James Schuyler

Poet and Painter Overture

New York poets, except I suppose the color-blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.

Artists of any genre are of course drawn to the dominant art movement in the place where they live; in New York it is painting. Not to get mixed up in it would be a kind of blinders-on repression, like the campus dry-heads who wishfully descend tum-ti-tumming from Yeats out of Graves with a big kiss for Mother England (subject of a famous Böcklin painting: just when did the last major English poet die? Not that Rossetti isn't fun…). The big thing happening at home is a nuisance, a publicity plot, a cabal; and please don't track the carpet. They don't even excoriate American painting: they pretend it isn't there.

Considering the painters' popular "I kissed thee ere I killed thee" attitude toward Paris, admiring, envious and spurning, and the fact (Willa Cather pointed it out a long time ago) that the best American writing is French rather than English oriented, it's not surprising that New York poets play their own variations on how Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob, Eluard. Breton took to the School of Paris. Americans are, really, mightily unFrench, and so criticism gets into it: John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O'Hara, myself, have been or are among the poets regularly on the staff of ARTnews. In New York the art world is a painter's world: writers and musicians are in the boat, but they don't steer.

Harold Rosenberg's Action Painting article is as much a statement for what is best about a lot of New York poetry as it is for New York painting. "It's not that, It's not that, It's not that…" Poets face the same challenge, and painting shows the way, or possible ways. "Writing like painting" has nothing to do with it. For instance, a long poem like Frank O'Hara's Second Avenue: it's probably true to deduce that he'd read the Cantos and Whitman (he had); also Breton, and looked at de Koonings and Duchamp's great Dada installation at the Janis Gallery. Or to put it another way: Rrose Selavy speaking out in Robert Motherwell's great Dada document anthology has more to do with poetry written by the poets I know than the Empress of Tapioca, The White Goddess: The Tondalayo of the Doubleday Bookshops.

Kenneth Koch writes about Jane Freilicher and her paintings. Barbara Guest is a collagiste and exhibits; Frank O'Hara decided to be an artist when he saw Assyrian sculpture in Boston. John Ashbery sometimes tried to emulate Léger; and so on. Of course the father of poetry is poetry, and everybody goes to concerts when there are any: but if you try to derive a strictly literary ancestry for New York poetry, the main connection gets missed.

(This essay is taken from Selected Art Writings by James Schuyler, Edited by Simon Pettet. Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, publisher, Boston.)