Frederick Seidel. Nice Weather. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012.
In 1962, Frederick Seidel made a big splash when some anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic accusations were leveled at his first book. It seems he still relishes the press he got from such a bold start. You can almost see him chewing on the word “Jew” as he writes it into his lines. He wants you to know he is not the religious type and even imagines his bald spot as his yarmulke. Regular snipes at the absent God are nothing like the Larkin or young Hardy he must imagine himself. Seidel is the Overdog of American poetry: so well-connected and rich (who knows, though, maybe only by poet standards?), he doesn’t have to play by the rules. He went to Harvard, he reminds us, more than half a dozen times throughout Nice Weather. And he prefers the Ritz or the Four Seasons, apparently, to whatever other rooms might be available.
Many surely find Seidel’s sexual innuendo provocative and even seductive. It’s embarrassing, actually, the way he’ll take an effect and use it again and again to no effect: it’s/tits, labia/Arabia, papillomavirus/require us, vagina/china/nothing could be fina, relations/fellations, penis/Venus. If all these rhymes were in one poem, they might amount to something, but they’re scattered throughout the whole book like so many old wild oats. It isn’t all sexual. He rhymes sadly/madly, lonely/only, mad/sad/bad which he almost rescues with “jihad.” Almost. But in case you forgot about how funny sex is, he later has a poem called “Cunnilingus.” Occasionally he does write some wonderful rhymes, but the meter to any given pair of lines is intentionally uneven, and so any sort of expectation or tension that rhyme suggests goes flaccid. Most of us know where the road of good intentions leads.
And Seidel loves the copout short last line, not much better than announcing, “The End!”: “We all will get there.” “Now the park is getting dark.” “I don’t care.” “Of this beautiful pointlessness.” “How rad is that!” “Good riddance, goodbye. The bell has tolled.” And “I knew the man who wrote this poem.” (This last one ending a racist pondering about blacks extending their borders beyond Harlem in 1971.)
I haven’t read Bukowski in a long time, but I do remember liking some of his poems in my school days, because now and then he paid attention to words as words rather than bundles of ego. Dress Bukowski in an Italian suit, fly him to some Ritz Hotel off the continent, or put him on a Ducati anywhere, and you’ve got Frederick Seidel in his latest book. After all, it’s so worthless, this existence, isn’t it? But for the egotism (he nicknames himself New York!), the wild sex romps with young(er) girls and whores (plural!) little more than receptacles of his fluids and targets of his poems, and the drugs (Cialis rather than dope) and booze (martinis rather than Mad Dog). And don’t forget the occasional jab at God. Who doesn’t exist. Unless you’re a teenager who has recently found The Beats, you realize it’s more a veiled cry for help than it is a poem. Through all this dissatisfaction with people (you really do get the idea that the persona of these poems is an equal opportunity hater), the world, and money, and power, and poetry (especially rhyme, the way he abuses it), the poet seems on the verge of finding God. He’s the prodigal who somehow has not quite blown all his money but has nearly exhausted his gift. Might he find his way back home to Robert Lowell, his father? How far he has drifted from Lowell’s profound and complex self-loathing in Life Studies. How quickly his self-loathing turnsto self-love in the “Seidel sackcloth.” It’s reversible, he tells us, which is wonderfully witty. But this intense, poetical phrase is a grain among corn husks.
Throughout the book, you get flashes of Seidel’s earlier brilliance most evident in books like My Tokyo and Going Fast: the sarcasm whose invention was composed of razor wit, terror, and beauty. “The Green Necklace” is one of the few gems in the recent collection, a touching love poem better than most I’ve read in recent memory. Even though erotic narcissism is Seidel’s worst trait, it is clearly his best (reversible!) with beautiful lines like: “My old buddy, my body!” or “My shaven skin is softer than the air.” or “Freud had predicted Fred” or “A mouse stands staring at the Muse” or “My face is falling off my face.” These lines break through the mask. Bukowski never liked lines except for the constant slam of the typewriter return; but Seidel does, and it is a shame he doesn’t get them right more often.
However, the bad writing is unbearable. Seidel’s speaker is all too often merely a dirty old man in love with his own vulgarity (as Auden said of some writers, “the smell of their own farts”). One might feel sad for him. His friends are dying (note the elegies, stoic, tender and mostly dull, chock-full of Harvard memories), and his teeth are brown, his jowls appearing. He has found Cialis to rectify other problems. The Seidel of this book might giggle that I wrote “rectify.” And then try to find a bad rhyme for it.
Any poet who is fond of Seidel’s former imaginative surprise and risky business might want to stand up in his defense and say with a chuckle, The old boy is getting old and just can’t control himself. But isn’t poetry the restraint of language rather than the abandon?