Selections from James Schuyler’s letters

While reviewing a new anthology of the poet James Schuyler’s letters, August Kleinzahler observes that the “artist who also writes criticism, whether about his own art or someone else’s, will, inevitably, tell you what he himself is up to, or at least aspires to.”

Praising a work by Fairfield Porter, Schuyler writes: ‘The most forceful quality of this particular painting is the artist’s willingness to be clumsy.’ Of all the letters here, those to Porter, the first dated Bastille Day 1954 and the last 9 August 1972, are the clumsiest and most interesting.

“Depending on your appetite for camp, reading the Schuyler letters from beginning to end may make you feel as though you’ve been living on apple crumble for a week,” Kleinzahler says. “Apple crumble of a very high order, but apple crumble nevertheless.”

From a letter Schuyler wrote to the poet Frank O’Hara and the painter John Button (the “object of Schuyler’s affection at the time”) in the summer of 1956:

Dear ‘John’ and ‘Frank’,

(Or should I call you by your camp names in a letter.) I loved your antiphonal psalm — it was like getting a jeweller’s box with a sparrow in it that had been fucked to death by John Simon…

So I thought I’d let Schiz and Oid, the two halves of my personality, collaborate and bake you both a plate of my favourite cakes. (‘Take one crater of goat piss and crumble in it enough camel dung to make a workable paste. Pat into cakes and put aside to rest. When an iridescent sheen like that in the eye of a peacock feather appears, bake the cakes in a fast oven, garnish with rabbit berries and serve hot in a napkin. These tasty morsels are the Quiffquiff spoken of so highly by Lawrence of Arabia…’)

My, we really are just like the Brontë sisters….


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