Frederick Seidel

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Denis Donoghue

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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 book than Final Solutions. Seidel's voice is now securely his own. Lowell and Yeats are incorporated so fully in his language that they are no longer present as separable excitements. Seidel is capable of metaphysical conceits, but they are his own, as in the first line of "Sunrise." "The gold watch that retired free will was constant dawn." How appropriate to begin a long poem with the sun, seen for a moment as token of retirement, but with its own version of constancy and new life! ["Sunrise" is] the longest and most powerful poem in the book, an intensely personal poem arising from an appalling accident that happened to a friend. In forty stanzas the disaster is pondered, not to take it out of sight or out of mind but to make it in some sense bearable, involved with other events, not all disasters…. The disaster is borne, which does not mean that it is bearable.

"Sunrise" is the most powerful, but "The Soul Mate" is the most beautiful poem in the book, a love poem as touching as anything I have read in years. (p. 50)

Denis Donoghue, "New York Poets," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 13, August 14, 1980, pp. 49-50.∗

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