The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court

The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court by James Schuyler


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  • Chapbook
    The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court

    The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court by James Schuyler was published in 1976 by the Janus Press. Designed and printed by artist-publisher Claire Van Vliet in Newark, Vermont, in a run of 150 copies, this finely made chapbook is perhaps the scarcest publication in Schuyler’s oeuvre. Rather than the kaleidoscopic narrative collages of perception and mid-century American life that define Schuyler’s New York School aesthetic, the poems in The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court are subversive vignettes of turn-of-the-century English culture.

    Composed of three different kinds of paper with text printed in red and black ink, the book opens and closes with elaborate multi-page cut-out frontpages and endpages that depict a reader’s approach to—and departure from—the green topiary and purple architectural silhouettes of an English manor house. The suite of ten poems, subtitled “English Songs and Dances,” would be collected in Schuyler’s A Few Days, published by Random House in 1985.

    The titular Witley Court was an English manor house constructed in the 17th century and continually expanded to become one of the most lavishly designed palatial estates of Victorian and pre-WWI England. During its last major renovation in the 1850s, architect Samuel Daukes installed supposedly fireproof wooden floors made of “special timber.” However, during a fire in September 1937, as described in “Witley Court,” “the fireproof floors / failed to distinguish / themselves and are no longer / really to be trusted.” Following the fire, the once opulent Witley Court was gutted and fell into disrepair—a fitting domestic allegory for the decline of the British Empire that was also “no longer / really to be trusted.”

    The story of Witley Court would have come to Schuyler’s attention around 1972 when the building’s ruins were acquired by the English Heritage Trust to be turned into a tourist attraction. In the context of Schuyler’s experiments in American poetry, the fate of Witley Court offers an image for the waning English lyric tradition that the New York School had playfully subsumed into its wheelhouse of subjects. Schuyler’s sardonic description reflects the hubristic folly of believing that wooden floors might be fireproof in the first place. Schuyler slyly reconstructs the demise of the burned manor house into a humorous cautionary tale: “Visitor to Witley Court / enter at your peril.”

    Designed as miniature scenes and descriptions of everyday objects—with such mundane titles as “In a Churchyard” and “Hats”—the chapbook's poems are full of the social hierarchies, voices, and tastes of Edwardian cultural life. Schuyler weaves obscure proper nouns and antiquated advertisement language from early 20th century advertisements—such as Simpitrol Lighting Systems, Fry’s Cocoa, and Swan & Edgar department store—into odd little portraits of daily material life, including glimpses of a stratified class structure and consumer culture. “How is it you got out so early?” asks a voice in “Below the Stairs,” a scene of behind-the-scenes domestic gossip. The last lines dutifully reply, “Oh the missis bought a vacuum / and it do the work in no time.” In “Adverts” we come across the scripted voice of a happy consumer announcing, “That’s what I / call a good light” about Mazda-brand incandescent lightbulbs as well as ditties about department store–brand fabric: “Swan and Edgar / Good linen / Swan and Edgar / Good linen.”

    Through their fizzy, parodic surfaces, the poems document a range of major and minor crises—pain and disease to both people and plants, manipulation of the natural world, colonizing wars—that, like the burning of Witley Court, presage the collapse of English cultural influence. “Boer War Bread Strike” mimes the voice of a hungry British imperial soldier in South Africa demanding, “We cannot fight on this glue / give us the bread we are used to.” Moving between humor and darker registers, Schuyler wields tonal disruptions through sharp collaging and surprising musical lines. The poem “What Ails My Fern,” composed of a series of mundane grievances about various flora, invokes “Dear Abby” letters from a home gardening magazine, but also an arch existential malaise.

    Though Schuyler’s sexuality does not appear as directly in these poems as elsewhere in his work, the campy flavor and attention to normalized daily oppressions makes The Fireproof Floors of Witley Court an important part of the New York School’s tradition of queer resistance. A subversive queer subtext could be read in a poem like “Frock,” with its enthusiasm for the feminine adornments of a theatrically presented subject who is not identified by gender:

    I love crystal fringe on a dance frock

    and the ripple of light as you pass

    in a plain little chemisette bodice

    drawn down from your shoulder

    by long heavy tassles [sic] that match

    your tunic of pale rose-pink charmeuse

    Similar in structure to “The Payne Whitney Poems,” a series of 11 short poems centered on objects, moments, and landscapes that appear in Schuyler’s The Morning of the Poem, these “English Songs and Dances” offer another entryway to Schuyler’s signature innovations. They display his idiosyncratic, imaginative attention to the surfaces of daily life; his penchant for sourcing language and sculpting tonal environments from a surprising range of literary and popular sources; and his devotion to the pastoral tradition. Deliberately non-monumental, this short suite of poems is also evidence of Schuyler’s allegiance to the ephemeral. This slender, beautiful Janus Press edition offers an opportunity to encounter a lesser-known expression of the monumental talents of James Schuyler, one of the great poets of the 20th century.

    —Nick Sturm 

    Nick Sturm is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming with The Poetry FoundationThe Brooklyn RailPENASAP/JThe Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. His scholarly and archival work can be found at his blog Crystal Set


    Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, contributed to the conception of this project, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    James Schuyler

    James Schuyler (1923–1991) was a leading figure of the New York School, a wide-ranging cross-section of artists whose experiments in form, tone, and the collaborative exchange of technique and sensibility across genres and mediums embodied a new aesthetic approach to the inclusion of the everyday and ephemeral. Together with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, Schuyler is one of the prominent “first generation” poets of the New York School whose careers began in the early 1950s. Schuyler’s work—full of a discursive attention to the world and the movement of daily time—is indispensable. As poet James Meetze writes, “James Schuyler remains a central and inimitable figure in twentieth-century poetry. Delicate, careful, witty, and crass—often even in the same line—his poems offer astute observation capable of transporting us instantly through time and space. His is, as he puts it in his poem ‘Grousset’s China (or Slogans)’ a precision of multiplicity.’”

    Born in Chicago, Schuyler grew up in East Aurora, New York, and Washington, D.C., among other places, and briefly attended Bethany College in West Virginia. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Schuyler went on to live in Ischia, Italy, with W. H. Auden as the elder poet’s typist. In an interview later in life, Schuyler described the experience as a discouraging one in regards to his own aspirations; he recalled: “Well, if this is poetry, I’m certainly not going to write any myself.” Despite his doubts, Auden’s intricate, playful formalism would be an important precedent for the sharp incandescence of Schuyler’s lyricism. Meanwhile, his future cohorts Ashbery, Koch, and O’Hara were becoming friends at Harvard.  

    Schuyler’s prominent influences include Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, various threads of the French avant-gardes, the prose of early 20th century novelists such as Ronald Firbank, and Whitman—updated to mid-century American life as a gay man. It is important to note that Schuyler’s poetry echoes elements of Ashbery and O’Hara’s poetry—a close attention to everyday experience and ordinary objects, a chatty and colloquial voice—as much as it sometimes resonates with the work of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. However, Schuyler’s poetry eludes direct aesthetic comparisons to peers and predecessors. Schuyler’s droll wit, devotion to flora and fauna in his poems, and experiments with form and musicality—particularly his distinctive collage techniques and use of very short and very long lines—are a few defining characteristics of his work. As Andrew Epstein notes, “Schuyler continually finds himself crashing into the limitations of language and the impossibility of representational fidelity.” Though his poems often collect the ephemera of everyday experience, unlike the confessional poetry in vogue during his lifetime, Schuyler’s linguistic playfulness and interest in musicality set his work apart from the mainstream.

    It was in New York City in the early 1950s that Schuyler’s aesthetic would begin to crystalize around friendships with writers and artists associated with the New York School, especially Ashbery and O’Hara, the latter of whom he shared an apartment with at 326 East 49th Street. At various times in the 1950s through the 1960s, Schuyler worked as a curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Exhibitions Department, wrote critically for ARTnews—including a cover story on Joe Brainard—and cofounded and edited the influential magazine Locus Solus with Ashbery, Koch, and Harry Mathews. Schuyler’s social-aesthetic circle would grow to include friendships and romantic relationships with poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, pianist Arthur Gold, and painters Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter. His friendships with painters like Freilicher and Porter particularly influenced his poetry. Like Freilicher and Porter’s understated scenes of daily movement and change, Schuyler’s poems embody fluctuations of perception that mix warmth and humor with a persistent anxiety. Porter was an especially important presence in Schuyler’s life in the 1960s when, after a series of mental breakdowns, Schuyler lived with the painter and his family in Southampton and at their summer home in Great Spruce Head Island, Maine. Schuyler’s issues with mental health continued throughout his life, and he was periodically hospitalized. From 1979 to the end of his life, Schuyler lived in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York with the help of a series of young poet assistants, including Eileen Myles, Helena Hughes, Tom Carey, and Elinor Nauen.

    Though revered among his peers, Schuyler’s work did not find a wide audience as readily as other New York School poets, due at least partly to the belated—as compared to other members of the New York School—publication of his early work. A small collection of Schuyler’s poems, Salute, was published by Tiber Press in 1960 with illustrations by Grace Hartigan. That same year, he saw his poems included in the influential The New American Poetry, 1945–1960 anthology, edited by Donald Allen. His first full-length poetry collection, Freely Espousing, was published in 1969 when he was 46 years old. Schuyler’s subsequent work would be published regularly throughout the rest of his life. Although known primarily for his poetry, Schuyler also wrote three novels: Alfred and Guinevere (1958), his first published book; A Nest of Ninnies (1969), a collaboration with Ashbery; and What’s For Dinner? (1978). Schuyler’s The Morning of the Poem (1980) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1981.

    Schuyler is a germinal presence within post-WWII American poetics, and many so-called “second generation” New York School poets, such as Myles, Alice Notley, and Ted Berrigan, were deeply influenced by him. In their novel Chelsea Girls, Myles memorializes Schuyler’s influential presence in terms that echo his poetry’s thematic devotions: “He was like music, Jimmy was, and you had to be like music too to be with him, but understand in his room he was conductor. He directed the yellow air in room 625. It was marvelous to be around.”

    In the last years of his life, and for the first time in his career, Schuyler gave a series of public readings of his poetry in New York City, including the now-legendary reading at the Dia Art Foundation in 1988. The publication of Collected Poems in 1993 and Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet, in 2010, as well as volumes of Schuyler’s selected art writings and letters, have continued to generate interest in Schuyler’s influential legacies as a poet whose portraits of sexuality, aesthetic perception, and the ephemera of everyday life mark an oeuvre of remarkable formal innovation.

    —Nick Sturm 

    Nick Sturm is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming with The Poetry FoundationThe Brooklyn RailPENASAP/JThe Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. His scholarly and archival work can be found at his blog Crystal Set

    Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, contributed to the conception of this project, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    The Janus Press


    Book artist Claire Van Vliet founded the Janus Press in 1955, and over the past six decades she has won international recognition—including the first MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship to be presented to a book artist—for her fine-press volumes and works on paper. Named after the ancient Roman god who was able to see the future and the past at the same time, the Janus Press combines traditional and experimental approaches to illustration, papermaking, printing, and bookbinding. Van Vliet’s artistry includes paintings, non-textual books, broadsides, and ephemera, but a significant focus has been small-edition books that marry literature with inventive design and exquisite materials. The output of the press moves between reprinting classic works—such as texts by Sappho, Emily Dickinson, and Kafka—to publishing contemporary writing, including poetry by Rita Dove, Hayden Carruth, Galway Kinnell, Sandra McPherson, James Schuyler, and Denise Levertov.

    Claire Van Vliet’s singular path as a self-determined artist took shape early. The daughter of a Canadian Air Force pilot, she was born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1933. Both of her parents passed away by the time she was 14, prompting a move to live with relatives in Southern California. After graduating from high school at the age of 15, she earned her undergraduate degree in three years at San Diego State University, where she took courses in drawing, sculpture, and lettering, then completed her MFA at the Claremont Graduate School in 1954. The Janus Press was founded the next year in San Diego, and the first title was a collection of poetry: An Oxford Odyssey, by John Theobald, her freshman college English teacher.

    Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Van Vliet developed foundational skills as an artist, typographer, printer, and teacher. She spent several years living and working in Europe, including a stint as a typesetter at a newspaper in Germany. During this period, she also learned to make etchings. In 1957, she moved back to the U.S. and lived for seven years in Philadelphia, working with typographer and printer John Anderson as a typesetter at the Lanston Monotype Company and as an apprentice at his Pickering Press in Maple Shade, New Jersey. She also taught drawing and printmaking at the Philadelphia College of Art, and from 1965 to 1966 she taught typography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    In 1966, Van Vliet settled in Newark, Vermont, a small town in the state’s Northeast Kingdom that has been the headquarters of the Janus Press ever since. The remote, rural landscape of her home has greatly informed her work, as seen in reoccurring images of rolling hillsides, skies, suns, moons, and other elements of nature. In the first years of the press, she established a frugal existence, living without indoor bathroom facilities or hot running water. Eventually, she designed and oversaw the building of a three-floor space with areas for binding, typography, illustration, papermaking, and printing, as well as quarters for collaborating writers and artists traveling from far away. After receiving her MacArthur Fellowship in 1989, Van Vliet traveled to New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, and across the U.S., refreshing her drawing practice, reconnecting with fellow artists, and establishing new connections in the book arts field.

    Van Vliet has worked extensively with other writers and artists—including printers, binders, papermakers, and publishers—from across the country and internationally. Van Vliet has also worked locally with Vermont writers and artists. She has maintained a longtime relationship with the Bread and Puppet Theater, which moved from New York City to Vermont in the 1970s. Over the decades, she printed posters for the theater company—acclaimed for its politically themed productions that have brought together music, sculpture, procession, and large-scale puppets—and she has published books of art, plays, and other texts by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann and his wife Elka Schumann. Van Vliet’s affinity with the company’s social justice concerns can be seen in some of her own books, including GREED (2013), featuring artwork and text that addresses inequality and corruption.

    Janus Press titles are remarkable for their diversity of approaches to text, image, and the book form. Artwork has come in the form of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithographs, photographs, linoleum cuts, drawings, and vitreographs. Van Vliet is particularly known for her innovative use of pigmented paper pulp to create illustrations, non-adhesive bindings, woven book structures, and wide-ranging materials, including wood, cloth, and handmade papers. Her books are also distinctive for the imaginative ways in which design is used to explore possible meanings of the texts. A 2016 book with New Zealand author Keri Hulme includes images of maps and a glossary booklet of Maori. Accordion folds with pop-ups and pulp-painted paper accommodate the expansive words of Circulus Sapientiae (Circle of Wisdom) by medieval abbess, mystic, and writer Hildegard von Bingen.

    The works of Janus Press have been exhibited at prestigious universities around the country, as well as at the Grolier Club, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the San Francisco Center for the Book, which presented the exhibition The Janus Press at Sixty in 2015. The Library of Congress holds the design archives of the press, and large holdings of Janus Press titles can be found in the collections of the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the Kohler Art Library, the National Library of Canada, the University of Utah, the University of Vermont, the University of Virginia, Columbia University, McGill University, Dartmouth College, and elsewhere.

    Claire Van Vliet’s influence is ongoing, through her continued production of books—include the recent Punta del Burro, a 2018 poetry chapbook by Kwame Dawes, with artwork by Jon Gregg—and through her many years of mentoring assistants and apprentices who have developed their own careers as book artists and teachers. Van Vliet’s devotion to the book as a practical conveyor of the word and as a materially beautiful object is a considerable gift to the art of poetry. Susan Allen, director of the California Rare Book School, writes: “In the words of William Morris, the founder of a private press of another era, the aim must be the creation of something ‘useful and beautiful.’ It is hard to examine any product of the Janus Press without coming to the conclusion that Claire Van Vliet has successfully achieved this goal.”

    Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.

    James Schuyler reads at the Dia Art Foundation, New York City, introduction by John Ashbery, 1988

    James Schuyler gave his first public reading on November 15, 1988 at the Dia Art Foundation when he was 65 years old. Sound for this video recording of the legendary reading begins at 00:35. The video includes preliminary remarks by Charles B. Wright, then Dia’s Executive Director, and an introduction by John Ashbery. 

    The audio clip of Schuyler reading "What Ails My Fern," which can be heard by clicking on the listen button on page 8 of the chapbook, is drawn from this recording.

    This recording is used with the permission of The Literary Estate of James Schuyler and Penn Sound. Copyright © 2019 The Literary Estate of James Schuyler, Raymond Foye Executor.