“a sort of F. Scott Fitzgerald that is three parts Roy Lichtenstein”


Fitzgerald and Lichtenstein: Could they by any chance have had an evil offspring?

Back on my hobbyhorse. Michael Hofmann has an essay on Frederick Seidel in this month’s Poetry magazine. It’s a review; but it’s a review of the new Poems 1959-2009 (who knew! Okay, so I’m slow, aggghhh) so it’s more like an essay on the phenomenology of Seidelica, and it is a thing of such intense beauty that – well, you’ll have to read it for yourself. (If I were a certain kind of person it would make me think I should just get out the pool and go home, and never write anything again. As it is, it makes me think I should either go get some water wings and go in the deep end, or else throw mine away and swim proper. One or the other.)

Either way, there’s not much I can add to this exquisitely subtle rendering of an exquisitely subtle poet. People talk about Seidel as a brutalist, and he is; even Hofmann refers to his “cartoonishness.” But he’s a subtle, delicate brutalist, and spares not himself. Lots of people seem to think one ought not to think Seidel is really all that good. Hofmann says all the things I’ve been trying to say to them:

Seidel’s poems go against most prevailing trends of poetry. There is nothing photographic about them, they don’t home in on detail, they don’t seek feeling, go in for tolerable introspection, or try to make an unassuming music. One might go so far as to say that the impulse behind their making has nothing lyrical about it. That probably is why reactions to them are so strong, why—apart from a small but persistent minority of supporters and admirers—readers and critics are so often outraged, want their money back, call Seidel all sorts of names. Where’s the pissy beauty, the undemanding truth? Conditioned to the sort of poetry where the poet tries hard to be precisely the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” readers are no longer able to understand what happens when—in the rest of the Yeats tag—a phantasmagoria imposes itself.

And more.

Parenthetically: I’m not sure if Seidel really goes against ALL the prevailing trends, by the way (I know Hofmann says most); he’s right in there with the postmodern disjointed allusive anti-narrative and the cartoonishness. But he’s more sophisticated than 99.9% of it. It’s this relentless sophistication – intellectual, cultural, verbal, emotional – that makes him bigger than a trend. It’s out of fashion, anyway, isn’t it? People distrust any sort of surface, calling it “decoration” – even while they flock to the Hirst shows, the Koons in Versailles – tell me it makes sense. Well, they like Hirst and Koons because they know they don’t mean anything. They’d hate to have to be held to anything! And we hate words in our current culture. Yes, we do. I mean, I can’t believe people are still talking about “formal-unfriendly journals,” and saying they don’t like poems that rhyme! You might as well not like an equation because it added up: so retrograde, so anti-postmodern. Anyway, a Seidel poem uses the solution to show how there is no solution. Back to the essay.

There’s a wonderful structural comparison of “whatever poem Seidel is writing” and “For the Union Dead.” (Seidel was a student of Lowell’s.) And lots of talk about what is the lyric impulse, and channelling poetry – the Muse vs the Ego, I suppose – and Seidel has this to say in an interview with Wyatt Mason (who, if you haven’t looked him up and read his stuff, you should):

Looking at these poems [. . .] is sometimes an extremely strange experience, as if . . . who the hell wrote this? What’s odd is that, at the same time, I also remember alternative possibilities and associations at the time of the writing of the things. So it’s interesting, that one should have that going on as well. It’s rather a surprise, almost as if it were a surprise that they managed to get done at all.

This is straightforward, honest talk about what it’s like making things. By someone who has never been part of the Academy! And the things themselves are colourful and shiny and delicate, with lots of moving parts. People who talk derogatorily about flashy wordplay are missing the point, I think, as I said above. The point is in the quote I used for the headline. Sheer existential-angst-loaded bliss.

I’s all a bit exotic over here though: as many people as raise an eyebrow, you get more than that saying “who?” or that they’ve heard-the-name-but-never-read… the comments on Hofmann’s review are very knowledgeable; mine by contrast looks like the gushing of a school librarian in a very small town indeed… (No offence to school librarians! Do they even still exist?)

More embarrassingly, I think I need to go read more Hofmann.

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