Freely Espousing: James Schuyler, Surveillance Poetry, and the Queer Otic
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Essay
5,182 words
2024

Amidst the “lavender scare” of the Cold War, James Schuyler, “the great queer voice of the New York School,” subverted the state’s auditory surveillance of queer life. Refunctionalizing its tools of espionage as poetic tactics, Schuyler eavesdrops on errant conversations (the espoused) and joins (espouses) them in paratactic assembly. In so doing, Schuyler expands José Esteban Muñoz’s “queer optic,” the utopian capacity to see beauty amidst ruins, beyond the visual into a queer otic that drags into being a world of freer espousal. I survey the aural surveillance of mid-century queer life before tracing Schuyler’s détournement of bugging, wiretapping, and overhearing in his 1969 Freely Espousing. In turn, I uncover the queer political commitments lurking beneath Schuyler’s classification as a pastoral lyricist concerned only with “leaves and flowers and weather.”

Published in Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 51, no. 1 (2023) on the occasion of the 2022 Diacritics–School of Criticism and Theory Essay Prize.

Before If you see something, say something, that paranoid refrain of the new millennium, John Ashbery roamed New York City with his own dictate: If you hear something, write it down. He would ride the subway to the end of its line just to listen, or loiter within earshot of a busy café. It was research. As he told The Paris Review, he often “gets started in writing” by “put[ting] in things that [he] overheard people say, on the street for instance. Suddenly something fixes itself in the flow that is going on around one and seems to have a significance.”1John Ashbery, “The Art of Poetry No. 33” interview by Peter A. Stitt, The Paris Review 90 (Winter 1983), https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3014/the-art-of-poetry-no-33-john-ashbery. Of his 1998 metapoem “What Is Poetry?,” Ashbery recalled, “In a bookstore I overheard a boy saying to a girl this last line: ‘It might give us—what?—some flowers soon?’ I have no idea what the context was, but it suddenly seemed the way to end my poem. I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.” Ashbery borrowed his last line from a bookstore and his title from a book, John Stuart Mill’s What is Poetry? The utilitarian philosopher wrote his “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties” in 1833, asserting, famously, that “eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.”2John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” The Monthly Repository (January 1833): 63. Though Mill analogized poetry to surveillance in an early draft—the bard listens to “the lament of a prisoner in a solitary cell,” himself “unseen in the next”—he meant this metaphorically.3Lytle Shaw, Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018), 38. Poetry is written in dialogue with God, eavesdropped in holy communion. Ashbery, the radical empiricist, took Mill literally: poetry is overheard—in stores, on streets, aboard subway cars, all quarters of the mundane and profane.

A portrait of James Schuyler (at left) and John Ashbery by Fairfield Porter in the painter’s living room in 1957. Schuyler lived with Fairfield and Anne Porter in Southampton, New York, for eleven years through bouts of depression and mania. As in his other portraits by Porter, Schuyler is rendered in profile, uniting ear and yet—optic and otic—on a single plane.
A portrait of James Schuyler (at left) and John Ashbery by Fairfield Porter in the painter’s living room in 1957. Schuyler lived with Fairfield and Anne Porter in Southampton, New York, for eleven years through bouts of depression and mania. As in his other portraits by Porter, Schuyler is rendered in profile, uniting ear and yet—optic and otic—on a single plane. (Fairfield Porter, Jimmy and John, 1957–58, Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 × 45 1/2 inches. © 2024 The Estate of Fairfield Porter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Few poets eavesdropped as intently as James Schuyler, Ashbery’s once roommate, occasional co-author, sometimes flirt, and always New York School companion. Jimmy—JS—was Mill’s surveillance poet incarnate. The title of his debut collection, the 1969 Freely Espousing, summarizes his method: prowl for pieces of errant conversation (the espoused) and join (espouse) them in paratactic assembly. The titular poem begins:

the sinking sensation
when someone drowns thinking, “This can’t be happening to me!”
the profit of excavating the battlefield where Hannibal whomped the
Romans
the sinuous beauty of words like allergy
the tonic resonance of
pill when used as in
“she is a pill”4James Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” Freely Espousing (Paris: Paris Review Editions, 1969), 13.

As a petty officer in the Navy during World War II, Schuyler would have known that “loose lips might sink ships.” But a “slip of the lip,” he insists, might also make poetry. Schuyler finds in “careless talk” not sabotage that will leave him “drown[ing]” in “battle” but instead a field of lyrical potential.5The United States Office of War Information debuted its campaign against “careless talk” in 1941 with two slogans, “A Slip of the Lip Will Sink a Ship” and “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships.” The War Advertising Council suspected that women were most “loose” and admonished them accordingly: “Wanted for Murder! Her Careless Talk Costs Lives”; “If you tell where he’s going… He may never get there”; “Somebody Blabbed. Button Your Lip!” “Unifying a Nation: World War II Posters,” New Hampshire State Library, Accessed October 20, 2022, https://www.nh.gov/nhsl/ww2/loose.html. He uses the page as a ragpicker’s satchel, “excavating” refuse ancient (conquests of yore) and everyday (the mellifluence of language) and listening in on conversations unintended for his ears. He makes careful use of his pickings. As Maude Chanson Emerson observes, “‘Sinuous’ snakes out of ‘sinus,’ involving the word ‘allergy’ in a tangled network of relationships among sounds and senses. ‘Tonic’ relates both to the medicinal implications of ‘pill’ and to the way in which, when ‘pill’ sounds in one context, tones relating to its other contexts sound, too.”6Maude Chanson Emerson, “Radical Empiricist Poetics in the New York School,” PhD diss., University of California, Berkley, 2017, 61. Schuyler tangles on:

on the other hand I am not going to espouse any short stories in which lawn
mowers clack.
No, it is absolutely forbidden
for words to echo the act described; or try to. Except very directly
as in
bong. And tickle. Oh it is inescapable kiss.7Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” 13.

Unlike his closeted friends, Schuyler never married; he lived in relative obscurity until Freely Espousing was published at the age of forty-six and poverty thereafter, relying on the hospitality of his well-heeled friends. Refusing to echo the heteronormative espousal and its concomitant promises of reproductive futurity, economic security, white picket fences, and mowed suburban lawns, Schuyler attunes himself to the unbound resonances of onomatopoea. The only clack he knows is that of his typewriter, which dings as he returns the carriage to the next line.

Marriages of the atmosphere
are worth celebrating
where Tudor City
catches the sky or the glass side
of a building lit up at night in fog
“What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”
“You are experiencing a new sensation.”
if the touch-me-nots
are not in bloom
neither are the chrysanthemums

the bales of pink cotton candy
in the slanting light
are ornamental cherry trees.
The greens around them, and
the browns, the grays, are the park.
It’s. Hmm. No.8Ibid., 14.

Citing his fascination with flora and fauna, critics have assimilated Schuyler to a tradition of pastoral lyricism and quiet epiphany. He was bothered by this. At the end of his sixty-page “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler interrupts himself with an unknown voice: “‘All he cares about are leaves and / flowers and weather.’”9James Schuyler, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 298. His most conservative readers dismiss his waste fetish as a marginal—if not “problem[atic]”—concern.10Helen Vendler, “New York Pastoral,” Soul Says (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) 61. In a review of Schuyler’s posthumously published letters, W.S. Piero derides his thing for “clutter”: “Schuyler camps it up more in the letters than in the poems. He becomes Jimmy ‘the fag,’ Jimmy the (sort of) dandified flâneur.”11W.S. Piero, “Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again…” Poetry (January 2006): 309. Di Piero was right, on one account: Schuyler’s scavenged aesthetic was intrinsic to his “fag”—a slight the poet was eager to reclaim. Just as waste is the necessary but abject other of capitalist productivity, queerness corresponds to a “spoiled identity” against which dominant ideologies of reproductive health and accumulation of property—heterosexual, patriarchal, marriageable, familial—are figured.12Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963); Schuyler further refuses the imperatives of capitalist productivity by dwelling in the present without attempting to control it or make it “about anything,” exemplifies what Anne-Lise François calls “lyric inconsequence.” Anne-Lise François, Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 129–217. Schuyler reclaims the degradation and “accommodate[s] [himself] to the taint.”13Christopher Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 5. His investment in trash as a locus of dis-identification is exemplified by one 1988 diary entry:

Just back from Sheridan Square cigar store, where a spaced-out young man was laying it on the line for unwary customers—the man just ahead of me got, “Ten billion years older than the oldest living maggot on earth.” My sentence was a little lighter: “Take the garbage with you.” Walking up Seventh Avenue and passing Tony Holland, who was looking very well, staircase wit made me wish I’d said, “Baby, I am the garbage—” but for that kind of repartee, a body guard is no bad idea.14James Schuyler, The Diary of James Schuyler (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 113–114.

“Baby, I am the garbage—” Schuyler announces his affinity for waste in an erotic will-to-abjection, rescripting the connotation that his being “slanted” would devalue him as something akin to a “maggot” (a trash-dweller and homophonic neighbor of faggot).

Schuyler arrived at his “waste-management poetics” much earlier.15Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste, 99. In 1949, just one year out of the Navy, the young writer was under the employ of W.H. Auden. He recalls rummaging through his boss’s crumpled drafts:

When [Auden] learned that in Florence
I and my friend Bill Aalto had
fished his drafts of poems
out of the wastepaper basket,
he took to burning them, saying,
“I feel like an ambassador burning
secret papers.”16Schuyler, Collected Poems, 243.

The secret papers that Auden, an ambassador of modern academic poetry, discarded so as to not sully the virgin perfection of his verse, Schuyler, the undercover agent, reused as raw material and, alongside his then-boyfriend Aalto, as a site of queer intimacy.

In Florence was born Schuyler’s attention to the wayward, the quiet, the ugly, the cast-off. “Manner, en masse, makes for ennui. I wish instead of odd,” Schuyler wrote to Fairfield Porter a few years thereafter, summarizing his queer aesthetic.17James Schuyler, Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, ed. William Corbett (Brooklyn: Turtle Point Press, 2009), 29. He would later revise this orientation in his 1973 “Hymn to Life” with the imperative “Attune yourself to what is happening / Now,” a sensory expansion of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ocularcentric “Don’t think, but look!”18James Schuyler and Ludwig Wittgenstein, both quoted in Andrew EpsteinAttention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 83. For the original texts, see Schuyler, Collected Poems, 219; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 27. Schuyler returned to Wittgenstein often, finding in his “philosophy (as descent),” to cite Stanley Cavell, a similar poetics (as descent) that refused “(a false ascent), or transcendence.”19Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 46. He even descended so far as to study the “smaller, than small” blackheads on his lovers’ backs.20James Schuyler, as quoted in William Corbett, “A Few Words on James Schuyler,” A Schuyler of Urgent Concern, ed. David Kaufmann, Jacket 2 (2012), Accessed September 12, 2022, https://jacket2.org/article/few-words-james-schuyler. Schuyler was also taken by Kurt Schwitters, the German Dada affiliate. Schwitters believed that the leftovers of modern society could be scavenged and converted into art. As he said at the end of the Great War:

I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together...Everything had broken down in any case, and new things had to be made out of fragments.21Kurt Schwitters as quoted in Elizabeth Burns Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000), 26.

Schuyler’s collage, employed often in Freely Espousing as he cobbles together snooped speech with news headlines, billboard copy, cotton candy, and cherry trees, was kindled by Schwitters. “I was very interested in Dada, and I loved Schwitters’s work,” he told one interviewer. “The idea of using scraps and bits and pieces.”22James Schuyler, as quoted in Carl Little, “An Interview with James Schuyler” Agni 37 (1993): 175. Schuyler was also enamored with Robert Rauschenberg, declaring his admiration in a review of the artist’s mixed-media Combines:

Any archaeologist of our own time and world, armed with the rosetta stone of his sensibility, has an occasion for profound research. Rauschenberg, as he works, is against imagination, which produces works that are much more provocative for the imagination of others, for he leaves the objects he agglomerates free to be themselves, generating the sufficiency of what they are or endlessly suggesting. That is up to the looker.23James Schuyler, Selected Art Writings (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1999), 84.

Like Schuyler, Rauschenberg drew from the daily. His use of color, for instance, was inspired by “the experience of walking on the street or being in the theatre or around any group of people,” in which “[s]omeone might be wearing a bright tie or green shoes.”24Robert Rauschenberg, “Interview with Billy Klüver” On Record: 11 Artists (New York: Experiments in Art and Technology, 1981), 43. Following Rauschenberg, and Schwitters before him, Schuyler nailed and glued together—agglomerated—scraps and bits and pieces of everyday archaeology. “February” seems to have been a breakthrough for Schuyler in this regard. He wrote the poem in 1954 and held it dear before publishing it fifteen years later in Freely Espousing. It begins:

A chimney, breathing a little smoke.
The sun, I can’t see
making a bit of pink
I can’t quite see the blue.
The pink of five tulips
at five p.m. on the day before March first.25Schuyler, Freely Espousing, 15.

A chimney billowing carbon. The sun masked in fog. Pink. Blue. Tulips. Five p.m. March first. Six lines. Disparate objects arranged paratactically, linked only by presence in the container of the poem. He concludes, agape at the variety before him:

I can’t get over
how it all works in together
like a woman who just came to her window
and stands there filling it
jogging her baby in her arms.
She’s so far off. Is it the light
that makes the baby pink?
I can see the little fists
and the rocking-horse motion of her breasts.
It’s getting grayer and gold and chilly.
Two dog-size lions face each other
at the corners of a roof.

It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
It’s a day like any other.26Ibid., 16.

“February” is the first of Schuyler’s many “window” or “roof-gazing,” poems; it attempts to record precisely what could be seen from his New York City apartment window at five p.m. “on the day before March first.” He had endeavored to “write a poem in a regular form about (I think) Palermo, the Palazzo Abatellis,…and the chapels decorated by Serpotta with clouds of plaster cherubs,” but it “turned out to be laborious and flat.”27James Schuyler, Just the Thing, 240. So he eschewed the exotic location and opus of the Western canon for what was right before him, heeding R.W. Emerson’s call to turn away from the remote and the antique toward the common and the familiar.28Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 78. He observes with measured (dis)passion, refusing to transform what he sees into anything more or less than it is. He ends the poem without insight or revelation. “It’s just a day like any other.” In “February,” as elsewhere, Schuyler is writing against futility; he attempts to “press / snowflakes in a book like flowers,” nonetheless aware of the impossibility of recording the now before it melts into memory. As Wayne Koestenbaum notes, Schuyler is concerned with “collecting, the failure to collect, and the desire to include failure” in his poems.29In this sense, Schuyler’s poetry constitutes what Jack Halberstam calls a “queer art of failure” that “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly looses and in loosing imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.” Wayne Koestenbaum, My 1980s and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 103. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.

The poet and critic Joan Retallack uses “poethics”—a word somewhere between poetics, ethics, and ethos—to name a form of life formed by language. “Every philosophy, every narrative, every poem, every piece of visual art or music,” she observes, “organizes our noticing according to its implicit and enacted geometries of attention.”30Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 175. Schuyler, I think, offers a poethics of the gleaner.31I myself glean “ethic of the gleaner” from Amanda Boetzkes’s “Plastic, Oil Culture, and the Ethics of Waste” (2016). Thinking with Agnes Varda’s 2000 essay film Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse, Boetzkes says, “the ethic of the gleaner is precisely to welcome this, to find waste extraordinary, to discover redemption in the particularity and beauty of this process.” He “collect[s] in scattered or fragmentary parcels”—gleans—lyrical material like “the grain left by a reaper,” recalibrating our geometries of attention to the abject and un-attended-to.32Noah Webster, “Glean” American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, Accessed December 13, 2020, http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/glean. In so doing, he gives birth to a way of being in and with the world that cares for the subaltern, the living and non-living, and those unordinary beings caught somewhere in between. Gleaning also evokes investigation: to glean information from a source. This is part of Schuyler’s poethics, too. Schuyler is Mill’s surveillance-poet literalized: making poetry not of what he divines in holy dialogue but sleuthing the streets of New York City for sights and sounds and recording them in his blotter.

Surveillance Poetry

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault cautions that the monitoring of prisoners creeps beyond penitentiary walls to become “a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.”33Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 205. Police come to “bear over everything,” examine “the dust of events, actions, behavior, opinions,” and track “those things of every moment… seek[ing] to reach the most elementary particle.”34Ibid., 213–214. Schuyler himself has been described as “a poet of the immediate, of views out of train and restaurant windows,” whose “subject matter, ostensible and real, is the flux of everyday life.”35Howard Moss, “James Schuyler: Whatever Is Moving,” American Poetry Review 10 (May/June 1981): 14. Indeed, Schuyler gathers dust: those particulate events, actions, and behaviors sordid and sudden. Literal dust sometimes, like the yellow sort “inside the tulips.” He keeps steady watch from his window, not unlike those guards stationed in the Panopticon’s glass-enclosed central tower. He “lies in wait,” intercepting conversations unintended for his ears and identifying with the maggots for whom “bugging” was named.36Dortë Zbikowski, “The Listening Ear,” CTRL {SPACE} (Karlsuhe: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2002), 33–34. He collects data—Schuyler’s book-length poems are “governed by a logic of accumulation and repetition.”37Epstein, Attention Equals Life, 102. He notes dates, times, and places with exactitude: “five p.m. on the day before March first.” And he does this all with the cool dispassion of an informant assembling a case file, in which “the commonplace is not transfigured, but remains defiantly ordinary.”38John Koethe, “A Brief Appreciation,” Denver Quarterly 24 (1990): 33. Foucault’s symptomology of the disciplinary society may well double as a summary of Schuyler’s poetics.

Schuyler would have been uncomfortably familiar with the disciplinary society’s strategies. Haunted by bipolar depression, he spent decades in and out of psychiatric institutions—sometimes for days, others for months. At clinics like New York City’s Payne Whitney, modest revisions of Bentham’s original carceral architecture, he was placed on suicide watch and kept under the close supervision of psychiatrists and nurses. In “February 13, 1975,” part of his series of “Payne Whitney Poems,” Schuyler diagnoses himself as “Always nervous, even / after a good sleep I’d like / to climb back into.”39James Schuyler, “Payne Whitney Poems,” The New York Review, August 17, 1978, Accessed September 10, 2022, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1978/08/17/payne-whitney-poems. He is paranoid: “Some- / one is watching morning / TV…”

Life beyond the hospital was similarly cramped. Beginning in 1950, as Senator Joseph McCarthy alleged that communists had infiltrated the State Department, J. Edgar Hoover expanded the Federal Bureau of Intelligence’s domestic operations. Between 1956 and 1971, the Bureau performed 3,219 “activities,” including 2,305 phone taps and 697 admitted bugs, many on Schuyler’s friends.40Shaw, Narrowcast, 50. The agency compiled dossiers on Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Ed Sanders. Amiri Baraka began to fear that federal agents were inspecting his mail. He addressed them directly in a December 19, 1962, letter to a friend: “I suspect the FBI or somebody is opening my mail, in and out, so I want to say right here I think the FBI eats shit especially JEdgarHoover alias AJ of Islam Inc. alias Dr. Benway, alias Hassan O’Leary the afterbirth tycoon.”41Amiri Baraka as quoted in Ibid., 49. John Ashbery, who had registered as homosexual in order to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, feared “we’d all be sent to concentration camps if McCarthy had his own way.”42John Ashbery as quoted in Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (New York: Knopf, 1993), 190. He was unable to write for several years: “a very dangerous and scary period.”43Ibid; Unlike Ashbery, Schuyler was openly gay. “Walking along the beach” as the “sun was casting those extraordinary Technicolor effects on the sea and sky,” Ashbery admitted feeling, “so embarrassed by these gaudy displays of nature.” Schuyler, by contrast, “didn’t feel embarrassed at all.” James Schuyler, as quoted in David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Anchor, 1999), 30.

Schuyler didn’t discuss surveillance outright and since-declassified FBI files don’t turn up a dossier under his name, but he surely shared the terror of his friends. His identity as a gay poet increased his chances of being monitored. In a mocking verse editorial, journalist Westbrook Pegler linked queerness and poetry to depravity and treason:

How could [Truman] help it if par
-ties both unusual and queer
Got into the State Department
which true patriots hold dear?
To hear the bastards tell it
they are true to Uncle Joey
And call each other female
Names like Bessie, Maud, and Chloe.
And write each other poetry
and confidential notes so tender
Like they was not he-men at all
but belonged to the opposing gender.44David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) 95.

Lips are made looser, Pegler suggests, by loose desires. Indeed, McCarthyism was at once a “red scare” and a “lavender scare.” McCarthy himself conflated sabotage and homosexuality when he told reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be a Communist or a cocksucker.”45Joseph McCarthy as quoted in Naoko Shibusawa, “The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics,” Diplomatic History 36 (2012): 725. In fact, anxiety about the former was tepid compared to the panic about “the homosexual problem.”46Johnson, Lavender Scare, 34. Of 25,00 letters sent to the Wisconsin senator, a quarter expressed concern about “red infiltration”; three-quarters worried about “sex depravity.”47Ibid., 19. McCarthyist homosexual hysteria was inflamed by popular media. In 1948, entomologist Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. His study admonished of unprecedented homosexual conduct, calculating (dubiously) that thirty-seven percent of men—“more than one male in three of the persons that one may meet as he passes along a city street”—had at least one post-adolescent homosexual encounter leading to orgasm and that twenty-five percent had “more than incidental homosexual experiences or reactions for at least three years between ages 16 and 55.”48Alfred Kinsey as quoted in David Alan Sklansky, “One Train May Hide Another: Katz, Stonewall, and the Secret Subtext of Criminal Procedure,” University of California Davis Law Review 41 (2008): 902. His book spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list.49Ibid. In 1966, the editors of TIME ran an article on “The Homosexual in America,” pathologizing same-sex desire as “a pernicious sickness” and “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality.” It deserved “no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, [and] no fake status as minority martyrdom.” The piece concluded that patriotic values were under “vengeful, derisive” attack by “homosexual ethics and esthetics.”50“The Homosexual in America,” TIME, January 21, 1966, 40.

A McCarthy-era report of the arrest of William H. Martin and Bernard F. Mitchell, two “lavender lads” who were “code experts for the U.S…before flitting off to Russia.” The 1950s and 1960s witnessed unprecedented surveillance of “sexual deviants.”
A McCarthy-era report of the arrest of William H. Martin and Bernard F. Mitchell, two “lavender lads” who were “code experts for the U.S....before flitting off to Russia.” The 1950s and 1960s witnessed unprecedented surveillance of “sexual deviants.” It alleged that the State Department “swarm[s] with limp-wristed ‘boys’” who trade classified information for sex. (Reproduced with permission from J.D. Doyle, Houston LGBT History Archive.)

Federal hysteria about sexual deviance emerged in the nineteenth-century alongside the expansion of the bureaucratic state. As immigration services, the military, and public welfare agencies began to systematically categorize individuals as desirable or undesirable, the government commissioned “scientific understandings about sexual perverts.”51Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 2–3. Homosexuals joined “the mentally feeble,” “criminally insane,” and “morally depraved” in the official ranks of the unfit.52Ibid. The regulatory response to homosexuality, however, was limited until the mid-twentieth century. Even during World War II, gay soldiers like Schuyler were seldom discharged for homosexual behavior. In the years after the war, surveillance caught up to social sorting and the State Department’s Security Division dedicated full-time investigators to detect gay civil servants. By 1951, Carlisle H. Humelsine, the Division’s Deputy Undersecretary, reported the dismissal of fifty-four homosexuals.53Shibusawa, “The Lavender Scare and Empire: Rethinking Cold War Antigay Politics,” 731. The next year, more than one hundred were expelled. Gay men and lesbians were the single largest category of “security risks” discharged from government service during the Cold War. Historian David K. Johnson estimates that 5,000 were removed in all.54Johnson, Lavender Scare, 166.

Surveillance reached beyond Washington into queer bars, clubs, and counter-spaces across the country—not least New York City’s Stonewall Inn, the site of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the same year Schuyler published Freely Espousing. Police installed peepholes and decoys in men’s rooms, where they averred that “it was easy to orchestrate sexual activity.”55George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World: 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 197. Of 493 felony arrests for homosexual activity in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties, 274 were made in public restrooms. Most of these arrests were for sexual conduct directly witnessed by officers stationed in hidden observation posts.56David Alan Sklansky, “One Train May Hide Another,” 887. Though visual surveillance was most incriminating, it proved ineffective in tracking homosexuality. Queer subjects often lacked the Bertillonian markers preferred by criminal anthropology. Flat feet, hookworm, or syphilis—used to reject individuals from entrance to the military—did not turn up queerness. Neither did melanin, so often and so erroneously deployed as a bio-criminal indicator. In response to this queer invisibility, authorities turned to audio surveillance, which recent technological developments had rendered “virtually impossible” to notice. Engineers at the Bureau had refined wiretaps and bugs to be undetectable “without visually inspecting every inch of the wires and every element servicing it, down to the last screw.”57Alfred Hubest, “Technical devices and plan of operations for eavesdropping on the adversary” (Declassified 1994), Accessed December 13, 2020, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol4no3/html/v04i3a04p_0001. An internal CIA memo celebrated miniature microphones, amplifiers, and recorders that were “small enough to hide behind a dime.” Agents intercepted untold thousands of hours of conversation in an attempt to identify the deviant, dissident, and undesirable—or too desirous.

Foucault warned that the surveillance state was so insidious that it would lodge itself in the body. Discipline would operate through “the capillary functioning of power,” each citizen becoming a syndic.58Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 198. At times, through his surveillance poetics, it seems the disciplinary society entered Schuyler’s bloodstream, too. Unlike his surveillants, however, Schuyler’s use of the overheard is not about neurotic capture but symbiotic escape.

The Queer Otic

The late José Esteban Muñoz located in Schuyler a certain “queer optic”: “an affective rationality,” as Kandice Chuh rephrased it, “neither identical nor fully separate from the structures of dominati[ion]” that “subtends misidentification, the intimate but dissident relationship to the given present.”59Kandice Chuh, “It’s Not about Anything,” Social Text 121 (Winter 2014): 125. “The great queer voice of the New York School of poetry” possessed the utopian capacity to see beauty amidst ruins.60José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), 13. When Schuyler writes, in “A Photograph” that “I really do believe / future generations can / live without the intervals of anxious / fear we know between / our bouts and strolls of / ecstasy,” he “signaling a queerness to come,” Muñoz says, “a way of being in the world that is glimpsed through reveries in a quotidian life that challenges the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiety and fear.”61Schuyler, Collected Poems, 187. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 25. As Brian Glavey notes, Schuyler, in his attempt to catalog the here and now, seems to refuse Muñoz’s search for the “there and then.” “More interested in describing the world as it exists than in forecasting worlds to come, his poems resist the critical imperative associated with the utopian impulse in favor of a fundamentally affirmative ambition “merely to say, to see and say, things / as they are.” Brian Glavey, “Lyric Wilt, or, The Here and Now of Queer Impotentiality,” New Literary History 51 (Summer 2020): 571). In refunctionalizing the surveillance techniques deployed against him, Schuyler introduces a queer otic: a subversive, er-otic listening to the odd and out-of-place.

Fairfield Porter’s casein on canvas rendering of Schuyler from 1961. Porter poses the poet askew, like in his portrait from four years earlier, but now details his ear with folds, flesh, and shadow. Schuyler’s ear thus becomes the focal point, as listening did of his queer experimentalism and the state’s surveillance of queer life.
Fairfield Porter’s casein on canvas rendering of Schuyler from 1961. Porter poses the poet askew, like in his portrait from four years earlier, but now details his ear with folds, flesh, and shadow. Schuyler’s ear thus becomes the focal point, as listening did of his queer experimentalism and the state’s surveillance of queer life. (Fairfield Porter, Portrait of James Schuyler, 1961, Casein on canvas, 24 × 22 inches. © 2024 The Estate of Fairfield Porter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

The aural is, in Sara Ahmed’s terms, essential to “queer phenomenology.”62Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). Through sound, queer people stage intimate encounters and locate themselves in relation to kindred bodies. Code-switching is a way of being oneself where one doesn’t belong, enabling communication that is unintelligible to straight over-hearers. Exploratory switching, for instance, may be used to determine the orientation of an interlocutor by employing subtle elements of gay speech to test if the listener responds in kind. As Rusty Barrett writes of encoded queer speech, “exploratory switching represents an important site of contact between gay and straight settings, as it may be used covertly to establish gay solidarity even in entirely straight settings.”63Rusty Barrett, “The ‘Homo-genius’ Speech Community,” Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, Sexuality, ed. Anna Liva and Kira Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 196–197. Phonic elongation works similarly. In inflating a word’s vowels—echoing the ā of “heyyyyy” or ē-ü of “cuuuute” — “queer extensities” stretch the present of the utterance, shrouding it, as writes Amalle Dublon, in an “anticipatory penumbra” that “halos and holds the unstable coordination of mutuality.”64Amalle Dublon, “‘A Very Soft or Long Attack and Release’ or Heyyyyy: Queer Extensities,” Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 3 (2014), Accessed September 14, 2022, https://csalateral.org/issue/3/queer-the-noise-heyyyyy-queer-extensities-dublon.

Queer speech is at once a means of counterintelligence and congress. Sound passes, physically, materially, between bodies and things, breaching the limits that define them. As to Brandon LaBelle observes,

The overheard requires us to hear differently: to find meaning in the incoherent fragments and noises that interrupt and that trouble and excite the borders between oneself and another. In being something or someone—a voice, a vitality, a murmur, a cacophony—that is unexpected, the overheard surprises by reminding us of those who are always around or nearby.65Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 66–67.

When Schuyler quotes the freely espoused—“This can’t be happening to me!”; “she is a pill”; “What is that gold-green tetrahedron down the river?”; “You are experiencing a new sensation”—he espouses them in a “marriage of the atmosphere” beyond the smothering confines of sanctioned espousal.66Schuyler, “Freely Espousing,” 13–14. This is a code-switch of his own. Through the queer otic, Schuyler joins his radical poethics with a radical politics: imagines, even drags into being for a moment, a world where he is, we are, able to espouse, freely. Where instead of policing their desires—“It’s. Hmm. No.”—two sailors in a “scallop shell of quiet” aboard “the S.S. United States” can set them loose and

fold each other up well, thrill.67Schuyler would not allow an ending so ending-like; Ibid.