In late 2006, one became gradually aware of the hype surrounding the publication of Ooga-Booga, a book of poems by Frederick Seidel. Venues not normally given to profiling poets (New York magazine) or reviewing them (Harper’s Magazine) got in on the act; in fact, some of these reviewers and admirers even turned out to be–was it possible?–novelists: Benjamin Kunkel, Norman Rush. Novelists don’t usually bother with poetry either. Then again, Seidel is a character. Most novelists like a good character. (Disappointingly for some, lyric poets tend to disappear into their language, shunning the virtues one could easily find in other genres.)
The character Seidel offers is virile, degenerate, nihilistic. A wealthy septuagenarian, he races around on handcrafted Ducati motorcycles, lounges in “the most expensive hotel in the world” and fucks heiresses. He broods existentially on catastrophe, genocide and the politicians that profit from them while jetting to London, Dubai, Tahiti, Lisbon. (Hilariously, one travel poem published in the London Review of Books a few months ago garnered two letters to the editor correcting Seidel’s facts.)
New York magazine has reported that, “according to a great many influential people” Seidel is “among the two or three finest poets writing in English.” Adam Kirsch, in the now-defunct New York Sun, suggested he “may be” the best American poet alive. Joel Brouwer called his The Cosmos Trilogy, published in 2003, a “fin-de-siècle masterpiece,” and reviewing the first two books of the trilogy, The Cosmos Poems (2000) and Life on Earth (2001), in the Boston Review Calvin Bedient announced, “Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.)” Echoing him, in 2007 Michael Robbins in the Chicago Review called Seidel’s work “the poetry liberalism deserves.”
To which one can only say, Wow. So, I too purchased Ooga-Booga. Was I entertained? Sure. It is a surreal book that conflates the political and the personal in Grand Guignol style. America, JFK, GWB, the Shah of Iran are all masks for the poet, who as “Fred Seidel” mirrors all of us at our worst–obsessed with the name brands of the global jet set, with their restaurants, their hotels, their clothes, their hunting parties, their sex lives. During our bubble, which astoundingly threw Iraq, Afghanistan and ruthless stop-loss into the shadows, a poet might fantasize about nubile Japanese girls on a booby-trapped subway car: “Their new pubic hair is made of light.” Obscenity was, at moments, the only response to American life since 9/11, and Ooga-Booga piled on sardonic obscenities, with relish. The work rhymed with its moment.
And now it seizes the day. Make way for the recently published Poems 1959-2009 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $40). Already the accolades come from on high: not one, but two Harper’s editors were among the fastest out the gate. Wyatt Mason’s recent profile in The New York Times Magazine casts Seidel in the role of Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: in a restaurant, chattering women hold a baby shower in a nearby booth as Mason and Seidel converse, evoking the innocent bower at which the Ancient Mariner accosted the wedding-guest. Christian Lorentzen in the Abu Dhabi National calls Seidel a “demonic gentleman”: the reader practically hears the chords of “Sympathy for the Devil” swelling in the background. Following Mason’s piece, David Orr’s review in The New York Times Book Review called him a “sin-eater” from Scottish lore. All this follows from Bedient’s declaration in 2001 that Seidel is a “spokesman and scourge of marauding testosterone,” “an example of the dangerous Male of the Species.”