Poetry News

Yay: Peter Schjeldahl Talks About the Failed Poet's Good Writing

By Harriet Staff

Oh wow: art writer and poet Peter Schjeldahl talks about poetry, criticism (and his distate for Damien Hirst)! We're fans of Schjeldahl's poetry, though he calls himself here a "failed poet" with respect to what that might determine for other failed poets and their writing. From ABC Arts:

“I’ve got a kind of principal objection to reproduction in general,” he explains, in the New Yorker’s Times Square offices. “It’s a form of information which completely distorts the reality of art works … I guess I’ve always predicated my writing on the idea that ‘I’ll tell you how it looks’.”

Not just how it looks but how it feels, where it hurts, what it stirs. As he points out, the object of his writing is not the work of art but the experience of beholding it, which begins with “a moment of perfect stupidity”.

“I like to say that when I started writing criticism – as a complete ignoramus and yahoo young poet in the ‘60s – I discovered very quickly that the one thing in which I am the world’s leading expert is my point of view,” he says. It was a naïve point of view, he admits, which he has worked to overcome in the intervening years, but he remains fundamentally innocent. “I think this is true of any writer I respect; that there’s this little isotope of the irrepressible child, you know, who doubts everything, suspects the adults, instinctively rejects what the adults say but is very impressionable and excitable and eager to be pleased.”

Tapping this imaginative bedrock proves especially useful when faced, as he was in the case of Hirst’s works, with art he hates. “A critic has to weigh in, so when I can’t decide or even when I don’t like something, I think ‘OK, what would I like about this if I liked it?” he says. “Often it leads me to a sympathy or, on a rare occasion, it leads me to just horror; like I am a monster to myself if I like this shit! It’s what I get with Hirst.”

Lest he sounds like a man given over completely to his feelings, let it also be said the work is intellectually responsible. Schjeldahl’s writing is supported by a rigour for fact, honed as a young news reporter (first in the midwest and later in New Jersey) and an intense love of words themselves, which he ascribes in part to his early aspirations to write poetry. “Good poets tend to be good writers,” he says. “Or, in my case, failed poets who invest everything in the kind of writing they end up doing. The dictionary is a seething source of excitement and pleasures.”

Australian art critic and New York contemporary Robert Hughes once sent a note that read, “I don’t agree with a thing you say but, by God, you argue like a gentleman”.

That passion for language (or being “drunk on words”, as Schjeldahl would have it) can also be a handicap. Voluminous notes are taken while visiting a show, assuring his close attention to the works, but he never consults them. “Writing the first sentence can take a couple of days,” he says. “The first paragraph gets written, rewritten 50 times. The last paragraph gets rewritten twice. I write very slowly and rewrite a lot.” If he could, he would “be Flaubert”, he says, and “spend a couple of years on one [column]”.

If not Flaubert, then Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or a number of other revered belle-lettrists. “I think the better the writer, the more profoundly they know that words fail,” he says. “Shakespeare could feel his writing slip off into gibberish, like a sound only dogs can hear.” The comic element introduced to the Bard’s work by this tension – “knowing he’s doing his best but it’s all just show” - moves Schjeldahl to tears.

This Saturday, he will speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival on the idea of “the critic as artist”, engaging with Wilde’s 1890 dialectical essay of the same name. “[Wilde’s] someone who approached everything from the standpoint of the aesthetic, which is crazy,” he says. “It’s a terrible and dangerous way to live but he did it so the rest of us don’t have to and I guess I aspire to that.”

Read all of "Drunk on Words" here.

Originally Published: August 24th, 2012