Schuyler's Flowers #3: “February,” Everydayness, And Nothingness, Part 2

“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

The psychoanalytic concept of “projection,” where one’s unacceptable thoughts and desires are attributed to others as a way of shirking guilt or responsibility for them, is clear enough in our daily life. Someone involved in an extramarital affair becomes suspicious of their spouse. Charges of “fake news” are only laid by promulgators of fake news. Rabidly anti-gay conservative Christians are outed by the gay escorts they frequent. In poetry, one wonders if accusations leveled at so-called difficult poetry—of not being “accessible” or of being willfully obscurantist—are not projections of the jealousy of those poets who declare their exclusive access to what Kermode calls “a radiant truth out of space and time,” mediating between this “higher order of existence” and the mundane reality of the common reader. The focus on everydayness would then be, perhaps, a shield or a protective blindspot against feelings of guilt around the megalomaniacal narcissism that unconsciously authorizes the poet’s right to exclusivity. The poet tempers the grandiosity inherent in their position as poet-seer (and all poets these days are crypto-voyants) with an insistence that what they access is mundane and ordinary—a curiously more true everyday hidden in plain sight. Yet, a poem about the ordinary must be, in some sense, extraordinary, otherwise why write it? It cannot itself be part of the unnoticed everyday; it must make a difference. And it is this necessity to make a difference and extract something remarkable from the everyday—which we imagine is a formal necessity and thus an inescapable condition of all poems—that ruins the claim of the poet and poem on the everyday. 

But the irony is less that the poet must transgress the ordinary in order to represent that ordinariness in a poem; instead, it might be the case that this transgression is already accomplished by the ordinary itself, which is as much diversion as it is what is immediately given. In a separate essay, “Everyday Speech,” Blanchot reminds us that “the everyday is the inaccessible.” The everyday is in essence opposed to attention, including the poet’s innate insight. “To live in the way of the quotidian,” he continues, “is to hold oneself at a level of life that excludes the possibility of a beginning, an access” (Blanchot Everyday 20). We grasp “the everyday” as a concept only at a level of abstraction that stands us in opposition to the everyday. We are not, in our everyday coping, subjects negotiating with objects. We are absorbed in dailiness, prior to reflection, and for that reason, everydayness cannot be an object on which we focus our attention in the same way we might examine a painting or troubleshoot a plumbing issue. The everyday exists, if we can say it like this, before the division of the world into subject and objects. For Blanchot, “the everyday escapes,” he writes. “This is its definition. We cannot help but miss it if we seek it through knowledge” (Blanchot Everyday 15). 

With that in mind, we might wonder whether it is not the formal features of the poem that cannot help but attempt to distill the extraordinary from the ordinary—it must also be a function of the everyday insofar as it is that very thing which cannot be thematized. The “transformation trope” that Epstein localizes in several accessible American poets would thus be itself an index of the everyday as fugitive, as if the only way to formulate a concept of the everyday would be to formulate an utterly incorrect one. Thus, the transformation trope understands (or misunderstands) the everyday as routine, expected, ordinary. Yet it is impossible for everyday as inaccessible to be ordinary and predictable. It is important to recognize in Schuyler’s forms of attention (which are equally forms of inattention) this logic of the everyday that Blanchot describes as “the inaccessible to which we have always already had access” (Blanchot Everyday 20). It’s presence is a past that has never taken place, and so to grasp it as such, one must to a certain degree refrain. To believe that through an act of imagination one has access to the everyday, even to the point of thinking one has extracted from it its secret value, the kernel that gets lost in the continual distractions that constitute daily life, is delusional hubris masquerading as common sense. To access the everyday is immediately to be shunted along an endless series of distractions.

Does this mean then that the everyday is thus grasped along the opposite approach, a via negativa, or perhaps through outright dismissal or ruthless critique? That would seem also to misunderstand the strange temporality of the everyday, which has always happened and yet has never taken place, that it is a reality that appears only as fantasy. Blanchot characterizes the time of the everyday as, “what we never see for a first time, but only see again, having always already seen it by an illusion that is, as it happens, constitutive of the everyday” (Blanchot Everyday 14). According to this argument, to pay attention to the everyday is to be in errancy. As such, the everyday cannot be made into the ground or transcendental signified of poetic attention. It cannot be the guarantor of the poet’s insight, since it turns that insight immediately into error. There is no poetics of everydayness. Or, if there is, it is because everydayness shares with poetic language its instability of reference.

*

Why can’t this most immediate, most intimate dailiness become present? If it is truly right in front of our noses, then what is stopping us from simply shifting our focus and writing it all down? For Schuyler as for Blanchot, loss is an essential part of everydayness—loss of focus and attention, loss of love and desire, loss of friends—and is pasted over by a naive realism of the folksy, accessible poet. 

Essential to what is, to what exists, is what is not, though not in the sense of the ghostly presence of what-should-have-been nor as the sense of existence as a shadow of rarified Platonic forms but in the sense that what exists does so only at the price of the implicit weakness of being otherwise. That is to say, there is no reason why the order of things is not some other way other than the fact that what exists is powerless to be anything but what it turned out to be. What haunts the objects of everyday experience is not a Levinasian ‘other’, which their mere existence necessarily denies, but rather the lack of this other and of any other. Literally, nothing ordains what is. The everyday does not connote the comfort and stability of domestic life or the reliability of civic peace, instead we are struck by an “uneasiness that seizes us each time that, by an unforeseeable leap, we stand back from it and, facing it, we discover that precisely nothing faces us.”

Of course, this nothing can never become an object of perception or contemplation—this inappearance of the nothing is why we feel unease instead of the certainty we expect the everyday to grant us or the terror that at our most romantic we hope the sublime will inspire in us—so instead, the experience of the nothing, which occurs necessarily only as the suspension of experience (a suspension that cannot itself be experienced), takes the form of loss, incapacity, absence. It’s like the story Annie Potts’s character tells in Pretty in Pink, about a friend who is haunted by a feeling that something is missing even though everything seems in its rightful place (e.g., she checks her keys, counts her kids), only finally to decide that the feeling must be an aftereffect from having skipped her high school prom. That is to say, even though what is lost is unspecified and unspecifiable, it must take some form in order to be registered, however fantasmatic. And this is precisely how Schuyler sets up the poem.

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.

What is one to make of a pink that cannot be seen? How is the green of the tulip stem and leaves made more vivid by the lack of a specific memory? And if that memory is missing, then what can we make of the following two lines? Barely into the poem at all and what little time we’ve been here with Schuyler at the end of February we’ve spent on what can’t be perceived or recollected. Instead of a mundane world brought forth by a scrupulous attention that hews close to things as they are, we are instead already elsewhere—long ago and far away. Already attention is run through with impotence.

The UN Building, which Schuyler could see from his apartment, is instead superimposed on the waves off the coast of Palermo; the pink-lit snowflakes are the pink flowers of the almond trees that would be blooming in Sicily in late February. And we assume that the memory by which he characterizes the green leaves of the tulip in his apartment, “like grass light on flesh,” is an amorous and possibly erotic memory (there are no “sins of the skin,” after all). Nevertheless a subjectively charged one, leading us to conclude that fantasy and distraction are the primary modes of everydayness in Schuyler’s work—and the primary modes of everydayness as such.

For this reason, the everyday is anything but an essence of poetry that is more natural than the artifice of modernism. It cannot serve as a truer or more authentic starting position for poetry, because according to Blanchot, the everyday is the ruin of value altogether; “it impugns all values,” he writes, “and the very idea of value, disproving always anew the unjustifiable difference between authenticity and inauthenticity” (Blanchot Everyday 19). (Though one might argue that the groundless ground of the everyday makes it the perfect poetic principle.) This is because the everyday is a corruption, a “power of dissolution,” that affects all, which means that at the bottom of all things, the ground that supports the entire entire economy of beings, is a void against which what is wears away. Every ethical system that has ever been formulated in philosophy has been motivated by this void and constructed as its denial. 

The basic indifference of the everyday contradicts any attempts to situate value on the singularity of individual beings. To take a materialist philosophy as an example, use-value, the punctum Archimedis of Marxian praxis, is not corrupted by parasitic capitalist exchange—what sort of solid ground would it provide if it could be so easily overcome—but rather a sign that with the ascendance of technē the thermodynamic bill has come due. There seems to be a basic and ineradicable indifference at the heart of all matter that interferes with the differences that forms and patterns strive to maintain—what in the physical sciences is called “entropy.” So when Schuyler writes at the end of “February,”

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.

he is taking note not only of the indifference that his errant attention attributes to objects but also that this indifference takes place among objects as well. At the same time that the individual objects are selected to stand out from the background of the everyday by poetic attention, they cannot help but drag behind them, in the wake of their standing out, the contingency corrosive to their relative consistency.

The ‘its’ in these final four lines have no antecedents. They seem to refer to different things—dust, shape, water, day—but each use of the pronoun ‘it’ is identical. They seem like dummy pronouns, placeholder subjects required by syntax but serving no semantic function. Instead, they assert an indifference between these objects or refer each one to the same void, a void that can at most be called “it.” Quotidian indifference is situated, Blanchot says, “on a level at which the question of value is not posed: ‘il y a du quotidien’, without subject, without object.” The “it” (in French, il) can only be valued as nothing, and “‘nothing’ is worth anything through contact with il,” meaning both that the “it” of the indifferent everyday cannot become the standard of value and also that were one to take the nothing as the standard, then its value is a matter of indifference or caprice.

For a reader of Blanchot, it’s impossible not to hear in ‘il y a du quotidien’ the ‘il y a’ which is a central philosophical notion that he shares with Levinas but which sometimes he took farther. The il y a (or “there is”) can sometimes mean the oppressiveness of ineradicable being, insofar as it is possible to imagine the negation of all beings only to find that it is impossible to negate the negation, or if one imagines negating negation, one is left with a pure presence, a film of being. But this is the least interesting interpretation of this notion. Looking at his use of it in the phrase ‘il y a du quotidien’, and in the context of “Everyday Speech,” we can tease out another use of this notion, one which is not that of an irremissible (to use a favored term of Levinas) sentence to have to be but rather its converse: the impotence of the becoming of the nothing, what Blanchot sometimes called the “impossibility of dying” or le mourir, the to-be-dying (as opposed to la mort, death). It is equally the impotence of oneself becoming nothing. What is really useful about this pseudo-concept is that it never finally names what there is—it refuses to put some idol of nothingness in place of nothingness.

Schuyler’s flowers are like this indifferent ‘it’ or il, which can be repeated ad infinitum in a variety of contexts without any difference, except that for the flowers, there is a difference. Where philosophically nothingness is always identical in every instance, we are confronted in daily life rather with a variety of flavors of the nothing. Because the nothing can never appear as such, it takes on an infinite range of appearances. It is for this reason I argue that Schuyler is the poet par excellence of abortive transcendence. It is an error to believe that a poetry concerned with deep existential questions has to be bloodless and philosophical. An example of this kind of explicit existentialist lyric is found in the work of William Bronk. His work protests a little too much that one gets the sense that he is so vociferous a nihilist only because he isn’t fully convinced of it himself. That Schuyler’s poems never show up in a beret and black turtleneck smoking Gauloises is a strong argument, I think, for the “existentialist” (for lack of a better term) character of his poetry.

By writing about snow and friendship and birds and innumerable flowers, Schuyler is better positioned than any other poet to take up Blanchot’s encouraging imperative “to seek to recapture the secret destructive capacity that is in play in [the everyday], the corrosive force of human anonymity, the infinite wearing away” (19). Were someone to insist that this poet of domestic intimacies and humble observations could possibly also be the signal poet of “the corrosive force of human anonymity,” to them, I would simply point out that it is a common error to mistake the ruin of value as such for a value itself. Dressing all in black is not a mark of having confronted the dizzying void of human freedom but rather a sign that you’d like it if others would think of you that way.

Why would the ruin of value not instead effect in oneself a quiet peace and a gentle attitude of acceptance, a soft doom, where pleasure is neither a hedonistic balm nor the mark of sin’s persistence, simply because it is indifferent to both. What would happen if we thought of Schuyler’s turn toward the everyday (which, again, Epstein argues is inaugurated in “February”), not as a turn towards the immediacy of what is present, the unadorned and unaffected simplicity of a humble and earthly existence, solid and grounded in reality against the air castles of modernist artifice and allusion, but instead as a turn toward inattention and distraction, toward an unvalorizable decentering which modernism’s programmatic formalism (its manifestoes and allusive traditionalism, religious purity and Satanic magic) as well as its transcendental Naturalism (its blue guitars and breath-long lines of vernacular English, quotidian epics and aloof flâneurs) were erected to some extent to fend off? At the same time, I am hesitant to view this acentricity as eccentricity, especially as a postmodern reification of difference. Only by the most capricious use of logic could Schuyler be thought of as in any way heroic—especially of any sort of transgressiveness. Though it’s not like he’s so far from those avatars of contravention. For instance, if de Sade is the truth of Kant, as Lacan argued, then Schuyler is, as strange as it sounds, the truth of de Sade. That means, while de Sade is still a Kantian—his immorality is profoundly rational, hence his monotony, and his exaggerated destructiveness is the outcome of a consistent application of Kant’s moral principle—Schuyler makes such punctilious self-consistency to be a local phenomenon, a sense of the universal predicated upon a bracketing—by force and not by right—of what proves inconsistent with the universal in question. That which fails or refuses to support the cause authorized by the universal is ignored or actively suppressed.

While Schuyler’s poetry is not explicitly against the philosophical delineation of universals—getting involved, even as a detractor, would cede too much—my sense is that it could not have been written by someone who really believed that writing has a purpose or that thought is the progressive self-correction of opinion. Such a statement can probably never be demonstrated to any satisfaction, no matter how many of his poems I quote. It’s instead a thought that I could not have had without having read Schuyler, though a thought that is certainly expressed nowhere in his poems. In Schuyler, we find a wandering attention, a thread of desire which is constructed haphazardly and recognized only after the fact, but all of that does not add up to some kind of nomadicism—in fact, it doesn’t add up at all. His flowers are differences without distinction.