Seeing Without Priorities: Schuyler and Bishop’s Mode of Perceiving



What was so thrilling about the notion of twelve-tone music was that those twelve tones were all equally important, that one of them was not more important than another.  It gave a principle that one could relate over into one’s life and accept, whereas the notion of neoclassicism one could not accept and put over into one’s life.”  (Conversing with Cage, 40)

“That those twelve tone were all equally important, that one of them was not more important than another.”  Cage’s comment is interesting, not just as a reflection of his thoughts on the system of his early teacher, Schoenberg, but also as a more general philosophical reflection regarding how certain aesthetic forms, systems and styles carry with them ethical implications “that one could relate over into one’s life and accept.”  Indeed, one important facet of the twelve-tone system for Cage is not just that one tone is not more important than another, but also that, because the system works this way, non-hierarchically, without prioritizing, it carries important ethical implications that Cage can use and apply in his own life.  (This suggests interestingly that what is ethical is something we can use, vitally and importantly; that what is unethical is, like the notion of neo-classicism for Cage, archaic and unhelpful, non-relevant to our lives.  Thus the ethical carries with it an implication of the vital, of what interests us, of what we channel our energies towards.)

What Cage finds useful is a way of seeing and thinking which does not privilege one thing over another, but instead values each thing in and of itself.  This mode of perception is described wonderfully by Martha Nussbaum in her work, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and  Literature.   Nussbaum writes, in the context of Aristotelian ethics,

And we can see that the general spirit of Aristotle’s noncommensurability leads directly to and supports his account of the priority of particulars.  For his noncommensurability says, Look and see how rich and diverse the ultimate values in the world are.  Do not fail to investigate each valuable item, cherishing it for its own specific nature and not reducing it to something else.  These injunctions lead in the direction of a long and open-ended list – for we would not want to rule out beforehand the possibility that some new item will turn up whose own separate nature is irreducibly distinct from those we have previously recognized.  (Nussbaum 82)

I think this way of seeing and thinking carries important implications for certain poets as well; I am thinking specifically here of James Schuyler and Elizabeth Bishop.  For example, in James Schuyler’s work, one is often given a list of particulars, without much commentary on these particulars; I am thinking of the oft-quoted “February,” though the list of examples here would be very numerous; or, in Bishop’s case, where the poem becomes a kind of immensely powerful accretion of detail, but again without any overarching commentary – the details are allowed to speak for themselves – in “The Sandpiper,” or “At the Fishhouses,” (again, though, this list would be very numerous.)  For an example, here is the above-mentioned “February,” the end of it; and notice that what he is narrating is simply what presents itself to his attention and perception, framed slightly by “I can’t get over / how it all works together” and “it’s a day like any other.”  It’s as though, in these slight framing mechanisms, Schuyler still wishes in some way to find some meaning outside the details presented to him, some grander, more overarching argument that would contextualize these details and imbue them with a supra-historical abundance of meaning; but he resists this; and the poem, because he for the most part resists such a need, is stronger for it, suggesting a humility, reticence and modesty which become Schuyler’s (and Bishop’s) hallmark:

I can’t get over

how it all works in together

like a woman who just came to her window

and stands there filling it

jogging her baby in her arms.

She’s so far off.  Is it the light

that makes the baby pink?

I can see the little fists

and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.

It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.

Two dog-size lions face each other

at the corners of a roof.

It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.

It’s the shape of a tulip.

It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.

It’s a day like any other.

Reading the poem, it’s as though one can feel Schuyler forgetting his argument, forgetting “how it all works in together” and simply losing/finding himself in the wealth of beautiful details that surrounds him.  The poem is thus built up simply/extravagantly from what presents itself to his sight and, to a lesser extent perhaps, his imagination; a woman comes to a window opposite him, “jogging” a baby in her arms; this leads to Schuyler reflecting on the oncoming chilliness and unexpected colors of the weather (and the wonderful pithy juxtaposition of “gray” “gold” and “chilly”), which then prompts him to zero in, like a camera, on the flowers before him in a glass.  What Schuyler is narrating is the mundane details of a day, but more than that; he is narrating the details as they peep and blink out at him, and he does this in such a way as to make these details memorable and extra-ordinary.  Yet again, throughout the narration/description, there is nothing to really suggest, outside the framing mechanisms, any imputation of external meaning onto what he sees.  And I think this is what Cage and Nussbaum are talking about when they speak, in their different ways, of valuing without priority or hierarchy.

Indeed, the more one dwells on this way of perceiving, the more a coherent aesthetic emerges, one that is appropriate for discussing a constellation of artists and poets that include the painters Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, and of course Bishop.  The aesthetic of this constellation is tentative and reticent, nostalgic and cautiously optimistic, questioning, descriptive and attentive to the contours of everything and anything that presents itself to the mind in the process of writing a poem or painting a picture, including things that might otherwise be passed over by someone looking for more allegorical or ideological ramparts on which to rest their work.  Bishop is a master of this mode; she explores the perceptual world with an astonishing degree of vivacity, creativity, and vividness, and does so in a manner which does not come to any overriding conclusions outside the poem, which are then brought into the poem as framing mechanisms and meaning-generators.  Indeed, in Bishop’s poems, like Schuyler’s, the focus is on observation, or description, over visionary imagination.  “Bishop,” Thomas J. Travisano writes, “felt that leaving the thesis of her poems unstated was a strategy of the greatest importance – because the reader must share the process of observation and discovery.”  “Leaving the thesis of her poems unstated” might suggest a kind of mindless chronicling of details, a lazy description, but such a strategy of course involves instead a heightened mindfulness, an imaginative realism (with emphasis on the realism?).  Here Bishop is, writing in the first stanza of “Poem,” describing a “minor family relic,” that is, a painting passed down in her family, one that would normally escape the gaze of a poet looking for a more epic subject matter:

About the size of an old-size dollar bill,

American or Canadian,

mostly the same whites, gray greens and steel grays

-this little painting (a sketch for a longer one?)

has never earned any money in its life.

Useless and free, it has spent seventy years

as a minor family relic

handed along collaterally to owners

who looked at it sometimes, or didn’t bother to.

The sense is of one looking at something that others have passed over, looking for more suitable subjects for their gaze.  In this sense, there is a careful and caring attentiveness, a discriminating, indiscriminating embrace of what passes before the poet’s eyes and mind.  It is not as though Bishop were describing a masterpiece, already arranged and composed, perhaps already known to our minds, existing in a pre-formed package or template; instead, she is venturing towards and into unknown territory, and she is choosing for her territory a painting that others “didn’t bother to” look at.  The feeling is not of the poet arranging the scene for us, but of allowing the scene to arrange itself, which the poet then slowly, painstakingly documents – but how much of the scene is the scene itself, and how much of it is arranged?

The question is impossible to answer.  These things feed, bleed and shade into one another, within a strategy for creating meaning in which each thing is given its due.  John Ashbery has written of this phenomena, this acceptance of what is given, in the context of the painter Fairfield Porter:

In the same letter Porter quoted from memory a line of Wittgenstein that he felt central to his own view of aesthetics: “Every sentence is in order as it is.”  And he went on astonishingly to elaborate: “Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system.  The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don’t try for it.  When you arrange, you fail.”  I think it is in the light of statements like these that we must now look at Porter’s painting, prepared to the find the order that is already there, not the one that should be but the one that is.  (317, Reported Sightings)

Porter himself writes of this phenomena in the context of Bishop, i.e.

I think my admiration for Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, aside from the fact that she has a descriptive visual mind, and aside from the fact that she has humor and is not sentimental, comes from an admiration of her relaxed line which allows each word enough space to be savored properly for what it is; and this comes from knowing when to change as well as when to repeat, how to keep such a distance that you pay attention and can go on, as you might go over the surface of a canvas, and not get stuck by boring repetitions or boring variation.  (my italics, “The Mystery of the World”)

Perhaps this is what Ashbery means, then, when, in the context of discussing Porter’s work, he writes that “Porter was…only the latest of a series of brilliant know-nothings who at intervals have embodied the American genius, from Emerson and Thoreau to Whitman and Dickinson down to Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore”.  In other words, these writers and thinkers embraced what Wallace Stevens called “ignorance,” and what John Cage was perhaps attempting to articulate through his aleatory works – a notion, not exactly of “no ideas but in things,” but rather in things permitted, through a discipline of seeing, to be as they are, or could be – as opposed to imposing on things the way they should be.



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