I’m working backwards with Frederick Seidel.
Although the 78 year old poet (born Feb.19, 1936) began publishing back in 1963—with a book called Final Solutions (a provocative title for a Jewish writer)—and then, after a strange seventeen year hiatus—has published steadily since 1984’s Men and Women (New & Selected Poems), I came to his writing rather late, cutting into its trajectory with Ooga-Booga (2006). I had been drawn to the book, first by its goofy title, and then by an enthusiastic review of it I happened to read somewhere (I forget where).
Now I’m reading Nice Weather (2012), having skipped over Evening Man (2008)—to which I will return.* After Evening Man, I will proceed backwards, until l am back to 1963. Time’s Arrow, as Martin Amis would have it.
I like Seidel’s titles. Ooga-Booga was engagingly silly. Nice Weather, though, is cruelly condescending, wielding the cliche as if it were a baseball bat. Nice, the blandest word in the language. Coupled to “weather,” the second blandest. It’s deliciously aggressive, if you ask me.
Seidel is often abrasive, outrageous, angry, cynical, even off-putting. In a brief but telling article in The New York Times magazine (for April 18, 2009—you can see it online) titled “Laureate of the Louche,” Wyatt Mason, in pointing out that Seidel is often pegged as “the most frightening American poet ever,” quotes the writer as being entirely aware of what he calls “the energetic response to my work,” and going on to identify the wellsprings of that response as “…an unembarrassed tone…a calmly unembarrassed tone while saying something ‘unacceptable’….”
In a Paris Review interview [“The Art of Poetry, #95”] conducted that same year, 2009 (it is also available online), Seidel admitted that he “…liked writing disagreeable poems, or certainly don’t mind if a poem strikes someone as unpleasant, It is possible to offend people still [it is astonishing, in this slackly elastic, absorptive age, to hear that], and my poems not infrequently do. One way to do it is to write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.” He tells his interviewers, “I like poems that are like daggers that sing.”
Take this, for example—from a recent poem quoted by Wyatt Mason in the NYTimes:
The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger,
But this young woman is young. We kiss.
It’s almost incest when it gets to this.
This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-fur-younger.
Everything pisses people off about Seidel. He is disliked for his snobbery, for his expensive habits (Italian shoes, Ducati motorcycles, vintage wristwatches etc.), for his often callous, anti-liberal, politically indifferent treatment of women (and of everybody else for that matter), and for…well, the list is long.
On women his age: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Just what everybody longs to hear, no? Well, as I’ve been pointing out, Seidel is quite impossible. And (naturally I feel like whispering this) usually right.
On loving motorcycles: “I like going fast, and I have noticed that I will disappear one day.”
Formally speaking, he is regarded with great suspicion for—how absurd this is!—his employing of rhyme in his poetry. And for his delectable habit—deplored everywhere—of repeating poems from book to book, often garnishing them with minute changes, but more often not just leaving them as they were. I love this.
The first poem in Nice Weather is called “Night.”
It has a great first line: “The city sleeps with the lights on.”
The last of its three stanzas recoups the harsh music of the first:
“The city sleeps with the lights on.
The garbage trucks come in the night and make noise and are gone.
Two angelfish swim around the room and out the window….”
Damn, how I love those two angelfish!!
* Or perhaps I’ll never be able to get to it. I just looked it up on Abebooks and discovered that the book was printed in an edition of only 500 copies (each signed by Seidel) and now sells for $400--$600 per copy.