By Brooke Clark
Welcome to a new, semi-regular feature, in which Partisan asks contributors to identify a writer, living or dead, they consider overrated and offer a brief take. In the debut instalment, Brooke Clark takes a wrench to the great bard of Ducati, Frederick Seidel. —Editors
FREDERICK SEIDEL IS the rare case of a writer who became less interesting as he became more himself. His first (and best) book, Final Solutions (1963), contains some remarkable poems, but is so heavily under the influence of Robert Lowell that Seidel could almost be said to be ventriloquizing the older poet (“To My Friend Anne Hutchinson” is the most obvious, but far from the only, example). There was a long pause before his second book, Sunrise (1979), by which time Seidel had found his own voice. Without the Lowellesque trappings, however, his poems appear not just bare, but barren. They deal with travelling, hotels and restaurants, motorcycles, and his experiences in what might be called “society,” but, in contrast to the excitement of Final Solutions, the experience of reading Sunrise is one of overwhelming tedium.
From there the pattern is set and Seidel’s poetry races, like one of his beloved Ducatis, down a steep declivity of self-imitation into something approaching self-parody. By the time of Nice Weather (2012) his work gives the impression of nothing so much as an old man desperately trying to shock his readers, mainly with the details of his mildly outré sex life (“the woman I currently / Like to spank”—yawn). The odd good line, like “My face is falling off my face,” still stands out—but how could it not when surrounded by careless doggerel like “The virus is spread / By love bugs in the bed” or a poem that informs us that the assassination of President Kennedy “was intense”? The only thing shocking about this work is its banality, which reveals either a monumental laziness or Seidel’s utter contempt for both his audience and his art.
Seidel’s status as an inheritor of great wealth also seems to have a distorting effect on opinions of his writing. Consider Wyatt Mason’s New York Times Magazine profile of Seidel, titled “Laureate of the Louche” (seriously)—the title alone shows how completely Mason (or his editor) has bought the self-image Seidel is selling. The first sentence tells us Seidel is “elegant,” and references to his “uncommonly courtly manner” and penchant for “fine Manhattan restaurants” quickly follow. Being rich is not a crime, of course, but it’s noteworthy how often references to Seidel’s luxurious lifestyle come up both in his work and in discussions of it. The adoration of wealth seeps into critics’ minds, and then bubbles up as admiration for the poetry.
Seidel has written a few striking poems, and can still be a brutally unsparing poet of the aging process. But his reputation is out of proportion with his achievements.
BROOKE CLARK edits an epigrams website (assesofparnassus.tumblr.com) and writes about references to Canada in books by non-Canadians (wowcanada.wordpress.com). His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Literary Imagination, The Rotary Dial, Light, and Partisan.