Fe­ro­cious poet with a tal­ent for pro­fan­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

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.

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