JUST THE THING

Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951-1991

Edited by William Corbett

Turtle Point. 470 pp. Paperback, $21.95 James Schuyler (1923-1991) never achieved anything like the fame of his good friends Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. But he remains an enticing poet, somehow conveying an airiness and lightness to his prosy confessional verse that recalls the good conversation of a troubled soul. He wrote about the details of his domestic and erotic life, the natural world and the changing light at Southampton, and the mania that led to sojourns in various mental-health clinics. In 1980 The Morning of the Poem won a Pulitzer Prize, and "This Dark Apartment," which opens that book, conveys the general register of Schuyler's pleasing, slightly melancholy voice:

Coming from the deli

a block away today I

saw the UN building

shine and in all the

months and years I've

lived in this apartment

I took so you and I

would have a place to

meet I never noticed

that it was in my view. . . .

Now, without saying

why, you've let me go.

You don't return my

calls, who used to call

me almost every evening

when I lived in the coun-

try. "Hasn't he told you

why?" "No, and I doubt he

ever will." Goodbye. It's

mysterious and frustrating.

How I wish you would come

back! I could tell

you how, when I lived

on East 49th, first

with Frank and then with John,

we had a lovely view of

the UN building and the

Beekman Towers. They

were not my lovers, though.

You were. You said so.

Many of Schuyler's poems, like this one, address either distant or absent friends, so it shouldn't be surprising that his actual letters are so deeply entertaining. In his correspondence Schuyler wrote to amuse and this hefty paperback may be read with increasing pleasure even by those who don't know the poetry. Nearly every page displays, in editor William Corbett's words, "wit, humor, intelligent observations about writing, writers and painting, expressed off-handedly, bits of brilliant description of nature and weather, and a sense of the world lived in, sharply observed, and lovingly accepted for all that it is." Little wonder that Just The Thing is a book one simply wishes to quote from, if only to reveal its author's easy-going charm and campy, learned wit:

To John Ashbery: "I hadn't realized what the end of the strike would mean to all the women who've been saving their Christmas presents to exchange during the January sales. I got as far as Altman's, where it seemed the Westchester Garden Club was reenacting the 'Extirpation of the Albigensians.' "

To Kenneth Koch: "Come back, come back, Big Sheba, and let's spend our evenings collaborating on something non-definitive and coruscating. . . . I've been feeling very concerned lately about Toby Wing. You haven't seen her up there have you? Around 1924 she was a cunning breasty little thing in jodhpurs, with hair like a drift of natural gas and the merry eyes of a bat."

To Ron Padgett: "You're very mistaken if you think I'd lie around reading M [Michael] Benedikt when I could be floating face down in a pond."

As a young man in New York Schuyler worked as an art critic: "I had post-reviewing gloom over the weekend; I hope my review of Jane [Freilicher] doesn't read too much like an ad for a new Hair Rinse." But he spent most of the 1960s as a permanent houseguest of the painter Fairfield Porter (whose realistic, somewhat Bonnard-like landscapes and domestic scenes were underappreciated during the heyday of abstract expressionism and have only recently come to be regarded as one of the great oeuvres of post-war American painting). In Southampton or up in Maine, he swam, collected postcards, played with the Porter children and family pets, cooked, cultivated a garden, wrote poetry, articles, fiction (A Nest of Ninnies, co-authored with Ashbery, is a minor classic) and these letters. But he also read. A lot.

Proust, Henry James, Whitman, Stevens and the other great modernists -- these are standard fare for any gay, contemporary American poet. But Schuyler devoured all sorts of other things: Robert Byron's travel classic, The Road to Oxiana (not then rediscovered), the more obscure fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the comic writing of George Ade, Barbara Pym and E.F. Benson, the half-forgotten regionalist works of Hamlin Garland, the memoirs of Augustus Hare, the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody and even J.H. Plumb's The First Four Georges.

Schuyler mentions this last book in a letter to John Ashbery, but editor Corbett doesn't tell us the name of its author. In general, footnotes diligently identify every proper name, even the most obvious, but seldom actually illuminate material in the text. For instance, Schuyler writes, "Oh I also saw Larry [Rivers] briefly yestereve (ah, bitter sticky and muggy it was, the Chihuahua for all its hairlessness was asweat)." This is funny all by itself, yet some readers might find it helpful to be told that it parodies the opening of Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes." When Schuyler writes Windfall Hall, just after mentioning Bronte, he surely means Wildfell Hall (from Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). All in all, slightly more expansive, explanatory footnotes would have enhanced these already wonderful letters. Unfortunately, none of Schuyler's correspondence with Frank O'Hara is included, apparently because of difficulties with the O'Hara estate.

Still, there's such plenty here that one should be grateful above all. "I love being in love with you," Schuyler writes to John Button, adding that "it makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wish so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it." He later tell us, after their affair has ended, that Button's "is in many little ways, a curious apartment to stay in. Anything I open, out falls a half-consumed tube of lubricating jelly or else a crucifix."

Sometimes Schuyler deliberately channels the wordplay of S.J. Perelman: "I cut off a piece of shrift and gave him that instead." At other times, he tosses off quips like "Shorter is better. Our motto at the skirt works." But he can then turn to discussing the music of Busoni or bel canto opera, or movies like "fascinating Darling Lili, where Rock [Hudson] runs around in World War I type long undershorts while lovable Julie Andrews gets, as usual, to sing some more of the World's Worst Music." Over the years he also works up loopy salutations in his letters to Ashbery: "Dear Veterans Day Celebrant" reads one, while others begin "Dear Joseph Hergesheimer" and "Dear Lad of Sunnybrook Farm."

Schuyler's poetry possesses a Whitman-like absorption in what medieval writers called natura naturans (nature naturing, i.e., busting out all over), and so it makes sense that these letters also refer constantly to Schuyler's gardening, the feel of pebbles on the beach, the very quality of the day:

"It's one of those morning when it seems the First principle may not have been all thumbs after all -- It certainly had some pretty nifty ideas about what constitutes a nice day -- sun, no clouds, a little breeze, a sky fading out into peach in the south and green in the west, a few white boats dozing in the deep cerulean and a crow for laughs."

Inevitably, Schuyler shifts back and forth between the world outside his bedroom and the one inside his head. His critical acumen allows him to offer exacting editorial comments on Kenneth Koch's then unpublished Wishes, Lies and Dreams (a now much-used guide to teaching children how to write poetry) and to summarize Ross Macdonald as "one of those California thriller writers who see a two car redwood garage as a pretty grave symptom of moral rot." But then he can also note, after Proust, that "style in art is not a matter of study, practice, revision or refinement of diction (means) but of vision."

Certainly, James Schuyler possessed his own distinctive vision of things, for he saw the world through books and pictures and music and deep love for his friends. Thus you can find the same easy-going, rambling and allusive style in everything he wrote, from talky poems and eccentric fictions to casual reviews and every one of these letters. Just the Thing is by no means an important book, but it is an intelligently entertaining one, and, except for James Schuyler's poems themselves, the best possible introduction to this sweet and ingratiating writer. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.