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Seidel, Frederick (Lewis)

SEIDEL, Frederick (Lewis)


Nationality: American. Born: St. Louis, Missouri, 19 February 1936. Education: St. Louis Country Day School, 1948–53; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, A.B. 1957. Family: Married Phyllis Munro Ferguson in 1960 (divorced 1969); one daughter and one son. Career: Paris editor, 1960–61, and since 1961 advisory editor, Paris Review, Paris and New York. Writer-in-residence, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1964. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968; American Poetry Review prize, 1979; Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1979; National Book Critics Circle award, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1993. Address: 251 West 92nd Street, New York, New York 10028, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Final Solutions. New York, Random House, 1963.

Sunrise. New York, Viking Press, 1980.

Men and Women: New and Selected Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1984.

These Days: New Poems. New York, Knopf, 1989.

Poems 1959–1979. New York, Knopf, 1989.

My Tokyo: Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 1993.

Going Fast: Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.

The Cosmos Poems. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.

*

Critical Study: "On Dubie and Seidel" by Frederick Garber, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 11 (3), May-June 1982.

*  *  *

Though largely apprentice work, Frederick Seidel's first book, Final Solutions, had the distinction of stirring up controversy: an award granted, then denied, and a publication offer withdrawn on the grounds of shocking and possibly libelous content. While it is difficult today to see what was found so objectionable when the book appeared, it is easy to see the promise others noted. The weaknesses of a first book—the reaching after effect, an over reliance on models (especially Robert Lowell)—are balanced by the figurative boldness of Seidel's language, his willingness to take emotional and prosodic risks. Most successful are the poems in the uncluttered confessional mode of Lowell's Life Studies, as in this harrowing passage about his mother's lobotomy:

Tumbling gold whorls of hair shaved back for the incision;
The skin, as always, Madonna-smooth,
Without care, below the bandages;
Greener than ever, her eyes are open—
"How are you?" she asks, "how are you?"
And starts to smile, and is wheeled past.
My father's grief-stunned eyes clung to his face like a
   starfish.

Sunrise, Seidel's second book, appeared seventeen years later. The volume stands out as one of the few attempts to carry forward Lowell's enterprise of forging public poetry out of intensely private material. Now, however, the voice is unmistakably Seidel's: brooding, rosined with liquor, by turns mandarin and hip. In fact, voice is one of the few things that does hold fast. Otherwise, the coordinates shift and dissolve, and the language moves in disturbing circles:

The tan table of the desert is an empty
Sunlit plaza by de Chirico
That has no meaning, that is like the desert
Rising in the windows of an Astrojet.

This is nowhere more true than in the title poem. In this stream-of consciousness tour de force of more than 350 lines, impressions break with dizzying speed on the reader, and reference points change as fast as they are registered. The reader must ultimately decide whether the poem, as densely allusive and maddeningly elliptical as The Cantos, finally coheres, but the ride through is exhilarating.

The implications of sunrise here and throughout the collection are twofold. In the broadest cultural terms it conjures up the renovative energies of the 1960s that evaporated so quickly in the succeeding decades. At the same time it implies a countermovement—opening one's eyes from youthful, "wish-fulfilling dreams" to behold clearly the limitations of one's self and one's world.

Yet youth and the 1960s for Seidel were not cut of standard cloth. His were spent among glamorous politicians, famous filmmakers and chefs, and rock and art superstars, along with a dusting of nobility. ("Step one," he writes, "is to be rich.") For him the dream of the 1960s began with the inauguration of John Kennedy and ended with the assassination of Robert Kennedy seven years later:

Shy, compassionate and fierce
Like a figure out of Yeats;
The only politician I have loved says You're dreaming
  and says
The gun is mightier than the word.

A poem like "Pressed Duck," in which Seidel describes his circle as "dreaming and innocent, / Like the last Romanovs," raises the question of which side of the barricades he would have been on had there been a revolution. In the same poem he speaks of

...our English clothes
And Cartier watches, which ten years later shopgirls
And Bloomingdale's fairies would wear,
And the people who pronounce chic chick.

Elsewhere, Seidel remarks joylessly, "Women won." Yet he stands back from these positions and ironizes them. But he does not condemn them. The willingness to abide moral ambiguity, which marks the book as a genuine work of postmodernism, comes out most remarkably in "Men and Women," his hymn to a championship Italian racing motorcycle. "What definition of beauty," he muses, "can exclude / The MV Agusta racing 500–3, / From the land of Donatello …?" At the same time Seidel's preference for "Jamesian gray" rather than "Jacobean black and white" allows him to see the cultural contradictions the motorcycle embodies. This work of beauty, this "phallus which was musical when it roared," was produced "by the largest helicopter manufacturer in Europe, / whose troop carriers shield junta and emir from harm …"

It is tempting to read Seidel's These Days as a follow-up volume; even its title suggests an update of sorts. Sunrise had closed on two poems about existential dead ends: "The Last Entries in Mayakovsky's Notebook" and "Hart Crane near the End." The new book begins with a funeral, and there is indeed a sense of being addressed from the grave: "I'm typing this with fingers of cold wax." In several poems he imagines himself buried alive in an avalanche: "I move my head from side to side. / I cannot move."

If Sunrise evoked the descent of innocence into history, These Days portrays posthistorical reality, where "every dawn is Hiroshima." Cultural decline has been overtaken by cosmic entropy: "The universe hung like a flare for a while, and went out." Unfortunately, the same entropy is evident in the poetry. The centrifugal energies of Seidel's imagination previously had been held in check, if only barely, by the harness of stanza and occasional rhyme; his later poems veer between a flatly rhyming formalism and somewhat diffuse, fuguelike improvisations. Nor is there the same attempt to yoke the personal and public. Poems about his school days and adult friends alternate with poems entitled "Empire" and "AIDS Days," yet the two spheres scarcely touch. A characteristic of our times? Perhaps, but Seidel's poetry has suffered by it.

—Martin McKinsey

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