Just Call Me Peaches

I don’t know, everything feels strange. As I write this the whole country is being lashed by a rogue wind that has been hammering my little windows in since last night, and filling my little garret with tumult. The sash in the bathroom is banging in its frame, the casements at the front rattle as if they’ll come off their hinges, and there’s no stillness in the rooms.

The news out of El Paso and Mississippi has put a shadow over everything else, and turned out to coincide with the death of Toni Morrison, one of the least dispensable people on the planet. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s righthand man — and the guy who admitted in print that the Remain side would have won the referendum if it hadn’t been for the £350m lie — and he admitted it was a lie — has now been compared to Rasputin, while Johnson, even in this short time, is said to have ‘weaponised positive thinking’. Arguments about Brexit are thickening again.

We in the UK do need to think about our own back yard. Considering how riveted we all are to the enormities coming out of America, it feels odd how no one seems to remember that time, a few years, ago when Byron Burgers (reliably great hamburger chain, if sometimes lacking in ambience) took all their workers on a ‘staff training day’, and when they got to the place, the goons from the Home Office came and took all the undocumented people away.

Not 600 of them, of course. It made the news, but it did nothing more than that. No one ever asked if any of them had children, and no one suggested not going to Byron Burgers any more.

The old Baroque brain is feeling a little wind-whipped. From within and without.

Today’s postbag, therefore, very welcomely contained a copy of Frederick Seidel’s new collection, Peaches Goes It Alone. I can see that it isn’t his strongest collection; this is allowed, as not ‘everything’ can ever be ‘the best’. Ooga Booga was such an event; you can’t ask for that every time. In this new one, for pretty much the first time ever, a couple of poems strike me as being actually as ‘sexist’ as many people have always said Seidel was, which is disappointing. Some are weak, just dashed off. There are lots of sort of dangling last lines that should have been snipped. Including, in my book, the final couplet of the poem that follows.

But there are several things to really like about it. First, that title! Who could resist that. Not me. Second, the fact that there’s no title poem. Thirdly, a poem called ‘Worst When It’s Poetry’. And one about Roupell Street, indeed titled ‘Roupell Street’, which is nice (though sadly it’s one of the weak ones). ‘Ducati Years, Ducati Days’ has the surface appearance that people hate, but the narrator comes off worst, lacerated by the whipping tips of his own irony. And the colours on the cover are so sickly that I really love that about this book too, though clearly that bit wasn’t Seidel’s doing.

And there’s this poem, which I’ll take the liberty of quoting in full because it’s so damn apposite.

England Now

I like to be dead.
That’s what the dead say.

I’d rather be dead than so-called alive.
I like the lack of feeling.

That’s my way.
I’m feeling good.

I haven’t been big on feeling.
I haven’t been alive that much.

It rains all the time and it’s cold in July.
Somewhere down south,

In the tropical humidity and heat
Of my brain below the belt,

That’s where I vote.
I don’t want any.

I eat what’s there.
I don’t import.

I am England
Under these newish circumstances.

A people who are proud to be dead said
So loud and clear.

Now, the serious bit. In a recent review in The New Statesman, Paul Batchelor wrote about this book alongside Niall Campbell’s new collection, Noctuary, saying that they herald, or typify, a rise in sentimentalist poetry. Campbell apparently relies on lazy moon tropes. Well, I don’t have a stake in his work the way I have in Seidel’s. And reading Peaches Goes It Alone, it’s hard to see how ‘sentimentality’ is a conclusion you could even arrive at. (Spoiler: it’s not reading, it’s projection.)

Here is the Seidel bit of Batchelor’s review in full:

Now 83 years old, Seidel began his career by courting controversy, titling his 1963 debut collection Final Solutions. He still likes to cast himself as a subversive element: “Each poem of mine is a suicide belt.” In reality his poems are gated communities. He is yesterday’s rebel, and his observations concerning life in the age of Trump and #MeToo sound bewildered, bored, non-committal: “Many people these days are either Trump or trans or gay…” or “Masturbating in front of women who work for you or want to,/Women who have plenty to gain or lose in this,/Seems to be a new thing men in power do…” Despite the ubiquitous air of knowingness, there is no sign of Seidel having considered how much he has in common with such men. In 2004 the essayist Philip Connors praised Seidel for being: “The writer willing to say the unsayable.” Today, these are the terms in which Trump voters justify their choice.

Both of these writers are sentimentalists. Campbell’s fumbling attempts to manipulate the reader are easier to identify, but Seidel is just as committed to a joyless caricature of passion. Here are two books that blunt the faculty of sympathetic patience. They require and reward complacency. If you like them, you’ll love vaudeville. 

Well. I have neither the time nor the mental energy right now to write the 3,000-word essay that needs to be written about this. But what Batchelor hasn’t done is reviewed the book. As I’ve written above, at a time like this it’s important to keep our wits, to see things for what they actually are, and not to fall prey to sentimentality ourselves. Cynicism is the deepest form of sentimentality there is; it’s either the pre-existing condition of sentimentality, or the necrosis it leads to. If anyone here seems sentimental, it’s Batchelor, because he wants the poet, and maybe by extension poetry, to be one way and not the way he really is.

Seidel isn’t a cynic. He is very open, not vain, and often surprisingly emotionally vulnerable. His most famous line, ‘A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare’, from ‘Climbing Everest’ in Ooga Booga, is the one most commonly cited as evidence of his horrific arrogance and misogyny, but it seems clear enough that ‘my age’ is the key phrase there. Just before this line, of sex with a much younger partner, he says, ‘It’s almost incest when it gets to this’. In other words, it’s self-examination and merciless clarity of observation. Not of the older woman, but of his own ageing. As all poets know, what you leave out is often as important as what you put in.

Alex Halberstadt writes in the other article I’ve linked to that the poems ‘are both ruthlessly honest—in the words of Seidel’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, “uncompromising to the point of cruelty”—and unflinching about the serious business of pleasure’. Sentimentality, were it present, would be in the flinch.

Batchelor’s review hints at some awfully big accusations. Suddenly Seidel, a poet, must consider whether he sounds too ‘non-committal’ (again, not ‘sentimental’); he must reflect on ‘how much he has in common with such men’ as those ‘men in power’ who masturbate over female employees. Why? What men? Men like Harvey Weinstein? Suddenly he’s a gross abuser on a global scale? I’m not seeing how this extrapolation works, unless you reduce it to rich men, camels, and eyes of needles. No one has ever to my knowledge accused Seidel of any sexual abuse at all. It’s potentially a serious allegation, or would be, if anyone thought Batchelor’s words were worth taking seriously. Fortunately it’s obvious that he’s just flinging them about. It’s a pretty reductive way to review a book of poetry.

No, calling his first collection Final Solutions did not make Seidel a Nazi. (For one thing, he’s a Jew.) ‘Each poem of mine is a suicide belt’ may seem like a provocative statement, but for one thing, poetry operates almost entirely in the realm of image and metaphor, so no, he’s not talking about blowing anyone up, and he’s not advocating terrorism. For another, the poet has chosen to say ‘suicide belt’ rather than just ‘bomb’. So we have a metaphorical line in a poem, which is about poems, and indicates that the poet himself will be the first person taken out by his own work. Naturally it does get a bit of charge (sic) from the term ‘suicide bomber’, but I thought that since Modernism nothing was off limits in poetry. Would anyone (on ‘the right side of history’, as the current saying goes) complain if someone like Abby Hoffman had written something like that, someone like Allen Ginsburg, back in the day, or someone like Angela Davis?

Batchelor quotes Philip Connors, who in 2004 — at the height of the Iraq war, in the Blair-Bush years — called Seidel ‘The writer willing to say the unsayable’, and then remarks, ‘Today, these are the terms in which Trump voters justify their choice’. If someone can draw a line from one of these statements to the other, please be my guest. Lots of sayings and phrases ‘persist from one life to the next’, as James Merrill writes in his great poem, ‘The Kimono’ (of ‘desires ungratified’). It seems a little too much semantic unpacking to try to say why it was all right to say the unsayable in 2004 and it isn’t now.

Trump voters also justify their support for DT by saying he seems like one of the guys, like a normal person. They feel understood by him, in just the way people feel understood by poetry. They say he sticks up for the little guy, just like they said about John Brown. They say he’s on their side. Do we just find every phrase that sounds like one of these lines the Trump base uses, and then excoriate anyone else to whom it might, in whatever context, also apply? James Baldwin (another notable sentimentalist) also said the unsayable. So did Jane Austen, for that matter. So did Voltaire. Being a way of saying the unsayable is precisely what literature is. As Alex Halberstadt writes of Ooga Booga: ‘While I can think of a more likable book of poems, I can scarcely imagine a better one’.

‘Both of these writers are sentimentalists’, continues Batchelor, undeterred by his argument refusing to stack up even within its own terms, as Seidel is also ‘committed to a joyless caricature of passion’.

‘Here are two books that blunt the faculty of sympathetic patience’, he writes, though I have to say his review has also done that to me. Far from requiring and rewarding complacency, Seidel challenges it, partly by never being ‘like’ what you think he’s like, or want to think he’s like. He’s Mister Unpindownable. I doubt he himself has managed to figure out what he’s like. But the one thing anyone can see is that he’s not like Trump.

And yeah, I do like a little bit of cucumber now and then.

In ‘Worst When it’s Poetry’, Seidel writes, once again about himself:

Here’s a naked fellow dressed up in some clothes,
Arrogantly flaunting what he actually loathes —
The Savile Row swagger and the nonchalant pose!
He’s who he isn’t and he makes sure it shows.

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