James Schuyler’s “June 30, 1974” and the Poetics of Everyday Life

In honor of today’s date, I thought I’d post “June 30, 1974,” a poem by James Schuyler which was written 42 years ago today.  The poem describes an early summer morning in the Hamptons at the home of his close friend, the painter Jane Freilicher, and her husband Joe Hazan, where Schuyler had spent the previous night, along with another dear friend, John Ashbery.

This quiet, lovely poem is one of Schuyler’s countless poems of daily life, and it’s one that I write about in my just-published book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture.  Here is the poem, followed by an excerpt from my book about it, which can maybe serve as a little preview of the book as a whole:

June 30, 1974
for Jane and Joe Hazan

Let me tell you
that this weekend Sunday
morning in the country
fills my soul
with tranquil joy:
the dunes beyond
the pond beyond
the humps of bayberry –
my favorite shrub (today,
at least) – are
silent as a mountain
range: such a
subtle profile
against a sky that
goes from dawn
to blue. The roses
stir, the grapevine
at one end of the deck
shakes and turns
its youngest leaves
so they show pale
and flower-like.
A redwing blackbird
pecks at the grass;
another perches on a bush.
Another way, a millionaire’s
white chateau turns
its flank to catch
the risen sun. No
other houses, except
this charming one,
alive with paintings,
plants and quiet.
I haven’t said
a word. I like
to be alone
with friends. To get up
to this morning view
and eat poached eggs
and extra toast with
Tiptree Goosberry Preserve
(green) -and coffee,
milk, no sugar. Jane
said she heard
the freeze-dried kind
is healthier when
we went shopping
yesterday and she
and John bought
crude blue Persian plates.
How can coffee be
healthful? I mused
as sunny wind
streamed in the car
window driving home.
Home! How lucky to
have one, how arduous
to make this scene
of beauty for
your family and
friends. Friends!
How we must have
sounded, gossiping at
the dinner table
last night. Why, that
dinner table is
this breakfast table:
“The boy in trousers
is not the same boy
in no trousers,” who
said? Discontinuity
in all we see and are:
the same, yet change,
change, change. “Inez,
it’s good to see you.”
Here comes the cat, sedate,
that killed and brought
a goldfinch yesterday.
I’d like to go out
for a swim but
it’s a little cool
for that. Enough to
sit here drinking coffee,
writing, watching the clear
day ripen (such
a rainy June we had)
while Jane and Joe
sleep in their room
and John in his. I
think I’ll make more toast.

(An excerpt adapted from Attention Equals Life, p. 106-109):

In an essay on Schuyler, Douglas Crase zeroes in on the author of The Morning of the Poem as a poet of the morning: “Fairfield Porter said that in the history of the arts an afternoon sensibility of reflection was common, but a morning sensibility of observation was unusual. Among morning sensibilities he included Sisley. Jimmy’s poems, too, are like urgent morning experience.” As Lee Upton has observed of Schuyler, “it is not surprising that this poet favors mornings. Repeatedly, he enacts qualities associated with mornings: newness and energy of awakening.”

Before closing, I would like to consider briefly another hymn to an ordinary morning, Schuyler’s “June 30, 1974” (Collected, 228). The poem, one of Schuyler’s many “date” poems, is also about morning as a state of mind, a mode of wakefulness and receptive attention to daily life. Crase refers to the poem as “an American ode to happiness,” which it certainly is. It also feels like a deliberate rewrit­ing of Wallace Stevens’s great hedonistic hymn to the here and now, “Sunday Morning.” Schuyler speaks rather directly about the deep, simple pleasures of a “weekend Sunday / morning in the country,” which “fills my soul / with tranquil joy.” As he so often does, Schuyler describes his immediate surround­ings: the view of the dunes beyond the pond, his “favorite / shrub (today, / at least),” the roses, “a millionaire’s/ white chateau” next door, and, most of all, his friends’ “charming” house, so “alive with paintings.” But most of all, he pays tribute to the pleasurable experience of spending a quiet morning alone while his good friends sleep late, where he— like Stevens’s woman with her “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair”— can sit and “eat poached eggs / and extra toast with / Tiptree Gooseberry Preserve / (green)— and coffee.”

The poem turns into a meditation on change when the speaker reflects on the strange fact that the dinner table where he sat laughing with friends the night before is also the exact same place as this quiet breakfast table: “Discontinuity / in all we see and are: / the same, yet change, / change, change.” The lines seem to encapsulate the paradox at the cen­ter of Schuyler’s work— the recognition that human experience is founded, simultaneously, upon sameness and discontinuity in all one sees and is, each day so alike and yet unique.

As is so typical of Schuyler’s poetry, the poem closes by happily accepting the day as it is and all it brings:

Enough
to sit here drinking coffee,
writing, watching the clear
day ripen (such
a rainy June we had)
while Jane and Joe
sleep in their room
and John in his. I
think I’ll make more toast.

Just as it was “enough” in “Hymn to Life” to simply look at the unfolded daf­fodils in the garden, here Schuyler says it is “enough” to sit and watch the day, June 30, 1974, “ripen.” By doing so, Schuyler further expounds on what might be thought of as a philosophy of “enough,” a poetics of what will suffice— a worldview that again shades into a matter of ethics, of how to live.

Whereas Stevens’s own “Sunday Morning” reverie closes with the humble yet lyrical image of pigeons making “ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings” (Stevens, Collected, 70), Schuyler’s poem ends in a deliberately anti- climactic fashion— can one imagine a less lofty close to a powerful poem than “I / think I’ll make more toast”? This is a far cry from how poems that depend on what I have called the “transformation trope” usu­ally operate, like those I discussed earlier by James Wright, Edward Hirsch, or Mary Oliver. These lines seem designed to “strike through sentimental­ity,” something the poem certainly flirts dangerously with at its start (writing that the morning “fills my soul with tranquil joy” is about as sentimental as Schuyler ever gets). The conclusion yanks the poem back down to earth, keeps it firmly tied to the late coffee and sunny breakfast table with its poached eggs and gooseberry jam. The nod to his plan to “make more toast” also brings Schuyler back to the simple, saving ability one has to “make” (and to make more of) something one enjoys, and finally, back to the day and the daily itself.

Earlier in the poem, after Schuyler catches himself referring to coming back to this house, which belongs to his friends, as “driving home,” he turns to reflect on the concept itself:

Home! How lucky
to have one, how arduous
to make this scene
of beauty for
your family and
friends.

Schuyler’s celebration of the domestic— even the work that goes into making the scene of the domestic— almost feels like a tribute to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and its portrayal of Clarissa as an artist whose specialty is the cre­ation and appreciation of the domestic everyday. Again, we see how Schuyler’s poems keep coming back to those aspects of the daily Rita Felski called our atten­tion to: home, habit, repetition.

As a tribute to someone else’s ability to make a home, it also reflects on Schuyler’s unusual, tenuous relationship to the very idea of home, as one who never fully had one of his own, both literally and figuratively, who relied so much on his friends for shelter and support. But given the tenor of the rest of the poem, and where it ends, it feels as if Schuyler is also suggesting that the day, the everyday itself, is our home; in a sense, the poem acknowledges just how lucky we are to be able to make ourselves at home in daily life, to respect it for what it is. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell argues, “the everyday is ordinary because, after all, it is our habit, our habitat.” For Schuyler, and many other explorers of the everyday I discuss in this book, the recovery of the ordinary depends on this hard-won realization: a recognition of what Cavell refers to as “everydayness as home,” as the only home we truly have.

If you’re interested in hearing more about Schuyler and the everyday, and much else, please check out my book Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, which you can find out more about here and here.

 

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This entry was posted in Criticism, Fairfield Porter, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, John Ashbery, Poems, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James Schuyler’s “June 30, 1974” and the Poetics of Everyday Life

  1. Pingback: Eileen Myles Reads James Schuyler (and Chats with Paul Muldoon) | Locus Solus: The New York School of Poets

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