Schuyler's Flowers #2: “February,” Everydayness, and Nothingness, part 1

“Schuyler’s Flowers” is the name of a little project about the poems of James Schuyler and other stuff I like. I will be posting bits here as I finish them —LG

What is the meaning of “everydayness” in poetry, a term so vague for being so central to contemporary poetics, easily bandied about and often associated with Schuyler? There is a sense in which everydayness is a generic attribute, one that sets off a more recent and very American poetry from the more artifice-heavy modernism, but as with the voyant, our interest is as much about the ideology of everydayness, since that has a more profound effect on how we read and thus how we writes than the specific tropes that signify everydayness in poetry. It is just as much the case that the more-nebulous ideology of everydayness makes poetic tropes legible as signifying everydayness, as it is a generic rebellion from the interiority and dialectic of depth and surface in of Lowell and Sexton, etc.

In Attention Equals Life, Andrew Epstein locates the beginning of Schuyler’s commitment to the everyday in the poem “February,” from Freely Espousing. Documenting, in a sense, the “breakthrough” moment, as Epstein writes, “which catches the poet at the very moment of a conversion to an everyday-life aesthetic,” Epstein reads “February,” as a poem, "born simply from paying close attention to the present and immediate, to what was happening outside his window: an ordinary evening in New York City at sunset,” the first of many poems Schuyler will write explicitly from the point of view of looking out of a window. 

Epstein points out that “February” is written in direct opposition to formal poetry about antique subjects. The poem’s composition is described in an unsent letter written in reply to a piece of fan mail from a Miss Battie. The day that Schuyler writes “February,” the last day of the month, 1954, he had been “trying to write a poem in a regular form about (I think) Palermo, the Palazzo Abatelli, which has splendid carved stone ropes around its doors and windows, and the chapels decorated by Serpotta with clouds of plaster cherubs,” but found the whole endeavor “laborious and flat,” only then to look up from the failed exercise and outside his window where “something marvellous was happening to the light,” and from this epiphany we get the poem “February.” For Epstein, this poem “neatly recapitulates the emergence of New American Poetry. . . . rejecting what they saw as the stultifying, artificial conventions of mid-century poetry and embracing organic form, quotidian experience, and colloquial language.” For Epstein, “February” is “vital,” “familiar,” “fresh,” “vivid,” and “ordinary,” a poem attentive to the immediate and actual. 

At the same time, Epstein must concede that everydayness and attention, immediacy and presence, are not captured in “February” without some complications, no quotidian vitality without remainder. “The poem,” he writes:

allows the present to mingle with memories of the past—in particular, glimpses of the Mediterranean are interwoven with the Manhattan scene—in an associative fashion that is meant to mirror the way consciousness actually moves in daily life.

Consciousness, as it is represented in Schuyler’s poetry, is at once the guarantee of the dignity of its perceptions, authorizing them as fitting poetic subjects over and against the antique concerns of formal poetry, and also what undermines the primacy of perception, finding in every moment of intentionality various tendencies into reverie, remembrance, and speculative contemplation.

The poem could be thought of as a poem of distraction just as well as a poem of attention, of reminiscence and absence as much as perception and presence, and this from the very first lines:

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can't see
making a bit of pink
I can't quite see in the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.
The green of the tulip stems and leaves
like something I can't remember,
finding a jack-in-the-pulpit
a long time ago and far away.
Why it was December then
and the sun was on the sea
by the temples we'd gone to see.

The pink of that of a different sun, long ago and far away, likely in Palermo—the "temples" are likely the chapels there, which he mentions in his letter to Miss Batie, about which he had first sat down to write. This is where the meaning of 'attention' becomes complicated: it is not possible to equate attention with presence and the everyday, as attention to “things as they are,” to borrow Stevens’s phrase, unless things as they are includes their nonbeing as well.

For Epstein, the reminiscence is a kind of mimesis. The poem "mirrors" the associative movements of consciousness, thus becoming an allegory of intentionality. So already there is the, perhaps nefarious, interposition of artifice—some annoying New Critical irony—between the attention to the everyday that we can assume occasioned the poem (Schuyler says as much in the letter to "Miss Batie") and the resultant poem, in which this quotidian attentiveness is taken up by the poem and transformed into a sign of itself, an exemplary performance of quotidian attentiveness. The entire concept of the "everyday" is caught up in the logic of the example, once the mundane, the unremarkable, and at the same time the privileged object of attention and the heading under which an entire poetic ideology can be made legible. "February" is both the outcome of mundane attentiveness and an example of a "new, more vital mode of writing," to quote Epstein, a "central category and conceptual term for his thinking about art, as well as for his own poetry" (ibid.), to the point that even in Schuyler's work, poster boy as he is for dailiness, the very concept of everydayness, which privileges "paying close attention to the present and immediate," hides another set of concerns, which have to do with the unavoidable, structural withdrawal of the poem itself from daily life. 

By “withdrawal from daily life,” I don't mean that the writing of a poem cannot be an everyday activity—Schuyler has included the act of writing poetry in his poems often enough ("I sit scribbling in a little / notebook at a garden table," as he writes in “Korean Mums”) that one thinks about it even when he doesn't explicitly mention it. What I mean is rather that the poem itself, by dint of being a poem, exempts itself from the everyday. This is always a problem that Schuyler narrates in many of his poems: I'm looking at a scene, right now. Maybe it means something. Oh, come on, that's silly. Like in the poem, “Buried at Springs,” where he describes:

Sandy 
billows, or so they look,
of feathery ripe heads of grass,
an acid-yellow kind of
goldenrod glowing or glowering   
in shade. Rocks with rags
of shadow, washed dust clouts
that will never bleach.

Only to turn around and say, “It is not like this at all.” The immediacy of perception is fragmented by the memory of Schuyler’s lost friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. The landscape that Schuyler describes is “not the same” as the one that O’Hara had seen and heard while sitting in the same spot eleven years prior. “even the boulder,” Schuyler writes, the one newly covered in “great gold lichen,” “quite / literally is not the same.” The difference between Schuyler’s consciousness and O’Hara’s is the same difference as between the boulder and itself across the intervening decade plus, the new seaweed, the new spruce needles. Perception misperceives the continuous change that is equivalent to the objects that themselves change.

Or take the poem, “Greenwich Avenue,” where Schuyler describes the “evening” of the colors of different buildings backlit by a “brightly / unsunny” sky, lending to them a melodramatic tragedy, only then to write, “It isn’t like that / on these buildings, the colors which / seem to melt, to bloom and go and / return and do so in all reality.” The quotidian reality that Schuyler describes is often both what it seems and not what it seems in the same moment. The everyday is both what shows up when attention is focused and narrowed and also what drags that attention away, forcing one into reverie or boredom. “Most things, like the sky, / are always changing, always the same,” Schuyler writes toward the end of the poem. The slow process of becoming the same, of the being of things being a non-summative addition of successive moments, never forming a unity though associated into a good-enough identity all the same, these objects being in-themselves a fuzzy superimposition of all the various moments of their existence. “Haloed,” Giorgio Agamben might say.

There is some absence, even though, at the end of “February,” “it all works in together / like a woman who just came to her window / and stands there filling it.” The absence may be something on the order of contingency—the woman just happens to stand there, meaning that everything fits together because, to quote Ted Berrigan, there is no such thing as a breakdown, that is to say, in reality there is a happy coincidence between is and ought. There is no other world, no other way it should be than it already is, and not because it is perfect or that it can serve as its own ideal, but just because there is nothing besides the world, by which I mean, there is the world and then nothing beside it. The world is enough (an ambivalent word Schuyler returns to often), its pieces all working in together, only because there isn’t anymore world than the world.

In a sense then, there is nothing missing. Yet, is this 'nothing missing' not instead missing nothing? And if so, if the scene is wanting for nothing, is it the world that is lacking or is it the poet? Does the poet’s consciousness, his attention to the everyday, uncover a negativity already at work in the world or does it introduce it into the world? Blanchot addresses such a question in his essay, “Literature and the Right to Death.” It is in language, as far as he’s concerned, that “nothingness is struggling and toiling away” (LRD 326). Blanchot’s view of language is essentially a French Hegelian one, and it boils down to the story that language gives us the world, a consistent set of meaningful interrelations among the beings that “inhabit” this world, by negating what is in its singularity only to reproduce it all as conceptually ordered. Language is “the movement of negation by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated” (LRD 330). Language gives us a meaningful totality, but it can do so only at the expense of an experience of the absolute contingency and singularity of each being. “The torment of language,” he writes, “is what it lacks because of the necessity that it be the lack of precisely this. It cannot even name it” (LRD 327).

In giving us a world, language gives us only its most general form, not the thing itself, but the thing as an example, as a individual of a species. We get “flower,” even “bluet,” but we don’t get that singular, incomparable experience of its royal color nor do we get the mad possibility of this very thing gathering to itself elements and minerals in order to “freak forth” from the meadow’s soil, the object cut off from every superior relation, its wildness. We don’t get its utter purposelessness and the eons of meandering develop meant that affords it its inutility. Through language we get the flower only in its most abstract, comparable, exchangeable, communicable form.

But at the same time, language is a thing—substance, weight, color, rhythm—that which escapes its existence as an instance of an abstract category. Language itself discovers and withdraws into its singularity, no longer the “ideal force” for naming, identifying, categorizing, but instead merely “one moment in the universal anonymity” of singular beings, nameless things (LRD 328). It is this “obscure power” of language, its particular concealedness coextensive with its power for naming and revealing, that literature siphons off. Literature abandons the exemplarity of language, through which it pretends to “the absolute perspective of the world in its totality,” and instead seeks to recover the singularity of beings, as they in themselves are, not simply “before the world exists,” but also “after the world has disappeared.” It is this latter qualification that we would do well to keep in mind. Blanchot doesn’t found literature on a prior event or more fundamental substance, though that is sometimes how his concept of the il y a or “there is” is used. Blanchot himself is guilty of perpetuating this falsehood, writing in the essay that the language of literature is “a search for this moment which precedes literature” (LRD 327).

So when Blanchot says that language is an object in the world that it makes possible (through negation and representation), we have to understand that it is not an object in any simple sense. The quasi-objective status of language is such that when literature, in Blanchot’s story, sets the negativity of language against itself and tries to realize its “wish to be a thing” and its “refusal to mean anything,” literature, as a function of language, cannot help but signify this wish and this refusal (LRD 328). “If it were to become as mute as a stone . . . its decision to lose the capacity for speech would still be legible on that stone”—it’s refusal would be the zero degree of signification, the mere ostentation of the sign (LDR 329). What Blanchot thinks literature’s refusal reveals is the tragic fatality of language: by negating even itself, language can only reassert its power to reveal in the most general way possible. 

Why should even the “refusal to mean anything” have a meaning? Blanchot would have us believe that by applying the principle of negation from language to itself we are left with a remainder, a pure negativity, that also, questionably, “precedes literature” and exists “before the world exists.” But I want to maintain my wariness of claims of access to a transcendental truth. In that case, literature could not be defined on the basis of a prior relation. Instead, the refusal of the refusal might take place because language in its very essence is not a thing—a unity or identity—but a noncoincidence, a duality in which language is between both what is said and what is meant or, equally between what is heard and what is understood. Such that, the wish to reduce language to a thing, to identify it with its thingness, might indeed leave us with nothing but a film of pure negativity, but to take that remainder as the essence of language is a misunderstanding of language. It would be like taking the fossil as the ideal essence of the dinosaur instead of as the outcome of a process in which the dinosaur plays only a part. 

We don’t have to swallow whole Blanchot’s pitch in order to find common ground with him in literature as an effect of nothingness. Blanchot wants to literature to get at the dumb presence of everything insofar as it is independent of the relational, associative, and linking work of language. And so he gets a literature that is stripped down and self-conscious, painfully modernist, a narration of the futility of escaping meaning. Schuyler on the other hand gives a world that is already busy with associations, a promiscuity not unlike his own distracted diversions and tangential evocations. For Schuyler, as I read him, there is no world before or after language and not for some simplistic postmodern notion of the construction of reality by language but for the reason that since language is already part of the universe of things then things “in themselves” must always already be amenable to its tendency to mingle and circulate. There may not be a single voice that raises the clamor of being, there may not even be a single language, but all things speak, not insofar as everything is imbued with the power of speech but insofar as everything is pressing up against the void of its being, and the void is always one and the same void, but each thing speaks into it in a idiosyncratic way.

In Blanchot’s view, “the word gives me what it signifies, but first it suppresses it,” but Schuyler’s language is not this alien entity, always apart and opposed to things, but neither is it simply one thing among others—no other thing seems to us as about things as language does—instead, we could try and imagine that language represents first and foremost the promiscuity of things, how they are already in communication with one another and not originally singular and isolated, but instead are all already interpreting and mediating one another. It is my argument that flower names in Schuyler’s poems are themselves representations of this objective promiscuity. Language devoid of sense retains a basic aura of signifying, as Blanchot concedes, but instead of becoming an object, “a concrete ball, a solid mass of existence,” such language merely takes on the status of an inside joke or overheard gossip; that is, in being reduced to its ostentation, it signifies a pure sociality, a pure communicativity. What could Schuyler’s flowers signify but this phatic connection?

It may be telling that the example Blanchot supplies for the double work of language signifying and suppressing is a woman taken in fantasy. “In order that I can say, this woman, it is necessary in one way or another that I deprive her of her reality of flesh and bone, make her absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being, its nothingness, that which remains of it when it has lost its being: the pure fact that it is not.” Here, the annihilation of “this woman” is necessitated by language, such that to turn language against itself might return this woman to her singularity. We could read in Blanchot’s example the necessary and necessarily disappointing Oedipal drama: not being able to possess the mother, the frustrated son must refind her in an endless series of ersatz substitutes. To negate language, then, to empty it of signification, would then be an attempt to return to the fullness and singularity of the maternal figure—the womblike want-for-nothing “before the world exists,” as well as the absolving Nirvana “after the world has disappeared.”

The casual aspect of Schuyler’s poems, their lack of pretension, runs perpendicular to Blanchot’s dilemma. They come upon us in mid-thought and leave before finishing what they have to say. They treat us like we’re not even here.

The beauty that I see
—the sun going down
scours the entabled
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 moves swiftly from one thing to the next, all of it joined together by the unplanned itinerary of the poem, a unity that is nothing more than the bootprints in the snow that link them. The poem goes as much as anything else in the poem goes, is linked to them in a siblinglike manner, a sameness without identity, a shared condition. It does not join the world of objects only in the sense that there is no consistent or coherent world of objects, only the clearing in which they rub up against one another, a clearing which is nothing other than the absence of any overriding requirement to be anything in particular at all.

The power of negation that language is supposed to wield is less central than the non-negative nothingness that bars the idealization of meaning—a nothing that as such is neither absolutely prior nor the difference of a total subtraction. Blanchot’s definition of literature as the wish of language to be a thing and no longer to signify is more appropriately the definition of mathematics and other formal systems. Formal systems force meaning and inscription together by making as little use of both as possible. Literature on the other hand, and poetry in particular, depends on the noncoincidence of meaning, its noncoincidence with itself, on meaning as noncoincidence.

The refusal to name reveals the inescapable dimension of signification and the impossibility of the appearance of the nothing. The negation of every particular meaning leaves behind not nothing but, in place of the nothing, “the very possibility of signifying,” which is another way of saying the impossibility of naming, of making appear, or of giving consistency to the nothing. In this case, the il y a is not a discovery or revelation of something that has been there all along like the cosmic background radiation but is instead produced as an impotence and a useless passion, to borrow Sartre’s description of humankind. It is thus in poetry that language can restrain its tendency to become itself “the absolute perspective of the world in its totality,” which would mean giving a name to or withholding a name from the nothing, and instead be “the dumbfoundedness of what appears when nothing exists.” And it is the restraint of language—or rather, what I will take to calling “impotence” or epokhé—and not its “ideal power” of naming that constitutes its relation to everydayness.

Finally, before returning to Schuyler’s poem, we must take note of a curious sentence in Blanchot’s essay that might prove useful and which might keep us from turning language into a privileged object among objects, the one that negates and thus the one that rises above the mute positivity of dumb objects. Describing the double movement of language to obscure with its revelatory light, Blanchot notes that, “[n]egation cannot be created out of anything but the reality of what it is negating” (LRD 327). Thus, as something “created,” it is a strange form of negation. Language clearly doesn’t negate reality, but it does create a world in which that reality no longer exists, a world of fantasy and wish fulfillment, one based on the reality it negates. It functions in the same way that we have noted that the epokhé derives from a basic ontological impotence of things to account for themselves or that the everyday contains within itself the dream of its own non-being, such that the everyday is itself plus a vague sense of it all having been otherwise. Language doesn’t negate anything that reality or nature hasn’t already “negated” in the sense that nature exists as its own indifference to itself.

With this in mind, it's hard not to read the last line of "February, “It's a day like any other,” as a bit deflated—not mournful or dejected—just a reassertion of nothing else or enough, rather than as an affirmation of the miraculous in the everyday. (In a different poem, “Bleeding Gums,” he writes, “Tomorrow is another day. But then, so was yesterday.”) Epstein takes note of this and, in the introduction of Attention Equals Life, cautions against “this rhetoric [of everydayness],” which is “freighted with unstated and problematic assumptions about the nature of the everyday, about realism, and about the relation between everyday life and art.” And yet it is this day and no other that is the subject of “February,” which means either that Schuyler is being cute and this day actually is unlike any other or that everyday is a tapestry of temporalities and that the present is loved only through a past that in some sense never occurred, living on as it does in vain memory. We can still affirm the latter without taking on the “problematic assumptions” of those poets who peddle trite revelation in quotidian observations, what Epstein calls, the “transformation trope,” where a poem, “manages to 'transcend' the 'merely ordinary,' finds divinity and magic hiding beneath daily routines, and turns the everyday into something sacred, poetic, or beautiful," a trope evident in poets like Billy Collins, Marie Howe, and James Wright.