Frederick Seidel is the poet laureate of the enlarged prostate. Most likely he would freely admit it, as the unruly gland appears more than once in the poet’s new Selected Poems, which distills 40 years of appetites shored against the indignities of age. If the lyric poet is traditionally working to “find his voice,” the volume outlines the trajectory of a poet who, with some effort, found his as the bard of perpetual midlife crisis. Seidel’s subjects are his lust for life and our disgust at his lust, and he glories in the dirty details: bespoke Caraceni suits from Milan, Patek Philippe watches, and the Ducati motorcycles that have become his signature. Above all, though, is his lust for lust. Intercourse is Seidel’s inexhaustible subject, from BDSM play to an octogenarian’s attempt to hit on the maître d’ at a Meatpacking District restaurant. No opportunity has been spared to remind you that this guy—this guy fucks.
Add to these appetites the special joy Seidel has taken in offending the reading public—he could be called the preeminent edgelord of poetry. The number of ugly sentiments in Seidel’s work that critics have been willing to accept or gloss over is considerable, from “A drive-by-shooting shout is rap, the rhyming slave-rebellion app” to “I want to date-rape life.” Some work, like “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri,” which caused an outcry when it was published in The Paris Review in 2014, escaped inclusion in this collection, but there’s still plenty to choose from. If Seidel’s verse were more prominent on social media, he would be terminally canceled.
The classic defense for these provocations is that the Seidel in the poems is a persona, a character named Frederick Seidel who, while sharing the poet’s proclivities, is somehow definitively not him. For those who come to his defense, New Criticism returns to enforce the precarious separation of art and life, and Seidel’s self-awareness of this becomes part of the work; as one poem remarks, “He’s been called a marvelously elegant ghoul.” If you’re offended, you’re not in on the gag, or so the story goes. In praising him, critics have often remarked that Seidel-as-ironist is the poet able to say the unsayable. But rarely do they go on to elaborate why it is that someone should say it.
The son of a St. Louis coal baron, Seidel is heir to the great tradition of ashamed Midwesterners Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and similarly he has always been at odds with his origins, including his Jewishness, finding himself more at home beneath the mask of world traveler and urbane Harvard Man. Rich and adrift, Seidel’s verse is the natural legacy of American confessionalism in a world that has radically changed—when privilege is fully recognized, constant bellyaching about the self seems ridiculous. To keep the engine running, the poet accelerates disclosure, creating a grotesque caricature that, while personal, is no confession at all. Regrets are signaled here and there, for balance—the well-dressed man is “a sunstream of urine on its way to the toilet bowl.” The persona can declare itself a villain, but it seems unlikely that this diminishes the enjoyment of the tailoring.
Why read Seidel? Perhaps the best answer for these questions is: Well, you don’t have to. The idea that any poet (or writer for that matter) must be read is a fiction. But Seidel’s best work has the ability to dazzle, combining aggression with a surprising sense of paradox:
Literally the most expensive hotel in the world
Is the smell of rain about to fall.
It does the opposite, a grove of lemon trees.
Dense, stacked stanzas are studded with bursts of surprising language (“this ravisher unicycle of a world”) and a dexterous, intentionally coarse sense of rhyme keeps his poems chugging along—rarely does anything esoteric take you out of their flow. At other moments, the influence of Sylvia Plath’s razor-sharpness shows, as in the title poem of 1998’s Going Fast: “Red / As a Ducati 916, I’m crazed, I speed, / I blaze, I bleed, / I sight-read / A Bach Invention.” It’s not so simple as overlooking the disreputable bits—powerful language and offensive language seem to spring from the same search for vitality—but certainly Seidel doesn’t sound like any other living poet.
Going Fast, in which Seidel discovers the thrills of the Ducati (and fantasizes about driving one into the Wailing Wall), was published in his 60s, the product of a late-blooming career. About half of the selection is devoted to poems published by Seidel past the age of 70, proceeding from the somewhat racistly titled Ooga-Booga, perhaps the fullest realization of his project. Here Seidel emerges in his “mature” form: worldly and lascivious, fixated on carpe diem while writing elegies for old friends. In his most recent books, his sound has crystallized, and perhaps lost some of its edge, as he settled into his familiar images and singsong rhymes (though he still finds ways to make you recoil at aging’s indignities; a damaged eye is “slowly cooking in red wine”). Missing are the early poems of Seidel’s first book, the jarringly titled Final Solutions, which is too bad, because those Robert Lowell–derived poems shed light on the persona’s formation: Seidel dreamed of being an offensive old man even in his 20s. As a career cross section, one gets the sense of a voice searched for, discovered, embraced, and then repeated. He became the fogey and bogeyman he always wanted to be.
As others have pointed out, when Seidel’s work is so critically lauded, who exactly is being shocked? And if it’s not shocking, what, then, is it? Compliance with Seidel’s worst tendencies can feel like complicity, a tacit admission from elite institutions that issues of social justice aren’t quite as pressing as stated. The Trump years have also worked to dim Seidel’s limelight: What’s the use of a troll when trolling has become the very air we breathe? Combined with the literary exile of Lorin Stein—a prominent Seidel booster who departed as editor of The Paris Review after allegations of sexual misconduct (though he does manage to make a cameo appearance in the selection)—Seidel’s posture between arch detachment and outright vulgarity feels diminished. Of course, Seidel, independently wealthy and established, is one of the few poets who can remain somewhat insulated from criticism as long as major venues want to publish his work. A older, whiter, more Ivied iteration of the literary world allowed Seidel to flourish; a younger poet of his tastes and opinions would surely encounter more resistance. But more than this, Seidel’s verse at its best—and its worst—is a symptom of the desire to feel something amid platitudes: He casts a spell of sensuality, even if it’s the sordid pleasure of sinning.
It’s no secret that Seidel’s work lies outside the left-leaning sensibilities of much of contemporary poetry. And it’s worth wondering, Does this make him America’s major conservative poet? As far as political affiliations go, Seidel’s consists mainly of vague paeans to Robert Kennedy—presumably his death was the last time Seidel took such things seriously. Throw in a casually worn approval of Barack Obama later in his work, and you see the limits of his political imagination. Rather, raw power is Seidel’s not-so-secret subject: the appeal of seduction and domination. An often-expressed idea among poets is that poetic language might help jolt into existence, even if only in tiny increments, a better world. Seidel’s work insists that no such world is possible—better instead to screw and cruise and booze.
Seidel’s pessimism would be more easily dismissed if he weren’t so skilled at expressing his desire on the page. A certain gift for antic narrative—a raconteur’s confidence in his exploits—and a penchant for gimmicks keep the balls in the air with virtuosity:
I’m a collapsible top hat—a chapeau claque—that half
The time struts around at Ascot but can be collapsed flat just like that. Baff !
Till it pops back. Paff ! Oh yes,
I find myself superb
When I undress.
A lovely lightbulb is my suburb,
And my flower, and my verb.
For a moment, it can feel refreshing to read a voice of arrogance and nastiness in a poetic landscape that puts a premium on wearing one’s heart on the sleeve. The best Seidel is the Seidel that shocks the reader with an invitation to examine one’s own worst impulses—it’s a testament to his power that he has so many ways to evoke self-disgust. But not all transgressions are equal: The worst Seidel is lazy, substituting shock for thought and coming to seem tired in his emotionally stunted fixations.
In reading a novel, we’re accustomed to the idea that author and character might radically diverge, that many voices will express conflicting, sometimes unsavory opinions. In lyric poetry, rightly or wrongly, the nakedness of the voice on the page invites reading for truth—or at least the author’s subjectivity—an attempt to disclose something essential about the world. Seidel is a truthfully ugly voice, a poet whose images best reflect our condition of Widening Income Inequality, the title of one of his late books. A morbid fascination with indulgence and luxury belongs to a wider cultural tendency—it’s not so different than the pleasure people take in watching Succession or other chronicles of the obscenely rich. It’s simply less common in the sanctified space of poetry. Ultimately, it’s hard to look away from the economic conditions that have overwhelming power over the rest of us, try as we might.
One of Seidel’s often-repeated stories in the construction of his personal myth is his college-years trip to visit Ezra Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Pound, a noted anti-Semite, had been institutionalized to avoid charges of treason for his wartime activities, and Seidel clearly found inspiration in his Personae and his poeticism über alles. Perhaps Seidel’s legacy is ultimately in line with this mentor’s: Too inventive to be excommunicated for good, he is someone whose transgressions come to seem, over time, more embarrassing than anything else, like an elderly relative whose outdated opinions make you cringe. The problem with a persona is that it can harden—after a while, there may be nothing left under it at all.