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The Left Hand of Ogden Nash

December 7, 2013
Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

Frederick Seidel (photograph by Mark Mahaney)

In 2012, Frederick Seidel published his thirteenth volume of new verse, Nice Weather. Readers familiar with the blurbs that happily disgrace the back covers of his books will know that Seidel is, or is said to be, a poet who enjoys cutting a mean figure. David Orr, writing in the New York Times, had this to say of Seidel’s Poems: 1959-2009 (echoing Robert Frost at the outset):

Many poets have been acquainted with the night; some have been intimate with it; and a handful have been so haunted and intoxicated by the darker side of existence that it can be hard to pick them out from the murk that surrounds them… Frederick Seidel has spent the last half-century being that darkest and strangest sort of poet. He is, it’s widely agreed, one of poetry’s few truly scary characters. This is a reputation of which he’s plainly aware and by which he’s obviously amused, at least to judge from the nervy title of his 2006 book, Ooga-Booga. This perception also colors the praise his collections typically receive — to pick one example from many, Calvin Bedient admiringly describes him as “the most frightening American poet ever,” which is a bit like calling someone “history’s most bloodthirsty clockmaker.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been frightened by a poet or a poem. Certain phrases in “Christabel” give me the shivers (not unpleasantly), though I haven’t read it in twenty years. There’s always E. A. Robinson‘s miller and what he said. Hardy, too, could certainly do it up right.

“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

This merely states the facts, and the rhyme in the second couplet is perfect in its disgust.

But whatever the case, I’d rather Seidel’s reviewers set “scary” and “frightening” in scare quotes. An occult belief that poetry is considerably more consequential than it actually is underwrites their claims. It’s exhilarating to hitch your wagon to a dark star. Lionel Trilling could only respect Frost by making him out a terror. “Read the poem called ‘Design,’” said Trilling at the poet’s 85th birthday dinner, “and see if you sleep any better for it. Read ‘Neither Out Far Nor in Deep,’ which often seems to me the most perfect poem of our time, and see if you are warmed by anything in it except the energy with which emptiness is perceived.” Emptiness (abstract)? Well, what else is there (abstract)? If Trilling’s honest, and not merely rising to the occasion, I must say that he’s pretty easily spooked. I’d hate to sit next to him for Macbeth.

Elsewhere the New York Times designates Seidel the “[poet] laureate of the louche,” which is perhaps more to the point. In the New York Review of BooksDan Chiasson calls him “a ruthless poet, almost gleefully deficient in empathy. Empathy, after all, requires more than one second of attention.” “Ruthless”? Fair game, I suppose, in the poetry business. But shall we fetch in language from psychiatry to say the same thing in other terms? How does Chiasson know Seidel is “deficient in empathy” and pleased with the fact? The implication is that the poet, on the evidence of the poetry, is well nigh sociopathic (Zero-Negative personality): the traffic between attributes here ascribed to the writing, and to the writer, is hard to assess. The same goes for this: “[Seidel’s] is therefore not an unsympathetic art: it is, rather, an art of deliberately refused sympathy. This is a large difference. Because Seidel runs his imagination through only one channel, the id, being nasty, impolite, rude, and so on sustains him” (emphasis mine). Speak advisedly. “Sustains” him as a poet, as a man, or as both? And in what sense sustain? Well: sustenance, nourishment. Better the “heartbreaking” catalogs of Walt Whitman, Dan Chiasson suggests, seeing as how they “stand in for Whitman’s paradoxical wish to do justice to the total fabric of life while honoring each individual strand.” Justice and honor, on the one hand, injustice and dishonor on the other. Chisasson doesn’t put it that way, but he might as well have; every shot has its negative. And then he adds:

Seidel’s gamble is that the world can be understood entirely through the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates and feels. Other moods do exist in his poems—the pleasures of sex and motorcycles, the thrill of gossip, horror (never sympathy, exactly) at what becomes of people, the garden-variety I’m-getting-old melancholy of a person in his sixties. But all of them are made to shimmy uncomfortably into the narrow serpent’s body of contempt… Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Any other relation to suffering sentimentalizes the pain. Seidel’s is an aesthetics that avoids aestheticizing human grief, sometimes in favor of aestheticizing human meanness.

Note, again, how difficult it is to distinguish things said of the poetry from things said of, or implied about, the poet, and also the man. You can not tell and yet it seems as if Chiasson—and others who say such things about Seidel—really believe they’re talking about a person. Is Seidel “gambling,” or is Seidel the poet gambling, and if either is, what are the stakes for a loss? That the heir to a coal mining fortune’s investment in schadenfreude won’t pay off, that the optative mood will carry the day, that the Arab Spring will all work out, that we’ll take back the House in 2014, and that 15,000 U.S. troops won’t be in Afghanistan until 2024? Or if Seidel the poet is gambling, will a loss mean he won’t get read, and have no recourse but to find some other means to “stimulate” in others the “contempt” he himself (we are given to assume) feels? Actually, nothing much is at stake, so long as Seidel doesn’t run for mayor.

Still: Seidel has made the brutal postmodern calculation that cynicism is the only defensible moral position. Forgive me for taking this as an inadvertent defense of something like gentility; I’ll be as extravagant in my position as Chiasson is in his (for the nonce), when he states outright that he knows what “calculations” Seidel has made. Two other vagaries merit notice: the way “brutal” and “postmodern” unstably consort, and that a claim is being made, in Seidel’s poetry, not only for a certain “moral position,” but for its singular prestige.

In any case, cynicism—if that really is what’s on offer—is hardly “postmodern.” We’ve had Rochester‘s Satyr Against Reason and Mankind in hand since 1675, Baudelaire‘s Les Fleurs du Mal since 1857, Rimbaud‘s Une Saison en Enfer since 1873, and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals since 1887—to name but four. Seidel is of that shifty company. To speak, as Chiasson does, of an aesthetics that aesthecizes is tautological, or courts tautology. No, not exactly: having an “aesthetic” is fine; “aestheticizing” anything, whether grief or meanness, is decadent, a shade parasitic, echt fin de siècle (if I may straddle the Rhine). Terms of art and terms of abuse mingle a bit too freely in Chiasson’s review, one unspoken (Whitmanesque) implication of which is that American poets appear to have a certain unspecified civic responsibility (“empathy” in operation, even if only in potentia). The most telling moment in the review comes when Chiasson speaks of Seidel’s upbringing (and of his family’s “parlor”: invidious word):

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. . . Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain.

One certainly can speak of commodity fetishism in the poetry Frederick Seidel, which (as Chiasson rightly hints) often takes that theme for its tonic note. We might even say that, in Seidel’s poetry, fetishism per se stands in for commodity fetishism proper, whereby “definite social relations” between men (as Marx says) assume, in their eyes, “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” Good to have that front and center. But is there some intimation in what Chiasson says that Seidel is a canny 1-percenter, aware of the relation between luxury objects and human pain, surpassingly deft at registering it, but blithely indisposed to do anything about it other than write in contempt tout court—to write in such a way as “gleefully” to “stimulate” “contempt”? The tools to those that can use them.

In The Nation, Ange Mlinko calls Seidel’s “the prosody of atrocity,” another way of saying he “aestheticizes human meanness.” In the Boston Review, Calvin Bedient, whom Orr quotes, issued this warning in 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers fell. He might as well be writing of Rochester:

Hide your lyricals, your tenders: Frederick Seidel is coming. Ogre to what used to be called (without a sneer) sentiment, grim beyond Gothic contrivance, the most frightening American poet ever—phallus-man, hangman of political barbarism—Seidel is the poet the twentieth century deserved. (But why stop there, the poet the millennium deserved.) Which is his brilliance, his grief.

Not so much scandal proper, I should think, as an “air of scandal” hangs about Seidel’s writing. I suppose this is one thing Dan Chiasson has in mind in speaking of “the glee he gets from the contempt he stimulates,” though the idea that “contempt” can be “stimulated” strikes me as behaviouristic; and the implication that Seidel is, yes, something of a sadist strikes me as unwarranted, at least on the evidence of the poetry. Are we really to suppose he writes from such motives as these?—to fetch in “glee” by inducing contempt, and all on a gamble that this is the way properly to “understand,” and entirely, something as inchoate as “the world”? How would Chiasson know that Seidel harbored any such ambition, other than by working from a curious assumption (once you look at it) that poets simply must try to “understand the world”? I’m not sure whose responsibility it is to understand the world. The State Department has that brief, with what results we know. Let the world understand itself. As Schopenhauer says:

[If] we desire to know what men, morally considered, are worth as a whole and in general, we have only to consider their fate as a whole and in general. This is want, wretchedness, affliction, misery, and death. Eternal justice reigns; if they were not, as a whole, worthless, their fate, as a whole, would not be so sad. In this sense we may say, the world itself is the judgment of the world. If we could lay all the misery of the world in one scale of the balance, and all the guilt of the world in the other, the needle would certainly point to the centre.

Whatever the case, reviewers seem to believe that Seidel’s poetry compels them to discuss such things as I’ve just surveyed. And Dan Chiasson’s review—which I commend altogether as far more than a curiosity: one could do much worse by way of introduction to Seidel—certainly has its merits, chief among them being that it makes me (I’m surely not alone in this) want to read more of Seidel.

“Victory Parade,” collected in Nice Weather is a good enough example of Seidel’s procedures. For my part, I like to see a poem so manifestly pleased with its vulgarities on the page as this. Have it out. Parades, after all, are nothing if not manifest.

“Victory Parade”

My girlfriend is a miracle.
She’s so young but she’s so beautiful.
So is her new bikini trim,
A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.

Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.
It makes me smile.
It makes me think of James Joyce.
You hear his Oirish voice.

It’s spring on Broadway, and in the center strip mall
The trees are all
Excited to be beginning.
My girlfriend’s amazing waxing keeps grinning.

It’s enough to distract
From the other drastic act
Of display today—Osama bin Laden is dead!
One shot to the chest and one to the head,

SEAL Team 6 far away from my bed
Above Broadway—in Abbottabad, Pakistan, instead.
Bullets beyond compare
Flew over there,

Flew through the air
To above and below the beard of hair,
A type of ordnance that exploded
Inside the guy and instantly downloaded

The brains out the nose. Our Vietnam
Is now radical Islam.
I tip my hat and heart to the lovely tiny lampshade
Above her parade.

The first thing to say is that, unlike a poem by (say) Billy Collins, “Victory Parade” triggers automated links, in WordPress, to Osama bin Laden, James Joyce, and SEAL Team 6 (but, oddly, not to “radical Islam”). Reviewers often speak of Seidel as a poet whose work occasions startling affiliations. Consorting here are: (1) not sex, but sex of the kind Seidel is sometimes said to make too much of (as if it were in bad taste, as perhaps it is, though what care I, to celebrate in print, and on parade, the pubic grooming of a much younger girlfriend); (2) the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the circumference of which, like God, is everywhere, but the center of which, also like God, is nowhere: the poem we’re reading takes part in it, registers it (and as per Schopenhauer, the GWOT is status quo); (3) “radical Islam,” to which “bikini trims,” both in fact and in print, are, one assumes, an affront; (4) Vietnam, less a particular war than, as Seidel’s phrasing suggests, a possessive enterprise Americans just can’t stop engaging in; (5) “special ops,” a business that no precinct of American “culture” (high or low) can well do without (here, SEAL Team 6); and (6) conspicuously wide-ranging diction, running from the homely, 17th century “quim” (which WordPress’s spell-checker prudishly flags for correction), to Internet-era jargon (“downloaded“), to such casual-Fridays turns of phrase as “the guy,” here applied to that chap Osama bin Laden, whose beard, like that of Seidel’s girlfriend, duly comes in for notice. The guy: saliently missing is that fixture of military slang, during the most recent of our wars, the modifying bad.

My girlfriend is a miracle.
She’s so young but she’s so beautiful.
So is her new bikini trim,
A waxed-to-neatness center strip of quim.

The second line would seem to explain the first: “she’s so young but she’s so beautiful.” Unexpected, that but, where “and” (one senses) ought to be. There’s the wonder, the “miracle”: the disjunction of youth and beauty, or in any case the suggestion that the junction is unduly taken for granted (demonstrably true), or that the girlfriend’s beauty compensates for the deficit of her youth. Hanging about those first two lines may be a parody of the usual apology, the usual excuse (I know she’s young, yes, half my age, but . . .). “Victory Parade” here takes some of its scandalous lustre from the now proverbial (and likely here camped up) “trophy wife/girlfriend.” And two “trophies” are on offer in the poem: that bikini-waxed quim, and bin Laden (which are, in due course, affiliated). The “center strip” here introduced, whether of quim or of anything, figures in the poem. But, first, having arrived at quim, Seidel moves as by chancing on his own resources:

Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.
It makes me smile.
It makes me think of James Joyce.
You hear his Oirish voice.

I bet it did make Seidel smile, as an instance wherein necessities of rhyme lead a poet to what he somehow knew he wanted to have at his august disposal: a “trim quim.” Not a word “I haven’t heard for a while,” but one “you haven’t,” which is conversational for “one hasn’t.” Colloquial word, colloquial phrasing. Seidel is sidling up, delighted that what’s popularly called a “Brazilian wax” should put him in mind of a landmark in literary modernism, an Irish novel in an “Oirish” voice (as per Seidel and the OED: usually “derogatory”). James Joyce deploys “quim” twice, so far as I can tell, once in Finnegan’s Wake, and once (more pertinent here) in Ulysses (part II, episode 15, some of which transpires in a whorehouse):

LENEHAN: Ho! What do I here behold? Were you brushing the cobwebs off a few quims?
BOYLAN: (Seated, smiles) Plucking a turkey.
LENEHAN: A good night’s work.
BOYLAN: (Holding up four thick bluntungulated fingers, winks) Blazes Kate! Up to sample or your money back. (He holds out a forefinger) Smell that.
LENEHAN: (Smells gleefully) Ah! Lobster and mayonnaise. Ah!

Joyce endured his ordeal at the hands of censure and of censors, once a serious legal matter, but now adjudicated, as with Seidel, in literary magazines alone, a fact I like to suppose makes Seidel smile: O, the vagaries of scandal. In any case, both the quim and the “quim” make the poet “smile.” And why not? After all:

It’s spring on Broadway, and in the center strip mall
The trees are all
Excited to be beginning.
My girlfriend’s amazing waxing keeps grinning.

Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash

Seidel’s rhymes work as those of few other poets now do. He’s content to run a line out till he reaches his rhyme, and then to drop down for its partner, or else to run a line out till it reaches a partner already laid out in wait above (both dispositions are on display here, in a chiasmatic manoeuvre: long line, short one, short one, long). As to rhyming, Seidel is the sinister left hand of Ogden Nash, and no reviewer unaware of that fact will judge him rightly.

The “center strip of quim” is now on Broadway, or anyway in Broadway, where the very trees are on parade, “all excited to be beginning.” The sap is up, and not only in Fred Seidel.

Excited: the word is erotic in this context. And as the trees leaf up, the girlfriend (we are reminded) has had herself hedged down: “My girlfriend’s amazing waxing keeps grinning,” where “amazing” has displaced the “miraculous.” No vagina dentata in that “grin,” I suppose. But then again, this is a poem by the left hand of Ogden Nash. Are we to wonder about that grin (and its association of oral and sexual landscapes), or wonder about why we feel invited to wonder about it?

Anyway, two couplets, one couple, and two “center strips,” both of them vernal, randy and fertile. The sex in the poem almost unmoors “strip” from “mall,” here, making the familiar phrase oddly salient. Seidel also has a particular sense of “mall” in mind, unassociated with strips and stripping (OED sense 2): “the Mall n. a walk bordered by trees in St James’s Park, London… a fashionable promenade in the 17–18th centuries.” That the American sense of “strip mall” should be heard here also adds a paradoxical touch of suburban vulgarity to Broadway, NYC. Wal-Mart is icummen in. It’s all too much. Yes,

It’s enough to distract
From the other drastic act
Of display today—Osama bin Laden is dead!
One shot to the chest and one to the head,

SEAL Team 6 far away from my bed
Above Broadway—in Abbottabad, Pakistan, instead.

Columbia Pictures, poster for the film.

Columbia Pictures, poster for the film.

Drastic: vigorously effective; violent. “That other act”: well, by retroactive application what’s described in stanza two is “drastic” also, vigorous, yes, and maybe violent (the poem associates sex and violence, mooning the more genteel of Seidel’s detractors). So here’s our victory parade, both sexual and “special ops” (maybe the two are the same). Bring Herodias the head of bin Laden on a platter, and let Salome dance. To call the killing of bin Laden an “act of display” is right. It was many other things, of course, but, unlike his predecessor,  President Obama—whose name crops up several times in Nice Weather—performed the act of not preening perfectly. SEAL Team 6, however, passed immediately into American pop-culture (graphic novels, books, and a movie by Kathryn Bigelow, who certainly stands accused of aestheticizing the affair).

But the SEALs did not pass into Seidel’s bed, where his girlfriend’s amazing waxing is grinning. The slightest hint of comic indignation attends this: SEAL Team 6 was in Abbottabad instead of in Seidel’s bed, albeit rhyming with it, and, through it, with bin Laden’s dead head. Quite the auditory cluster, and not out of any Ogden Nashian imperatives to make the rhymes. No, this is gratuitous, and ostentatiously so (we are on parade, after all), such that the badass SEALs and the badass poet are not so much yoked as dissonantly jacked up in yet another “act of display.” Watch me, said James Brown. Watch me watch you watch me watch my girlfriend, says Seidel. He’s sussed out his voyeur-reviewers/readers. His girlfriend’s amazing waxing is grinning at him, too, maybe laughing. She’s a miracle! But so are the bullets shot off not from Seidel in bed but in Abbottabad instead (O, pine for the potency, Fred):

Bullets beyond compare
Flew over there,

Flew through the air
To above and below the beard of hair,
A type of ordnance that exploded
Inside the guy and instantly downloaded

The brains out the nose. Our Vietnam
Is now radical Islam.
I tip my hat and heart to the lovely tiny lampshade
Above her parade.

Seidel knows, as does Jonathan Green in his four-volume dictionary of slang, that “beard” can mean “female pubic hair.” That “center strip of quim” has governed the poem all along, making its final appearance as a “lovely tiny lampshade” above, and mellowing, the light of her quim, which is (at last!) the “parade,” the real show. So many exhibitionists, so much exhibition. But the collocations! “Radical Islam,” quims & beards, bikini waxes & Vietnam, Seidel’s bed & the SEALs who aren’t in it, and that most cherishably American enterprise: the victory parade, such as the kids staged, hooting and drunk, outside the White House the night Obama announced the killing of bin Laden. The New York Times furrowed its brow in its “Health” pages.” But “who doesn’t love a parade?”—a phrase that nets 117,000 hits at Google. “I Love a Parade” nets me Lawrence Welk doing a song from the 1931 musical Manhattan Parade. And weren’t these also parades?—Operation Just Cause, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone.

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone.

A few words more on the rhymes. Vietnam/radical Islam: this one’s conjunctive—conceptual as well as audible. The GWOT—though we’re not to speak of it now, even if we do drone on about it—is, if not everything Vietnam was, a good deal of what it was: gotten up with fake intel (in Iraq, for which WMD were “our” Gulf of Tonkin), vague in outline and objective, mysterious to many of the men and women enlisted to fight it, politically necessary (if not otherwise necessary), agitating and agitated about.

Exploded/downloaded: either an awkwardness made necessary by the need for the Nashian rhyme, or les mots juste, give how Ray Kurzweilianly mingled-up talk of the brain and information technology now is, and, more to the point, given that the killing was an “intelligence” operation that netted hundreds of computer file storage devices and hard drives: Osama bin Laden’s obscene, pornographic “brain,” though his body is subject now (jihad) to a current under the Indian Ocean that

Picks his bones in whispers. As he rises and falls
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

But lest I make Seidel’s “Victory Parade” seem political, or to be making political points, I’ll stop right here. There’s nothing “political” about the poem, or about Nice Weather; they really are disengaged, inadvertent, opportunistic—like the nation they now document. The GWOT, radical Islam, SEAL Team 6, the 2008 and 2010 campaigns—all are duly brought into the book. But Nice Weather doesn’t recommend any particular attitude toward the history that’s in it. We are asked neither to march on the Pentagon, to Occupy Wall Street, to support the Paul Ryan budget, nor to Support Our Troops. Seidel seems pleasantly astonished—what luck!—to have our political arena as a staging ground for his distinctive preoccupations, or as a parade ground, or as grounds for parading the kind of talk he hears us make of it all, now made over in rhymes as often goofy as not. I wasn’t joking when I called him the left hand of Ogden Nash ©. The goofiness of the rhymes, and the lengths to which Seidel will run out a line to get one, are part of the point: they lend a madcap air to the poetry, which leaves a reader in apprehension as to just what this “guy” might say. Nothing like a rhyme for an offense. Every kid on every American schoolyard knows it.

The obscenity in Seidel’s books is the obscenity that America has been, or has become, such as it is. The only thing America loves as much as a parade is obscenity. Combine the two, as Seidel does here, and you’re really in business. Ask Larry Flint, Edwin Meese, Bill Clinton, Rick Santorum (with his infamously google-able surname)—or for that matter the accountants at General Motors, AOL Time Warner and Marriott. Or ask the shade of John Quincey Adams, who tried and tried (الله صلى الله عليه وسلم) to lift the venerable American gag rule.

Whatever the case, I prefer a book like Nice Weather to most other books of poetry America now produces (by the hundreds), because it never formulates (as Robert Frost said poetry oughtn’t), it heeds no gag rules, and pretty reliably flummoxes reviewers. America should flummox everyone, so rangy (and often deranged) are its free enterprises. If Seidel’s poetry sticks in the craw of the folk who run the poetry business (in which he takes no part), well, they are too tender of America and of American poetry. If Seidel has done only this—shown our poetry for what it has again become: strangely genteel, judged by its own values—he has my gratitude.

So much of American poetry (and here I’m really winging it) strikes me as hemmed in by its unspoken protocols, workshopped in too much earnest, the province of a new quasi-professorial mandate. In Can Poetry MatterDana Gioia suggests that “decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry, comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities,” he adds, “these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is increasingly focused inward.” As Gioia later points out, “most poetry is published in journals that address an insular audience of literary professionals, mainly teachers of creative writing and their students.” Furthermore, “for these journals critical prose exists not to provide a disinterested perspective on new books but to publicize them.” American poetry is a blurby world, a Chautauqua. Usually I encounter it through reviews that already tell me I don’t like the sound and bearing of it. And now I remember what William James says in “What Makes a Life Significant“:

William James

William James

A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake. The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one’s self in an atmosphere of success. Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale. Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means for satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. You have a first-class college in full blast. You have magnificent music—a chorus of seven hundred voices, with possibly the most perfect open-air auditorium in the world. You have every sort of athletic exercise from sailing, rowing, swimming, bicycling, to the ball-field and the more artificial doings which the gymnasium affords. You have kindergartens and model secondary schools. You have general religious services and special club-houses for the several sects. You have perpetually running soda-water fountains, and daily popular lectures by distinguished men. You have the best of company, and yet no effort. You have no zymotic diseases, no poverty, no drunkenness, no crime, no police. You have culture, you have kindness, you have cheapness, you have equality, you have the best fruits of what mankind has fought and bled and striven for under the name of civilization for centuries. You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and no dark corners.

I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spell-bound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.

And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things,—I cannot abide with them. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings. There are the heights and depths, the precipices and the steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite; and there is more hope and help a thousand times than in this dead level and quintessence of every mediocrity.”

Frederick Seidel is American poetry’s Armenian massacre. Someone has to remind the National Geographic Channel—needs to remind all American channels—that Americans aren’t adorable. Where is John Jay Chapman, William James’s whilom friend, when he’s needed? Nowhere else than at archive.org, hot-linked, downloadable through the nose of his felicitous spite:

A normal and rounded development can only come from a use of the faculties very different from that practised by the average American since the discovery of the cotton gin.

≈   ≈   ≈

N.B.: The Paris Review interviews Seidel here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013 2:27 AM

    Very well written and thought. Thank you. But, in an old-fashioned way to go back to the beginning, it is, I think, to be doubted she is, or even was, Seidel’s ‘girl friend’, unless that means she was bought for the purpose of not-friendship, or is the type of girl, rare enough, who doesn’t mind her under-underclothes arrangements being paraded in verse. Actually, the more helpful and sympathetic way to read the piece is with the under-understanding that the poet doesn’t have a girl friend, nor indeed any friends who are erotic in the sense that they, in the Oirish sense – fuck off Fred – don’t mind him, at all at all, not the littlest bit of him, god be good to his simple self.
    Brian Lynch

    • December 16, 2013 4:49 AM

      Thanks for stopping by. I take your point, and it’s worth bearing mind that that Frederick Seidel and “Frederick Seidel” do not entirely coincide (he even speaks of himself in the third person to funny and startling effect in “Nice Weather”). However, the persons and things and places that people “Nice Weather” are more or less the things, places and persons––many of them named: Richard Poirier, Frank Kermode, and a small host of others––we know to fill out Seidel’s life.

      I see no reason to see anything other than a girlfriend here. Likely as not she’s as real as his Ducati.

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