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Philip Schultz

Philip Schultz is one of the most honored of American poets.  His books of poems have won the Pulitzer Prize, Lamont Poetry Prize, Levinson Prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and have been finalists for the National Book Award.  He has also been awarded Guggenheim, Fullbright, and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.  In addition to eight books of poetry, he is the author of the best-selling memoir My Dyslexia.   Mr. Schultz has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.  His poems frequently appear in the New Yorker and other important venues.  He is also the founder and Director of the Writer’s Studio, a school for fiction and poetry writing based in New York City, which has been described as “so prestigious it’s next-to-impossible to get into.”  He also founded and directed NYU’s graduate writing program. 

Mr. Schultz was born and raised in post-World War II Rochester, in a neighborhood populated by immigrant Italians and Eastern European Jews.  His father relentlessly drove himself to achieve the American Dream of business success, but failed miserably, almost comically at every business he tried, and died ruined, when his son was 18.  Mr. Schultz’s family’s hardships are a recurring theme in his poems, but it is too easy to assume that a grim biography makes for good poems.  Hard lives do not make great poets – it is dedicated hard work that makes for great poems, and the poems of Philip Schultz exhibit the all but invisible craft that often forms the underpinning of fine art.  With seemingly simple language and syntax, he has honed the sound of ordinary speech into a sharply precise instrument.  Each line of his verse tugs us into the next line, and the power of concision drives his narrative – indeed, this poet is also a master storyteller. 
Above all, Schultz is a philosophical poet – a distinction attributed to the greatest poets in our language, including Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, and Eliot, among others – whose poems take on the great themes: the quest for meaning, redemption for suffering and hardship, and the celebration of friendship and love.

Though every book by Schultz is a literary occasion, he has just published a magnificent new collection of poems called Luxury, which should further cement his reputation as one of our greatest poets.

Luxury is divided into two parts.  The first contains lyrical poems that bear Schultz’s stamp of emotional directness and deep compassion, with an admixture of humor and irony.  His concerns are with humanity - the poignant suffering and brave celebrations of life.  There are no nature poems here, no ruminating walks in the woods.  Instead, Schultz gives us ordinary people, very much including himself, who are confounded about the fickle obstacles life puts in the way of happiness and confused by the elusiveness of meaning.  Though these poems have serious concerns, several are framed by funny stories, as in IGA: “It’s one week after Sandy / and Mrs, Cobb, our mailman’s aunt, / who lived in the Halloween house on Sherrill Road / that burned down, is ahead of me in line, / hands in her hair, screaming. / Betsy, the cashier, is telling the assistant manager, / Peggy, that all she did was say her peaches / aren’t the ones on sale.  Mr. Brim, the sourpuss / who owns the pizzeria on North Main Street, yells / from behind me, ‘Just give her the damn peaches! / A deer’s on my garage, my backyard’s a lake, / we’re still at my sister-in-law’s and I’m not hollerin’ my head off!’ / I offer to pay and Betsy snorts, ‘You!?’ / because two years ago I refused to make a third donation / to her Baptist choir and her god isn’t the forgiving kind…”  This poem ends, not untypically for Schultz, with a comically philosophical insight:  “if we were just a little more humble in the hearing / and sublime in the doing, as Saint Augustine suggested, / we could all go back to sleep only one donation / and the right peach from deliverance.”

The second half of Luxury is a single long poem, the title poem of the book.  Though one poem, it is made up of many small sections, each a story or anecdote that bears on the questions of how and whether life means and whether suicide is a reasoned option to suffering.  These are wry but searching poems.  As the poet Tony Hagland has said, Schultz is the poet of “our interior lives” – the poet of our thoughts when we think most deeply about life.  The stories these poems tell are of famous literary suicides – Hemingway, Camus, Celan – and of a dear friend of the poet’s, and of his own father.  These are deeply compassionate stories that permit us entry into spiritual  and existential crisis.  But severally and as a single theme, they point toward a moving and convincing conclusion that makes Luxury a great and satisfying work of art:

While I,
standing in the kitchen,
pondering questions about guilt,
satisfaction and lunch,
remember leaning against 
the sycamore in our front yard
twenty-six years ago,
trying to imagine a family
inside the house I just bought,
a future prolific enough
to contain squawking blackbirds,
flying deer 
and a notion as mysterious and improbable,
as fragrant
and luxurious
as happiness.