Charles North


Schuyler's Mighty Line
(with an Essay Question)
from No Other Way: Selected Prose, Hanging Loose Press, 1998

When James Schuyler's extraordinary 60-page poem "The Morning of the Poem" appeared in 1980, it marked the advent of his exceptionally long line: by the time the poem was halfway through, the lines had swelled to virtually two lines each. Although he clearly wasn't counting beats or syllables, there seemed to be a reason, however unstatable, for every break – not only the official breaks but, remarkably, the runovers as well. In other words, the lines were two lines each, as well as being single lines long enough to pass for prose. Within this roomy framework, which recalled Whitman, Schuyler established his own permissions to do pretty much as he pleased, traveling smoothly and confidently on the strength of his associations from one image or memory or aperçu to the next.

As often turns out to be the case, this outsize line had precursors in the poet's own work. "December" and "April and Its Forsythia" as well as several others from his early book Freely Espousing have lines that extend beyond the margin. The splendid title poems of his next two books, the 6-page "Crystal Lithium" and the 17-page "Hymn to Life," enlarged the scope of both poem and line, introducing what might be called his Ongoing Style – the format that eventually resulted in his monumental poems.

              Too cold to get up though at the edges of the blinds the sky
              Shows blue as flames that break on a red sea in which black coals float:
              Pebbles in a pocket embed the seam with grains of sand
              Which, as they will, have found their way into a pattern between foot
and bedfoot
              "A place for everything and everything in its place" how wasteful, how
              It seems when snow in fat, hand-stuffed flakes falls slow and steady in
                     the sea
              "Now you see it, now you don't" the waves growl as they grind ashore...

              [The Crystal Lithium, p. 66; CP p. 116]

The colon ending the second line above and the absence of either punctuation or connective word between the fourth and fifth lines are of the essence: two of Schuyler's means, both within and outside his lengthy lines, to keep a poem going. The colons, in particular, increasingly serve to push the long poems ahead. As often as not a colon represents a large "as if": it is as if this follows from that (it may, but it may not). Without stanza breaks, with innocent-looking initial capitals and periods wrapping up what are in fact disjunctions, the lines look conventional and even prose-like on the page – but that is the last thing they are. As lengthy as lines get in "The Crystal Lithium" and "Hymn to Life," it isn't until "The Morning of the Poem" that they begin to run over apparently on purpose, even, as in the first half of the poem, traversing the carriage return before absolutely necessary:

              The exhalation of Baudelaire's image of
                          terror which is
              Not terror but the artist's (your) determination
                         to be strong
              To see things as they are too fierce and yet
                         not too much: in
              Western New York, why Baudelaire? In Chelsea,
                         why not? Smile,
              July day. Why did Baudelaire wander in? Don't
                          I love Heine more? Or
              Walt Whitman, Walt? No, they come to my death-
                         bed and one by one take my hand
              And say, "So long, old man," and who was it
                         who in the Café Montana told,
              In all seriousness, that the triumph of Mrs S.,
                         future Duchess of W., was that
              "They say she's a circus in bed." I like to
                         dwell on that, the caged lions
              And the whips, ball-balancing seals," And now,
                         without a net..."

              [The Morning of the Poem, pp. 58-59; CP p. 260]

I like to dwell on that too, along with the rest of this wonderful passage. I would also defend each official line break and each unofficial runover to my dying day.

One could, if one were so inclined, calculate what percentage of Schuyler's lines split before the copula or after, how often he puts the important word at the beginning (as critics tell us poets do), how many lines split between preposition and object, or between modifer and noun (not how we were taught, but part of the impetus). But Schuyler's subtle unfoldings of music and meanings recoil from that sort of analysis.

                          terror which is
              Not terror but the artist's (your) determination
                         to be strong
                                             . . . . . . . . . . . .
              Western New York, why Baudelaire? In Chelsea,
                         why not? Smile,
              July day.

I don't know of any nomenclature to describe the effect of moving from "is" down and left to "Not terror" or from "Smile" to "July Day." But I know each feels absolutely right. Not that one must consciously attend to each break, but that noticing how, for example, the curve of a particular cadence fits or doesn't exactly fit the shape or length of a line provides – I want to say a unique pleasure; at the least, a rare one involving ear, eye and even viscera. One feels a line reach a stopping point, then one feels it continue on.


One of the striking aspects of Schuyler's mastery is precisely that it is demonstrable in outsize lines and in poems that go on for half a book (not only "The Morning of the Poem" but the more recent "A Few Days" as well). What other poets who operate in similarly open territory – Whitman, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Koch, Ammons – have line breaks on their minds? One thinks, instead, of Elizabeth Bishop's beautifully crafted lines, and of Robert Creeley, whose early poems insisted on their divisions. I think, too, of Frank O'Hara and of David Schubert, whose seemingly casual lineation masks a knowing, muscular manipulation of the reader's eye and ear. While Schuyler's lineation shares qualities with that of each of these poets, no one, it seems to me, displays his skill and resourcefulness in poems ranging from the thinnest lines to the fattest imaginable.

Early on, in an uncharacteristic villanelle, Schuyler showed what he could do with iambic pentameter:

              I do not always understand what you say.
              Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
              What is, is by its nature, on display.

              Words' meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
              poetry, like music, is not just song.
              I do not always understand what you say.

              [The Home Book, p. 8; CP p. 47]

His poems in Freely Espousing mixed long lines and very short ones. The opening of his understated and moving elegy for Frank O'Hara, "Buried at Springs," has always struck me as a pinnacle of the art of line:

              There is a hornet in the room
              and one of us will have to go
              out the window into the late
              August midafternoon sun. I
              won. There is a certain challenge
              in being humane to hornets
              but not much. A launch draws
              two lines of wake behind it...

              [Freely Espousing, p. 89; CP p. 42]

Lineation is of the essence here. Beginning with a deceptively conventional four-beat line, Schuyler goes on to play against it with increasing feeling and force. Nothing appears contrived, and yet the variety of effects is remarkable. Frequently in the early poems Schuyler will set up a basic rhythmic pattern and then, as it were, step out into the poem, departing from the pattern at will. The beautiful, resonant "Salute" is equally memorable for the subtle ease, efficacy, and centrality of its line breaks.

              Past is past, and if one
              remembers what one meant
              to do and never did, is
              not to have thought to do
              enough? Like that gather-
              ing of one of each I
              planned, to gather one
              of each kind of clover,
              daisy, paintbrush that
              grew in that field
              the cabin stood in and
              study them one afternoon
              before they wilted. Past
              is past. I salute
              that various field.

              [Freely Espousing, p. 92; CP p. 44]

What I mean to emphasize is that in all of Schuyler's books, the "skinny" (his term) poems are as masterful as the fattest: his short lines are not less mighty than the long ones. Among the gems in The Crystal Lithium, which somehow remains his central book in spite of the expanded scope of the later work, is the extraordinarily skinny "Verge."

              A man cuts brush
              and piles it
              for a fire where
              fireweed will flower
              maybe, one day.
              All the leaves
              are down except
              the few that aren't.
              They shake or
              a wind shakes
              them but they
              won't go oh
              no there goes
              one now. No.
              It's a bird
              batting by...

              [The Crystal Lithium, pp. 56-57; CP p. 109]

Beginnings, endings, and middles – along with internal and external rimes – are more obvious here than in the hyperspace of the very long poems with their vast amounts of information, but the essential workings are not, I think, different. The little jolts of pleasure, the surprises – and by contrast, how often one relaxes into other poets' work – come in virtually every line.

Finally, there are poems seemingly too narrow to remain standing (which they proudly do), such as "Buttered Greens," which closes

              all done
              not by
              us or for
              us but
              with us
              and within
              the body
              of a house
              the frame
              of wood or
              bone it is
              much the

              [Hymn To Life, pp. 56-57; CP p. 175]

Who else can take monometer, albeit a loose version, seriously and convince us to do the same? Schuyler can employ these skinniest of lines in love poems as well. And he can, when he chooses, produce exemplary end-stoppings to go along with all the enjambment, as in the simple-sentence music of "The Cenotaph" [The Crystal Lithium] or his lovely "Song" [The Morning of the Poem].

* * *

Footnote (Essay Question).There is little writing as exquisite as Schuyler's nature diaries in prose. How does that square with a focus on his poetic line? To me, it serves to underline the particular pleasures to be gained from his poems, whose lineation is among the things that mark him as one of our best poets by far – as well as one whose mastery seems unusually poetic, however unfashionable it is to say so.