Frederick Seidel Charles Berger - Essay

Charles Berger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗