A Personal Introduction
Following the US presidential election in 2016, I was jolted off-kilter, steamrolled. There was a Before, then an After. That winter, I sat and stared out my dreary window upon a busy Chicago street corner, where a sign in huge lettering read: ‘Christ Died for Our Sins’. I recalled James Schuyler’s poem, ‘February’: ‘A chimney, breathing a little smoke. / The sun, I can’t see / making a bit of pink / I can’t quite see in the blue’.
At times like, these I turn to the New York School. Not actually a school and not only confined to New York, it was an informal name given to a group of friends— artists, gallery owners, jazz musicians, dancers, and writers—who lived in the city during the 1950s and 60s.
Some of the best-known poets of the New York School were: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Frank O’Hara. At first glance, many of the New York School poems appear breezy, playful, riddled with exclamation points – but behind the façade is deep pain and the search for unconditional acceptance. Schuyler and O’Hara were both prominently out homosexuals long before Stonewall. Every time I read Schuyler’s Collected Poems, I pick up sentiments of longing; an aching for something beyond his reach.
In search of solace, I read Schuyler, who wrote several of his poems whilst on Great Spruce Head Island, off the coast of Maine. In the winter of 2016–17, I researched the island and discovered that Art Week, an annual artist retreat hosted by Anina Fuller, a niece of Fairfield Porter, was due to take place on the island. There was no application process per se: artists are mostly referred. So, I wrote a letter introducing myself and my devotion to Schuyler and his work.
A few weeks later I received a response: Yes, come!
Great Spruce Head Island
The island, located in Penobscot Bay, was purchased in 1912 by James Porter, an architect and amateur naturalist whose family made its money managing and selling land holdings that eventually became downtown Chicago. He intended the island as a retreat for his growing family, which included Fairfield and Eliot Porter. Both would later become major forces in the American art scene: Fairfield a painter whose work hangs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Eliot a photographer who changed the landscape of nature photography and helped energize the conservation movement.
Fairfield and his wife Anne were part of a circle of rare talent. They generously opened their home in Southampton on Long Island in New York and invited poets and visual artists associated with what would become known as the New York School and the Second Generation to the big house on Great Spruce Head in Maine.
An incomplete list of seasonal visitors included artist Alex Katz and his wife and collaborator Ada, cityscape painter John Button, the graphic illustrator Joe Brainard, the artist and writer Kenward Elmslie, and the painter and prolific muse Jane Freilicher. Poets such as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, and Kenneth Koch and his family were also frequent guests.
James Schuyler first visited Great Spruce Head in 1954 and returned regularly as a guest of the Porters for the next 15 years. In a letter sent to Fairfield Porter in August 1955, Schuyler remarked:
. . . It’s really impossible to tell you how much I liked visiting you and Anne
and staying on the island . . . Anyway, I’ve never enjoyed any company or place so much.
Schuyler was more than a guest. He was the eccentric uncle, the friend that wouldn’t leave. Eventually becoming a fixture within the Porter family, he came for a weekend and stayed for twelve years. In 1961, after a series of serious nervous breakdowns, the Porters picked Schuyler up from the hospital and drove him to their Long Island home to recover. He didn’t move out until 1973.
With the Porters, Schuyler found stability and family and in Fairfield an important sounding board for his writing. The friendship, at times strained, was crucial to both men’s work.
Art Week 2017
I arrived at the island via Halifax, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, riding through the Maritime Islands and then down the coast of Maine on my bicycle, finally by a boat shuttle arranged by Anina. Deposited in the great hall of the family house, we quickly made introductions. Of the few selected, the majority were visual artists, with some literary crossover. Our backgrounds varied greatly. When I mentioned I worked at a homeless shelter, another attendee said her family foundation endowed one.
Warming myself next to the massive fireplace, spruce kindling sparked and popped, much like the occasional gunfire I’m used to hearing in my Chicago neighbourhood. I felt like an imposter next to some very talented people. They all had ambitious plans, wheelie carts full of gear. All I had was a notebook and a pen.
‘What are you going to write about?’ asked a fellow attendee. I smiled, unable to come up with an answer. I’d be here for one week; Jimmy Schuyler spent whole summers on the island.
The light from Canada flared out orange and gold; filtered by fog, it subsided into rose-violet. Inside the great room, a fire illuminated and animated those gathered to its shores.
A wonderful freshness, air
that billows like bedsheets
on a clothesline and the clouds
hang in a traffic jam: summer
—excerpt from ‘Light From Canada (for Charles North)’
I was assigned a room to myself with a dresser and attached mirror, a wicker chair by the open screened window, and a writing desk. Sarah, Anina’s assistant, said: ‘I believe this was Jimmy’s room.’ Even if it wasn’t, I would have pretended it was.
Every day on Great Spruce Head Island was like waking up inside a Porter painting. Around every corner and curve was an image from Fairfield’s raisonné or Schuyler’s poems. Skimming through a catalogue of Porter’s work, I spotted a familiar object. On the page before me was a bureau with a mirror, and across from me an identical bureau and mirror. I’m struck:
I am sleeping inside of
caught between the pages
of time and space.
In the early hours of July 24, 1966, Frank O’Hara was knocked down by a dune buggy on Fire Island, a random accident. The next day he died of his injuries. At the time, James Schuyler was on Great Spruce Head Island. Anne Porter received the telegram and decided not to immediately tell him, for fear he would tailspin into a breakdown. So, Schuyler did not make it to the funeral at Green River Cemetery in Springs, New York, but instead composed an elegy:
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same
—excerpt from ‘Buried at Springs’
I realized I was now sitting at Schuyler’s desk, writing.
My Work Gradually Took on a Focus
In the mornings after breakfast, I’d go out to an upper sleeping porch with a thermos of tea and a stack of books related to Fairfield Porter and James Schuyler, gleaned from a shelf in the great room.
Reading The Diary of James Schuyler, edited by Nathan Kernan, I noted the number of obscure memoirs Schuyler listed, confounded by the archaic literature he bothered with, whose titles of yesteryear seemed so stale.
Kernan explains that Schuyler, though only a sporadic diarist himself, was a lifelong reader of diaries, including those by James Woodforde, Gilbert White, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Wordsworth. He enjoyed gardening journals, descriptions of the English countryside, and details of eighteenth-century food and drink. Kernan notes:
It was a memoir, Logan Pearsall Smith’s Unforgotten Years, that awakened [Schuyler] to the realization that he too must become a writer: reading the book as a teenager, Schuyler looked up from his backyard tent and saw the landscape “shimmer”. Schuyler quotes at length in his Diary from Henry Daley’s memoir, This Small Cloud, from Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia and from Boris Pasternak’s Safe Conduct, he extolls Charles Darwin’s memoirs for their “simplicity” and “reticence of intimacy.” . . . One of the characteristics of the Diary, as of Schuyler’s poetry, is the way memories seem to rise abruptly out of the fabric of whatever else is going on, like Proust’s “involuntary memories.”
In the Diary, Schuyler also referenced ephemera from movies, musical recordings, and conversations with friends, weaving back and forth to find connections between these trivia. Schuyler employed the ‘collage’ technique when writing poetry, drawing from and referencing things he found lying around, much like a Joseph Cornell box. Cornell, the man and his work familiar to Schuyler and his crowd, would scour the junk and thrift stores of New York City to find small, weird treasures, fragments of once beautiful and precious objects, and organize them into shadow boxes, the juxtaposition of these objects casting them into new light. In the same way, Schuyler’s poems were about remembering and re-visioning the literary objects he had found and collected.
January 1, 1968
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, edited by Francis Darwin, New York: Dover Publications, 1958 (first published in 1892).
Schuyler had a New Year’s Day tradition of going to Joe and Jane Hazan’s place. One of his last Diary entries talked about getting dressed to go to their soirée. On January 1, 1968, he wrote about starting Darwin’s autobiography, a note that eventually became the poem, ‘Empathy and New Year’:
Got coffee and started
reading Darwin: so modest,
so innocent, so pleased at
the surprise that he
should grow up to be him. How
grand to begin a new
year with a new writer
you really love.
On display in ‘Empathy and New Year’ is the intimate simplicity I love about Schuyler’s poems. Here, I am given a glimpse into the interior of someone living generations past. These mundane, diaristic details—‘Got coffee and started / reading Darwin’—give me a landing place, a solid anchor in New York City in the late 50s and 60s, before displacement and authenticity were co-opted; when the Village was the village and the Chelsea Hotel was the bastion of washed-up rock stars and writers.
Though Darwin’s autobiography seems like old news today, it was likely more contemporary to Schuyler. Darwin’s journal was first transcribed and published in Life and Letters in 1887 and appeared more fully in More Letters (1903)—but the original manuscript was re-discovered only in 1962.
Listening to the snowplough blade scrape the street, Schuyler, with a poet’s sensitivity to his surroundings, began 1968 musing on Darwin, a man whose letters and writings of nature would change the order of the world.
August 4, 1969
Schuyler was deep in the potting soil reading various gardening memoirs, including: Arthur Young’s The Farmer’s Tour through the East of England (1771); J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782); William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1830), William Robinson’s Alpine Flowers for Gardens (1879); Constance Spry’s Garden Notebook (1950), and Andrew Young’s The Poet and the Landscape (1962). On August 7, Schuyler notes he was reading James Woodeforde’s diary, and on August 22 he mentions ‘Diary of a Fruit Farmer’, an article from the journal The Countryman, published in 1938.
Schuyler’s interest in such archaic literature seems improbable at first glance. His cosmopolitan finger was in various contemporary aesthetic pots: art, dance, music, and poetry. He indulged in popular films and attended art openings and poetry readings. These texts seem far removed from Schuyler’s world. But he had a deep and abiding love of nature and flowers and many of his poems show a gardener’s attention to detail. Take, for instance, the opening lines of ‘April’:
The morning sky is clouding up
and what is that tree,
dressed up in white? The fruit
tree, French pear.
And, ‘The Bluet’:
. . . So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
in its throat.
On August 22 1969, Schuyler was reading James Boswell’s Life of Johnson.It was a particularly stable and fruitful year for Schuyler. As a writer he was making inroads, having published two books: Freely Espousing, his first commercially published book of poems, which came out with Doubleday under the Paris Review Editions imprint; and A Nest of Ninnies, the back-and-forth book co-produced by Jimmy and John Ashbery. Each wrote alternating chapters, exchanging the manuscript over oceans, despite Fulbrights and hospital stays, the loss of friends and friendships, for seventeen years. I don’t think either thought it would see the light of day. The book reads like a long evening of storytelling between friends, a witty and intelligent dialogue of anecdotal observations of middle-class suburbia. Published by Dutton, it was reviewed for the New York Times Book Review by W. H. Auden, who said it was ‘destined to become a minor classic’. (Was the satire intentional?)
At the time, Schuyler was still living with the Porters and travelling back and forth from Amherst, Massachusetts, where Fairfield Porter was a visiting professor at Amherst College, to Southampton in Long Island, and then to Calais, Vermont to visit Kenward Elmslie and Joe Brainard. Schuyler seemed at the top of his game. Yet, in a few years’ time he would be broke, suffering from nervous breakdowns, and struggling to live independently.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson seems apt for this point in Schuyler’s life. It is a work between friends; not entirely accurate and full of healthy embellishments, conflated incidents, and condensed conversation. In 1773, Johnson began ‘a journey to the western islands of Scotland’ to visit his friend. Boswell’s account of that journey, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), was a preliminary attempt that sketched the groundwork for the later Life of Johnson.The work met with some success, convincing Boswell to mine the ‘vast treasure of his conversations at different times’ to recreate Johnson’s ‘life in scenes.’
There is a striking parallel in the origin of A Nest of Ninnies, which came about as a result of a car ride in July 1952. Ashbery and Schuyler whiled away the trip by weaving a story, as Ashbery explained in an article published in Context:
James Schuyler and I began writing A Nest of Ninnies purely by chance. It was July 1952 and we were being given a lift back to New York from East Hampton, N.Y. where we had spent the weekend as guests of the musical comedy librettist John Latouche. Latouche planned to make a short movie starring us and our friend Jane Freilicher called “Presenting Jane,” from a scenario by Schuyler. A few scenes had just been shot, including a scene of Jane walking on water (actually a submerged dock on Georgica Pond); the film was never finished though Schuyler’s script recently surfaced and is going to be published soon. Now we were in a car being driven by the young cameraman, Harrison Starr, with his father as a passenger in the front seat.
Since neither Jimmy nor I knew the Starrs very well, we at first contented ourselves with observing the exurban landscape along the old Sunrise Highway (this was before the construction of the now infamous Long Island Expressway). Growing bored, Jimmy said, “Why don’t we write a novel?” And how do we do that, I asked. “It’s easy—you write the first line,” was his reply. This was rather typical of him—getting a brilliant idea and then conscripting someone else to realize it. Not to be outmaneuvered, I contributed a three-word sentence: “Alice was tired.”
As art imitates life, life imitates art, and art imitates art. Like Boswell and Johnson, Ashbery and Schuyler were literary friends who contributed to both literature and memoir—an inspiration to all intrepid explorers of the intersection between fiction and non-fiction.
James Schuyler mentions Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, biographies of John Donne and George Herbert, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals in his Diary. On August 17, on Great Spruce Head Island, Schuyler quotes from the Memoir of Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), an English engraver credited with reviving the technique of wood engraving. His Memoir contains absorbing descriptions of his Northumberland childhood.
At this time, Schuyler was absorbing these memoirs’ sensitivity to nature. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals detail the Lake District landscape in all seasons, weathers and times of day and night. She was alive to the moment, to the fells and valleys, the stone churches and crumbling walls.
Schuyler’s poem ‘8/12/70’ seems to reflect this attention to the minutiae of being in the moment on Great Spruce Head Island:
In early August among the spruce
Fall parti-colored leaves
From random birch that hide
Their crowns up toward the light—
Among the tumbled rocks—a
man-made scree below a house—
a dull green sumach blade
slashed with red clearer than
blood a skyline blue red a first
fingertap, a gathering, a climax
On November 20 1970, Schuyler scribbled ‘Erikson: Life of Gandhi’, possibly a reference to Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969), a psychoanalytical perspective on Gandhi’s life. In the summer of that year, while on the island, Schuyler penned a diary/letter to Joe Brainard, commenting on a drawing Joe had sent, which was based on a photo captioned ‘Gandhi’s worldly possessions at the time of death’ and showing two pairs of sandals, glasses, a book, a spittoon, a nail file, a watch, a bowl, a spoon. In a footnote, Kernan writes that, at various points in his life, Brainard was known to suddenly give away all his possessions. Marie Kondo would be proud.
One trademark of the New York School is the throwaway consumer reference, as evinced in Schuyler’s ‘Our Father’ (which refers to ‘Product 19’, a Kellogg’s cereal), ‘June 30, 1974’ (‘Tiptree Gooseberry ‘Preserve’). Schuyler was a fairly flagrant consumer—perhaps this was an outgrowth of his psychosis. Shopping may well have covered over pressing financial insecurities: Schuyler wasn’t ‘getting on’ like some of his other friends, such as Bill Berkson who taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and edited the literary journal Big Sky, or John Ashbery who was teaching at Brooklyn College.
What would it be like to die with nothing? At the end of his life in 1991, Schuyler wished for his ashes to be interred at Little Portion Friary, Mount Sinai on Long Island. About this time, because of a complicated relationship with Tom Carey, he was drawn into the Episcopal faith, as a diary entry March 6 1990 makes clear:
…On Sunday for the first time I was lay reader at the Church of the Incarnation at the early mass—Romans 5:12-19. Next on March 25th, then on Palm Sunday. Very happy about the latter, indeed.
Schuyler, though not exactly a Gandhi, navigated a world filled with things, in which he would never have it all. In the midst of the James Schuyler papers housed at the archives of the University of California, San Diego Library is a box of notebooks labelled ‘Little Portion’.
On December 19 1984, Schuyler reached, as he often did, for Virginia Woolf’s diary in five volumes. Indeed, on January 14 1985, Schuyler wrote about reading the ‘depressing last volume of Virginia’s diary. Such a waste! Poor lovely lady.’ The connection between the memoirs Schuyler pored over and the poetry is explicit in the case of Woolf, whose diary directly inspired ‘Virginia Woolf’:
I wish I had been at Rodmell
to parley with Virginia Woolf
when she was about to take
that fatal walk: “I know you’re
sick, but you’ll be well
again: trust me: I’ve been there.”
Would I have offered to take
her place, for me to die and
she to live? I think not. Each
has his “fiery particle”
to fan into flame for his own
sake. So, no. But still I
wish I’d been there, before she
filled her pockets with stones
and lay down in the River Ouse.
Angular Virginia Woolf, for whom
words came streaming
like clouded yellows over the downs.
By late 1985 and early 1986, Schuyler was fully aware of the growing AIDS epidemic and its impact upon the gay community in New York City. All around him friends and acquaintances were dying. This must have affected his own perspective of mortality and we can detect a sense of survivor guilt in the lines ‘Would I have offered to take / her place, for me to die’ and ‘I wish I’d been there, before she / filled her pockets with stones.’
November 23 1987
Schuyler quotes three brief passages from the 1958 edition of Boris Pasternak’s Safe Conduct, which came after the success of his Dr. Zhivago. Safe Conduct was an experimental autobiography, a chronologically disjointed work that puzzled readers of both the Russian edition and the English translation. The writing is more a series of poetic impression than a straight memoir.
At several points in the Diary, Schuyler flashes back to Italy. In 1947, he travelled to Italy with his rather violent lover Bill Aalto. The pair were in Florence when Auden and his partner Chester Kallman stopped by and invited them to Auden’s villa on the island of Ischia. There Schuyler typed up most of Auden’s poetry book Nones. By the autumn of 1949, Schuyler was back in New York City, and soon after suffered the first of many breakdowns. So, although Italy only took up two years, it expanded in his memories. Reading Safe Conduct and Pasternak’s description of arriving in Venice via a night train brought them back.
Here we see evidence of what Kernan notes in his introduction: ‘One of the characteristics of the Diary, as of Schuyler’s poetry, is the way memories seem to rise abruptly out of the fabric of whatever else is going on, like Proust’s “involuntary memories”’. Schuyler was able to let his mind freestyle while writing, allowing spontaneous ‘involuntary’ memories to flow out and spill onto the page. No work expresses this more than the long poem ‘The Morning of the Poem’, where he purportedly sat down and began to write. It was a July morning in 1976 at his mother’s house in East Aurora, New York. The others were at church and, as he was relaxing in his boxer shorts with a cup of coffee, Schuyler was at one in the moment, only to be interrupted by a memory. Barbara Guest, a fellow poet from the New York School, had sent him a postcard
‘Architectural Perspective, Italian lake 15th Century,’ that gave me a pang, that makes
Me long to take you to that loveliest land and we could visit Vincenza, walk up the drive to the Villa . . . .
Like Pasternak’s experimental Safe Conduct, Schuyler riffed that morning on anything and everything that crossed his mind, whether present or in the past.
April 2, 1988
On this Easter Eve, Schuyler spent the evening at a party hosted at Jane Freilicher and Joe Hazan’s apartment following Jane’s art opening. At the party was Anne Dunn, a British abstract watercolourist whose show at Fischbach Gallery Schuyler had reviewed for Art in America in the summer of 1975, and who he had first met in the 1960s.
Around the time of the party, Schuyler notes in his Diary that he is reading the newly-released second volume of Frances Partridge’s diaries, Everything to Lose (1986). Just as Partridge belonged to the closely-knit Bloomsburg Group, Dunn and Schuyler were part of the woof and weave of the New York School. Within this loose group of friends, there was a mutual respect for each other’s talents. Indeed, she illustrated book covers for New York School poets John Ashbery, William Corbett, Barbara Guest, and James Schuyler. On Easter Eve 1988, Schuyler was 64. His friends were grandparents, well settled into their careers, whilst Schuyler himself had received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981 for his 1980 collection The Morning of the Poem. They were all well on their way, with ‘everything to lose’, which perhaps explains Schuyler’s fascination with Partridge’s diaries at this time.
April 23, 1988
Schuyler quotes a long passage from This Small Cloud: A Personal Memoir by Harry Daley, published posthumously in 1987 and now out of print. It is the story of a gay London policeman at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. He was a member of the Bloomsbury set and E. M. Forster’s lover.
As in A Nest of Ninnies, Schuyler hangs on seemingly banal details, focusing on humdrum episodes from Daley’s childhood and the quotidian aspects of working-class experience during the period the book represents. The parts of Daley’s memoir that tickled Schuyler’s fancy are those that enrich and enliven his poetry: overheard conversations, old wives’ tales, stray gossip, innuendo, language that crosses over into camp.
Toward the end of his life, Schuyler suffered from terrible health. On April 12 1991, he died as the result of a stroke, aged 67. He had endured brutal treatments following his breakdowns, including lithium and other heavy pharmaceutical cocktails for his manic depression, and also experienced homelessness. By the time of his death, Schuyler was just beginning to receive full recognition for his work, giving readings and interviews to literary journals.
‘Haze’, the last work in the Collected Poems, is typical Schuyler. The characteristic attention to the natural world (‘Haze hangs heavy / down into trees: dawn / doesn’t break today’), fleeting cultural allusions (‘big a as Baby Bumstead’s head’), witty asides (‘moderately priced’), and colloquial language slide into the quiet poignancy of the final lines:
. . . a hazy morning
we may grow to love.
Jane Hertenstein is the author of over 90 published stories both macro and micro: fiction, creative non-fiction, and blurred genre. She has published a YA novel, Beyond Paradise (HarperCollins, 1999) and a non-fiction project, Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady (Cornerstone, 1997) which garnered national reviews. Jane is the recipient of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Hunger Mountain, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, Fiction Fix, Frostwriting, and several themed anthologies. Her latest book is Cloud of Witnesses (Golden Alley Press, 2018). She teaches a workshop on Flash Memoir and can be found blogging at http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/
 All Schuyler poems referenced are from: James Schuyler, Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 1993).
 The Diary of James Schuyler, ed. Nathan Kernan (Boston, MA: Black Sparrow Press, 1996)
 All dates from the Diary.
 Jane Freilicher married Joe Hazan in 1957.
 Timeline of editions, http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/vanWyhe_JournalDAR158.html
 Boswell’s Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1922).
 Walter Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977), 463–468.
 Bate, Samuel Johnson, 364.
 John Ashbery, “The Making of John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies’, Context, 22
https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/the-making-of-john-ashbery-and-james-schuylers-a-nest-of-ninnies/ [accessed May 26 2020].
 Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969)