This Dark Prince of American Poetry Writes With Glittering Malice

The way to read Frederick Seidel’s “Selected Poems” is to remove the dust jacket, light a match and torch it. It’s not that the jacket is unattractive. But the hard cover underneath it is ink black. Once the jacket’s gone, you have what each of Seidel’s volumes aspire to be: a little black book.

You may also want to flip it over and read it back to front. Seidel is among the rare poets who’ve become noticeably better — nervier, more tricksy and electric — as they’ve slid into old age.

Seidel, who turns 85 next week, knows this. His “Collected Poems,” published a decade or so ago, were arranged in reverse chronological order. Like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” it traveled backward in time, movingly, from experience to innocence.

The word “innocence” is not easily applied to Seidel’s work. His poetic credo, articulated in a Paris Review interview, is: “Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.” He’s the Dark Prince of American poetry, a writer of glittering malice, one who cuts against the grain of almost every variety of community feeling. He’s not a poet for everyone, but no poet worth anything is.

Someone — I think it was John Ashbery — said that you can usually pick up a book of poems, riffle through it and tell in about 10 seconds if it’s for you. They’re like first dates this way. If you flip through Seidel’s new book, be prepared to suppress whatever class animus you may be clinging to.

Seidel grew up wealthy in St. Louis, the son of a coal industrialist, and he seems to have been born with a Harvard accent and a chilly sense of hauteur. A poem titled “Frederick Seidel” begins: “I live a life of laziness and luxury, / Like a hare without a bone who sleeps in a pâté.”

The nouns that populate his poems include: old prep schools, Hermès briefcases, Savile Row tailors, grand hotels, sky-filled tall windows, elite restaurants, splits of brut, fox hunts, open-topped Mercedes. The reader will struggle to keep in mind that envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that is no fun for the sinner. That his verse never reads like a parody of a certain kind of life — courtly old men in creaking shirts, flashing their monocles — is a testament to his fluid sense of irony.

He is a seeker of alienatingly expensive sensations; on a deeper level, he’s a complicated critic of such seeking. In a poem titled “A Gallop to Farewell,” about buying clothes in Europe, he writes about a maker of bespoke shoes in London:

No one has surpassed
The late George Cleverley’s lasts,
The angle in of the heel, the slightly squared-off toe, the line,
Though Suire at Lobb is getting there.
His shoes fit like paradise by the third pair.
Like they were Eve. The well-dressed man,
The vein of gold that seems inexhaustible,
Is a sunstream of urine on its way to the toilet bowl.

Seidel tinkers like a mechanic with rhyme. He embraces it when it suits him, and flings it away when it doesn’t. Rhyme is the tuxedo that’s always ready to go, as if in a spy novel, when the hero steps out of the sea and pulls off his wetsuit.

He writes often about motorcycles. Like his shoes, he has them custom-made. In one early poem, he asked: “What definition of beauty can exclude / The MV Agusta racing 500-3, / From the land of Donatello, with blatting megaphones?” His poems are life force and death wish. He’s the only living poet who could creditably be played by Nicolas Cage in a biopic.

“We can’t all be proletarians, you know,” the critic Dwight Macdonald once thundered, in a letter. To focus on the status details in Seidel’s poems is to miss the way grief filters through them. A subset of this grief arises from longing for connection, albeit connection — is he so different from the rest of us in this way? — on his own terms. He winces at the beauty of the world.

He is a maker of dark aphorisms. About life: “We are a paper frigate sailing on a burning lake.” About appetite: “Everything is looking / For something softer than itself to eat.” About revenge: “Who wouldn’t like to have the power to kill / Friends and enemies at will.” About fate: “Like someone just back from England / Stepping off a curb, I’ll look the wrong way and be nothing.”

He does not run a public relations campaign, as do many poets, for the gentleness of his intentions. He makes a habit of independent thought. He is the sort of snake that doesn’t hiss but just strikes. “I am looking down at you, at you and yours,” he writes in “What One Must Contend With,” “Your stories and friends, your banal ludicrous dreams.” You would not necessarily want him in charge of your DNR.

His infamous line about sex — “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare” — would be harder to swallow if the poet didn’t get a shock at seeing his own withered buttocks in a bathroom mirror.

A poem that describes the author’s illicit thrill, as a boy, at watching his father chastise a Black employee is hard to read. Ta-Nehisi Coates once subversively performed it on stage. He wrote that doing so “was like living in someone else’s skin for a moment” and, in terms of recognizing the human impulse toward brutality, “finding myself there at the bone.”

This well-chosen collection of Seidel’s work includes several memorials to dead friends. He finds late-life love with a woman who casually tosses grenade after grenade into his heart. You begin to realize, if you haven’t before, that Seidel is among the most distinctive and original poets of our time.

There’s a lot of longing, in his later work, for a vanishing New York. With Seidel it’s always an angular, witty longing. In “Remembering Elaine’s,” he writes:

We smoked Kools, unfiltered Camels, and papier maïs Gitanes,
The fat ones Belmondo smoked in Breathless — and so did Don,
Elaine’s original red-haired cokehead maître d’
who had a beautiful wife, dangerously.
But stay away from the beautiful wife or else catastrophe.

Near the end of this meticulous and sublime poem, he writes: “We were the scene. / Now the floor has been swept clean.”

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