Frederick Seidel Essay - Critical Essays

Seidel, Frederick


Seidel, Frederick 1936–

Seidel is an American poet. Known for his biting verse, he writes of intense subjects with uncanny calm, often employing dramatic monologues. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

William Jay Smith

Frederick Seidel's Final Solutions … attempts the grotesque on a grand scale (there is nothing split-level about it) and at times he succeeds; but much of his book has an air of Grand Guignol….

Mr. Seidel's poems, despite the implications of his title, are not at all political. They are in no way public utterances. Hitler's final solution to the Jewish problem was mass destruction; the final solutions of the characters in Mr. Seidel's poems lie in their personal confrontation of destruction in the private world of nightmare. Everything is seen in a cold, clear, terrible light, unrelieved by any hint of joy. Mr. Seidel speaks through many masks; and certainly he carries the dramatic monologue to new extremes…. But his poetry is nevertheless one of confession, as is shown in the opening poem, "Wanting to Live in Harlem," which is modeled on the Rimbaud of "Les Poètes de Sept Ans." The power of Rimbaud's poetry, as Laforgue pointed out early on, rests "in the extraordinary power of confession, in the inexhaustible surprise of his perfectly adequate images." The failure of much of Mr. Seidel's book for me lies precisely in the lack of such adequate images, in a too heavy reliance on Robert Lowell's meters, and a theatricality that, although at first startling, does not ultimately ring true. (p. 108)

William Jay Smith, "The New Poetry" (copyright © 1963 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the September, 1963 issue by special permission of William Jay Smith), in Harper's, Vol. 227, No. 1360, September, 1963, pp. 106-15.∗

James Dickey

Literary influence is to be noted in the work of every poet—after all, one does not write in limbo—but in Frederick Seidel's case his relationship to the poetry of Robert Lowell amounts not so much to influence as to slavery. "Now the green leaves of Irish Boston fly or wither / Into blood-red Hebrew, Cotton Mather's fall." The diction is the same as Lowell's, as are the historical references, the inflated, hortatory style which manages to be at the same time mockurgent and pompous, arrogant and self-pitying, and worst of all, the systematic and somewhat callous use of personal confession as a device to produce awed silence in the reader, who is supposed to sit humbly, his critical faculties turned to dust, in the presence of The Truth. Here as elsewhere, however, imitation and shock tactics are no substitute for personal creativity. We are not likely to get a better illustration of this truism for some time to come….

Mr. Seidel's book has some shocking stuff in it …; it is sure to offend a rather wide range of individuals and organizations. Excitement of this variety, however, is about the only kind it is likely to provoke, for Mr. Seidel's talents are by no means imposing. (p. 4)

James Dickey, "Tactics of Shock, Discoveries of Innocence," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1963 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1963, pp. 4-5.∗

Louise Bogan

In "Final Solutions" … the satiric involvement of a young poet … with his time and place is total. Like Juvenal, Swift, and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (at his best), Seidel is angry, and his anger, ultimately, is directed less against evils apparent in this or that person or society than against the basic stupidities and depravities of mankind itself. Seidel is in earnest. He radiates heat. It is apparent that he has asked himself frightful questions and has not dodged the implications of their equally frightful answers. He presents his own anguish less often than he describes the suffering of a number of protagonists who reveal themselves fragmentarily in monologues—always at some high pitch of terror, ecstasy, or despair. These men and women (and a single ghost) speak, more often than not, in formal stanzas. Seidel instinctively goes over into strictly controlled (although uneven) metre and into difficult rhyming as his emotion gathers force; he does not miss an effect. The terrifying aspects of the experiences he describes are outlined with clinical precision by means of the rightness of his epithets and of his nouns and verbs, which can be tender as well as shocking. He is a master of metaphor. And each poem is compressed straight up to, and sometimes beyond, the limits of comprehensibility—not as a trick but for a purpose. The scenes are those of the actual world…. The poems concerned with delirium are done from the outside. And there is not a trace, throughout the book, of the usual slick response of cold coarseness or gratuitous brutality.

Whether or not Seidel's talent will come into the full power it now suggests it is impossible to predict. But how extraordinary if it should. (pp. 211-12)

Louise Bogan, "Verse: 'Final Solutions'," in The New Yorker (© 1963 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXIX, No. 34, October 12, 1963, pp. 211-12.

Charles Berger

Seidel seems to have been testing the premises and the ordinary language of poetry [in the intervening years between his first book, Final Solutions (1963), and his second, Sunrise (1979)]. He has also been attending to our various national crazes. The result is an extremely savvy book of poems, reminiscent of Lowell as social prophet, but without the latter's deep moral affiliations. Mailer and Didion also come to mind, for Seidel is something of an Aquarian reporter letting us know how it is with the beautiful and the damned.

Seidel prefers the camera's cool gaze to verbal rhapsody—Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the book's dedicatees. The series of California poems which open Sunrise have an iciness and detachment perfectly rendered in the image of flight of "The Room and the Cloud."… [Seidel's] less successful pieces verge on a kind of "designer" poetry with the names of jet-set friends sewn on for status. Not that American poetry at present couldn't use a little glamor.

What makes Seidel deeply intriguing, though, is that he combines the novelist's flair for incident with a surrealist's distrust of whatever meets the eye. Sometimes the surrealism gets out of hand as in the case of the title poem, a 40-stanza collage that makes John Ashbery read like Tennyson. Seidel's full range is apparent in "Men and Women," a poem about motorcycle racing that Hemingway would have been proud to call his own, since it is all about the beauty of danger: "To see Giacomo Agostini lay the MV over / Smoothly as a swan curves its neck down to feed, / At ninety miles an hour." Seidel's poetry takes equivalent risks.

Charles Berger, "Poetic Spirits of the Modern Age," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), July 6, 1980, p. 3.∗

Denis Donoghue

Frederick Seidel has long been saving up for Sunrise, a collection of thirty-one short or fairly short poems, one of them reprinted from his earlier book Final Solutions (1963) as if to indicate that the way to perfection does not necessarily run, as Pater thought it did, through a sequence of disgusts. Seidel is still loyal to his first book, as well he may be. Even then he had a gift of style, though in some poems it seemed mostly a gift of Robert Lowell's style….

Many of Seidel's new poems are on public themes…. The poems are all formidably inventive, and some of them are as moving as their themes suggest they should be. But I am not always as sure as I would like to be that Seidel has distinguished between face value and true value. He writes of motorcyclists with a certain metallic sheen more appropriate to their vehicles. I found it hard to take the poem about Antonioni seriously, since I recall Zabriskie Point as a vain and bloated film. I don't need to be persuaded that Robert Kennedy was in some respects heroic, but was it really possible, even in RFK's America, to "love politics for its mind"? Some of Seidel's poems are insecure in their attitudes. A remarkably gifted and serious poet, he gives me the impression, in some poems, of having lost or given up his confidence in the official forms seriousness has been supposed to take….

Despite that, Sunrise is an even stronger...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Vernon Young

Frederick Seidel's America is authentically a punished land. His poems [in "Sunrise"] are ruminations on the night before the last in Gomorrah; many are the best about hell written in this country. Loosely speaking, his subject is the 1960's and what's left of them, but he travels far for analogies, and the personalities he introduces invariably smell of sadness and death….

Mr. Seidel's diction is alternatively urbane, scathing, frenetic; his visionary glimpses of Manhattan are balefully superb and in certain poems, such as "The Trip," the Magritte-like hallucinations are compelling. But his title poem, "Sunrise," 40 enigmatic stanzas that proceed by way of extreme elision, cross-cutting and...

(The entire section is 198 words.)