Sunday, November 23, 2008


One of my more interesting reading experiences in the Contemporary Poetry Reading Group this semester was provided by excerpts from Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga (2006). I say "interesting" because that vaguely laudatory word covers both a positive and a negative reaction -- because it alludes to something slippery about Seidel's verse, a quality that I don't quite "get," though it does intrigue me. And, I must admit, I'm not sure I even "get" why it gets me.

I don't know much about Seidel except he's rich, was born in 1936, published his first book of poems in 1962, and didn't publish another book until 1979. His Collected Poems, 1959-2009 is scheduled to appear next year.

Judging by Ooga-Booga, he's an acquired taste that I'm on my way to acquiring, though I'm still inquiring of myself my reasons. It's because, I believe, that these poems confront me in a way that the poets I end up living with for awhile do, or did. I should use the past tense because it's rare for that to happen any more. And that, I suspect, adds something to Seidel's allure. It's not that I walk around considering myself a jaded guy, but when I read poems by a jaded guy something in me goes "oh yeah."

The jadedness of Seidel's outlook suits the time, perhaps? Or to put it more stringently on that temporal front: the inclusive dates of his Collected Poems spans my life from birth to next year. Maybe I'd like to believe a change is coming (other than death). But Seidel reminds me of two things: death is the change that's coming (no matter how rich you are), and I'll never be as rich as he is. Which is to say: whatever I expect a poet to show me, it's rare that he shows me a style to which only celebrities, heads of state, and that elusive 5% of the population with 37% of the wealth are accustomed. What does that mean in practical terms? It means that in Seidel we find none of the dreadful earnestness of well-meaning poets being confessional about lives in marginal writing programs, dutifully looking at art and reading biographies to have something to write about, occasionally name-dropping places with cultural panache so as to join the ranks of world-class touring poets.

Seidel does that touring stuff too, of course, but in his case, as in "Barbados," the tour is replete with a rich insider's ennui, to say nothing of a dangerous tendency to be as rancid as anything he might witness. Other poets with political axes to grind do, of course, give us glimpses of brutal acts and consequences to jar us out of our literary complacency. But Seidel somehow seems to suggest that all he's grinding is his pencil, to make it sharper. Whatever the outcome of the chaos we live in, he seems to say, I was there.

But what makes his writing hard to fathom, for me, is its childlike simplicity. Or, rather, its simplicity is so arch, so tongue-in-cheek, so craftily artless, that one always waits to be slapped or jabbed by the inevitable line that arrives with all the specific, precise density -- drowning in acid -- of Robert Lowell or T. S. Eliot when they suddenly drop the right phrase into its inevitable place.

Huntsman indeed is gone from Savile Row,
And Mr. Hall, the head cutter.
The red hunt coat Hall cut for me was utter
Red melton cloth thick as a carpet, cut just so.
One time I wore it riding my red Ducati racer -- what a show!--
Matched exotics like a pair of lovely red egrets.
London once seemed the epitome of no regrets
And the old excellence one used to know
Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.
--"Kill Poem"

Yeah, and "a savage servility slides by on grease." To me, the echoes of Lowell's "Skunk Hour" dance through a poem that is aiming to be a Charles Bukowski poem for an uncannily different demographic. But Bukowski is never far from my mind when reading Seidel: it's not only that "fuck you if you can't take me" kind of ethos that these poems exude, there's also that sense of the poem as the only possible repository for a life of this tenor. Once your lines become this spare, they spare nothing.

But look also at how the diction does whatever it wants -- the beautiful balance of line 3 ends with that hanging "utter" that is itself pretty damned utter. And then the "what a show!" interpolation which in a flash makes speaker and poem as cartoonish as anything -- or at least as any inconceivable commercial for Ducati racers(!) could be. Then the "matched exotics" of "egrets" and "regrets" so funny and so baldly bad, as we veer into "the old excellence" that ends with a line worthy of Lowell and an image that suddenly brings in the death and blood that lurks so smugly behind all our diversionary tactics. Gee.

What I like about Seidel is the way he plays our banalities back at us, but first subjects them to a sea-change that causes the acrid brine of his own peculiar vision to cling to them:

The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger.
But this young woman is young. We kiss.
It's almost incest when it gets to this.
This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger.
--"Climbing Everest"

What is said is what any commentator commenting on how the rich old court the fresh young might say -- but it would be said in a wagging finger way, or at least with mockery of the jaded, fading oldster trying to ignite himself via youth. But Seidel says it with a kind of rueful surprise at being the oldster accepted by youth in his "hunger-for-younger." In other words, it's not jaded at all, but almost charmingly surprised by the mores of "almost incest," where the words "consensual, national" do the job of making both old and young part of a machine that operates simply because it operates. "My dynamite penis / Is totally into Venus" Seidel quips, the intonation of youth appropriated by age to make it -- the sex act -- partake of "the moment" as, we tend to think, only youth can. The insinuation of the poem -- that such sex acts, like that Ducati racer, are grandiose acts of death-courting -- never stops asserting itself after that first verse of foreplay, and each joke gets a little edgier, stripped of any self-satisfaction, but gripped by the vanity of vanitas, which is to say that being vain is a vain endeavor, that the grave is grave, and that "the train wreck in the tent" is addicted to all the tender mercies he can get.

One thing's for sure: I'll be getting a copy of those Collected Poems.

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