02 March 2011

Included by Fictions; Excluded by Real Life

The following is excerpted from a review by Douglas Crase of James Schuyler's Collected Poems. I thought it pertinent to our recent discussions about the inferiority complex fostered by Facebook as well as the "informational thuggery" of our "news" and entertainment (the melding of the two skewered nicely by Jon Stewart recently), and, well, just the irreality of our digital life.

When Jimmy first showed us "Dining Out with Doug and Frank," I didn't like it. It was the fall of I977, we were together in the sweaty single room where he was staying at 201 West 74th Street, and I remember thinking as I read the manuscript that although I could admit the glamor of poems about John Ashbery and Jane Freilicher or Wystan Auden (and on a first-name basis, too) I did not understand what our names were doing in such company. We had met Jimmy three years earlier when he was fifty-one and we were both thirty and new to city life. Could he now be making fun of us? But he never made fun of anyone I knew of, not in a cruel way. Gradually I came to understand that when he wrote about John and Jane and Wystan he wasn't name-dropping either. To Jimmy these were real people, and real people were the kind that counted. Readers of poetry are used to poems that are pumped up with references to Orpheus and Eurydice, to Bogart, and soon perhaps to Bart Simpson. Whether from education or exposure, a reader has some expectation of what these fictions signify, and it seems to be human nature to like poetry that invites us to bring our expectations to a poem and so to feel included when we get there. My own experience with "Dining Out" suggests that someone who brings such expectations to a poem that refers to actual persons, rather than culture heroes or movie stars, is apt to feel excluded instead. Imagine feeling included by fictions but excluded by real life: yet this was exactly the perversion I was being encouraged to reconsider. It was not important I knew who Doug and Frank were, only that as real people caught in real life they were representative not of something unattainable, but of something I had all around me. They stood for "friends." They stand for you. When Jimmy put our names in that poem it was a way of saying what to him was always obvious, that we must treat our friends and ourselves as if we were the stars, unalterable and moving as the stars.
I used to wonder, and still do, if a receptive attention to "things as they are" is apolitical or, to put it more sharply, complicit....People who fail to regard what is happening as real, who know their experience only through mass-produced metaphor, get hurt. I cannot imagine Jimmy preaching. Yet "things as they are" is perhaps the last antidote we have to organized informational thuggery. In Washington, D.C., the world observed once a succession of governments whose sense of reality was so infirm they could waste whole nations, including their own, on behalf of an analogy to dominoes. Jimmy was in Washington while one of these governments occupied the city. It was before Frank and I knew him, but I take it he saw no dominoes. The city he did see was made of real things, and celebrating those he wrote in the face the deathly Vietnam War a masterpiece called "Hymn to Life".

John Ashbery
Jane Freilicher

Jon Stewart Skewers CNN

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