I’ve been thinking alot about the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and James Schuyler, wondering how to talk about their similarities and differences. For both of them achieve a rare synthesis of perception and invention, and though they’ve been described as realists and mostly dedicated describers of the external world, I think there is more to their poetry than this. These over-simplified descriptions need to be counterbalanced or somehow rectified by an awareness of each of these poets’ imaginative contributions and gifts.
In wondering about each poet, I also started trying to find some shared point of origin for Schuyler and Bishop, another artist who found a rare and rather wonderful balance between reality and the imagination, perception and invention, external and internal. Because I can’t shake the feeling (and other critics have voiced this) that Bishop and Schuyler, rather than simply or merely transcribing the dictates and actions of the external world, are also re-inventing the world, or re-inventing a world, based less on only perception and more on the colliding of perception with feeling, with states of mind, with thoughts and ideas.
Because Schuyler and Bishop have long been associated with painters (Shuyler with Fairfield Porter and perhaps Jane Freilicher, Bishop with her own drawings and love for the visual arts, which I need to learn more about), as well as being described as “painterly poets,” I wonder if there is a tradition of painting, outside traditions of literature (Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, say, for Bishop, and the New York poets millieu for Schuyler), that we might use to contextualize and better understand the amazing work of these poets. For their poetry really is a synthesis of abstract and representational elements. They build up details in their poems that never become pedantic, and their poems have or carry a certain lightness, a certain spontaneity, even a unified and buoyant feeling of wholeness. Additionally, their poems seem always to conceal the work it took to create them; there is a breathless, fresh sense of creation in these works that does not suggest the conventional or habitual “tormented artist,” even if both Schuyler and Bishop had their fair share of demons.
All of this thinking led me to the visual artist Hans Hofmann, the painter Jane Frelicher’s teacher; and reading about Hofmann then led me to Matisse, who Hofmann is compared to within the context of “perception and invention.” And I suddenly wondered if I had stumbled upon something, i.e. if it were possible to articulate a kind of Matisse tradition or lineage, in literature, through Eliabeth Bishop and James Schuyler, a tradition which involves, as John Ashbery described the work of Larry Rivers, a certain form of “imaginative realism,” one that is simultaneously casual, idiosyncratic, balanced, harmonious, truthful, and imaginative. For how else can we describe the joyful buoyancy of Matisse’s vision? And how else can we reach an understanding of Bishop and Schuyler’s achievements, or for that matter the achievements of Fairfield Porter and Jane Frelicher? All of these artists seem united by an interest in imaginative realism, a kind of tentative, reticent, unpitying, uplifting vision of the world that is neither representational nor abstract, but somewhere between these poles.
To illustrate my blog-argument, let’s look at a painting by Matisse, and compare it to a poem by Schuyler. Here is a painting below which in Spanish is called “Desnudo Rosa”; I’m not sure of the English translation. But there are a bunch of things to notice. Perhaps the first thing that strikes the eye is the unexpected proportions of the nude model. Her body is enormous, compared to her head, as if the sheer joy of repose had taken on physical form, manifesting in this “disjunction” between form and proportion. And yet I put disjunction in quotes, because the painting does not present a sense of fragmentation normally association with disjunction, but instead finds its own flavor, a flavor that is flowing, sensuous, unified, a flavor that unites the various geometric designs and colors in the background, the bloom of yellow and perhaps red roses, into a buoyant whole picture that carries a certain gestalt, a certain relaxed order. It is as though the model stands for both herself and as a metaphor for a certain form of wonderful relaxation.
In other words, Matisse paints the external world, but his feeling for that world changes what he paints, so that we are presented not so much with a dutiful transcription, as an imaginative yet descriptive chronicling of how he feels about what he sees.
How is this Schuyler poem, below, called “Light from Canada,” different? Both works of art seem like they are merely describing things, events, or (in the case of the Schuyler poem) brief memories. Yet these descriptions hang within an abstract structure, are ordered and put into place by a sensibility that is abstract, that is interested in questions of form. The whole poem reads:
A wonderful freshness, air
that billows like bedsheets
on a clothesline and the clouds
hang in a traffic jam: summer
heads home. Evangeline,
our light is scoured and Nova
Scotian and of a clarity that
opens up the huddled masses
of the stolid spruce so you
see them in their bristling
individuality. The other
day, walking among them, I
cast my gaze upon the ground
in hope of orchids and,
pendant, dead, a sharp shadow
in the shade, a branch gouged
and left me “scarred forever
‘neath the eye.” Not quite. Not
the cut, but the surprise, and
how, when her dress caught fire,
Longfellow’s wife spun
into his arms and in the dying
of its flaring, died. The
irreparable, which changes
nothing that went before
though it ends it. Above the wash
and bark of rumpled water, a gull
falls down the wind to dine
on fish that swim up to do same.
The poem begins with a sense of lightness, of “air / that billows like bedsheets / on a clothesline,” and light “of a clarity that / opens up the huddled masses / of the stolid spruce.” There is an openness to the passage, a freshness, a Matisse-like quality, where even the “stolid spruce” is opened up by the freeing light and allowed to breathe. Yet this description of the air, light and trees leads to an unpleasant memory – “walking among” spruces, Schuyler looks for orchids in the ground, only to have the area below his eye “gouged” by an itinerant branch. The experience, however, does not leave him scarred or too scared – “Not quite.” And it is not the actual physical cut of the branch, but the surprise – the feeling – that matters, that stays with the poet. This also mirrors, echoes or reflects Matisse’s emphasis on the emotion or feeling before the actual experience.
So surprised is Schuyler in that memory and afterwards that he compares it to the death of the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Frances Appleton, (I learned from Wikipedia) who died from burns after her dress caught on fire. Serious, tragic, and weighty stuff – the “irreparable.” But Schuyler dwells on the “irreparable” only to document its own existence for a moment, noting the almost ineffectual way it “changes / nothing that went before,” although “it ends it.” The poem then ends, not on a note of despair, but a kind of Darwinian hope – just as the gull “falls down the wind to dine” so fish “swim up to do same.” That “up” does a lot of work, infusing the composition with the kind of buoyancy Matisse became famous for, and changing Schuyler’s memory from a resentful to a bittersweet one.
(Below is a painting by BIshop, who’d I’d like to write about in a second blog post)