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Meditations In an Emergency

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A man with a gun steps out of the dark. He confronts Frank O'Hara, and the moment of crisis, as it so often does, reveals character. O'Hara--poet, art critic, bon vivant--famously said you don't need schooling or fine pedigree to write poetry; rather, "you just go on your nerve." So, gun at his back, O'Hara goes on his nerve and sneers at his assailant, "Go rob somebody else!"


Of course, he gets shot for his smart mouth, but still . . . the response is pure O'Hara: romantic, performative, incredibly self-assured. He remains history's most cheerful poète maudit. His life countered nearly every poetry cliché--he was gainfully employed as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art; He got along famously with others (the painters Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, to name a few); He wrote the 20th century's freshest love poems with little apparent effort; And he died via dune buggy crash on Fire Island while on a vacation with friends. Tragic, yes. But as far as tragedies go, maybe not so bad? You might even think that's how it was for everybody in those heady "Mad Men" days of sixties New York (Matthew Weiner seemed to think so when he framed that show's second season around an O'Hara poem!). But a look at O'Hara's friend, the poet and novelist James Schuyler, shows it wasn't all Galoises and Lana Turner.

In and out of mental institutions, unlucky in love, grumpy, forever battling his weight, Schuyler wrote the same kind of "I do this, I do that" poems as O'Hara's most famous, but Schuyler didn't do very much of this or that. He stayed home. He admired flowers. He rued lost loves. He recalled old friends. He fought with his mother.

Clearly if you had the choice, you would hang out with O'Hara the dapper rather than Jimmy the dud, but more and more I find myself lately sneaking off to indulge in Schuyler's poems, letters, and novels ("Alfred and Guinevere" is like a lost Salinger classic. Seriously. You'll love it). It may be that I'm just getting older and grumpier--I'll tell you about my character-revealing mugging moment someday-- but it may be that more and more of Schuyler's work is appearing, and it's more of this moment--one chock full of crises--than anyone could have guessed.

"Other Flowers," Schuyler's previously un-collected poetry, is due out this spring from FSG, and selections have appeared in The New Yorker and, this month, Poetry Magazine. The poems remain fresh, conversational, seemingly effortless, and, yes, even charming. In his essay, "James Schuyler in the Spotlight," Eric Ziegenhagen remarks, "Maybe the rest of his life was the struggle, and writing, after the struggle of getting up, was an easy reprieve." It certainly feels that way. The poet is talking to us, his audience, more than a decade after his death. "The day agrees / with me better than it did," Schuyler writes, "or, / better, I agree with it."

I couldn't agree more. Mugged by the muse, mugged by life, O'Hara and Schuyler are great poets for hard times. Friends who have been there, and, it seems, will continue to be, they give us courage to go on our nerve in whatever emergencies arise.

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