow about the yard the day after" but in both instances rendering ideas as things, Schuyler works not by trusting anything metaphysical, by espousing anything as mutable as ideas, but by feeling, by intuition, or what Oppen calls "faith." 

            As a precursive measure of sincerity, faith, in an encounter with language is marked by Oppen's belief "that the nouns do refer to something; that it's there, that its true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresent it" (170).  The allowance of misrepresentation as a possibility in believing how language signifies in poetry makes intuition such a significant factor in the rendering of things in poetry, means that judging sincerity means also trusting that the poet believe his or her own choices of language.  For a reader, such a potential dilemma makes me reflect on Robert Creeley's old quip:  "Was that a real poem or did you just make that up?"  In other words, producing an objectivist poem efficiently is a highly provisional endeavor, which would require a precision of detail in order to pull it off, marked by a pragmatist's trust in denotation, in which the context of a poem dictates how efficient each word is in relating to each other. 

            In "Hymn to Life,"  Schuyler plays out this dynamic of actual representation and misrepresentation in questioning and trusting the quality and nature of things, words, and appearances. Writing then of a trip to Washington D.C. with John Ashbury, Schuyler observes in the poem:

Strange city, broad and desolating, monuments

Rearing up and offices like monuments and crowds lined up to see

The White House inside.  "We went to see the White House.  It was lovely."

Not so strange though as the cemetery with guttering flame and

Admirals and generals with bigger gravestones than the lesser fry

Below Lee's house, false marble pillars and inside all so

Everyday, in every room a shawl tossed untidily upon a chair or bed

Created no illusion of lived-in-ness.  But the periwinkles do, in beds

That flatten and are starred blue-violet, a retiring flower loved,

It would seem, of the dead, so often found where they congregate. (CP 216)

Words like "strange," "monument" and "bed" are repeated in the passage in striving for a precision of denotation, a style which H. Meili Steele suggests is based on "styliz[ing] the objects of common experience" rather than "seek[ing] poetic subjects" (n pag.).  Similies, comparisons and constructions like "It would seem" which actually lace the entirety of the poem, not just this passage, work not as symbolic devices but to assist in the stylization of quotidian moments and to document and verify the sincerity behind the pursuit of the poem:  characterized also as a desire in pursuit of exactness.

            But, more central in this passage for Schuyler, it is not the "illusion of lived-in-ness" that is problematic.  It is a poorly executed "illusion" that plagues him.  "Lived-in-ness"or the fact of life is more precisely rendered by flowers which grow upon graves than a staged scene in a house once inhabited.  In describing the moment of visiting Lee's house in Washington, Schuyler exhibits the notion of sincerity Oppen refers to as a momentary faith:  Schuyler is willing to trust the coincidence of particular flowers growing on graves because his response to them was more real.  That is what "lived-in-ness" means or is.  Schuyler speaks of such an ontological position in his interview with Carl Little.  Schuyler says:  "I reject the symbolic value of things in preference for the reality of things .  I'm not, for instance, interested in the idea of the rose as it occurs on and on throughout literature. I'm interested in roses.  It doesn't mean I'm right-- it's a matter of feeling" (181).  Like Oppen's allowance of misrepresentation, Schuyler's trust in feeling rather than "rightness" is telling of how sincerity must come through. 

            At various instances—in poems and interviews—Schuyler has explicitly expressed appreciation of things—at looking at things—though I should say that "Hymn to Life" is not a specific example, but within the corpus of his work, and indeed in the 1970s, such articulations do become the foundation for his objectivist sincerity.  To add another layer on top of how we reach Schuyler as objectivist via sincerity, I want to note that Howard Moss calls Schuyler's reliance on the real and actual the "ethical touchstone" in Schuyler's work.  And what I would argue is that what Moss calls ethical here is similar to what I have been referring to as "sincere."  For in "Hymn to Life" Schuyler instructs "Attune yourself to what is happening / Now" and so to deviate from what is not present experientially and attempt a poem from such a deviation would constitute a kind of lying, and thus something both insincere and unethical, particularly if the poem is to be trusted as a communicative device, as Schuyler has suggested in early letters.

            But, more importantly, I wish to offer Moss in a longer passage in order to allow his characterization of Schuyler's poetics to resonate with Oppen's insistence on trusting the relationship between noun and thing, representation and actuality.  Hence, Moss writes:

Because of a compulsion to spell out the facts, the literal truth is the ethical touchstone of the poems, which are, by the same token, descriptive rather than metaphorical.  This literalness is not an incapacity to dramatize but a singular and childlike trust in truthfulness.  What could be taken as a failure of the imagination is, rather, a belief in a kind of magic:  If even one fact or name were faked, the apparatus on which the poems depend—the connection between the naming of things and the reality of the world—might be in danger of collapsing. (14)

While I want to say as much about Moss's and other critics resistance to turn to more time-honoured objectivist terms, because I cannot help but see the kinds of resemblances in Moss's statement to the Oppen's statements on sincerity, the invocation of "belief" and "naming" and "reality" signal the ways in which Moss's observation  could apply to either Schuyler or Oppen.

            In Moss's statement about "the connection between the naming of things and the reality of the world" he is aware of the delicate thread between them, which can be only maintained in the poem itself, so that, as Charles Aliteri suggests of sincerity, that it is based on "the act of writing as a mode of attention."  Thus, when Schuyler tells the reader to "Attune yourself" he again reiterates the point that to write as he does is to be simultaneiously attentive.  As Michael Heller has pointed out, sincerity is a "bearing," an attitude, an approach first to the world which is hopefully reproduced or reported in the work.    Therefore, I come back to Lionel Trilling from his lectures of the early 1970s collected as Sincerity and Authetnicty in which his definition of sincierty, is the "congruence between avowal and actual feeling," between articulation and experience.  In the end, this is where the ethical position of Schuyler's poetics would be rooted and for which they are truly significant.

            While I certainly have not offered an explication of "Hymn to Life" I wish to end by suggesting how its title, so invested with a potential grandeur comes down to a poem which explores the relationship between poetry and life, that if poetry is a mode of attention then this hymn is an approach, an avowal, an articulation about living with the things in the world; hymn to live perhaps; the contents of the poems are the contents of one's life in the world.