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.”
Seidel’s admirers quote the same appetitive lines: “I want to date-rape life.” “I make her oink.” Ooga-Booga was a hundred pages long; Poems, however, goes on for five hundred, and the reader is treated to poem after poem of obscenity and predation. A son mixes succinylcholine into his elderly mother’s insulin shots, giving her “locked-in syndrome” (“Dune Road, Southampton”). A rich man in a Huntsman red velvet smoking jacket picks his way through a plane crash thinking of the cockpit voice recorder and the pilots’ screams. A daughter craves incest with her father in the Hamptons (“Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 298-518″). A rich man who studied with George Santayana at Harvard loses his eye playing racquetball. A man watches porn and imagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s killer eating eggs for breakfast on that fateful morning (“Lorraine Motel, Memphis”). Tallulah Bankhead’s vagina is compared to the Great Depression. The Big Bang is imagined as a suicide’s gunshot (“The Complete Works of Anton Webern”). Ants marching toward a sugar bowl are black slaves on a cane plantation, then at Auschwitz (“To Die For”). A quadriplegic boy’s body miraculously restored is figured as the poet’s Easter-resurrected penis (“Sunrise”).
Mostly I’m reminded of Michel Houellebecq, another quiet chap with a virulent literary persona and a thing about sex and Islamic fundamentalism. Like Houellebecq, Seidel preempts critique by accusing and flagellating himself. Rich white man, American, womanizer: he cops to it all and invites us to scapegoat him. That by doing this he has garnered a large following is not surprising. I’m not a moralist, and it would be fruitless to pillory readers for the pleasure they get from Seidel: it makes perfect sense that a poetry that prizes the same dialectic of exhibitionism and voyeurism that popular culture does would resonate with readers who don’t read much other poetry.
It’s the critics that puzzle me. Reading them, you’d think that Seidel’s Poems was our Flowers of Evil, our Inferno. But the repetitiveness of Seidel’s autopilot rhythms is so grating: Seidel achieves a kind of mesmerism, but there’s no range. It could only be relished by the sort of person who, when asked in Beginning Poetry Workshop who her favorite poet is, answers Dr. Seuss. From “Italy”:
I spent the summer in Bologna.
Bologna is my town.
Bologna is so brown.
I ate shavings
Of tuna roe on buttered toast
Despite the heat,
Brown waxy slices of fishy salt
As strong as ammonia, Bologna.
Bologna, it takes a prince to eat bottarga.
From “Sii Romantico, Seidel, Tanto Per Cambiare”:
He filled the women with rodenticide.
Their wrists behind them, tried
Ball gags in their mouths, and was not satisfied.
The whole room when the dancing started clapped and cried.
The bomber was the bomb, and many died.
The unshod got their feet back on and ran outside.
The wedding party bled around the dying groom and bride.
It’s the prosody of atrocity. The stacked rhymes and deadpan singsong rhythms have nothing in common with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, for instance, which Seidel cites as a formative influence. Pound’s metrical range was matched by his emotional range; Seidel has one rhythmic brand (and I use the word advisedly) for all emotional registers. You simply can’t say that of Baudelaire, or Dante. Both Flowers of Evil and the Inferno are exquisitely beautiful works. No matter how bleak or violent, they don’t hurt your ears musically. Yet Seidel’s champions consistently and disingenuously transform his aesthetic weaknesses into virtues.
Seidel, born in 1936, is a poet of his generation: a confessional poet, who has learned his craft from the contemporaries he has outlived. He started out as an acolyte of Robert Lowell; critics since then have seen the parallels between Seidel and Sylvia Plath, particularly in “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” the original blueprint for Seidel’s conflation of history and sexual fantasy. But a more pertinent model yet might be Anne Sexton. Hardly read anymore, it seems, outside feminist literature classes, Sexton’s Complete Poems is fatter than Plath’s Collected, and it took the violence of Ariel much further with less talent. From “Again and Again and Again”:
I have a black look I do not
like. It is a mask I try on.
I migrate toward it and its frog
sits on my lips and defecates.
It is old. It is also a pauper.
I have tried to keep it on a diet.
I give it no unction.
There is a good look that I wear
like a blood clot. I have
sewn it over my left breast.
I have made a vocation of it.
Lust has taken plant in it
and I have placed you and your
child at its milk tip.
The poem’s singsong, staccato sentences and cartoonish images prefigure Seidel’s to a T. I challenge anyone to tell me, without consulting a book or Googling lines or phrases, which stanzas below were written by Sexton and which by Seidel:
The boys and girls are one tonight.
They unbutton blouses. They unzip flies.
They take off shoes. They turn off the light.
The glimmering creatures are full of lies.
They are eating each other. They are overfed.
At night, alone, I marry the bed.
(“The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator”)
I am stuffing your mouth with your
promises and watching
you vomit them out upon my face.
The Camp we directed?
I have gassed the campers.
(“Killing the Love”)
Where was I begat?
In what room did
those definitive juices come?
A hotel in Boston
gilt and dim?
Was it a February night
all wrapped in fur
that knew me not?
I ask this.
(“The Death of the Fathers”)
My penis pants. My penis
Rises, hearing its name, like a dog.
I ought to cut it off
And feed it to itself.
Like the young bride in the Babel story
Forced to eat her husband’s penis
If you’re a woman turning fifty,
You’re a woman who feels cheated.
This message now will be repeated.
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.
(“Hair in a Net”)
One must give Sexton her due: she had many fans, once upon a time; she was zeitgeisty, brutal and stylish. And now she is more of interest biographically than poetically. Caveat lector, mes semblables, mes frères: Seidel plows closely in her footsteps.