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A Poet for Our New Gilded Age

The latest collection from the great Jewish poet Frederick Seidel expresses intimate revulsion at human feats

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Poet Frederick Seidel seen in his Upper West Side apartment on Feb. 18, 2009. (Antonin Kratochvil/VII)

The most famous line in Lowell’s late work is from his poem “Epilogue”: “Why not say what happened?” But here Seidel can’t follow him. For Seidel, saying what happened has always been a game, in which the truth is distorted into a hundred teasing shapes. Is “Do Not Resuscitate,” for instance, a description of a nightmare, an elegy for a dead spouse, a poem of self-reproach, or all three at once?

The mummy in the case is coming back to life.
It sits up slowly. I can’t bear it.
The guard pays no attention. He knows it is my wife.
Her heart sits blinking on her shoulder like a parrot.

I loved my wife to bits. I loved her tits.
Her bandaged mummy mouth had nothing else to give.

“All the poems he wrote, and so few dedications,” the poem ends—an eloquent statement of regret for the brutal aloofness of his poetry. And in Nice Weather, Seidel comes across as more sentimental, more clinging to life and love, than ever before. (“Jews grab/ The thing they love unless it’s ham,/ And hold it tightly to them lest it die,” he writes in one poem, savoring the bad joke.) Several poems seem to describe a love affair with a much younger woman, as in “Arnaut Daniel”:

Age is a factor.
A Caucasian male nine hundred years old
Is singing to an unattainable lady, fair beyond compare,
Far above his pay grade, in front of Barzini’s on Broadway

Barzini’s is a specialty grocer on 91st and Broadway—another example of the local accuracies that are mixed in with Seidel’s outlandish fantasies and help to give them their power.

The most moving poems in Nice Weather, however, are those in which Seidel reflects on his artistic accomplishment and how it weighs in the balance with death. At times he is cynical and dismissive, as in “They’re There,” an elegy for the critic Frank Kermode: “Don’t try to tell Frank that his charming work won’t die./ The dead don’t give a shit/ About their work once they die,” he says flatly. In other poems, he seems to regret the way the persona he has constructed in his work will replace him in the world after he disappears:

My fourteen books of poems
Tie a tin can to my tail.
You hear me fleeing myself.
I won’t get away.

But it is not for a writer like Seidel to ask for the reader’s pity. He remains, even now, a poet of wonderful fearlessness and daring, and he deserves to be remembered as the transgressive adventurer he is: “A Jew found frozen on the mountain at the howling summit,/ Immortally preserved singing to the dying planet from it.”

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I read the poems in this review and then went searching on the Internet and found other poems of Frederick Seidel. They have a strength and suddenness , a violence and quickness of mind, a harshness in perception and feeling. As my own taste is for quieter and gentler things they do not sing to me as they perhaps should. Adam Kirsch is a supreme critic of our time but my own sensibility does not echo his judgment. Not everything that is original and interesting is ‘great’. As Spinoza said ‘Things of excellence are difficult as they are rare’. And ‘Greatness’ is perhaps too rare to be found so readily.

Thank you so much for this article. I love reading good poetry, poetry that sings; it is a shame that poets such as Seidel are often ‘unknown’. It goes to show you that often poets of fame and ‘not fame’ may exhibit the same quality in their writing.

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A Poet for Our New Gilded Age

The latest collection from the great Jewish poet Frederick Seidel expresses intimate revulsion at human feats

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