Dear Americans, love, The Perkins Rose People. Dear Prisoner in a Chinese Laundry, love, Josette Day. Dear Kewpie, Ever-thine, Hilton Kramer. Engel, love, Bettina. Dear Glen Tetley, love, Pachita Crespi. Dear Lad of Sunnybrook Farm, love, Fran Hagood, Ye Ed. Dear Purvis, Love, The Hookers of Kew. Dear Hosty with the Mosty, love (Mrs) Birdsey Youngs. Dear Tempest Storm, love, Norma Vincent Peel. Dear Rich Freeze-Dried Coffee Chunks, love, Stubborn Stains.
The monikers James Schuyler used to salute and close his letters to John Ashbery, contained in Just the Thingó the winsome selection of Schuyler's correspondence edited by poet William Corbettóprovide a crackerjack list with which to begin a self-guided tour of the poets' mutual sensibility. This is displayed to greatest effect in their inimitable collaborative masterpiece, A Nest of Ninnies (1969). How did the two men bandy about ideas for the book? "Theodore Besterman" writes to his collaborator, "Grinling Gibbons":
Do you think that in A Nest it might suddenly be summer? We could do another of our wonderful seasonal evocations, of course, but what I really want to get in is a reference to "cut-and-come-again" lettuce in the home garden. I had some other ideas the other day in a sphagnum bog, but seem to have left them there.
The droll specificity of "'cut-and-come-again' lettuce" percolates with sons' time spent with Mother, and in fact, both Ashbery and Schuyler benefited from filial duties fulfilled at Mom's house in the suburbsórespectively, Pultneyville and East Aurora, New York. As Schuyler notes: "The East Aurora Advertiser in which my book is described as by 'Former East Auroran' announced that a shower is being tendered a couple brides-to-be: Maxine Puffer and Betty Huff." From the pleasures of sturdy proper names, bona fide "littrachur," avant-garde and pop music, ballet and opera to striptease artists, horticulture, pulp fiction, and the American charms of Women's Circle; from newspaper advice columns to gardening clubs, shut-ins' itineraries, recipe books, and Ladies Auxiliary sales, "Skylark" and "Ashes" quilted a liberating aesthetics that gives high and low cultureóthose often squabbling siblingsóa much-earned rap on the knuckles, sending them back to their string games, cat's cradle, and whatnot. Schuyler and Ashbery's aesthetic hallmarks? "Donald Meek" gets right to the point when evaluating his friend's second book: "My praise of The Tennis Court Oath has been so long postponed that it has congealed into a gem-like state I can't translate back into words. A truly inspiring and ennobling work. It is also funny and beautiful, the only qualities I care much about." Write those two qualities next to Whim on the lintels of the door-post, kids.
So there's now more funny beauty, more Schuyler, in the available world, thanks to Corbett, who includes letters to all the key so-called New York School writers, first, second, and third generations, in addition to painter friends, lovers, and others. Devouring this superb selection, I find its only "hole" a fault not of Corbett's but of Maureen O'Hara's, the lousy executrix of the estate of her brilliant poet brother Frank, who, as Corbett notes, "repeatedly promised to send me Schuyler's letters to O'Hara but never delivered. . . . Even if there are but a handful of letters, their absence is a loss to all who love the work of O'Hara and Schuyler."
Letters make up an important part of Schuyler's poetic project: "Letter" poems shine out in most of his collectionsósee the dulcet love "letters" in The Crystal Lithium (1972), addressed to Robert Jordan (a salesman at Brooks Brothers, married and living in New Jersey; Schuyler met him at the Everard Baths in 1971 and dedicated two books to him); or the letter from artist Anne Dunn that helps bring the majestic "Morning of the Poem" to its moving close. If the term manifesto didn't strut and puff up its chest so much, I'd be tempted to say that Schuyler's occurs in letter form in "A Stone Knife," the poem that Corbett shrewdly quotes at the beginning of his brief, elegant preface, and which loans his selection its title:
It's just the thing
to do what with? To
open letters? No, it
is just the thing, an
object, dark, fierce
and beautiful in which
the surprise is that
the surprise, once
past, is always there:
which to enjoy is
not to consume.
Surprise, attention to the immediate world, and generous, nonconsumptive enjoyment glow in the high beams of Schuyler's language. Since manifesto never has struck the right note as a characterization of his unpushy if exacting methods, we can find his core poesis in the coreopsis of "Yellow Flowers": "Pie-wedge petals / deeply pinked and / the yellow of yellow oranges, / set in a single / layer, ray out. . . ." Schuyler's gifts were solar and vegetable despite the ominous storm clouds approaching.
It's inspiring to have a clearer sense of Schuyler's staunchness, his perseverance and humor, despite many harrowing breakdowns; wonderful to have a fuller record of his daily life and reading habits. From his last apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, he writes, newly flush, to Anne Dunn:
So I paid my rent, Dr. Weitzen and ordered shaving soap from London, though not in that order. The shaving soap came second. Now I'm going to order Andrew Young's A Prospect of Flowers, and Redcliffe Soloman's The History and Social Influence of the Potato, which Jane Grigson, in Country Life, says is the cat's meow. I think I also want her late husband's The New Flora, but do I want it 25 pounds worth? I'm not sure.
Allowing sun joy, drab days, doubt, misheard words, struggles to remember somethingóthe erotic processes of thinking, of livingóto flower in the flow of his writing are only some of the reasons Schuyler formed a unique bond with artist and writer Joe Brainard. In Joe, poet Ron Padgett's delightful, plangent memoir of his lifelong friendship with Brainard, the Schuyler-Brainard connection proves especially resonant for both men. Schuyler, who wrote one of the key early essays on Brainard's artwork, "flipped" when Brainard showed him the start of what would become his landmark book, I Remember, insisting he'd "better keep going." Schuyler:
It's a swimming and cucumber sandwich later. It was coldóthe swim I mean; but so was the cucumber come to think of itóit's my current favoriteósalt, pepper & sweet butteróyummy-yums.
I'm gladóvery gladóyou finally got the proofs of I Remember [. . .] Hope you didn't cut much? It's wonderful to think that something which is so fresh is also so enduring.
Fresh but enduring: How little writing or art blooms with such immediacy, the now Schuyler and Brainard caringly, wittily wooed. The key was how unabashedly both of these men lookedówhether at art or a new rose, or the Fresca can or coffee cup near the typewriter or easel. Padgett details Brainard's life and artistic practice, never shunning his difficult periods. But he also quotes many sadly hard-to-find gems from his fellow Oklahoman:
It is not my purpose to bore you. It is my purpose toówell, I want to throw everything out of my head as much as possible, so I can simply write from/about what "is," at this very moment: Right Now!
The last Schuyler letter to Brainard appearing in Just the Thingó"June 25 90"óexemplifies that purpose. It ends:
I just turned on the "set" to see what's cooking, & it seems to be Paulette Goddard, or soon will be, when the Indians' pot comes to a boil. I'm not worriedóRandolph Scott is climbing up the waterfall in a 3-cornered ható&ólove Jimmy.
Bruce Hainley's collaboration with John Waters, ArtóA Sex Book, appeared last year from Thames & Hudson. He is based in Los Angeles.