Poets You Should Know About: Frederick Seidel, the Villain

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

trying.

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.

 


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0 comments

  1. 0
    Daniel Pak '12 says:

    Great column! I love poetry!
    Here’s one of my favorite poems by a Swattie alum
    -by Keetje Kuipers “Beautiful in the Mouth”

    De-Icing the Plane

    God will steal the birds
    from our eyes. As if my body
    is already a kind of box
    for ashes, my mouth a place
    for laying black gauze.
    Through the thick plastic window
    and its rime of sticky snow,
    light enters the cabin
    in bone-heavy shafts
    outweighing the hands in my lap–
    the fat already stripped,
    the pale wax of my curled palms.
    Soon we will fly.

  2. 0
    Q says:

    It’s always upsetting to me to see people casually dismissing things, particularly art, without giving any reasons. I’d like to know why Mr. Straham thinks this “stuff” is so “questionable.” I feel like it would be condescending for me to tell an editor that many of us read and/or write poetry not just because it’s pretty, but because of the many ways in which it allows us to push ourselves and language to new, deeper understandings -or questionings- of the world, no matter how uncomfortable doing so may sometimes be.

    As a classmate of Ian’s, I applaud his initiative in starting this column, and look forward to reading it. As he put it, sadly, it seems that “poetry, these days, is maybe #1 on the things-that-do-not-matter list,” at least in the U.S. This column seems like a possibly really fruitful way to reach out to beyond the microcosm of the Swarthmore “poetry scene,” as well as to challenge people’s notions of what is and isn’t poetry. The poems quoted above may not be my favorite, but I wouldn’t deny that they’re poetry, and I’m glad that people like Ian are helping me to think beyond the canon. Thanks for taking on this project, Ian!

  3. 0
    brad strahan says:

    As an editor, for over 33 years, I have encountered much similar and worse coming across the “transom”. It doesn’t surprise me that Poetry published such questionable (to say the least) stuff. Most of the most well know, established journals have sunk to levels that could never have been imagined many decades ago. They have always tended, except in their early creative phases, to publish the “in crowd” but now they often look for stuff ranging from the impenetrable through the blase/flat/boring to the outrageous.
    It’s all a shame when there are innumerable finer poets out there who hardly ever make their pages. A few examples: Michael Mott, B. J. Buckley, Peter Weltner,just to name 3 of the many.

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