Peter Schjeldahl: Poet and Art Critic (1942-2022)

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Peter Schjeldahl would probably have been flustered if I had professed to be astounded at his capacity to write an article on the death of Frank O’Hara at the age of 24. Perhaps there are thousands of people, if not hundreds, who could have written something as directly elegant and insightful as Schjeldahl did at such a young age, but I am most certainly am not one of them, nor do I know any people my age who could look back and say that their youthful talent was equally capacious. Perhaps Dennis Cooper would be the only person I have known who would be up to the task at a similar age. As for being older, not that much has changed. Even on the verge of turning 75 in the next few days, I find myself wishing I could turn my blog over to a guest writer who could quickly sketch why Peter Schjeldahl meant so much to so many of us.

I knew him first as a poet, and it is as a poet that I wish to speak of him right now. Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar Press published Schjeldahl’s final collection of poems, The Brute. While the title poem is a deft critique of America’s self-righteous justifications for its empire, there are several other poems that deserve canonical attention: “To Pico Boulevard”; “On Cocksucking”; and “Why I Missed Punk.” When I put together my second anthology of Los Angeles poets, “Poetry Loves Poetry,” Schjeldahl’s droll pilgrimage on Pico Boulevard was my choice for the book’s first poem. One might think it odd to have an anthology featuring over five dozen Los Angeles-based poets start with a poet who is more associated with the New York School and the St. Mark’s scene, but Schjeldahl enjoyed the irony. He wrote me that “I worked hard for the honor of being a Los Angeles poet, and I am happy to accept it.” Over the course of a couple of years, Schjeldahl gave several inspiring readings in Los Angeles, including one where he delivered a poem about how he was giving up poetry for writing art criticism. I wish I could remember its title.

His influence on that anthology began with a conversation I had with him at Intellectuals and Liars bookstore in the late spring, 1979. In the next few weeks, I will be writing about that conversation in the first draft of the memoir I am working on.

You might wonder, by the way, how Schjeldahl found himself in Los Angeles a little over 40 years ago. His spouse, Brooke Alderson, was an actress hoping to get work in Hollywood, and she did in fact land a role in Urban Cowboy (1980). If she didn’t end up having a career as an actress, it should be noted how difficult it is to get even one part in a major film. Schjeldahl is survived by his wife and their daughter, who is also a writer.

The New York Times obituary, by the way, initially misidentified the name of the photographer who took the photograph of Schjeldahl that was at the top of its article. When I commissioned Sheree Rose to take photographs of all the poets in the anthology, she shot Schjeldahl at Beyond Baroque in Venice, leaning on a podium. It seems to me to be an exquisite, if unstated, confirmation of his place in Los Angeles poetry that The NY Times would use a photo of him reading here rather than at St. Mark’s. At both places, he remains an honored and treasured memory.

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