Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Reading Peter Schjeldahl


Peter Schjeldahl builds paragraphs. Possibly no other critic now writing in English has such a strong sense of what that unit of writing might be, might achieve. It’s a difficult middle ground between the (supposedly) complete thought of the sentence and the complicated arc of an argument that is a review in general. It is not surprising that Schjeldahl began his career as poet, part of the second-generation New York School. Like the works of those urban outfitters – especially Frank O’Hara, Bill Berkson, Ron Padgett, David Shapiro, the short lyrics of John Ashbery – Schjeldahl’s paragraphs are tight but never closed. Indeed, the lone one-paragraph review in Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 (Abrams, 2020), nine sentences devoted to the 15th-century painter, Giovanni Bellini, deftly parodies Rilke: You must change your life.


                Schjeldahl wants us to change ours. His pieces – my guess is that this fat yellow paperback holds maybe a third to a quarter of his critical art writing – often mimic the experience of sauntering through a gallery, taking in the overall presentation of one grand painting, yet focusing on a single small detail – the brown with which a single button is portrayed – in another. Then, almost with a twirl you are out into another gallery altogether.


                This means that these pieces often build to a dynamic, even wobbly structure closer at heart to a Jenga tower than, say, the Chrysler Building. Outlines would only reveal you to be a rube. Part of the thrill of reading Schjeldahl is to see how he’s going to make it work. Almost always, he does. William James, meet Harold Lloyd.


                There’s no hidden program here, no master narrative. Schjeldahl’s not a Fuller Brush Man a la Clement Greenberg, but rather somebody who wandered in and tells you just what he sees. Some of the best pieces concern the stuffiest old masters as well as wunderkinds who were hot for half an hour 25 years ago. Did I wish that he discussed the role of shadows in Las Meninas (which to my eye foretells the whole of modernism, that easel as powerful as anything to its left, our right, the element most often snipped out entirely on the internet)? Sure, but I learned more about Alice Neel in these pages than I have anywhere else ever.


                I began reading Schjeldahl’s prose roughly half a century ago before he took on painting as the object of these paragraphs and devoted one essay in The New Sentence to a review of his that appeared in Parnassus in 1981. Schjeldahl was giddy with pleasure at reading Ceravolo (a sentiment I share) although, in Peter’s words, “I rarely know what he is talking about.” At the time, that seemed to me to be a huge and impossibly important claim. It provoked in me what I still think of as my finest critical response in that volume, following Schjeldahl’s close reading of a poem whose title, the proclaimed subject, was altered by a strategic typo. At a hinge moment in American verse – remember Auden’s recollection that he awarded Ashbery the 1956 Yale Younger Poets award even though he didn’t understand “a single word”? – Schjeldahl was willing to stare that sucker down. The dull academic rationalism that confused poetry with regularized metered prose was about to be overrun by multiple generations of poets hopped up on Lautr√©amont, Pound and freedom. Olson was doling out rules for thinking through the line, but it was Schjeldahl who finally asked what it meant. That’s really the more important question.


                What it meant was that poems, finally, could be as complex as the simple page of anyone’s sketchbook. Head of a dog here, a hand holding a brush, the wrist tilted just so, outlined in pencil there, five practiced signatures, each attempting a different (but always perfect) interior ligature. Poems were no longer undergraduate essays all blown up with promises to keep. In fact precursors abound: Stein’s interior portraits of objects, Pound melopoetic mash-up of Italian ports, Greek myths, an imaginary Africa as well as a hallucinated East. What about all this writing?


                Schjeldahl responded positively (I was fortunate, some of his compadres at the time were predisposed to think the worst of me), inviting me up to New York to meet the woman he typically identifies in his essays as “the actress” (I think of her more as a gallerist) and then to prowl some of the sites of New York he was thinking about at that moment. Anish Kapoor was in his space contemplating a new blacker black that might be patented, two concepts I had not even dreamt of. It was a lovely afternoon, but alas never repeated. In retrospect, my autism accents my introversion when I often most regret it (I once told Ashbery that I thought of this as shyness, a condition he confessed to sharing).


                It is possible I think also to regret Schjeldahl’s shift into criticism. His fifth and most recent volume of poetry came out over 40 years ago. But I think a collection like these little essays demonstrates that he hasn’t abandoned poetry at all, merely found a clever disguise, an invisibility cloak that enables Schjeldahl to be useful, support himself and live within reason. At the end of 2019, he published a piece on his terminal lung cancer – The Art of Dying – and then he went into remission. A kind of magic trick. Such miracles have a tendency not to last forever, but we should all be thankful for every minute Peter Schjeldahl spends with us.


I was just 22 when Clayton Eshleman first accepted my work for Caterpillar, encouraged no doubt by Robert Kelly. It was an important appearance for me, leading pretty directly to Jerry Rothenberg's suggestion that I gather some poets (no one had settled as yet on the term language) for Alcheringa and eventually to my editing In the American Tree. I also appeared four times in Sulfur.

I was quite aware of Clayton's reputation as a volatile young man, especially around issues of food & drink, and I had more than one opportunity to watch him send a dish or, more often, the wine back if it had not proved suitable. But he was a passionate defender of restaurants he liked and more than once he directed me to an excellent repast.

Once, when I was the director of development at the California Institute of Integral Studies in SF in the early 80's, Clayton called me mid-morning to say that he was in town and to ask if I wanted to go to lunch. I told him that the president of the school was taking his leadership team out for a business-meeting lunch (there was a reason but that part I've long since forgotten). Clayton wanted a recommendation for where to eat and you could have heard me wince over the land line. But I recommended a couple of places around the Haight that I liked, especially a yuppiesh California cuisine not-quite-fern-bar on Stanyan up the hill from where Bob Perelman and I had run the Tassajara Baker poetry series post-Grand Piano.

To my horror, when it came time for the Institute's team to head out for lunch, John Broomfield, the prez, announced that we were all going to go to that same restaurant. Sure enough, as we walked in there were Clayton & Caryl across the room mid-way through their meal. I went over to say hello, afraid to ask how the food was, then scooted back to the party from the 'Tute.

As Clayton & Caryl got up to leave, Clayton gave me the thumb & forefinger in a circle sign to let me know he'd enjoyed the food. I remember feeling like I'd pulled the sword from the stone.

d alexander, who helped me when I was starting Tottel's, used to tell a story that when he had published Clayton in his own journal, odda talla, a woman showed up at his place in New York with a gun wanting to discuss it. Clayton claimed that that never happened and that d loved a good story. [d, by the way, was his full first name and there was a story for that as well.]

On another occasion, Krishna and I had just dropped Colin off at a summer camp and gone to stay at a B&B in the Poconos that was mostly empty. There was a Brazilian building crew that was staying in the main lodge while they worked on some mansion nearby and we were told of a couple that was in one of the out buildings along a pond. We were instructed on what to do if we saw bears, but we went into town and had a nice dinner and went back to our room. The Brazilians were partying downstairs but they didn't speak much English and my Portuguese is aspirational at best.

The next morning we met the other couple, around our age, who were down from Staten Island. After we ate breakfast I excused myself to go off and write for an hour or so and when I returned to the main cafe Krishna was still chatting with them and had explained that I was off writing poetry. The woman looked at me and said, "Oh, do you know Clayton Eshelman?" She was Caryl's sister! We spent the rest of the morning listening to their Clayton stories (being "dragged" through the caves of France, an experience I would have given a leg for).

Jackson Mac Low, Armand Schwerner, Clayton, David Antin, Ronald Johnson -- so many of the poets who emerged in the 1960s right after the New American Poetry appeared -- are gone now. When Coyote's Journal (edited by Jim Koller with help in the early issues from Johnson & Ed van Aelstyn, every one of them gone as well), the magazine that seemed most central to my imagination of what poetry might be, went dark circa 1970, Caterpillar became THE journal, bringing everyone from Carolee Scheeman (having sex right on the cover with images from Fuses) to an issue devoted to Jack Spicer which (with Manroot in SF doing the same) kept his name alive in the long first decade after his death. Clayton was famously an impossible person, but his complete commitment to being exactly who he was gave him the courage to have a huge impact on American letters. If I remember right, Caterpillar is where Adrienne Rich chose to publish "Diving into the Wreck," the poem by which she freed herself from the polite restraints of the Lowell Group. Clayton published George Stanley DECADES before other US publications took notice. I was one of many who benefited from knowing Clayton & he was nothing but generous towards me. I won't forget him.