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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, January 13, 2008

One kind of poetry registers the physical world: words arranged to communicate the emotional power of the senses, the feeling of a visible reality. A different kind of poetry concentrates more strikingly on expressiveness: words arranged to create a voice, the feeling of a particular sensibility.

The distinction is approximate, a matter of emphasis. The two categories overlap, strikingly so in the poems of James Schuyler, which are attentive to the evidence of the senses but with a distinctive personality. In "Evening," Schuyler emphasizes what he sees while also reflecting on it in his distinctive way:

The black marble mantelpiece

reflects a green lamp and a white.

Above it, two red candles

and a dish of fruit, painted on velvet.

What bush is that, beside the door

that faces east, that will not loose its leaves?

Snowberry, I guess. And what kind of maple

fights the evening wind to keep some of its leaves?

A few fly by. An electric heater

hums and drowns out the evening wind.

Red filaments. The sullen day

wears off in a dull blue-gray

it almost hurts to see: so like

a mood that comes upon you

unawares, uninvited, unwanted,

like missing someone, and a long goodbye.

Conversely, Schuyler can emphasize his casual-feeling, disarmingly candid voice -- that in the end is not merely chatty but noticing and thinking all the time, observant as well as expressive. Rather than leading with colors and textures, "Two" foregrounds the social or psychological: peculiarities of clothing and what the poet may "take or mistake" about other people.

Two

men in Arab robes

and hush puppy shoes

outside a pet shop

pass two others I

take or mistake for

addicts and there goes

one handsome in

the chinless wonder way

and of a dark descent

who stops and looks at

a street sign, turns,

hesitates and goes off

like the actor one often

feels: "Frowns,

looks at watch, goes

off" and in the sky

cloud words melt

and all run together.

Here the phrase "cloud words" makes explicit a cloudiness in the nature of language that the first poem implies with its almost parodic or faux-naif use of monosyllabic names for colors, its wondering about the name of a bush, then naming it, "I guess." The nature of words is to gesture imperfectly, yet memorably, toward reality. That imperfection makes the compensating grace of these poems more meaningful.

(James Schuyler's poems can be found in his book "Collected Poems." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright 1993 by the Estate of James Schuyler.)

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