The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: August 9, 2007

I’ve played loosey-goosey with my Summer Poetry Challenge picks, but then I did not post according to schedule either. My last entry, besides the on-going Paradise Lost entries, is “Poem” by James Schuyler. Through w‘s generosity I’ve “discovered” quite a few modern poets with marvellous results. My favourites have come from the more plainly written variety of which Schuyler’s is an entrancing example. Another Pulitzer winner, his posthumous Selected Poems was published this year and qualifies for my 2000 – 2007 challenge category.

John Ashbery — I received a copy of his Notes from the Air, as yet unreleased, last week — wrote the introduction and noted that he and Schuyler were unofficially corralled into the New York School of Poetry. I haven’t a blessed idea what the label is supposed to signify and Ashbery did not elaborate so you’ll get no commentary from me on that angle. I didn’t have more than a faint idea that Ashbery existed until I came across some of his poems in one of the lit mags — LRB? PR? — and my fingers fairly wriggled in excitement.

What I do know is that Schuyler displayed a command of rhythm and form in this poem that made me happy to spend some time with it. I’ll also not hide the fact that Schuyler’s poems seemed more amenable than most to some convenient linking to posts at Japonisme that I’ve been dying, positively dying, to highlight here but had a hard time coming up with an interesting segue or connection.

This beauty that I see
— the sun going down
scours the entangled
and lightly henna
withys and the wind
whips them as it
would ship a cloud
is passing so swiftly
into night. A moon,
full and flat, and stars
a freight train passing
passing it is the sea
and not a train. This
beauty that collects
dry leaves in pools
and pockets and goes
freezingly, just able
still to swiftly flow
it goes, it goes.

The poem’s physical dimensions make quite an impression on the page: a short, narrow column of words in the middle of an otherwise blank page. It’s composed of three sentences with lines that rarely extend into five words. The title is a single, unassuming word and the poem is about simple, common place things — twilight changing into night. What makes it fascinating for me is how Schuyler diction and arrangement of the words capture precisely what he wants to convey with a perfection that makes it look easy.

“This beauty” does pass so swiftly into night: in the space of a sentence the sun disappears and the next sentence takes us to night. The slim form and the dominant easy rhythm of the words spoken a lot imitate the fluidity, the flow of the beauty he describes. Dominant, but not ubiquitous: he uses dashes and sometimes commas to mark interruptions to the movement. In the first sentence it is the sinking sun that “scours” and the wind that “whips” the “entangled” branches (withy). Images that are not smooth or evoke fluidity. Something that just occurred to me though is that simile he uses there could be seen as counter-intuitive. The image of a wind shipping a cloud does imply some speed but the course is still effortless. So within a few lines he goes from the energetic whipping to sedate air travel.

Things speed up in the second sentence when the noise of a freight train turns out to be the “passing passing” of the sea. The repetition there and alliteration throughout the poem renews the force the definition of the words and mimics movement (“passing passing”). In the first sentence he “see[s]” the “sun” that “scours”, the “wind whips” the “withys”, a moon is “full and flat”. In the last sentence leaves are collected in “pools and pockets”. Each group is miniature embodiment of an aspect of nature.

Another observation of Ashbery’s was that Schuyler’s poems were rarely about anything in the manner that poems usually are, and he’s right. This one isn’t “about” travel, movement, passage of beauty and time, twilight into night, the coming of winter (“freezingly”) but in his short observation of his natural environs he conveys all those things.


1 Response to "“Poem”"

you know how touched i am

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