When Frederick Seidel published his second collection of poems, Sunrise, in 1980, he was already forty-four years old. There was little reason to expect, therefore, that he would become a prolific poet, but that is exactly what happened. After collecting all of his poems published up to 1979 in a retrospective volume following the appearance of Sunrise, he went on to produce some ten volumes of new verse over the next twenty-eight years, culminating in 2008 with Evening Man.
Leafing through the more than three hundred poems collected in Poems, 1959-2009, one cannot help but admire the power of Seidel’s imagery, his startling metaphors, and the relentless intensity of a sharply focused sensuality. Seidel is not an erotic poet in the conventional sense of an artist interested in sensual experience and arousal. Nor is he pornographic, vulgar, or sensationalistically exploitative of prurient expectations. He has been called “louche,” or disreputable, but irreverent comes closer to the truth. Wealthy, a man of infinite leisure, he has developed a natural gift for penetrating observation by combining it with a passionate disinterestedness. No matter how sad or poignant, ridiculous or venal the world may be, Seidel backs off from moral or political judgment of it.
Seidel insists on engaging in poetic reportage. Critics have commented on his “social interest,” and it is true that, from his earliest poetry to his most recent, there has been a marked awareness of social and political events. Nevertheless, he quickly moves from allusions to the news of the day to the state of his own consciousness, which may be deeply affected by what has occurred but is invariably drawn into a mood or awareness all its own.
In Sunrise, there is a moving elegy to John F. Kennedy with the glancing title of “November 24, 1963,” two days after the assassination of the president. There is no specific allusion to Kennedy in the poem, other than a searing description of funereal flags: “The flags soak at half-staff, bloodshed and blue,” while the bulk of the poem is devoted to a description of New York under a mournful and pervasive but light rain:
The rain points prick the lake and touch the droughtThe dusk blue of a sterile needletip.The brightness and the light has been struck down.
In this early poem, Seidel pays tribute to the conventions of elegiac poetry from John Milton to Walt Whitman, as well as to his earliest, most important model, Robert Lowell. By the 1980’s, however, he was already launched on a trajectory that never lost its sense of direction. It is best defined as a voice and tone deeply at home in the moment and willing to give up any sense of decorum in order to be true to that moment.
Seidel’s Ooga-Booga (2006) includes an eight-stanza poem titled “The Bush Administration.” In this poem, Seidel’s nausea over political events turns into a visceral imagining and transformation through which he becomes a foraging beast caught in a cycle of eating and disgorgement, partial digestion and vomiting:
The radio said:They had beheaded an American.There was a thunderclap and it poured.I am on all fours eating grassSo I can throw up because I like the feeling.I crouch over a carcass and practice my eating.The United States of America preemptively eats the world.
All of this culminates in a...
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