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It seems that, with Frederick Seidel, you’re either infatuated with his poetry or infuriated by it. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground, or if there is, I’m in it with the other blissful ignorami.

But I won’t be there for long: when a poet is polarizing, I like to find out which side I’m on. And I’ve been listening to the generous selection on his publisher’s site and this evening I’m going to scour the shelves of my favorite bookstore (Second Story Books) and if I come up empty there, then I’ll amble over to KramerBooks or Olsson’s).

Seidel, seemingly, has always been a major figure in American poetry. All of his books have been published by the big presses. He went to visit Pound at St. Elizabeths in Washington, DC, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Later, as a young man, he visited at length with T.S. Eliot and it seemed becoming a major figure in American poetry was his birthright. He’s the heir of a St. Louis coal and coke magnate and his incredible wealth and love of Ducatis is well-documented. It seems he is his own favorite subject, like Robert Lowell or Walt Whitman. And the little bit that I’ve read/listened to, his poetry has the expansive decadence found in Lowell and Whitman too. Though a bit more abrasive and vulgar.

Phrases that hit me when listening to his poems

“i am seeking more jerusalem not less”
“everything in art is couplets; mine don’t rhyme”
“my dynamite penis is totally into venus”
“have pity on me a thousand years from now when we meet”

I’m afraid I can’t do justice to the poem appearing in the October 20, 2008, issue of the New Yorker either.

First of all, it’s long and baffling and I haven’t spent enough time with it. (I may come back to this post.) Secondly, it shares the same title as the Ezra Pound translation of Li Po’s poem. And why it has the same name has not made itself obvious to me. There’s entirely too much to handle here in the abbreviated timeframe I have to deal with these poems.

Busby Berkeley

Seidel seems to like repetition and it seems like he likes rhyme and though his lines have an iambic pulse (you can easily hear the beats) he’s not beholden to metrical constraits. In fact, this poem is a series of seven, non-metrical sonnets with the rhyme scheme of abcdabccddeeff. This type of scheme for a sonnet is new to me and has an interesting effect. The logical place for the volta would be after the sixth line (after which you embark upon four couplets) but Seidel’s sonnets really don’t have an identifiable volta. And each one is a universe unto itself.

Notable Figures and Places Appearing in Seidel’s Poem

Baudelaire: famed 19th Century French poet; apparently, in this poem at least, the name of Seidel’s penis.

Brands Hatch

Berkeley Busby: movie director and musical choreographer during the Great Depression.
Pierre Leval: judge appointed by Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit; attended Harvard at the same time as Seidel.
Carine Rueff: daughter of French economist Jacques Rueff.
James Purdey: British gunmaker, especially reknown for shotguns and rifles.
Claridge’s: luxury hotel in the Mayfair district in London.
Brands Hatch: racing circuit in Kent, England, which looks something like an appendix.
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound: modernist poets; here, prancing horses that carry Seidel’s overland covered wagon.
92nd and Broadway: intersection on the Upper West Side where the 92nd St. Y (a nexus for American poetry) is located.

On the surface, I like Seidel’s poem. It’s doing what poetry should do, which is to do what only poetry can do. The lines are forceful and well-wrought and work as lines. The language is lush. This certainly doesn’t have the feel of chopped-up prose that plagues much of our contemporary poetry. But what’s troubling me with this poem is why it’s titled what it is. I mean, there’s the reference to Pound in the final stanza/sonnet but really that’s it. I suppose it touches on the same theme, which if I were to encapsulate the gist of Pound’s Bridge at Ten-Shin translation it would be in these lines:

Night and day are given over to pleasure
And they think it will last a thousand autumns.
Unwearying autumns.

And there is some of that in Seidel’s poem; the drunken debauchery, the days spent at the track, the numerous women, the decadent life of youth that one feels will last forever, but of course doesn’t. And then there’s the brief, reflective moment on the life lived to date:

But that was when it mattered. Do
I matter? That is true.
I don’t matter but I do….

The poem then shifts from personal details to Mother Earth on the precipice of destruction. All of the iceberg imagery could be compared to Pound’s yellow dogs that howl portents in vain. The melting icecaps portend our fate but we’re still not getting the picture.

That’s all I’ve got. Lots of good stuff for you to read, though.

Further Reading:

The Boston Review reviews two Seidel books.

The Savage Genius of Frederick Seidel.

A CPR review of Ooga Booga. And another from Bookslut.

Listen to a rich selection of Seidel poems.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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