Songs of Himself

I should declare an interest, as parliamentarians used to say. Years ago in New York City, I was introduced to Frederick Seidel by our mutual friend Richard Poirier. Some time after, Seidel invited me to join a small dinner party he was planning to give at Elio’s. I had never heard of that restaurant, but it turned out to be a fashionable, high-toned place on New York’s Upper East Side. It was crowded that night, but one table was ostentatiously empty, held sacrosanct, immune to ordinary customers. It was a corner table, and the wall above it was adorned with a framed, enlarged frontispiece of Seidel’s first book of poems, Final Solutions. I forget most of the detail, the company, the conversation, but I recall that we were not shown a menu, nor was our host given a wine list; we ate and drank according to the maître d’s recommendations. It may be my fantasy that we were told of truffles flown in that morning from Italy. At the end of the meal, no bill that I could see was tendered. I assume that an account was sent every month or so, which Seidel answered with a check. We dispersed in several taxis. I have not returned Seidel’s hospitality, so I owe him a meal that I am not sure I can afford.

Now we have a large offering of his poems, his several books gathered in one, the poems printed in the reverse order of their first publication. The chronological order is: Final Solutions (1963), Sunrise (1980), These Days (1989), My Tokyo (1993), Going Fast (1998), The Cosmos Trilogy (2003), Ooga-Booga (2006), and Evening Man (2008). At a glance, the poems seem to say with flourishes: This is what it is like to be rich in New York, to have friends with names—Diane von Furstenberg, Harold Brodkey, Mark Peploe, Antonioni, Elaine; to travel in style, lodge in London in a favorite room at Claridge’s, in Bologna at the Hotel Baglioni (“the Bag” to initiates); to have one’s suits made to exquisite measure by Huntsman of Savile Row and Caraceni of Milan, order one’s several motorcycles to be made to well-pondered specifications by Ducati; and meanwhile to become an evening man and dine at Elaine’s, Fred’s at Barneys, Elio’s, or the now gone Chauveron. As for destinations, we read of Paris, Nevers, Tokyo, Dubai, Sag Harbor, Bali, Cap Ferrat, Tahiti. “Everything about me is bespoke.” I can’t keep up. But if you decide that you don’t have to keep up with this name-dropping, fox-hunting poet Jones, you can ask a different question: How has he managed to transcend the influences of the Robert Lowell of Life Studies and the John Berryman of Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and write several independent books of poetry?

Frederick Seidel was born to easy-street riches in St. Louis in 1936, grew up with chauffeurs and Cadillacs, went to Harvard, and settled, if that is the right word, in New York. In “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin” he writes:

To Ninety-second Street and Broadway I have come.
Outside the windows is New York.
I came here from St. Louis in a covered wagon overland
Behind the matchless prancing pair of Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Sometimes he separates those horses: “Pound catches the thermals in every language, and soars. / Eliot rises in the pew to kneel. / When he opens his mouth it is a choir,” he writes more smartly than justly in “On Wings of Song.” But many of Seidel’s post-Lowell, post-Berryman poems could not have been written without Eliot: in fact, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes some of them redundant. Like this from the Ten-Shin poem:

But that was when it mattered. Do
I matter? That is true.
I don’t matter but I do. I lust for fame,
And after never finding it I never was the same.

Seidel’s engrossing concern as a poet—I cannot testify to the man otherwise—is with himself, most often seen in childhood: “I am often old / Enough to leave my childhood, but I stay.” In his adult poems he plays merrily, while the going is good, among the conditions of his life. His values appear to be these: pleasure, speed—I mean velocity—beauty, love, friendship, and sex: “I live a life of laziness and luxury, / Like a hare without a bone who sleeps in a pâté.” When he raises his eyes to acknowledge a world beyond Ninety-second Street and Broadway, he reads science: cosmology is the form his wonder takes, a superior form of child’s play among the big words, as in The Cosmos Trilogy (2003). Those were his songs till images of growing old and the thought of death started intruding. In “Recessional” he writes, “What hasn’t happened isn’t everything / Until in middle age it starts to be.” So regrets are inevitable, but they are not ethical ones. He does not indulge himself in guilt. There is nothing here to compare with Eliot’s lines in “Little Gidding”:

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
      Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
      Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
      Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

Seidel only says: “One cannot be the way one was back then today.” Or: “Happy days are gone / Again.” Or, in “Gethsemane”: “I smell the back of my hand, / And like the smell.” The only regret he expresses is cultural, almost impersonal: it cannot keep him awake at night: “I wish I were about to land on Plymouth Rock, / And had a chance to do it all again but do it right.” That is as close as Seidel has come to having a historical sense. Generally, he keeps to himself and his fox-hunting reminiscences. As in “Kill Poem”:

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.

Seidel has never had much to say, but he is omnivorous in adding detail to detail, occasion to occasion. When all else fails, he returns to cherished topics. He has three poems about the jeweler Joel Rosenthal, two about Holly Anderson, two odes to Catherine Hart. A change of three words turns “The New Woman” into “The Hour.” Three poems begin: “I don’t believe in anything, I do.” A poem of about seventy lines is achieved by the simple stroke of taking an earlier poem, “The Walk There,” and changing the name “Levy” to “Rilke.” Seidel likes himself so well that, in several poems, he invents an alter ego and talks to it. These are evidently privileges attendant on being debonair.

Seidel’s usual method is to make each verse line coincide with a sentence. The line holds a small perception or a reminiscence. Next line: another one. Progress is effected by the possibility of end-rhymes or internal rhymes. Very few passages are complex in grammar or syntax. Anything goes, as in “Homage to Pessoa,” where “a fountain pen” offers “a mountain.” In another poem, the sentence “I have never been so cheerily suicidal,” ends, almost predictably, with “so sui-Seidel.” More wordplay: “A woman has the right to bare arms. I particularly like them bare.” Indeed, he goes far to make a fancy style. “Satin” is rhymed with “that in” and he likes the rhyming of “I do love / The sky above” so much in a poem called “Frederick Seidel” that he plays it again in “I Do” as “I do love / The sky above / Which is black.”

The poems I like best among Seidel’s many are those in which he adverts to a world that exists independently of his pleasures and desires. My short list has “The Blue-Eyed Doe,” “The Death of Anton Webern,” “Do You Doha?,” “The Hour,” “The Lighting of the Candles,” and “Our Gods.” I’ll quote entire the shortest of these, “The Lighting of the Candles,” in which he has learnt something from Frost and not at all from Lowell, Berryman, Eliot, or Pound:

Her lighting all the candles late at night,
Hours after he had turned out every light,
Was her preparing to be left alone
Once she had pushed aside the heavy stone
And left the tomb and their apartment where
She’d leave herself behind to not be there.

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Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).

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