Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seidel Again

Frederick Seidel and Jack Gilbert write the sort of poems which Robert Bly and Raymond Carver always wanted to write. That may seem an odd way to initiate a discussion about Seidel, but the issue is pertinent, in light of the trends in American poetry since--to choose perhaps a rather arbitrary benchmark--the publication of Plath's Ariel (in 1965), specifically a trend towards spiritual confession and frank revelation, eschewing all but the merest outline of musical forms, in favor of free verse, or even "prose" presentations. For Bly this has meant rehearsing quasi-religious devotional poetry, while for Carver (1938-1988) it signified finding in the quotidian details and improbable events of daily experience the seeds of, or a premonition of, profound introspection.

Seidel is, in almost every respect except the formal properties of his poems, a classicist, though he comes to this usually by indirection and shock. Both Seidel and Gilbert seek to achieve an unsuspected turn through surprise or reverse irony. For Gilbert this often involves deconstructing a specific feeling or emotion into its constituent parts; whereas for Seidel it involves flashing a cape of deliberate deception before the reader, who, swept momentarily off his feet, is returned suddenly to an astonishing present, renewed--brought, as if by a sudden immersion, to a sense of unsuspected awe.

The two poems I'm discussing come from Seidel's second collection Sunrise (Viking, 1980). Sunrise won the Lamont Prize in that year, and it followed his first, very controversial book Final Solutions (Random House, 1963), by 17 years. This long hiatus mirrors Gilbert's long interregnum between his first and second books (22 years). I'm not sure what this "cooling off" period signifies, but I think there's a connection. In each case, the powerful content or effect of the first book appearance tended to create a shock-wave of apprehension through the literary sphere, which prevented the orderly progression of publication, characteristic of most serious writers. But that's a question for another day. In the work of each, however, I sense a desire to bring about life-changing perceptions, to bear witness to a revelatory event or realization.

The simplest example I could find in this collection is a poem whose brevity is perfectly suited to its content, which is the peremptory re-acquaintance or encounter with (what I take to be) a former l0ver. The instance is generic, in the sense that what we know about the speaker and his object contains nothing specific, except that the other may be possessed of some deep apprehension, either about the speaker, or about human relationships generally. But that "terror" is the same powerful stirring of passion, or fearful jeopardy the self experiences in the face of any unanticipated challenge or summons. The quietness of the other is consistent with the guardedness of the self; but the surprise of "your terror" is an equivalent for the charged air of threat any of us feels in the presence of desire (or, indeed, any very powerful emotion) which is flashed before us without warning. Seidel knows that the poem functions right at this invocation of emergency, and needs no other elaboration. For a mere moment or two, the mind is stricken with immobility, frozen in awe of its own confusion, and can merely remark the failure of thought and language to say any more than that.

Years Have Passed

Seeing you again.
Your glide, your gaze.
Your very quiet voice.
Your terror. Your quiet eyes.


To Robert Lowell and Osip Mandelstam

I look out the window: spring is coming.
I look out the window: spring is here.
The shuffle and click of the slide projector
Changing slides takes longer.

I like the dandelion--
How it sticks to the business of briefly being.
Shuffle and click, shuffle and click--
Life, more life, more life.

The train that carried the sparkling crystal saxophone
Osip Mandelstam into exile clicketyclicked
Through suds of spring flowers,
Cool furrowed-earth smells, sunshine like freshly baked bread.

The earth was so black it looked wet,
So rich it had produced Mandelstam.
He was last seen alive
In 1938 at a transit camp near Vladivostok

Eating from a garbage pile,
When I was two, and Robert Lowell was twenty-one,
Who much later would translate Mandelstam,
And now has been dead two years himself.

I sometimes feel I hurry to them both,
Stand staring at the careworn spines
Of their books in my bookshelf,
Only in order to walk away.

The wish to live is as unintentional as love.
Of course the future always is,
Like someone just back from England
Stepping off a curb, I'll look the wrong way and be nothing.

Heartbeat, heartbeat, the heart stops--
But shuffle and click, it's spring!
The arterial branches disappearing in the leaves,
Swallowed like a tailor's chalk marks in the finished suit.

We are born.
We grow old until we're all the same age.
They are as young as Homer whom they loved.
They are writing a letter, not in a language I know.

I read: "It is one of those spring days with a sky
That makes it worthwhile being here.
The mailbox in which we'll mail this
Is slightly lighter than the sky."

Aside from its hackneyed formality--the use of quatrains to define the progression of a series of pictures or scenes, which does nothing to organize the thought or meaning of the poem's content--this is comprised of a number of miraculous inter-active revelations about time, identity, and the transparency of human feeling. It is classical in evoking a sense of timelessness which is transmitted from mind to mind, over time, though it ends, unexpectedly, as Seidel's poems often seem to do, on a detail or phrase which, rather than concluding the drift of the argument, shifts suddenly, altering context, as if to question the whole--until you realize, with a grudging tilt, how apt it is.

The poem sets up a dialectic between Homer [between 9th & 12th Century BC], the American poet and translator Robert Lowell [1917-1977], the Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam [1891-1938], and the speaker Seidel [1936-]. Lowell translated a number of poems of Mandelstam's, and Lowell was an important figure in Seidel's career as a poet; Seidel is often grouped as a member of the so-called "confessional poets" based on the resemblance of their work to Lowell's two mid-life collections Life Studies [1959] and For the Union Dead [1964]. There is, in addition a convergence of style and approach, following Lowell's presumed "violence" and iconoclastic daring, which finds its ultimate expression in many of Seidel's poems of the 1960's and later.

The speaker compares the transitoriness of the seasons to the click of an old slide projector. (To those who are too young to remember, or to have had the experience of them, slide projectors used to be fitted with circular carousels loaded with slides (or positives) which were projected through an intense light against a screen or wall. The carousel "clicked" as it revolved, one image at a time, moving from slide to slide in sequence.) We know the poem was written in 1979, since he mentions Lowell's death two years earlier (1977). Mandelstam died in a camp following he second arrest for "counter-revolutionary activities" (writing critical poems about the Soviet system). Thus for Seidel, both figures--Lowell (known for his own anti-establishment positions and protests)--and Mandelstam--stand as artistic heroes for challenging authority and the status quo. The speaker celebrates the life-giving renewal of spring by suggesting that since all life comes from the black soil (of Russia, in the case of Mandelstam), the season's renewal offers a kind of hope against the tyrannies of prescribed thought and behavior. These dead--Lowell and Mandelstam, Homer--"are writing a letter, not in a language I know [Greek? Russian?]" to Seidel, the vessel through which this poetic impulse momentarily passes. Seidel becomes, in this way, of the company of voices whose message is transmitted beyond or above, in the mailbox of the sky.

Seidel's poem is a sequence of images or snapshots received through his familiar oracles. Lowell died of a heart-attack ("heartbeat, heartbeat, the heart stops/But shuffle and click, it's spring!") the integers of time clicking, clicking, in time's inexorable progress. But we are all "the same age" at the moment we come to consciousness of the present. Putting an envelope into a louvered steel box painted blue, is like a metaphor of the transmission across ages. 1938. 1977. 20??

But what a catalog of eccentric instances it is! Mandelstam as "the sparkling crystal saxophone," "eating from a garbage pile"; death as "Like someone just back from England/Stepping off a curb, [looking] the wrong way and. . .nothing" (an experience you'll recall if you've ever been to Britain!); "The arterial branches disappearing in the leaves,/Swallowed like a tailor's chalk marks in the finished suit"--impressively original imagery.

Seidel's poems often seem chaotic arrangements of haphazard or improbable details shored against a dominant feeling which is withheld from us pending the suspension of our comprehension, until the end. As in life, the dazzling array of diverting phenomena fills our consciousness with persuasive distraction. As entertaining as such displays of pyrotechnic skill may seem, what matters is whether the work speaks to coincident feelings in readers. On these terms, Seidel's common command of his materials seems somewhat beside the point, as it often does with the poems of Jim Harrison. The character of the feeling, and the density of the personality, are strong enough to overcome the limitations of a convenient or gratuitous form. And this is how I feel about Seidel's poems--whatever they lack in formal innovation, they more than make up for in quality of emotion (as Pound preferred).

In a previous post, I addressed the issue of Seidel's class--to what degree this fact might infect our appreciation of a writer whose politics is deemed to be unacceptable or repugnant. Like me, Seidel is an iconoclast who enjoys confronting difficult subject matter in "forbidden" ways. And like me, he seems uninterested in the public obligations of tending to his audience, his legacy, or his publishers. You could call it a kind of sophisticated disinterest. Seidel doesn't give readings, or signings. He's worldly, but private. I like to think that writers who are free enough to ignore their probable audience, enjoy a degree of emancipation which is healthy, psychologically, and it saves valuable time. If your work doesn't, all by itself, command the attention of readers, no amount of publicity or theorizing is justified. It's a form of indulgence which can become a major distraction. Teaching poetry, too, may severely limit the range and depth of one's personal pursuit(s). The work must stand alone, without explanation or secondary intellectual buttressing. Poetry doesn't need people, or it doesn't need people to be produced. All the talk in the world never made a poem better than it was to begin with, though we can "save" literature in certain ways by talking about it. What we think about a poem will never be more important than the poem itself is.

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