Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Self-Pity Can Be a Good Thing!: The Poems of James Schuyler (Part One)

I always choose to love people you wouldn’t think to love. You’d skip over them, consider them a wall flower. Someone you wouldn’t remember. As the relationship continues with this person and I fall deeper in love, I always compliment myself: I am so special because I recognized what’s special about this person. And no one else did.

Everyone has dreams about Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara. But not me. I love Schuyler. Therefore, I am special. I see what The World fails to see. As a result, I have him all to myself.

Then again, Schuyler won the Pulitzer Prize. Someone told me that David Trinidad is obsessed with his work; I can see the influence. Which makes me think: Assholes. Schuyler will be remembered. Which is love. Which makes me feel I need to offer my affections to someone else.


Honorable Self-Pity. That’s what I would name as James Schuyler’s triumph. Or at least one of them.

Everyone still makes fun of confessional poets; they should. Can anyone withstand reading one more poem about domestic abuse? Alcoholism? Unsuccessful trips to massage parlors where you don’t even find out if the author’s cock got hard? (Shame on you, Mark Doty!)

Can you?

I can.

I love to read about bad things that happen to good people. Or bad people. It doesn’t matter. I’m easy.

This is what empathy is: you hear someone else’s tragedy and think, “Thank God, that’s not me.” Believing empathy is anything else means you’re a fool.

A lot of queer poets write poems that ask, if not, beg for your pity. Coming out stories, incest tales, jerky boyfriends, gay-bashings. My response: “Thank God, that’s not me.” Or if I see the author photo and he’s good looking, my reaction changes a little. This is what I think: maybe he’ll screw me now if I ask. Everyone needs a pity fuck.

Schuyler’s poems don’t induce pity. His poems’ subject is self-pity. How to capture (and release) that pity through formal choice, the transcribed movement of the mind. Here’s an excerpt from “A Few Days”:

…I don’t like my
doctors, except the dentist and my shrink. “Come on
in, Jim.” “What are you thinking about?” “Nothing.” Not
true: you’re always thinking something.
I’m thinking about this poem. How to make it good, really
good. I’m proud of my poems.
I wrote a poem about Ruth Kligman in which
every line began “Ruth”-
talk about maddening. Ruth claimed to like it. When I
told her it was a
stinker she said, “I didn’t think it was one of your best.”
I’ve got to find that
notebook and tear it up, when I’m dead some creep will
publish it in a thin
volume called Uncollected Verse. It will be a collector’s
item. I hate to think
of the contents of that volume.

Go ahead. Read that excerpt again. Notice the self-pity: the reference to his general frustration with his doctors, his concern with how he’ll be memorialized, Ruth’s ultimate admission. Notice the vanity: his bold admission that he likes his verse, his premature fear that his life’s work will be memorialized. In the wrong way.

Notice how the poem conflates vanity and self-pity.

Which makes sense. To complain about one’s own life in public space, you must possess a large enough ego to believe The World cares. Schuyler wants us to marvel at his own self-aggrandizement.


  1. "Everyone has dreams about Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara."
    I don't. I dream about Anne Sexton.

    And, what if some queer writers aren't writing for pity.. but writing certain poems because they long to have the reader sympathize... There is a massive valley between pity and sympathy. Just a thought.