Ferocious poet with a talent for profanity
Do not feel guilty if you have not heard of the St Louis, Missouri-raised, Manhattan-based octogenarian poet Frederick Seidel, even though this new volume, Widening Income Inequality, is his 16th. After all in 2009, which saw the publication of Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009, 500 pages of coruscating brilliance, the US National Endowment for the Arts announced that over the previous 12 months almost 92 per cent of American adults had read no poetry at all.
With Seidel it is not entirely our fault. According to Jonathan Galassi, the poet’s publisher, Seidel’s reserve has involved an absolute refusal to participate in the public life of poetry. He has never given a reading and, as Galassi can “ruefully attest”, he doesn’t lift a finger to make himself known but would seem to woo infamy. Rigorously politically incorrect and also profane, many of his more trenchant poems cannot be quoted in a family newspaper.
Giving offence began with Seidel’s first volume, the punningly and provocatively titled Final Solutions, which he submitted for the 1962 Young Men & Young Women’s Hebrew Association’s poetry prize. The distinguished judges, Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell (from whose poetry the fledgling Seidel’s was deeply derivative), chose Seidel’s as yet unpublished collection, but the national head of the YMHA deemed the poems to be both anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and possibly libellous. The prize was withdrawn; the publisher reneged; the judges resigned in protest.
In The Death of Anton Webern (2008), Seidel writes: “I’m crazy about big breasts — real or fake — the opposite of pinpricks. / My subject has always been death and breasts and politics.” Given those predilections it is possible, indeed possibly profitable, to think of Frederick Seidel as 21st-century Manhattan’s Catullus. The scabrous, erotic, gossipaceous Roman poet’s theme of odi et amo (“I hate and love”) pervades Seidel’s poems. Speaking of ancient Rome, Seidel often reminds the reader of Hannibal. Lecter, that is. Reading his poems with a good chianti and fava beans would not be inappropriate. Seidel, or Seidel’s poems rather, share Lecter’s fastidious dandyism and homicidal chill. As Seidel’s beloved Baudelaire almost said: “Hypocrite Lecter, mon semblable, mon frere.” Dan Chiasson has written in The New York Review of Seidel’s “satanic refinement”.
Poet and eminent translator Michael Hofmann observes that Seidel has always been interested in taboos. Everything in him is sex, politics, religion, race and class. “From the beginning, Seidel was always a bogeyman — a carnivore if not a cannibal in the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry.” Hofmann considers him to have much in common with VS Naipaul. Poet and novelist are both students of the remorseless spread of global capital and culture, “the Gulf Stream of development and the countervailing El Nino of terror … Both exhibit, and are proud of, an insouciant erotomania.” Seidel admires Hofmann’s translations from the German, but has never been happy with French poetry in English, where he can find no adequate Racine: “the ferocious gleam of the couplets, the passionate coldness”.
“Ferocious.” “Passionate coldness.” Excellent epithets for Seidel’s poetry. These lines from Widening Income Inequality (there’s an economic title!) may serve as evidence. I’m old. I hate the old. They look outrageous. They look like garbage. And it’s contagious. I’ve never seen so many old people On walkers with their helpers, an extraordinary turnout Even for Upper West Side Broadway, breezeway of the dead.
Or these, the last stanza of The End of Summer, which starts off from recollections of St Louis, home to the Seidel Coal and Coke Company, Budweiser, TS Eliot and “B-movie actress” Virginia Mayo. My father had a season box at the outdoor Muny Opera. My father had a cop he paid who parked our car there. The 1904 World’s Fair was in the magical Forest Park night air. I hear crickets singing in the dark sweet Missouri heat their insolent despair.
Consider these lines from from Ooga Booga (2006):
Climbing Everest The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger. But this young woman is young. We kiss. It’s almost incest when it gets to this. This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger. … Give me Everest or give me death. Give me altitude with an attitude. But I am naked and nude. I am constantly out of breath. A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare, But right now one is coming through the door With a mop, to mop up the cow flops on the floor. She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his white hair.
Unsurprisingly that final stanza’s first line has got Seidel into hot water, and provoked Galassi to observe: “Women in your poetry run the gamut from idealisation to enmity.” Seidel replied: “Where’s the enmity? Yes, the poems sometimes have a … willingness to say things that can be considered awful things to say. But the truth is, when I wrote the line ‘A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare’, my first thought was, ‘It’s a wonderful line’.” Galassi: “It is. But people take it personally, and are offended.” Fifty-one per cent of the population, you might think. Yet, as Michael Hofmann says, “Thank God for Fred Seidel.”
taught American literature at the University of Sydney for 30 years.