“For God’s sake, what is your name?”: James Schuyler’s Search for Lost Words

I’m obsessed with language gone wrong, or seemingly so: where language smudges into vagueness, or becomes redundant, or peters out—where writers stumble and do what the rule books say they should not do. I’m especially intrigued with situations in which a particular wrongness is, upon further consideration, precisely right–where something that would normally be considered a gaffe becomes what a given writing situation demands.

For instance, when I recently revisited James Schuyler’s Collected Poems, I noticed just how often the poet emphasizes—almost relishes—his struggle to find the right word or phrase. Of course, Schuyler is not the only poet to do this. In fact, emphasizing struggle or difficulty in writing/speaking is an ancient rhetorical strategy, as the impressive list of the Greek and Latin terms for the various ways doing so suggests: correctio, epanorthosis, aposiopesis, adynaton, aporia, to name a few.

What strikes me about Schuyler, however, is the pains he takes to foreground this struggle, often altogether foregoing any sort of resolution or literal final word. Moreover, the aforementioned rhetorical moves are typically/traditionally employed for emotive effect, whereas the purpose of Schuyler’s occasional stammers and guesses is less clear, at least to me.

Here are a few minor examples from about a dozen or so I noticed during my recent read-through of JS’s Collected:

What bush is that, beside the door
that faces east, that will not loose its leaves
Snowberry, I guess. (200)

I remember planting them, they were
just seedlings, or do I mean saplings? (295)

How can macadam (or is it called
Asphalt or blacktop?) return this lunar light as a river or
creek might?

And a couple passages from “The Morning of the Poem” suggest what Schuyler might be getting at:

…tell me, you who know,
What is that bird big as a duck that’s not a
      duck on the grass with a black
Bib and dark tan stripes, is it a kind of dove
      or pigeon? What would I gain
By knowing? (267-8)

——–

… and this weed, this wild yellow
      flower lower and larger than
A buttercup, not lacquer yellow, more the yellow
      of a marsh marigold, meaty
Like it, though not so large, not nearly so
      large, sprinkled in the weedy
Wild-flower lawn, for God’s sake, what is your
      name? (261)

“What would I gain / By knowing?”: or perhaps the better question is, what does Schuyler gain by not knowing? Schuyler was an occasional art critic, and I found one possible answer to my question in a review Schuyler wrote of an exhibition of Fairfield Porter’s paintings. In it, Schuyler praises “the artist’s willingness to be clumsy.” He points out that Porter’s most successful paintings display “a distrust of, or lack of reliance on, the intuitive, letting the hand have its way.”

Perhaps that’s what Schuyler is after: a verbal version of Porter’s clumsiness. It’s no accident that “facile” and “facility” are etymologically cognate. Facility allows one to “handle” what one sees in a superficial way, with less-than deliberate thought, and to dispatch it with single brush-stroke or word and move on. But clumsiness—and I can’t think of a more apt term to describe the frustrated stumble of the weed passage cited above——clumsiness encourages deep, open, and vulnerable search, and allows for an intimacy with things that mere naming would preclude. In any case, I’m certain that, whatever sort of weed Schuyler is struggling to describe, I know it better than if he had named it directly.

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