A Day Unlike Any Other: James Schuyler’s “February”  

In “February,” James Schuyler depicts a struggle central to his poetics: the struggle between language and perception, between what language makes of what is there, and what is really there. Another way to describe this struggle: between seeing and knowing. Schuyler seeks to return us to the difficulty of seeing what lies before us, to nuanced perception, without recourse to easy words or prior knowledge.

This struggle is already apparent in lines 2-4:

The sun, I can’t see

making a bit of pink

I can’t quite see in the blue.

With that comma, Schuyler interrupts what would have made short work of this skyscape. What he could have said: “The sun makes a bit of pink in the blue sky.” But instead he exposes what such language would have suppressed: that, while he knows the sun is there, he doesn’t actually see it; that however the sun is pinking the sky, it’s more subtle than the phrase “a bit of pink” would suggest.

That Schuyler wishes to help us see beyond the easily named is underscored by the date: “the day before March 1” which could be either Feb. 28 or 29, depending on the year. We’re being clued in that we’re entering a space where the systems we use to tame experience—be it the calendar or language—no longer fulfill that straight-forward function.

In the next two lines, Schuyler offers a failed simile and continues his exposé of language’s limited ability to represent by comparison: “The green of the tulip stems and leaves / like something I can’t remember.” Not able to summon the second term of the simile, Schuyler instead  drifts into the memory behind the failed comparison:

. . . finding a jack-in-the-pulpit

a long time ago and far away.

Why it was December then

and the sun was on the sea

by the temples we’d gone to see.

One green wave moved in the violet sea

like the UN Building on big evenings,

green and wet

while the sky turns violet. 

These 9 lines are a digression from the present of the poem, followed to figure out what, exactly, the the tulip’s green was like: it was like a “green wave” in  a “violet sea” which, in turn was like the green (?) of the UN building on big nights. You see the difficulties here: The green of the tulip steam is like the green of a wave Schuyler had seen, which in turn was like the “green” of the UN Building. The point of a simile is to make a description more vivid. I think it’s fair to say that, in this case, we are no clearer, or if anything, less clear on what sort of green Schuyler might mean. The green wave is from a personal memory, at an undisclosed location. There’s no way a reader can know what that green is. And the UN building isn’t green at all, but reflective:


We’re still no clearer on what green he has in mind. (Also notice the secondary simile, equally unhelpful: the violet of the sea was like the violet of the sky).

Schuyler completes the memory with another simile:

A few almond trees

had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes

out of the blue looking pink in the light.

I love how he uses the expression “out of the blue” in an almost literal way.  He also gives us more difficult-to-picture blue-as-pink! But this is not a flaw: Schuyler is simply demonstrating the complex reality behind the most basic words and the ways we use them. Schuyler then returns us to the present (and present tense):

A gray hush

in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue

into the sky. They’re just

going over the hill.

This is almost the reverse of JS’s process so far: first he describes what he actually sees—trucks going “into the sky”—then corrects his perception  with the knowledge that they’re merely going over the hill. Schuyler takes final shot at describing the green of the tulips’ leaves:

The green leaves of the tulips on my desk

like grass light on flesh,

and a green-copper steeple

and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.

Her he employs another bizarre simile—“like grass light on flesh”—then describes more of what he presumably sees out his window: more green (in the steeple) and glowing clouds.

The word “like” appears seven times in this poem—each time, it seems, only to initiate a failed simile. It makes its final appearance in the last line: “It’s a day like any other.”  This raises the stakes on the difficulty/insight poem confronts at every turn: that while our words compel us to speak in hazy approximations, reducing things to mere “likeness,” our experience tells a different—perhaps untellable—story: that no moment is ever like any other.



The Hand’s Becoming: Recent Art Criticism and Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly: Roman Notes (1970)

Simon Sharma has observed that “I have always thought ‘Twombly’ ought to be (if it isn’t already) a verb.” Roland Barthes claimed that Twombly’s work “does not derive from a concept (mark) but from an activity (marking). . . .” adding that the viewer sees “the hand’s becoming. . . . With each stroke [Twombly] blows up the museum.”

Yet many recent reviews of his exhibition In Beauty It is Finished at Gagosian Gallery describe Twombly’s work in strikingly static, verb-starved language. For instance, in her New York Times review, Roberta Smith describes Twombly’s work this way:

At some point toward the middle of the show oil paint settles in to stay, along with subjects like flowers and buds. Twombly is at his most free. In the largest work in the show, “Untitled (Gaeta)” from 1989, he paints mostly with his fingers, creating a small mountain of blacks and violets mixed with white. Their opulence is gorgeous, funny and not a little scatological.

The verbs are invisible, with Twombly merely “painting” and “creating” and the key terms naming colors and forms. The final sentence features a hazy, adjective-y noun, itself qualified by 3 adjectives. The description is functional, naming what’s there, but certainly does not convey the dynamic quality of the work or its impact on the viewer.

John Yau’s Hyperallergic review comes at the work by engaging the myths and literature referenced by Twombly’s titles or within the works. It’s a compelling angle, as many critics skip over the literary references (which is understandable, given the works’ relative lack of specific imagery). But beyond this extremely helpful decoding, Yau’s work is mostly an index finger, pointing at the specific elements of each work:

In the two drawings “Untitled (Toilet of Venere)” (1988), Twombly turns his attention to the classical subject of Venus gazing into a mirror held by Cupid, thus linking beauty and erotic love. Artists who dealt with this subject include Titian, Diego Velasquez, Peter Paul Rubens, François Boucher, and Twombly’s lifelong friend Robert Rauschenberg in the silkscreen “Persimmon” (1964), which incorporates Rubens’ oil painting “Venus at the Mirror” (1615).

Instead of depicting Venus looking into a mirror, however, Twombly stapled a smaller sheet of drawing paper to a larger one, creating a rectangle within a rectangle, or mirror. Onto this sheet of paper he wrote the work’s title and the date. In the space between the edge of the stapled paper and the larger sheet’s border, Twombly has painted the linear outline of a flower — a flower that in some cases seems to have erased itself, leaving behind a lavish smudge. Don’t the smudges suggest crushed flowers and scent? Along the bottom edge of the stapled sheet, Twombly depicts oversized versions of female sex organs in pinks, magentas, and fuchsias. Has Venus left behind this wet stain on a mirror? It evokes both sight and touch.

Like Smith, Yau’s verbs are functional: “painted,” “creating,” and “depicts.” The rest of the passage inventories the painting, informing us that the painting as a whole rather passively “evokes both sight and touch.” Reduced to these terms, the sum feels less than the whole.

In his review at Vulture, Jerry Saltz takes an entirely different approach. He does not address individual works, but catalogues specific details of many works:

Twombly’s fevered phosphorescent blooms of runny jellyfish chrysanthemums with elongated, pulpy, tentacle-like sacks dripping down; his iridescent storms of inchoate cryptographic scribbles, floral scrawls, jittery jutting lines; pustules rising and falling like raw nerve endings, flying vagina dentata, plaited anuses, priapic phalli spouting involuntarily or drooping defenseless, and what his closest reader, MoMA’s late Kirk Varnedoe, called “anteater tongues” — all of it metamorphosed into my own inner Kama Sutra of urge. Sensory networks lit up; a new barometer fluctuated. It was abstract yet explicitly erotic.

Fascinating: Saltz seems to intuit that naming is not enough: the expansive list sentence keeps trying to outdo itself with imagery that’s “graphic” in every sense of the word (compare Saltz’s “flying vagina dentata” to Yau’s clinical “female sex organs”) as well as assonance and alliteration.  The main verb—“metamorphosed”—is certainly more accurate and compelling than “depict,” but the true verb magic here happens in the present participles, each vivid and vigorous: “dripping . . . jutting . . .  rising and falling . . . flying . . . spouting . . . drooping. . . .” As a result, the sentence becomes the verbal analogue of the work itself.

There are, of course, limitations to Saltz’s approach. It’s impressionistic and perhaps a bit indulgent. But of the three approaches surveyed here, it’s by far the most respectful of Twombly’s own aesthetic exuberance.

“Along the reaches of my nerve”: On Anne Truitt and Artistic Facility


At first, it may seem strange that facility and facile are cognate, the former connoting technical excellence, the latter, superficiality. But many artists learn the connection the hard way, discovering that that for which they fought—mastery of their medium and its techniques—comes at a cost: that facility tempts one to be facile; to ignore the rough edges of experience and to overlook the irregular and unpredictable; to name or render too tidily that which resists quick categorization.

As a result, many artists renounce their early mastery, and in some cases actively seek ways to hinder it.  For instance, after working for a couple decades in monochromatic, hard-edged minimalism, painter Brice Marden started painting with long sticks, which “destabilized his natural facility,” according to Roberta Smith, and helped him break out of stale habits that he’d fallen into. And critic and theorist Edward Said points out that one of the hallmarks of “the late style” in artists, is its “tears and fissures,” which testify to “finite powerlessness” of the artist. It’s this lack of facility that gives late works their power.

For some time on this blog, I’ve been collecting examples of artists who resist or renounce technique. For instance, Thelonious Monk played with the flats of fingers, to the chagrin of your childhood piano teacher. Fairfield Porter praised Jane Freilicher’s “clumsiness”; James Schuyler, in turn, called it an essential quality of Porter’s work. And Schuyler himself built a poetics out of search and stumble:

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My latest encounter with artistic resistance to technique comes from an unexpected source: Anne Truitt.  I recently went to see her stunning show currently display in the tower of the National Gallery of Art.  In preparation for my visit, I re-read Truitt’s book, Daybook, a collection of journal entries from 1973-1980, and I came across this fascinating passage from June, 1978:  

The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadily along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.  As in any profession, facility develops. In most this is a decided advantage, and so it is with the actual facture of art; I notice with interest that my hand is more deft, lighter, as I grow more experienced.  But I find that I have to resist the temptation to fall into the same kind of pleasurable relaxation I once enjoyed with clay. I have in some subtle sense to fight my hand if I am to grow along the reaches of my nerve. (my emphasis)

Earlier in Daybook, Truitt worries that she’s “not good enough to be an artist,” especially given the seeming certainty with which others use the term to describe themselves. But in this passage, she comes to realize that the “idolatry” involved in such certainty is the opposite of being an artist. It’s not a matter of being “good enough,” but open enough, vulnerable enough to forego technical excellence—to “fight the hand”— let go of self-limiting labels, and embrace uncertainty.


Not Without Purpose: The Double Negative from Chaucer to Present

Though often considered a grammatical faux pas, double negatives are not unexampled in literature. For instance, defending their use in what he calls “the American language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Chaucer “used them with utmost freedom” in The Canterbury Tales, citing these lines:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight


[He never yet no vileness didn’t say

In all his life to no manner of man]

Google tells me that Shakespeare uses double negatives often, for instance in “As You Like It,” where Celia says “I cannot go no further.” And Paradise Lost abounds in double negatives, including this one, coming out of the mouth of the Almighty Himself, instructing Michael on how to boot the “sinful pair” out of paradise:

Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair,

From hallowd ground th’ unholie, and denounce

To them and to thir Progenie from thence

Perpetual banishment. Yet least they faint

At the sad Sentence rigorously urg’d,

For I behold them softn’d and with tears

Bewailing thir excess, all terror hide.

If patiently thy bidding they obey,

Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale

To Adam what shall come in future dayes,

As I shall thee enlighten, intermix

My Cov’nant in the womans seed renewd;

So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace… (my emphasis)

Allow me to justify God’s grammatical ways to humankind: it’s clear in this context that the double negative is not inappropriate. God is telling Michael to go easy—but not too easy—on the pair; He wants them to be neither “consoled” nor “disconsoled,” but somewhere in between: “not disconsolate.”

Then there’s this symphony of negatives from the opening four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

The negatives here culminate in the striking phrase that the speaker can “not choose not to be.” Hamlet seems decisive by comparison. This strikes me as a completely appropriate way to represent spiritual affliction—”pitched past grief,” as Hopkins puts in another of the “Terrible” sonnets—a loss of agency wherein the most one can do is not not exist. Extremity of situation calls for extremity of language.

Bringing things to the present: I recently read Cheryl Merrill’s essay “Wild Life,” included in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Merrill is interested in how we see “the nonhuman” other; her essay attempts to nudge us away from our all-too-human-centered ways of understanding “wild life.” In a brief, prose-poem-like section of the essay, Merrill looks into the face of an elephant.

I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.

Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears.  Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.

The face that is like mine looks back at me.

Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks.  She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.

Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 6 months.  Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?

I could. I could stand here forever, peering into an iris that has sun flecks and shadows in it.

The face that is not unlike mine looks back at me.   (my emphasis)

I love the modulation from “unlike mine” to “like mine” to “not unlike mine.” “Unlike mine” makes elephant purely other, unrelated to her human viewer. “Like mine” completely eliminates otherness, reducing the elephant to a human analogue.  “Not unlike mine” masterfully occupies the uneasy but essential space between—neither exoticism nor anthropomorphism, but acknowledgement. 


There’s no such thing as ‘the’ essay: Quotations and conjectures

A good epigraph is an excess, something that sloshed over the rim of the essay.

An essay, like an organism, is a provisional order, defined by its eccentricities and accidents—a node through which matter and energy pass.

“Essay” has a history, and is diverse and adaptable, like any vital genre.

The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark. —GK Chesterton

Patricia Hampl on Montaigne’s near-fatal fall from his horse: “The personal essay was born from that smack upside the head.”

A lesson?— —I just read a mess of an essay comparing two poems—not one compelling or persuasive point. Was nevertheless enlightened thereby.

Borges revolutionized our conception of both the story and the essay by blending and bewildering them. —William Gass

Whatever passes through [the essay], it is never that. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion.  —William Carlos Williams

Fallibility is the essence of the essay: fallibility fuels the effort and shapes the form.

There’s no such thing as “the” essay. There are only essays. The essay’s essence is its lack of one—its rejection of the definite article.

A Note on Poetry’s Abstract Turn (Part 1)

“Go in fear of abstractions,”  admonished Ezra Pound, and most poets, regardless of school or aesthetic, have heeded his word. It seems almost self-evident: Poetry, we assume, trucks in specifics, in perceptual or emotional realism. When applied to a poem, the descriptor “abstract” (or its synonyms: abstruse, indefinite, or vague) carries with it a judgment, suggesting that it somehow isn’t doing its job, that it’s not really a poem.

Yet so many poets have used abstract language to great effect. Take for instance this passage from Shakespeare’s underappreciated poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” In the poem, the phoenix and the turtle dove have vanished in the fire of their love made literal, having “fled… / In a mutual flame from hence.” The poem does its best to describe the word-resistant fusion of their two essences:

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in personified form, enters the poem and tries to make sense of the scene—and fails:

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded. . . .

As poet J. V. Cunningham has observed, much of what makes this poem successful is the collision of chilly, scholastic dicton with passionate, extra-rational circumstance: love. In a sense, the abstract diction is an ethical choice: it preserves the essential mystery of the subject.

Turning to another poet who’s known for addressing, in poem after poem, the complications of love, passion, and lust, Robert Creeley also employs abstract language to describe intense emotional experience. Consider a few lines from “For Love.” It’s a meta-love poem, talking about talking about love—or the difficulty of speaking of it. It begins:

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.

As the speaker allows himself to be drawn into the tangle of expression, he resorts, surprisingly, to abstract language:

Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true. . .

The abstraction not only represents the nameless, unaccountable, and subterranean forces of love, but also a loss of agency, the surrendering of self to emotion and, more importantly, to language itself. Where “I” should be, there’s “nothing,” and what “nothing” says somehow evades the specificity that poets are supposed to covet: a wished-for “anything.” Language itself becomes the agent. As Creeley put it in a statement for the Patterson Society,

A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses, and goes well beyond the man writing—finally to the anonymity of any song. In this sense it may be that a poet works toward a final obliteration of himself, making that all the song—at last free of his own time and place. . . .

In both cases, the abstract turn indicates an encounter with limits: for Shakespeare, it is the limits of rational language; for Creeley, it is an acknowledgement the subject’s limitations, and its subsequent yielding of the initiative to words, to song. 

The Difficulty of the Familiar: Gertrude Stein and Still-Life

Part 1 in a series of posts on still-life and 20th-century poetry


Picasso: Still Life (1922). Originally owned by Gertrude Stein.

Landscape painters have it easy: The astonishment of a landscape painting simply reproduces the awe that we experience in person when we take in an expanse of land and sky. But still-life confronts what I’d call “the difficulty of the familiar”: that these everyday objects—glasses, vases, plates, flowers, fruit, books—have become virtually invisible through our constant acquaintance with them, submerged in the service of use.  So viewed, the task of the still-life artist is to restore a strange splendor to that which is close at hand. This is the draw of still-life, especially for painters from late-19th century (specifically, Cézanne) and beyond.

I’m oversimplifying things, of course, but this description does help explain so many 20th century writers’ unlikely interest in still-life and its verbal equivalent. Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, for instance, were collectors of paintings by Picasso, Gris and Matisse—artists who expanded the vocabulary of the still-life.  With regard to Stein’s own writing, the titles of prose poems that make up the first third of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) read like a collection of still-life objects (with a few exceptions): “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” “A Box,” “A Plate,” “Eye Glasses,” “A Chair,” “A New Cup and Saucer,” “A Table,” “A Little Bit of a Tumbler,” “A Feather,” “Book,” etc.

Here’s “A Table”:


A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. Is it likely that a change.

A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table means necessary places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.

The table is the least noticed, but the most common, object in a still-life.  It’s overlooked even within discussions of this genre of the overlooked. So it’s no accident that Stein shines a light on the table, and in the process, provides a general statement regarding her interest in the genre: the table is a “whole steadiness”—the essential yet invisible ground of still-life. Stein “shake[s]” this steadiness to urge a “revision”—a re-seeing—of the “little thing[s].” As she puts it in another poem in Tender Buttons, she seeks “to see a fine substance strangely” (“A Box”).

Prose poetry is a fraught genre, but in this case, it’s the perfect choice. Like the objects of a still-life, prose (at least when contrasted with poetry) is considered a tool of utility. Convention has it that prose works best when it is “clear,” that is, when it conveys information without drawing attention to itself.  It’s supposed to function like the “looking glass” upon Stein’s table. But Stein demolishes such notions: Tender Buttons shakes up both the means by which we see—prose—and the objects of that seeing.