Why, someone might ask, should you know about any poets? Well, this is Swarthmore. We know about things that don’t matter. Poetry, these days, is maybe #1 on the things-that-do-not-matter list. And yet contemporary poetry is a whole world, with its own heroes and villains, and, for me, it’s been pretty engrossing. I hope it will be for you, too.
If American poetry now is defined, or at least caricatured, by the short “poem of self-improvement”—“Does the butterfat know it is butterfat / milk know it’s milk? / No.” (Jane Hirschfield, from the latest issue of Poetry)—then Frederick Seidel may be its villain. From the same issue:
My girlfriend is a miracle.
She’s so young but she’s so beautiful.
So is her new bikini trim,
A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.
—from “Victory Parade”
His poems advocate sex, greed, and instant gratification. At 80, he’s riding his custom Ducati motorcycles, dating twenty-somethings, and pushing the limit of what you can say in a poem:
Oh the chimneys spew Jew.
Let me take a moment to talk about sex sounds.
These are the sounds Germans make when they are making love
When they are about to come.
—from “Mr. Delicious”
(Seidel is Jewish.) That the poem concludes “This completes, thank you very much, / This year’s / Report of the Paris Cricket Club”, doesn’t totally answer our persisting question—is he serious?
We can’t know for sure. Yes, the smokestacks really did spew Jew. Yes, those are the sounds Germans make. Those are the sounds everyone makes.
Here’s a list of other astounding lines from Seidel: “And the angel of the Lord came to Mary and said: / You have cancer.” (From “Maimi In The Arctic Circle”) “I go off and have sexual intercourse.” (“Ode To Spring”) “I take the shit out of the bag / And stuff it back up inside the dog // And sew the anus closed.” (“Home”) He’s saying things no other writer will, or wants to, say.
But, as with any interesting villain, we understand where he’s coming from. “I’m hopeless. // I bathe in their screams. / I dress for the evening. / My name is Fred Seidel, / And I paid for this ad.” (“Home”) He needs more thrills, more sex, a faster motorcycle, a new destination. But unlike average Joe, he can have, do, and say anything he wants, because he was born very rich. He can even afford to hate himself. It doesn’t matter.
Seidel’s other fixation is America, which makes sense, given that his persona is America-gone-wild. Things like, “We ski the roller coaster ocean’s up and down dunes. / We reach land at last and step on Plymouth Rock,” (“Mu’allaqa”) are hedonistic glee, the Protestant work ethic outmoded by its own success. “Islam is coming,” concludes another poem (“Italy”), as if it’s slightly funny.
Still, Seidel is a serious poet. “Never mind what I’m saying,” he says in “Pain Management”, “I’m lying.” What he says—about sex, wealth, and war—may be untrue, or at least ridiculous. But because nothing is off-limits for him, he can show us where the limits actually are. Here’s how “Pain Management” ends:
It’s my physical therapist friend at the other end of the telephone
To tell me something crying.
Her husband is back in the hospital, not dying.
But with his whole left side suddenly paralyzed.
The doctors at New York-Presbyterian don’t know why.
It is exactly as if he’d had a stroke—though he is young.
But his speech and cognition are unimpaired.
But he can’t even use a bedpan or sit up in bed.
Art throws the dog a bone.
I am ashamed of my poem.