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Again, A Dangerous Art

The brutal, desperate poetry of Frederick Seidel

November-December 2009

It may be hard to believe, reading the small epiphanies and self-flattering revelations that are standard in contemporary American poetry, but for much of the twentieth century poetry was a dangerous art. When T.S. Eliot fused sordid urban scenes with high literary allusions in The Waste Land, or Robert Lowell confessed his childhood traumas and mental illness in Life Studies, or Sylvia Plath recreated herself as a suicidal avenging angel in Ariel, readers reacted as those poets wanted them to: with shock, sometimes with outrage, but always with the fascination that only genuine risk can bring. What made modern poetry modern was not really its experiments with obscurity or formlessness—much contemporary poetry is obscure and formless, yet utterly unchallenging—but its willingness to confront areas of experience that we are more comfortable ignoring.

No poet working today knows that dangerous truth better than Frederick Seidel ’57, whose heartbreaking and deliberately scandalous poetry is collected in Poems 1959-2009 (Farrar Straus Giroux). “I am civilized,” Seidel writes in the bluntly titled “Kill Poem,” “but/I see the silence/And write the words for the thought balloon.” Those words—the ones we think but know better than to say out loud—are the ones Seidel can’t stop himself from repeating. One of the most notorious examples is “Broadway Melody,” from his 2006 collection Ooga-Booga: 

A naked woman my age is a total 
A woman my age naked is a
It doesn’t matter. One doesn’t care.
One doesn’t say it out loud because
   it’s rare
For anyone to be willing to say it,
Because it’s the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it,

Display how horrible life after 
   death is,
How horrible to draw your last
   breath is,
When you go on living.

It is typical of Seidel to lead off with a statement of such brutality, as though daring the reader to close the book in righteous anger. In this way the righteous are weeded out, and only readers curious or sympathetic enough to go on are allowed to see what leads Seidel to write this way: not misogyny or “ageism,” but a desperation so profound that it can speak only in a tone of cruel flippancy. It may be horrible to draw your last breath and go on living, but the poem concludes by showing us that not all old women and men feel that they are trapped in a living death. On the contrary:

I hate the old couples on their 
   walkers giving
Off odors of love, and in City Diner
   eating a ray
Of hope, and then paying and 
   trembling back out on Broadway,

Drumming and dancing, chanting 
   something nearly unbearable,
Spreading their wings in order to be
   more beautiful and more terrible.

Love, Seidel seems to be saying, is stronger than death: the old couples who cling to one another in the face of physical decay remain “beautiful” in their fidelity and defiance. If they are also “terrible” to the poet, it can only be because they represent a kind of consolation that is unavailable to him. He hates them because their happiness exposes his misery as a self-inflicted punishment. 




Sartre may have said that hell is other people, but poets have long known that, in fact, hell is being trapped in the self. “Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell,” says Milton’s Satan, and Gerard Manley Hopkins concurs: “The lost are like this, and their scourge to be/As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.” But few poets have written more horribly and convincingly than Seidel about the torment of selfhood. Reading Poems 1959-2009, one is struck by how often Seidel returns to images of people cut off, abandoned, imprisoned. In “Dune Road, Southampton,” from his 1998 book Going Fast, he writes about the famous case of Sunny von Bülow, who was allegedly poisoned into a coma by her husband:

The neurologist on call introduces 
   herself to the murderer and 
Locked-in syndrome, just about the 
Alive, with staring eyes.
The mind is unaffected.

And with the patient looking on 
Screaming don’t let him take me 
   home, without a sign or sound,
The doctor tells the murderer he can 
   take her home,
If that’s their wish.

There is no mistaking Seidel’s terrified sympathy with the victim: he knows all too well what it is like to be conscious and articulate, but unable to make genuine contact with other people. He finds another unforgettable metaphor for this state in “Contents Under Pressure,” where he imagines an astronaut cut adrift from his ship:

Absolutely nothing can be done.
The spacecraft is under orders not to
   try and to return and does.
He urinates and defecates
And looks out at the universe.
He is looking out at it through his
    helmet mask.

If this kind of feeling were pathological, Seidel would be interesting only as a case study. But his manic, disconcerting eloquence convinces us that it is not pathological—that all of us, in some degree, know what this kind of isolation feels like, just as we can all understand Plath’s rage and Lowell’s despair and Eliot’s disgust. In fact, Seidel has a good claim to be the best poetic interpreter of his age, the second half of the twentieth century, when capitalism and technology combined to snap so many of the traditional bonds that once connected person to person. 

That is why so many of Seidel’s poems are not just deeply confessional but outward-looking, socially and politically and historically informed, with a satirical edge sharpened by the poet’s long familiarity with a peculiar corner of international high society. It is, again, easy to be put off by the luxe settings and properties of Seidel’s poems—the Hotel Carlyle in Manhattan, beach mansions in the Hamptons, Italian motorcycle races, French country estates. He seems to wallow in wealth—but if so, it is only because he remembers what it is that pigs love to wallow in. “The Master Jeweler Joel Rosenthal,” a poem from Seidel’s Dantesque sequence The Cosmos Trilogy, gloats that “the richest in the world stick out their necks/And hands and ears for JAR’s gems,” but then turns around to observe, “Death is loading in the van/The women and camels of King Solomon it is repossessing.” The preceding poem in the sequence, “Eternity,” has this to say about rich people who pursue youth through plastic surgery: 

A man who wanted to look better
But not younger is red
Swells of raw.
Later they will remove the staples.

Ten weeks later
They are younger.
They pull over
Their head a sock of skin.

Harvard, Seidel makes clear in his early work, was the first place he encountered this world of alluring and threatening wealth. In Final Solutions, his first book, published in 1963, he recalls:

I had given up violin and left St. Louis,
I had given up being Jewish,
To be at Harvard just another
Greek nose in street clothes in 
   Harvard Yard.

Already, Harvard is the deeply ambivalent symbol it will remain in Seidel’s work, a name for success and self-betrayal. It is where he learned to love literature, he suggests in “Untitled”: “The steps of Widener led one to the doom of reading.” But it is also where he learned the aristocratic accent which his poems so perfectly imitate and travesty: “The very back of the throat without the use of the lips/Produces the bloated drawl of the upper class./You hear it in a certain set, you see it in a certain scene,” he writes in “On Wings of Song.” And for Seidel, there is no doubt about the nightmare to which all such dreams of elegance must lead:

The king is in his counting-house
   counting out his money.
His head will be hacked off and
The carcass goes to the dogs—after
   the servants drink the blood
And defecate. There is another 
   accent, that goes to Harvard,
That anyone who does can have. My
Harold Brodkey will. One day I, too, 
   I will.