February 2010

Arts & Letters

Easy rider

By Kate Jennings

Frederick Seidel’s ‘Ooga-Booga and Poems: 1959-2009’

For your consideration: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Now there’s a rip-snorting line of poetry if there ever was one. Frederick Seidel, who is not afraid to repeat himself, offers the line not once but three times in Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 112pp; $24). In my youth, loaded up with righteous moralism and my mind dead-bolted shut, I would’ve stopped right there and condemned not just Seidel but anyone who read him. Instead, on the other side of 60, I mentally snorted, “Listen, mate, a naked man my age is a total nightmare.”

The problem with rejecting Frederick Seidel outright because of this so-called transgressive line would be to overlook that his subject is not women his age but men his age in pathological pursuit of vernal flesh. And he’s not kind, writing about the shock of seeing his old man’s buttock in a mirror or realising that the girl he is fucking is so young that he could be committing incest. It’s a good subject and a legitimate one. Fred Seidel: vain, sometimes repulsive, frequently pathetic, badly out of breath every time he ruts.

As already noted, one of Seidel’s trademarks is repetition:

I spend most of my time not dying.

That’s what living is for.

I climb on a motorcycle.

I climb on a cloud and rain.

I climb on a woman I love.

I repeat my themes.

“I climb on a cloud and rain” is vintage Seidel. He goes for broke at every opportunity, not waiting to double down in the final line as is the usual poetic practice. His themes: sex, Lobb shoes, sex, Caraceni suits, sex, dogs, sex, motorbikes, sex. Obviously, sex wins out, motorbikes come second, with fine living a third: “Everything about me is bespoke.” His life of inordinate privilege finds pure expression in Life on Earth, published in 2001:

My life is a snout

Snuffling toward the truffle, life. Anyway!

It is a life of luxury. Don’t put me out of my misery.

You get the idea. Seidel is a trust-fund guy, never had to clock into a job, a greater part of his life spent warming a seat at Elaine’s. You can’t help but come across these chaps in New York, and as they get older they invariably turn into the worst sort of name-dropping, overweening, goatish bores. All the same, good Orwellian socialist though I am, I’m crazy about Seidel’s poetry. Bless his randy, polarising soul! This would make me the rare woman to write something positive about Seidel. I add that being a fan of his doesn’t mean my feminist credentials have vaporised for all eternity. It doesn’t stop me from arguing that everyone should read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. You can mentally pat your stomach and rub your head at the same time.

On the face of it, Katha Pollitt should be more my cup of tea. Stalwart left-winger and feminist, she’s a writer I’ve admired over the years. Around the time Seidel’s Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352pp; $60.95) came out, she published The Mind-Body Problem, a volume infused with polite regret, with what the Japanese call wabi-sabi. The transience of life. Leaves turning and herons migrating southward. Here’s a sample:

… I am being reluctantly

dragged along by my body as though by some

swift and powerful dog. How eagerly

it plunges ahead, not stopping for anything,

as though it knows exactly where we are going.

Agree or disagree with the sentiments – my body is not eager to greet death and my mind refuses to dwell on it – Pollitt didn’t need two adjectives to describe the dog; “powerful” would have sufficed. She hop-scotches through a list of subjects that one has come to expect of older women poets: Chinese poets, rereading Jane Austen, the Greeks. And herons – the ubiquitous herons. Her last poem tells us that she’s done with spring and summer, preferring October’s chill. Pollitt’s poems are perfectly competent but also perfectly inoffensive, a.k.a. New Yorker poems.

And here’s Seidel:

If you’re a woman turning fifty,

You’re a woman who feels cheated.

This message now will be repeated.


The bittersweetness known as Jesus

Was not some nice man saying he is

Not quite a feminist and not quite not one.


Every man’s a rapist until he’s done.

The bitch relieves the dog. The wound, the gun.

The Sermon on the Mount, the Son.

On reading this, Dorothy Porter’s memorable lines in her final book, The Bee Hut, came to mind: “Every poet wants to write the poem / … that will fuck you awake / or kill you.” Are we awake now?

Seidel’s honesty has been called all kinds of things – brutal, savage, toxic, ruthless – but I will go with “miraculous” because it’s an honesty I’d thought extinct. For me, discovering Seidel was the poetic equivalent of a naturalist coming across a Tasmanian tiger. When I first came to New York I subscribed to all the poetry magazines and even worked on one for a couple of years, a little magazine called The Little Magazine. And then disaffection with contemporary poetry set in. Predictability, blandness, faint pulse. I turned my attention elsewhere.

I can remember the exact moment of the rupture: a reading at the 92nd Y by Jorie Graham, who early in her career received the imprimatur of Helen Vendler, the dean of American poetry, and since then has been heaped with more honours than a triumphant Roman emperor. Graham was not so much reading as tossing her glossy hair around. She wears flowing clothes more suitable for a fairy – the winged kind – including scarves that can also be flicked about, so the hair-tossing was joined by scarf-flicking, but these distractions, as fetching as some might find them, couldn’t disguise the fact that the words in her poems were as arbitrary as those in John Ashbery’s work but without that poet’s alchemy. Her work is pure Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is where Graham went to school and taught for years before replacing Seamus Heaney as the Boylston Professor at Harvard. She’s the first woman to hold that post, a choice example of the old feminist adage that true equality is when mediocre women can rise to the top like mediocre men. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has had a baleful influence on the American poetry world, producing a surplus of confessional poetry mashed up with postmodern obscurantism. Confession and honesty no longer equate. Anne Sexton has left the building.

I read poetry but return to my tried and trusted, such as Les Murray, Rita Dove, Philip Levine, Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens and James Fenton. I buy books of poetry if a review piques my interest, most recently Jack Spicer, Jack Gilbert and August Kleinzahler. Reading these poets in succession made me feel as if I were in a Monty Python fish-slapping contest. If nothing else, ageing reduces one’s patience.

Seidel can be melancholy about ageing – “I am in a winter field” – but his response is to jump the nearest set of young bones or go fast on one of his three motorbikes. Going Fast is the title of his 1998 volume – his first after a dry period of 17 years – and, as critics note, he’s been going fast ever since and in every sense: redlining, flirting with poetic disaster, daring his poetry to fly off the road and into a ditch, as he once did on a bike:

Slip the clutch to get the revs up, blipping and getting

Ready not to get deady,

Which is also what a poem does.

His poems, anyway. In an essay in Harpers, Seidel wrote, “To go fast on two wheels was the point. To go fast on two wheels is the point in life, isn’t it?” Not for all of us, but many older men have a passion for motorbikes because they make them feel young and sexy. Seidel is in your face about the symbolism of motorbikes:

I bought the racer

To replace her.

It became my slave and I its.

All it lacked was tits.

All it lacked

Between its wheels was hair.

I don’t care.

We do it anyway.

Maybe I’m easily amused, but those lines tickle my funny bone.

I confess to having a dog in the fight: my brother has a motorbike business named Deus Ex Machina. Custom road bikes with the lean lines of racing bikes, their form dictated by function, the kind that sends Seidel into rhapsodies. Motorbikes bearing the logo Deus. Motorbikes called God. Seidel would approve: “The Lord is my shepherd and the Director of Superbike Racing.” When he spruiks about motorbikes, which he does at length, I’m genuinely absorbed. Blokey, yes, but Seidel writing about motorbikes is one of the rare examples where the fine arts embrace the applied arts rather than ignoring or belittling them.

Seidel doesn’t shy from nature, although it might include fox-hunting. Here is his description of the end of a drought on Long Island: “The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy.” Perfect. He writes beautifully and endearingly about dogs, as in a poem titled ‘Spin’ from Going Fast:

A dog named Spinach died today.

In her arms he died away.

Injected with what killed him.

Love is a cup that spilled him.

Spilled all the Spin that filled him.

Sunlight sealed and sent.

Received and spent.

Smiled and went.

But if you are in the business of hitting sixes and bowling googlies, you can also snick a ball to the slips. When Seidel becomes platitudinous, it’s somehow more shocking than any of his vituperative lines. In Ooga-Booga he writes, “I am pursuing you, life, to the ends of the earth across a Sahara of tablecloth.” So far, so good. But he follows this up with “The violin of your eyes / Is listening gently.” Neil Diamond alert! In Going Fast, he writes “Your life is anything you want it to – / And loves you more than it can show or tell.” He didn’t snick that to the slips; he snicked it straight to Oprah.

A poem that hit its mark squarely with me was, in fact, the one that began with the “naked women my age” zinger. Seidel segues into heartbreaking lines about aged couples:

I hate the old couples on their walkers giving

Off odors of love, and in City Diner eating a ray

Of hope, and then paying and trembling back out

on Broadway.

One such couple lives in my apartment building. They are well into their nineties, shrunk by extreme age, but still attend the opera, although wearing the clothes they wore 50 years ago: she in floor-length black velvet cape and he in a black coat and homburg. They walk at an excruciatingly slow pace through the lobby, holding each other upright, beaming at one and all: “We’re going to the opera! We’re alive! Both of us.” I find the couple unbearable. I am happy for them, but it almost kills me to watch them. I also hope they don’t fall over.

I’d recommend consuming Fred Seidel in small doses. Too bespoke. His persona becomes a caricature in large doses. All the old-man sex is, well, you know, tiresome, unless you have satyric tendencies. And then there is his transgressiveness, a word that is worn out from overuse: Dick Cheney is transgressive, not Fred Seidel. All the same, you have to put on the brakes with Seidel and mull his meaning or you will take offence. Take the poem titled ‘Boys’ from his last book, Evening Man, in which he writes about black people he knew in his youth in St Louis. Seidel’s father was known for his impeccable behaviour toward everyone, for his fairness. One day, in a rare fit of annoyance, Seidel père lost his temper and called a shoeshine man – an “old white-haired Negro” – “Boy”. Seidel fils:

It was a jolt, a jolt of joy,

To hear him cut the shit

And call a black man Boy.

Seidel asserts that this was “one of the sovereign experiences of his life”. Whoa! Cue the conniptions! But he’s not being racist; he’s writing about race in St Louis circa the 1930s and about his Jewish boyhood self and his relationship with his father, the son of Russian immigrants who made his fortune hauling coal.

Seidel is also making a point, in general, about taboos and pretence. It’s next to impossible to have a sane discussion about race in the US. Whites, guilty; blacks, blameless. Or the other way around. Oversimplified, absurdly so, but that’s how it is. Whites, as a group and many individually, deserve to be shaken until their bones rattle and see sense, but that doesn’t let blacks off scot-free from considered criticism as well as soul-searching on their part. The same goes for gender. Men, guilty; women, blameless. Minds dead-bolted shut. We are trampled to death by sacred cows. So, cut the shit.

I’ve worked out why I’m so ardent about Seidel’s work, and it’s not just because he’s an original, always honest (in his fashion), unwilling to toe anyone’s line. In a rollicking novel, The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker has his narrator proffer the opinion that poetry is “a controlled refinement of sobbing”. True enough, and certainly true of Katha Pollitt. Here’s the thing about Seidel: his poetry is not controlled sobbing; it’s uncontrolled joy, if not outright ecstasy. Living to the fullest:

Kiss me here. Ouf! Kiss me there.

The crocodile of joy lifts the nostrils of his snout

I don’t care who lives or dies.

I am the crocodile of joy, who never lies.

Kate Jennings

Kate Jennings was a poet, novelist, memoirist, essayist, speechwriter and feminist.

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