25 May, 2009Issue 9.5LiteraturePoetry

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Liar with a Lyre

Stephen Ross

seidelFrederick Seidel
Poems, 1959-2009
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009
528 pages


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.

—from “Milan”

With credentials like these, it should come as no surprise that Frederick Seidel has garnered little praise from the poetry establishment. For the past 50 years, the reclusive Seidel has been assembling a kind of poetic dirty bomb targeted directly at the establishment’s most sacrosanct virtues. Funded by the poet’s outrageous personal wealth and charged with lethal quantities of lust, loathing, arrogance, and gallows humor, Seidel’s bomb—Poems, 1959-2009—will deliver a prodigious payload (assuming there are enough poetry readers out there to register the impact).

By his own account, Seidel has “lived a life of laziness and luxury”, as he writes in the poem, “Frederick Seidel”. Dubbed by recent critics a “luxe, randy celebutante” and “laureate of the louche”, he seems to prefer the self-title “liar with a lyre”. At the same time, his friends all commend his generosity and interviewers often observe a shy, courtly man. Seidel, for his part, insists that what the reader struggles with “is that the man in the poems is the real man, while the man behind the poems just wants his privacy.” That said, it is hard to understand how a man like Seidel can expect people to remain indifferent to him after reading his poems.

Frederick Seidel was born in 1936 to a life of privilege. The son of a wealthy coal magnate, he grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and attended Harvard. In 1962, his first book, Final Solutions, was selected by Robert Lowell and other distinguished poets for the 92nd Street Y’s inaugural poetry award, featuring a cash prize and a publishing deal with Atheneum Press. But when the 26-year-old poet refused to remove allegedly libelous passages from his manuscript, the awarding body withdrew the prize and the panel of judges resigned in protest. Random House published Final Solutions the following year, though Seidel’s next book, Sunrise, was not to appear for 17 years. Since 1980, Seidel has published eight volumes of verse, including his latest, Poems, 1959-2009, which includes a short collection of new work titled “Evening Man”.

Like the scabrous persona (“Fred Seidel”) whom he tends to project, Frederick Seidel has a short list of hobbies: poetry, sex, dangerous machines (the “916” in the passage above refers to Seidel’s beloved Ducati 916 motorcycle), conspicuous consumption, and the desecration of liberal pieties (he has a poem titled “Feminists in Space”). If the phrase “the need for speed” didn’t already exist, Seidel would have been obliged to coin it. As he writes in “Dante’s Beatrice”, from Going Fast:

I bought the racer
To replace her.
It became my slave and I its.
All it lacked was tits.
All it lacked
Between its wheels was hair.
I don’t care.
We do it anyway.

This passage showcases Seidel’s love of excruciating, drumfire rhymes, other examples of which include “ready to get deady” (also from Going Fast) and “The vagina-eyed Modigliani nude / Made me lewd” (“Bologna”). “The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger”, he writes in “Climbing Everest”,

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.

I’m getting young.
I’m totally into strapping on the belt of dynamite
Which will turn me into light.
God is great! I suck her tongue.

I mean—my sunbursts, and there are cloudbursts.
My dynamite penis
Is totally into Venus.

No amount of Viagra could move most 70-year-olds to such a priapic frenzy. The irritating term “metrosexual” deserves to be deflated by a poem like “Climbing Everest”.

Seidel’s earliest work in Final Solutions, while already distinguished and calculated to cause offense, often reads like a racist pastiche of Robert Lowell’s confessional mode, penned by Woody Allen:

The color of the young light-skinned colored girl we had then.
I used to dream about her often,
In sheets she’d have to change the day after.
I was thirteen, had just been bar mitzvah.

—from “Wanting to Live in Harlem”

In addition to his early debt to Robert Lowell (whom he interviewed in 1961 for the Paris Review), Seidel learned much from Ezra Pound’s pronouncements on the mot juste, the strikingly apt word or phrase. Seidel’s capacity for minting mots injustes is off the charts, and his increasingly compressed work has only improved with each volume. In “The Pierre Hotel, New York, 1946”, for instance, he writes what might be mistaken for one of Pound’s short Imagist lyrics: “The bowl of a silver spoon held candlelight, / A glistening oyster of gold.”

Like so many other poets of his generation, Seidel made a pilgrimage to visit Pound at St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C., where he was imprisoned for treasonous WWII radio broadcasts. Embraced by Pound, as he writes in “Glory”, Seidel stayed in D.C. for a week, discussing poetry and hearing the great poet “fill the alcove with [the] glory” of Provençal and Italian verse. The 17-year-old poet even had the nerve to suggest two small corrections to Pound’s Confucius translations, having very little Chinese under his belt. Surprisingly, Pound adopted the corrections and sent Seidel to an associate at Harvard’s Yenching Institute, a man ominously named Achilles Fang.

“Achilles Fang” would be a perfect name for Seidel’s poetic persona, capturing the ludicrous and terrifying quality of his work. Seidel casts himself as a kind of modern Achilles, a god-like, foredoomed hero racing to a violent death on his Ducati 916, while also cultivating a fangs-bared vampiric flair. It’s hokey and totally unique. Both aspects of his voice are on display in “A Vampire in the Age of AIDS”, one of his most unnerving and representative poems:

He moves carefully away from the extremely small pieces
Of human beings spread around for miles, still in his leather seat.
He looks like a hunchback walking in the Concorde chair,
Bent over, strapped in, eyes on the ground
To avoid stepping on the soft.
He will use his influence to get
The cockpit voice recorder when it is recovered copied.
He loves the pilot in the last ninety seconds’
Matter-of-factness turning into weeping screams,
Undead in the double-breasted red velvet smoking jacket Huntsman made.

Is the wealthy vampire who travels by Concorde and wears a Huntsman suit Seidel? Does Seidel identify himself with AIDS? As usual, the pieces do not add up to a real person or to a coherent scenario. This poem might offend us, but the offensive agents remain unknown quantities. Plane crashes and AIDS are terrible, but what have they got to do with vampires? Though callous, this poem is also frighteningly controlled. The phrase “to avoid stepping on the soft” would have been ruined had Seidel finished it. Such is the considered delicacy of even Seidel’s most brutal images.

Stephen Ross is reading for an MSt in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is Deputy Poetry Editor at the Oxonian Review.