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Seidman, Hugh

SEIDMAN, Hugh


Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1 August 1940. Education: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1957–58; Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, 1958–61, B.S. 1961; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1961–64, M.S. 1964; Columbia University, New York, 1967–69, M.F.A. 1969. Family: Married Jayne Holsinger in 1990. Career: Member of the faculty, New School for Social Research, New York, 1976–98. Since 1984 self-employed technical documentation specialist and consultant. Visiting poet or writer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1971, 1973, City College of City University of New York, 1972–75, Wilkes College, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1975, Wichita State University, Kansas, 1978, New York State Poets-in-the-Schools, 1978–81, Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland, 1979, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1981, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1982, Columbia University, 1985, and Writer's Voice, New York, 1988. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1970, and fellowship, 1972, 1985; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1971; Yaddo fellowship, 1972, 1976, 1988; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1974, 1975, 1989; Writer's Digest prize, 1982; New York Foundation for the Arts poetry grant, 1990. Address: 463 West Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Collecting Evidence. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1970.

Blood Lord. New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Throne/Falcon/Eye. New York, Random House, 1982.

People Live, They Have Lives. Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press, 1992.

Selected Poems: 1965–1995. Oxford, Ohio, Miami University Press, 1995.

Recording: The Ecstasy of Odin's Eye, Watershed, 1984.

Other

Coeditor, Westbeth Poets. New York, Poetry New York, 1971.

Coeditor, Equal Time. New York, Equal Time, 1972.

*

Critical Studies: By Peter Davison, in Atlantic (New York), January 1971; by Beth Bentley, in Seattle Times, 10 January 1971; by Denis Donoghue, in New York Review of Books, 16 May 1971; by Rochelle Ratner, in East Village Other (New York) 18 May 1971; by Bill Zavatsky, in New York Times Book Review, 26 December 1971; by Theodore Enslin, in Occurrence 3 (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania), 1975; by Gary Ross, in Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1 February 1975; by John Koethe, in Parnassus (New York), spring-summer 1975; by Joseph Parisi, in Poetry (Chicago), September 1975; by Michael Heller, in Granite (Hanover, New Hampshire), winter 1975–76; by Marilyn Crabtree, in Kansas City Star, 27 February 1983; by Richard Tillinghast, in New York Times Book Review, 2 May 1983; by Paul Pines, in American Book Review (Newark, New Jersey), July-August and September-October 1984; by Louise Glück, in The Village Voice Literary Supplement (New York), October 1991; by Keith Tuma, and by Ligero Smith, in Sulfur (Ypsilanti, Michigan), spring 1993; by Richard Silberg, in Poetry Flash (Berkeley, California), May/June 1993; by Calvin Bedient, in Poetry (Chicago), March 1994; by Gerald Burns, in Another Chicago Magazine (Chicago), 27, 1994; by Lawrence Joseph, in American Book Review (Newark, New Jersey), 1994; by Susan Shapiro, in St. Petersburg Times (Florida), April 1995.

Hugh Seidman comments:

One gets up in the morning and goes to the typewriter. And one continues against whatever else.

It is pleasurable to make an object, in this case with words. As the desire to make something implies, coherence is a pressure. I like to think that there is some similarity between solving a problem in mathematics or physics, the two subjects of most of my academic training, and "solving" a poem. However, while a mathematical statement is finally only a relationship between abstract symbols relative to an axiomatic context, in the poem there is the possibility of saying something true, emotionally true. This is because our poems are smarter than we are no matter how we are ourselves struck into our own ignorance. Though truth may take a lifetime, since one's poems are never more than oneself.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I am interested in the ancient tasks of love, death, and rebirth. And in the ongoing tension and paradox of the private heart in the public world. And this is the great excitement, the great adventure. Yet it is also the great risk, for one may fail utterly even if to others hardly a thing seems to be happening one way or the other. Which returns us to the fact that one gets up and still writes, even so, against all that one knows.

And all of this may not be so, yet it is.
(1995) Recent poems have been formed by high contraction, as in
 
HOW Keep nothing, nothing left, but a faint breath of
  nothing.

At the same time a feeling of almost physical labor:

BREATH Bored concrete. Millions of years to drill
  through, though some drove gold chariots.

And outside?

In the media the oral. Readings; performances; slams; subway poems, like ads, like the oral; MTV; compact discs.

Elsewhere, some want common denominator poems; some want nonspeech prime number poems, divisible only by themselves and ONE.

And personally?

When the forces that brought forth the words are no longer forces? Make the telephone book emotional. Take dictation from "any (one or thing)." Nothing to know or learn but this. The séance table lifts; the spirit trumpet speaks; and not by tricks.

Meanwhile, lurking, the orders:

MALIBU, 1976 Tan, bared to the water: courtesan, sexual laughter. Crossing the provinces of youth toward the hereafter. Or I invent this—but never the roads to that capitol.

(2000) SOUND BITE (grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!)

Up Bethune, past the supermarket, where the homeless put aluminum cans in plastic sacks. Suddenly, one to another, just as I pass, something like "damn thing makes you go blind—then makes you go deaf trying to hear it." The ear registers the phrasing, though the brain needs time to catch up. And then I'm out of hearing, with no clue on the subject.

If you want, set it up:

Damn thing
Make you blind.
Make you deaf
Trying to hear.
*  *  *

Hugh Seidman's remarkable poems embody the disjunctive music of the present, a music of simultaneous dread and prophecy, of razorlike imagery and asperous beauty. In his first book of poems, Collecting Evidence, Seidman laid down for himself the mandate to write of "each grief, each relief / each day and everyday / in consummate craft and artistry." In the following book, Blood Lord, and then with Throne/Falcon/Eye the mandate seems to have been accomplished in a body of work of extraordinary originality and power.

The first thing to strike the reader of Seidman's poems is what marks them off from the work of his contemporaries. For unlike the bland horizontal mumbling of much contemporary American poetry, Seidman's poems have a calligraphic jaggedness, a capacity, as they work down the page, to inscribe allusively large areas of emotion and complexity. This is shown, for example, in "Zero":

The unbroken lake creaks
but a rat snaps in the trap
and thumb skin cracks and bleeds
 
And once I jabbed a fish-hole
and the black birds
bud oddly on the trees in the furnace cold
 
And the cloud rim is fire
and the ice in space freezes harder
and the astral TV flickers

The world registers on the poet not as a series of mediated images but as acutely sharp and painful arousals, as calls to being of nearly inarticulate body and mind states in which "… now I touch myself / like all dumb things at the ice-hole / who do not know why they know."

Central to Seidman's work is a vision of a world in which the cultural artifact, the iconic datum, whether it be high art or high tech or the pop spillage of the media, no longer shines in an exemplary light but instead exhibits with a fascinated horror the very price of its existence. Thus in "Agent Orange," on America's Vietnam experience, every "light has a dark / like the inhaled sun over gunships that stained jungles." The poem makes material that brooding, nightmarish craziness of America in which the astronaut can "leap like a boy with a robot's fervor" and "… the night of the high school prom begins / to glow / like a vast angel in a coma …"

In such poems Seidman is both willing and able to draw on the resonances of tradition, to play off the dancing syllables of the Metaphysicals, for example, not only for effect but also for humor. His use of the traditional sounding line often becomes an instrument of black comedy, of a childlike rhythmical analogue, as in "Newton" from Blood Lord:

Newton, praise Newton, his tree
the apple is free...
 
Nipple hairs tickle Newton's nose
he feasts on cheese of toe, he cries
Hosanna to the head

In "Couplets" from Throne/Falcon/Eye, a mock-heroic poem of failed love that runs together current politics, W.C. Fields, and Fidel Castro in its meditations, we are told,

The moral was too banal that we quarrelled
like the mainland and the island...
 
And below the stars I miss you in my bed
Till the sun comes like a warhead
 
Like love that flares to solitude
beyond the evil and the good

A mysterious and enigmatic dimension of Seidman's work is shown in the poems that allegorize the materials of Egyptian mythology, in particular Isis and the cult of the dead. These poems, even as they obliquely refer to the moral and existential dilemmas of the present, most nearly resemble a form of pure poetry or the inverted symbology of a Nerval. They are at once gorgeous in tone and impenetrable, as though structured in a time warp or black hole in which history and poetry are boiling at a critical mass, as in these stunning lines from "Hymn":

As all are commanded to yield like the mummy when the
dung beetle rolls the sun
before all the befores of the trillion nights past night
and day
though I knew that the broken receding mouth of
   the Sphinx had nothing to add
of resurrection in the history of its grimace.

The ambitiousness of such poetry, with its wide range of subjects that includes culture, parents, and sociopolitical arenas, is matched by Seidman's impeccable ear and craft. In his poems one overhears not only a formal cleanliness of language but also a reach for larger intercommunicative ironies, for strategies by which the poem can break with the solipsism of modern verse and enter into meaningful dialogue with the world.

Such poetry is difficult and unsettling, for in a time of transposed and debased values poetry, too, must be transposed if it is to touch the modern reader. Thus, the muse in the poem "Muse" is invoked only to hail:

Ah, good-by!
 
Now you are like the ideal of a shadow
like the blank metals of the dark that long to be struck
into the coins of light

In its scale of poetic values and tones, Seidman's work incarnates a density of language and a corrosive beauty found in few modern poets in English.

Seidman's later work in People Live, They Have Lives and in the nearly book-length selection that concludes Selected Poems: 1965–1995 are marked by extreme condensation and heightened musicality. They show a paring away of excess and inaccuracy until the rhythmic and denotative modes of the poem are made to coincide. This stripped-down language is well suited to invoking a dark and yet visionary measure of modern urban life, as in these lines from "E Train-8:32 AM":

...And the black messenger sleeps,
his bird's head on his chest.
And the blond with her child sleeps,
sitting up as we bore through the dark.
 
For now labor must be done
by the poor from the planets of sleep,
from the dust blown over the statues
to the hard terrains and facades.

But the same compression can also yield a plaintive sweetness, as in the title poem of People Live, They Have Lives:

He cries to the vulnerable sun
and the lost moon—which turn
and turn over France.
where no parent has ever been.

Seidman's late poems, which are among his finest, so actively court brevity and silence that they are almost typographical doorways into invisibility. In "Lift Off" the poet meditates on his deceased parents:

Father thought and thought.
Mother eyes white
ignition.

Poems like these owe as much to the epigram or Zen koan as to the modern image. Rather than presenting a picture on the page, they provoke the reader's mind to yield to the space of contemplation, to consider the nearly hidden realms of being that lie parallel to the plane of our verbalizations, as in "End":

Thoughtless, we think: what is will be.
 
What lives in our acts?
Shock of touch, sky awe, dream, chromosome.
 
Each gas, isotope, metal that grieves,
like whatever it is that thinks.

Seidman's impressive body of work is a complex and thoroughly original contribution to contemporary American poetry.

—Michael Heller

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