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The Glee of Contempt

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Mark Mahaney
Frederick Seidel, New York City, 2009

1.

Frederick Seidel’s Poems, 1959–2009 tells the story of a most unusual career in poetry. The volume comes after a period of ferment in Seidel’s work, beginning in 1993 with his book My Tokyo. Previously, Seidel had scattered three books over twenty-six years: Final Solutions in 1963; Sunrise, seventeen long years later; and, nine years after Sunrise, in 1989, These Days. Three books in thirty years were not going to add up to a major contribution to American poetry. Each of the books was better than the last, but only mildly and tentatively so.

There was never any news with Frederick Seidel, and it didn’t seem likely that there ever would be. He hadn’t really shed the influence of Robert Lowell, a great poet but a uniquely disastrous model for later poets. It takes one note of borrowed Lowell, no more, to wreck a poem; unlike Stevens, say, or Auden, whose influences have catalyzed many an original style, Lowell’s is poison. And when Seidel didn’t sound like Lowell, often he sounded like the nearest alternatives: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, or John Berryman. By 1993, Seidel the man had become well known as an epicurean, a fancier of motorcycles, and a partygoer. That such a person wrote serious, ambitious poetry was, and is, a novelty, but the appeal of Seidel’s poems was not that they were done well, but that they were done at all.

Then a bolt broke in Seidel’s imagination. Since 1993 he has published hundreds of poems in six books. Going Fast (the brilliant title of Seidel’s 1998 volume) in both senses—accelerating and vanishing—is the principle, the subject, and the moral of these fast-forward, vituperative poems, poems composed of remarks so rapid and toxic that they seem to chase each other offstage:

If you’re a woman turning fifty,
You’re a woman who feels cheated.
This message now will be repeated.

The bittersweetness known as Jesus
Was not some nice man saying he is
Not quite a feminist and not quite not one.

Every man’s a rapist till he’s done.
The bitch relieves the dog. The wound, the gun.
The Sermon on the Mount, the Son.

Seidel had found his style: the vengeful sampling of current trends in morality (“every man’s a rapist”) and idiom (“not quite not”), the ricocheting rhymes, the self-canceling self-commentary (“this message now will be repeated” isn’t repeated), the mind that struts outrageously from mounting dogs to the Sermon on the Mount. The style had its problems (“Hair in a Net,” like too many of Seidel’s poems, is composed entirely of climaxes). But there had never been a poet like this one before: the poet of a new contemporary form, a highlight reel—one spectacular feat after another, with all the humdrum stuff spliced out.

If you try to stopper a running garden hose with your finger, the water sprays everywhere. This is more or less Seidel’s method. He puts his imagination under constant, intense pressure (“Contents Under Pressure” is a title of one of his poems). To pause for very long on any one subject or perception would be like trying to stopper up the hose. This makes him often a thrilling, sometimes a repetitive, but always a ruthless poet, almost gleefully deficient in empathy. Empathy, after all, requires more than one second of attention.

Seidel has none of Whitman’s talent for dilating this or that detail within otherwise rat-a-tat-tat catalogs of character and observations. This heartbreaking sequence in section fifteen of “Song of Myself” shows Whitman working against the strong downward current of his catalogs, something Seidel has rarely done:

The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case,
He will never sleep any more as he did in the cot in his mother’s bedroom;
The jour printer with gray head and gaunt jaws works at his case,
He turns his quid of tobacco, his eyes get blurred with the manuscript;
The malformed limbs are tied to the anatomist’s table,
What is removed drops horribly in a pail….

The first line of every unit gives us the clinical reality, the second X-rays the emotions: the mother’s loss of her son, the worker’s fatigue, the look of those amputated limbs. These double takes stand in for Whitman’s paradoxical wish to do justice to the total fabric of life while honoring each individual strand. But Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Any other relation to suffering sentimentalizes the pain. Seidel’s is an aesthetics that avoids aestheticizing human grief, sometimes in favor of aestheticizing human meanness.

His is therefore not an unsympathetic art: it is, rather, an art of deliberately refused sympathy. This is a large difference. Because Seidel runs his imagination through only one channel, the id, being nasty, impolite, rude, and so on sustains him. Whether his poems are meant to offend or, by being offensive, to shine a bright light on the awful things people do to one another: this dog chases its tail in nearly every serious discussion of Seidel. People who like him adore him; those who object revile him (he has, apparently, received death threats).

Both sides are forced into such extreme positions by imagining, with big moral indignation, the opposite camp’s response. (Louise Bogan seems to be the last woman to have written positively about Seidel, and she did so before his poems got really nasty.) Seidel is transgressive, Adam Kirsch wrote, “not in the fashionable way of the seminar but in the disturbing way of the nightmare.” If Seidel isn’t “the best American poet writing today,” as Kirsch suggested, he is at least the “most unusual,” the “most frightening,” the “most vital and important.” Seidel is a “ghoul,” as Michael Robbins wrote—or is he the “phallus-man” of Cal Bedient’s description: vascular, swaggering, often comically randy? “Unthinkable,” “cruel,” “frightful,” “savage”: these adjectives, keep in mind, are all from rave reviews.

Seidel learned a lot about libido and its excruciations from John Berryman, the original “phallus-man.” The Berryman/Seidel predicament is as follows: to be a straight man is to want to have sex all the time; to want to have sex all the time is to be a buffoon; to be a buffoon is to occupy an amusing, though limited, point of view. The imagination, which ranges over all points of view and samples the full panoply of human appetites, finds the salivating buffoon it is tethered to pitiful, or sickening, or dangerous, or doomed. This makes self-caricature—the buffoon seen from the point of view of the imagination—the central mode in both Berryman’s and Seidel’s poems.

In his own long-form comedy of appetites and drives, The Dream Songs, Berryman cast himself as “Henry,” a figure half laughingstock and half heartbreak. Seidel follows Berryman in imagining himself, often, in the third person. “I live a life of laziness and luxury,” he writes in “Frederick Seidel”:

My life is a snout
snuffling toward the truffle, life. Anyway!
It is a life of luxury. Don’t put me out of my misery.

In “Hamlet,” Seidel toasts all the “tears” he’s guzzled, over time, to quench his demonic thirst:

I have been thinking, instead of weeping, tears,
And drinking everybody else’s, for years.
They taste amazingly like urine. Cheers!
I tell you this—(But soft! My mother nears.)

You wonder how I know what urine tastes like?
I stuck my finger in a hole in a dike
And made the heart near bursting burst….

This hammy loathsomeness, a performance with no meaning outside its own prowess, recalls the pleasure of watching the madman-epicureans of film: Hannibal Lechter or, before him, the suave Bella Lugosi playing Dracula. The title of Seidel’s recent volume gets this tone perfectly right: Ooga-Booga.

Seidel’s gamble is that the world can be understood entirely through the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates and feels. Other moods do exist in his poems—the pleasures of sex and motorcycles, the thrill of gossip, horror (never sympathy, exactly) at what becomes of people, the garden-variety I’m-getting-old melancholy of a person in his sixties. But all of them are made to shimmy uncomfortably into the narrow serpent’s body of contempt.

It is one of the weirder pleasures in literature to watch Seidel, in poem after poem, bring impoliteness to a rolling boil and hold it there. In “My Poetry,” a poem of 2008, the poet imagines himself in a restaurant, with “the look of fat dressed slenderly by Savile Row”:

I sat in my usual place with my back to the corner, at the precious corner table,
Where everyone wanted to sit, to see and be seen.
Even the celebretariat were not automatically able
To sit at that particular table, never mind how desperately keen.
I sat in my solitude, a songbird that can’t be bought.
Look at my solitude, white meat deep in thought.

The title of this poem, as I hear it, refers to something every poet fears: that moment in polite conversation when attention turns awkwardly to the subject of “your poetry.” A person like Seidel, who we gather moves only cautiously in literary circles, must experience unique spleen at such moments; fear of them turns out to be a good reason to avoid literary circles entirely. And so, to the expanding shock of his well-meaning imagined interlocutor, “My Poetry” gives the most offensive possible account of the poet’s life:

I sit at my regular table in a restaurant I favor,
Napkin tucked into my collar, eating dirt and a stone,
Stooped over in a La Tache stupor. I know it’s disgusting but I savor
My African-American antipode with her hand outside the window, my clone,
Begging just outside on the sidewalk. I’ll buy her and take her home. We’ll eat dirt.
We’ll grovel in the grass and bat our eyes and flirt.

Sounds good; let’s get a cab! I may be proven wrong, but by my count there is only one poem written in English that presents the fantasy of buying (not “paying”—she isn’t a prostitute, she’s a slave) an “African-American,” taking her home, making her a lunch of dirt, then adjourning for some post-prandial “groveling” in the grass.

Must poetry that goes to extremes authenticate itself by going completely bonkers? This is the question Seidel has put to himself, time and again. Leaving aside the real possibility that “My Poetry” might, by some triple-reverse and behind-the-back move, be good precisely because it seems so bad or deeply human by way of be- ing utterly—though comically—savage; forgetting the fact that (a hand goes up in the back row) the poem might be a dramatic monologue (people have said and done very mean things in dramatic monologues, haven’t they? Remember Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”?); all that aside, what I want to know is simply this: How on earth does a poet end up writing such a poem?

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