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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?

2.

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. Among the most memorable things in his first book, the blasphemously titled Final Solutions, is this passage, spoken by a mine boss, from “The Coalman”:

I see me and the miners, the drivers,
And some poor nigger customers
Who can’t buy the smokeless fuel
Eating our soft coal whole,
And vomiting and vomiting slick eels
Of blackness. I can see this.

Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain. In a recent poem about September 11, “The War of the Worlds,” scenes from the cosseted world of Seidel’s childhood are spliced into footage of the towers collapsing. The doe-eyed child and the postmillennial chill “war” each other, as do (in the paranoid terms of our paranoid time) the Western “world” and whatever “world” we designate as its antagonist. (Of course the title also refers to Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds, the farcical precursor of September 11, which aired in 1938, when Seidel was two):

The child stands at the window, after his birthday party,
Gray flannel little boy shorts, shirt with an Eton collar,
St. Louis, Missouri, sixty years ago,
And sees the World Trade Center Towers falling.

The shorts and the collar owe too much to Lowell. But Lowell, who wrote beautifully about both family life and historical calamity, mostly kept the two zones from overlapping. Seidel wants them to overlap, and he wants everything inside those zones to collide.

Lowell was Seidel’s early benefactor, choosing his first book for a prize. Seidel had met Pound at the age of seventeen; through Pound, he met, and charmed, T.S. Eliot in London. He was what someone said of Nixon: “an old man’s idea of a young man,” refined, erudite, ironic. Which is precisely why Lowell, who had only recently given up that very role, was such an attractive—and such a hazardous—early model for Seidel, as every critic has noted and as anyone who first bones up on Lowell’s Life Studies before trying Final Solutions will detect:

Pictures of violins in the Wurlitzer collection
Were my bedroom’s one decoration,
Besides a blue horse and childish tan maiden by Gauguin,
Backs, bellies and scrolls,
Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,
Colored like a calabash-and-meerschaum pipe bowl’s
Warmed, matured body….

(“Wanting to Live in Harlem”)

You sense Seidel’s desire to represent objects and interiors—he was already the “luxury man” his friend Diane von Furstenburg would call him—for what they are: sites of human poignancy. But Lowell had gotten there first, in poems like “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereaux Winslow.” There is the seed of something real in Final Solutions, and even from the above lines Seidel’s gift for phrase is evident. But Final Solutions, like the books of many poets of the era who did not go on to become Frederick Seidel, is a period piece.

As though both acknowledging its failure and insisting that its title be taken literally, Seidel’s first book looked, for many years, to be his last. The times were not on the side of Seidel’s kind of poem. Lowell’s career, at its height in 1963 when he was only forty-six years old, took a series of unexpected, rather flummoxed turns, then trailed off. He wrote his beautiful, resigned, elliptical last book, Day by Day, then died, in 1977, before he saw it in print. His prestige was in decline. Berryman had written The Dream Songs, sobered up, and thrown himself off a bridge in Minneapolis. Sylvia Plath (a critical influence on Seidel and, at times, in my view, a crippling one) had done what Sylvia Plath did, and Plath’s suicide (in the same year as the publication of Final Solutions) had become legend. Following the example of Anne Sexton, it became easy to make nearly any personal narrative sound like a confession, to convert to panic-grade material even minimally distasteful or inconvenient experiences. And the style was teachable: it took over the MFA workshops. The confessional poem therefore passed very rapidly from an art of signatures to an art of monograms. We were stuck—in some ways we still are—with those monogram poets of the dwindled confessional moment.

Seidel’s response to the fallen fortunes of the American personal poem was Sunrise, his second volume. Seidel had taken his eyes off his childhood bedroom and turned them to American, and soon international, culture. The book’s opening poem (backdated as though to fill in the intervening years with Seidel’s presence) is titled “1968”:

A football spirals through the oyster glow
Of dawn dope and fog in L.A.’s
Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot
That punted it is absolutely stoned.

Seidel’s talent for phrase (“dawn dope and fog in L.A.’s/Bel Air”) is, in these new poems, turned loose on logic: the music is viral, spreading by infecting everything it touches: dawn, dope, punt, foot, stoned.

1968” is a poem partly about the Manson killings. The choice of subject is characteristic: Seidel specializes (as in his many poems about September 11) in taking newsreel footage, images we know, and dipping them in the chemical bath of his style. His style gives him a natural affinity with lunatics, and one of his unique improvements on poetry has been to refine, past mere “representation” and into robust if paradoxical identification, our picture of what being a modern lunatic is like. After describing “the murdered/Voityck Frokowski, Abigail Folger and Sharon Tate/[Sitting] together without faces,” Seidel exclaims:

This is the future.
Their future is the future. The future
Has been born,
The present is the afterbirth,
These bloodshot and blue acres of flowerbeds and stars.

This is maniac’s logic (“their future is the future”) fortified by Seidel’s off-kilter ear for gory, beautiful correspondences. “Bloodshot and blue” is both the visual sketch (bloodshot eyes are red and white) and the verbal echo of “red white and blue.”

Seidel’s new Tourette’s or schizoid style had made him, oddly, a poet of history. He had a model for this crossing of neurosis and current events in Lowell (especially Lowell’s great, agitated, tender poem “Fall 1961”), but the big influence behind poems like Seidel’s “Gethsemane” (from his 1989 volume These Days )—a chancy one to say the least—is Sylvia Plath. Plath appears in a later poem, leaving, as it were, her footprints behind:

Now in London Sylvia Plath
Nailed one foot to the floor;
And with the other walked
And walked and walked through the terrible blood.

Plath had made going too far her test of authenticity, asking her readers to accept the Holocaust as a plausible metaphor for a single person’s—Plath’s —distress. This works in a very complex way. It’s not that the metaphor is appropriate or tasteful—obviously it is patently outrageous. But we don’t interpret the metaphor so much as behold the psyche driven to say such a thing. Plath’s method of asymmetrical metaphor—a feather on one side of the scale, a boulder on the other—is taken up, and taken to farcical extremes, by Seidel. Turning fifty? If you are like Seidel, you’ll take the occasion to rue the body’s ailing fortunes, perhaps recalling the virile days of your early manhood (Seidel wore, in those days, “penis pants” to display a penis that “pants” and “rises, hearing its name, like a dog.”) Of that penis:

I ought to cut it off
And feed it to itself.
Like the young bride in the Babel story
Forced to eat her husband’s penis

By the peasant who has cut it off.
A railroad telegrapher and a peasant
On the White army side have found some Jews.
Russia 1918.

Interior railroad boxcar.
The boxcar door is slid open from outside
Like a slowly lifted guillotine blade.
There they are.

We’re not used to having something like the slaughter of Jews at the hands of the White Russian army stand in as an image for impotence. This is nothing to get worked up about, it seems to me: the poem, like many of Seidel’s “transgressive” poems, feels like the kind of thing one does for laughs at a party. “Do the penis part!” “Do the boxcar door!” And yet, the subordination of properly first-class moral claims to second-class metaphorical illustrations, no matter how rowdy or raucous the tone, crosses a line few poets wish to cross.

3.

As Seidel has aged, as the millennium approached and, in a blip, passed, as the culture reinvented itself by means peaceful and otherwise, Seidel has indeed become (in Cal Bedient’s words) the “poet we deserve,” though it’s hard to know whether that word “deserve” should be understood as indicating reward or punishment.

Seidel has found god, and in an unlikely form: “the most beautiful motorcycle ever made,” the Ducati 916. Unlike Plath, who imagined her horse, Ariel, driving her toward the horizon line of her own fate, Seidel has harnessed himself a motorcycle so fast it promises to barrel past everything, even death. “And I/Am the arrow,//The dew that flies/Suicidal,” Plath writes in “Ariel.” Here is Seidel’s ecstatic response:

I hiss like an arrow
Through the air,
On my way from here to there.
I am a man I used to know.
I am the arrow and the bow.
I am a reincarnation, but
I give birth to the man
I grew out of.

As Adam Phillips pointed out, Seidel’s is—or was, up to this point—an art of repetition. The circular structure of repetition extended to Seidel’s vision of the poet both feeding on and being fed by his, and his readers’, ill will toward the world. The poems were going in tighter and tighter circles (when that happens on a motorcycle, eventually you wipe out). The new poems abjure all forms of circularity, barreling forward at extraordinary speed. The motorcycle speeds past all analogies for its power:

The Stradivarius
Of motorcycles lights up Via Borgospesso
As it flashes by, dumbfoundingly small.
Donatello by way of Brancusi, smoothed simplicity.
One hundred sixty-four miles an hour.
The Ducati 916 is a nightingale.
It sings to me more sweetly than Cole Porter.
Slender as a girl, aerodynamically clean.
Sudden as a shark.

Seidel’s motorcycle, like Plath’s horse or Dickinson’s locomotive in “I like to see it lap the Miles” or the “magnificently speedy” ostrich Marianne Moore describes in “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron,’” is a figure for the poem’s ongoing evasion of the words that paradoxically constitute it. Poems, properly, outrun themselves; none have ever beaten themselves to the finish faster than Seidel’s. Is this thing a Stradivarius, a Donatello, a Brancusi, a nightingale, a Cole Porter song, a girl, a shark—what? It is all of them and none of them, like its rider:

Combine a far-seeing industrialist.
With an Islamic fundamentalist.
With an Italian premier who doesn’t take bribes.
With a pharmaceuticals CEO who loves to spread disease.
Put them on a 916.

And you get Fred Seidel.

(“Milan”)

The abstraction of identity made possible by a superfast motorcycle, erasing the differences among contemporary types and vaporizing the clichés that describe them (“far-seeing industrialist”), makes “Fred Seidel” as empty a placeholder as any other. In place of identity, Seidel has substituted force and talent, the two qualities anybody piloting a Ducati, or writing a Frederick Seidel poem, would need. After Going Fast, Seidel published his millennial sequence, The Cosmos Trilogy, and two subsequent books, Ooga-Booga in 2006 and Evening Man in 2008: five books in ten years, a faster pace than any other poet of Seidel’s stature. When Seidel slows down, often it is to reflect on the dangers of not accelerating, as in his magnificent version of the 102nd psalm, “February”:

The best way not to kill yourself
Is to ride a motorcycle very fast.
How to avoid suicide?
Get on and really ride….

Hide not thy face from me.
For I have eaten ashes like bread,
And mingled my drink with weeping,
While my motorcycles slept.

The hundred numbered poems that make up The Cosmos Trilogy —“Febru- ary” is number 79—suggest, in a rather cursory way, Dante’s Commedia. Here the trajectory is inverted: we end up in hell, though hellfire is delivered from on high. The best poem to be written about September 11 is poem 99, “December.” “All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins,” Auden writes in The Dyer’s Hand, and then, rather amazingly, adds one more item to his list: “scenes of spectacular carnage.” True enough; and since the poet’s impulse is always to imagine making the beauty he beholds, wouldn’t a self- respecting poet—this is the awful logic that Seidel sometimes draws us into—want to fly an airplane into a building?

I am flying to area code 212
To stab a Concorde into you,
To plunge a sword into the gangrene.
This is a poem about a sword of kerosene.

This is my 21st century in hell.
I stab the sword into the smell.
I am the sword of sunrise flying into area code 212
To flense the people in the buildings, and the buildings, into dew.

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