Thursday, July 15, 2010

Life is Messy - Art is Cruel

Life is messy. Despite our attempts to bring order, in this tiny corner, or in that one, we are overcome by disorder, buried under the casual afflatus, wasted by inconsequential distraction, paralyzed by guilt and embarrassment and the many nagging indignities of the physical reality of existence. We have choices, though, in how to respond to this chaos. We can throw up our hands in despair, or regard life with relaxed amusement. Life may be seen as a dialogue between the competing responses to the meaninglessness of merely being in the world.
I was, until recently, unfamiliar with the work of Frederick Seidel. As one who shuns the public literary spotlight, who lives for himself and through himself, without shame or hesitation, he's a man after my own heart. Among the many charges brought against Mr. Seidel, as I read them, are 1 That he was born rich, and has never had to struggle to get along, or even to hold any kind of job, 2 That he likes to live well, and is unembarrassed about his pleasures and fascinations, be they ever so privileged, 3 That his view of life is cynical, often sardonic, and that his expression of this dim view is usually direct, and frank, and frequently gauche, 4 That he enjoys riding motorcycles, and 5 That his poetic style is gruesomely blunt, indelicate, and even at times ostentatiously egoistical.
That anyone who displayed all these supposed faults should be regarded as a superior and entertaining poetic talent is perhaps a sin against good taste, or at least what passes for acceptable behavior in our officiously priggish society. 
Literary critics have often mentioned the name of Lowell in connection with Seidel's influences, though the example whose echo I detect--especially in his earlier works--is that of Sylvia Plath, especially the Plath of Ariel. In particular, the air of self-flagellation, the ante-upping daring and double-daring, stripping the emotional gears, pushing the envelope of the permissible, the improbable, the sheer tastelessness of naked outrage--to confront one's deepest obsessions, one's most private conceits, least marketable secret loves and hates and daydreams. 
Browsing through his new Poems 1959-2009 [Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009], I'm struck by a lack of prosodic progress, of a style of address that's hardly changed over 50 years--perhaps regarded as a fault, by some. Many of the more recent poems do have longer stanzas, and longer lines. Many of them seem more prosaic in their sentiment, as well, welcoming in the explanatory amplification, instead of insisting upon the aphoristic chime of false certitude. One caught my attention, which, after a dozen readings and re-readings, I find to be a fascinating and wickedly well-made poem, just as it is:
                            WHITE BUTTERFLIES
Clematis paniculata sweetens one side of Howard Street.
White butterflies in pairs flutter over the white flowers.
In white kimonos, giggling and whispering,
The butterflies titter and flutter their silk fans,
End-of-summer cabbage butterflies, in white pairs,
Sweet autumn clematis feeds these delicate souls perfume.
I remember how we met, how shyly.
Four months of drought on the East End ends.
Ten thousand windshield wipers wiping the tears away.
The back roads are black.
The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy.
Traditional household cleaners polish the imperial palace floors
Of heaven spotless.  THUNDER.  Cleanliness and order
Bring universal freshness and good sense to the Empire. LIGHTNING.

I have never had a serious thought in my life on Gibson Lane.
A man turning into cremains is standing on the beach.
I used to walk my dog along the beach.
This afternoon I had to put him down.
Jimmy my boy, my sweetyboy, my Jimmy.
It is night, and outside the house, at eleven o'clock,
The lawn sprinklers come on in the rain. 

A poem like this plays lightly with dramatic concealment, and then releases it with well-timed disclosures. This is an elegy, for a loved pet euthanized; though given the anti-climactic nature of the first stanza, we might think it referred instead to an old flame (as it may well also do). But we don't know about the dog, until after it is so miraculously metaphorized in line 4 of the second stanza ("The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy."). And we don't quite know what the tears being cleared by windshield wipers are being shed for, until it is revealed to us. And the self-pity that does eventually overcome the sense of loss, matters less than the clarifying bluster of elemental forces under which the poem, and our time on earth, is made clarified, with the LIGHTNING and the THUNDER, after four months of drought. And the sprinklers, as symbol of our pathetic vanity, throw a fine mist of superfluity under the dark night of eternity (made poignant by the speaker's own mortality "cremains").  
The first stanza could almost stand all by itself, a kind of Poundian adaptation from the Chinese. Though this kind of writing isn't by any means unself-conscious, it manages to seem relaxed while at the same time being quite affecting. As one, too, who shares a kindred affection for certain domestic pets, I fully accept the distillate of occasional grief which the poem conveys. 



J said...

The Wiki says Seidel likes Ducatis.

Cool. Alas, his writing seems a bit more like a Honda... :). Tho' given that he's independently wealthy (sort of traditional starting point for the belle-lettrist, really), Seidel can probably say anything and it'll be accepted as liter-ah-ture. The Aynnie Rand lemma

Then poetry was stillborn (or appears to be) say sometime after WB Yeats was pitched in a nazi-hole. Then, they may have done the right thing. Auf-veeder-zehen, poet

Kirby Olson said...

I actually enjoyed this a lot. I shall read further.

I didn't see anything icky in it at all.

But maybe that in itself should give you pause.

Steven Fama said...

Your numbered listing of the "charges" against Seidel focuses entirely on things about him as a person.

You might have included criticisms made about his poems. The most trenchant are Ange Mlinko:

"the repetitiveness of . . . autopilot rhythms . . . singsong, staccato sentences and cartoonish images."

Your comment about the book as a whole, re "the lack of prosodic progress," echoes some of Mlinko's response, yes?

The poem you write about it, I understand how it rings for you, but it seems for all its concealment more than a tad cloying, and overwrought.

Curtis Faville said...

It's true. Seidel's not an avant garde formalist--his poems aren't preoccupied with that.

They're about the sly use of metaphor and dramatic tension. They sound to me like Sylvia Plath's poems in Ariel. Have you read that book?

It would be easy to complain about Seidel's lack of experimentation, because he puts so little store in it. You can't demand things of people (or poets) to suit your own taste. You have to build your taste out of what's been done. Or write the work yourself, to satisfy your craving for what doesn't already exist.

I.e., I understand McClure's need to write the poems he's written, and there's a certain honesty and forthrightness about that. But as a method of conveying what he thinks to say, I find it no more convincing than Seidel's choice(s), perhaps even less so.

In Seidel, content is "more important" than the method of its saying. I think the first stanza is quite good, probably as good as most anything in Pound. I can think of more abstract ways of saying what the second and third stanzas say, but I don't think anything would be gained thereby; they're perfectly concise and ingenious as they stand, albeit in simple, unadorned language.

J said...

I have never had a serious thought in my life on Gibson Lane.
A man turning into cremains is standing on the beach.
I used to walk my dog along the beach.
This afternoon I had to put him down.
Jimmy my boy, my sweetyboy, my Jimmy.
It is night, and outside the house, at eleven o'clock,
The lawn sprinklers come on in the rain.

Seems like something a faux-aristocrat might write, like in some posh New England town with a garage full of Ducatis that he's ridden once or twice, and a library of Klassix, of which he's read one or two, and probably some...Aynnie Rand potboilers (fess up Sir Faville, you still love the Fountain Head, or Atlas Slugged, etc) . Could even be...a parody of sorts, like one of Vonnegut's portraits of a fratboy jagoff

Cremains. whoa.

Curtis Faville said...


I tried to read The Fountainhead once, but couldn't make it past page 100 or so.

The movie they made from it is mildly diverting--Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in their prime--sparks!

But Rand's philosophy is a crock.

So was she.

Kirby Olson said...

The first stanza is very powerful and lovely.

After that, it strikes me as barely poetry at all.

Delia Psyche said...

This essay has convinced me that I should check out Seidel. Before reading it I'd read--or perhaps heard a recording of Seidel reading--one or two poems, and I remember thinking the Plath influence was obvious. But I really like Plath--even imitators of Plath, like Thomas James.