The Glee of Contempt

Mark Mahaney
Frederick Seidel, New York City, 2009


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…

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