Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Frederick Seidel, John Berryman, & the Poetics of Self-Shadenfreude

For those of you who weren't paying attention, Frederick Seidel suddenly vaulted into poetic fame in the past couple years, with some critics proclaiming that he was the best poet alive. Adam Kirsch's assessment is suggestive of the forbidden pleasure that readers get from reading Seidel: "Who is the best American poet writing today? Though the news will not be welcome to...literary philanthropists and the people who choose poems for the subway, I think it may be Frederick Seidel."

Seidel is, shall we say, not for the faint of heart. Yet having read Berryman's Dream Songs in the same week of completing Seidel's recent Ooga-Booga, I'd have to say that Berryman churned similar territory, both in terms of formal play and explicit self-divulging content. Seidel moves closer to the nursery rhyme-on-amphetamine style of Plath's Ariel, and delivers as much animal joy in its abjection of self and other. Seidel's poetry is 95% id, and the rest is superego; an imbalance that feels reckless, a kind of readerly driving drunk.

Seidel's poems range from personal foibles to elegies to political diatribes; of the political poems, the final poem of Ooga-Booga, "The Death of the Shah," is absolutely harrowing. You can hear it here. It weaves a self-portrait with the story of a friend, an Iranian woman raped by the Shah, and does precisely what the best confessional works always did--bringing together the personal and historical in ways that are stark, honest, and unforgiving.

In "The Bush Administration," Seidel's usual hectic sound cedes to the surrealism of the Bush Administration, and in section VIII:
CENTCOM is drawing up war plans.
They will drop snow on Congo.
It will melt without leaving a trace, at great expense.
America will pay any price to whiten darkness.
My fellow citizen cicadas rise to the tops of the vanished Twin Towers
And float back down white as ashes
To introduce a new Ice Age.
The countless generations rise from underground this afternoon
And fall like rain.
I never thought that I would live to see the towers fall again.
Seidel's final line echoes Eliot's "The Waste Land"--"I never thought death had undone so many"--but is a blistering critique of the war on terror. The snow seems figurative, but also evokes the "white phosphorus" chemical weapons that the U.S. has used in its war on Iraq--though banned by international law...

At least in this way, Seidel out-Berrymans Berryman, by turning back to Lowell's more outward gaze upon the world. Berryman's poems feel very much about Berryman, or about the imperial lyric self; this is most visible in the poems that deal with political or historical matters--they are so dominated by his voice and form that they never quite seem to shake him (or us).

Yet Berryman has his own charms. Berryman's magnus opum is baggy, monstrous, brilliantly uneven, but occasionally so beautiful in its exacting and fatalist formal structures that you come to the end of a song the way you feel a door slam and the whole house (you) shakes. I love the crabbiness, the sordidness, the humor, more brutally honest because less enraptured in the myth of self than other confessionals. What Seidel inherits from Berryman is the candor and crabbiness about sexual feelings, nowhere so uninhibited and gleefully self-loathing as here.

The greatest shame about even the newest edition of The Dream Songs is that this book still does not have an appendix, which would make the autobiographical and allusive textures even more apparent. The editors make a grave mistake in ignoring that necessary work, and risk losing those textures when everyone who cares about Berryman dies or forgets.


Nicki-poo said...

Wow. Ooga booga and the dream songs in one week. Fortunately, I read too slowly to ever accomplish that but, were I to transcend those limits, I don't I'd survive such a belligerent 7 days.
Thanks for the article, Philip. I'm rereading a bunch of Seidel to prepare for a discussion on him I lead later this month and your words will help me articulate some of those more elusive qualities of his. If you ever see this comment, e-mail me and I'll share a poem I wrote a few years ago in which both Berryman and Seidel appear.
Thanks again,

Nicki-poo said...

Excellent article, Philip. I'm rereading a bunch of Seidel for a discussion I'll be leading later this month and your insights will really help me articulate some of the the poet's finer points. If you ever see this comment, send me an e-mail and I'll share a poem I wrote a few years ago in which Seidel and Berryman both make appearances.
Thanks again,

Daniel Greenwood said...

Hey. A very useful article. Publishers seem to have got into the habit of posting a set of positive quotes instead of anything that might hint at the theme of the collection.

I'm currently studying conflict literature for my A-levels (I'm in the UK) and having read some Seidel in the London Review of Books I got interested. However, I need a collection that has a significant focus on war/conflict to be able to use it. Would this be suitable? If not, I would be very grateful if anyone could recommend any other collection of his. Thanks.

Philip Metres said...


his collected poems just came out, so you can dip around, but OOGA BOOGA does have at least a handful of poems on "conflict" (both international and personal).

Actually, as a poet who represents or writes about international conflict, I don't think Seidel comes to the top of my list--he's doing different things in poetry, that's all. Poets who have a worldly vision of (peace and) conflict who'd be on my list would be Mahmoud Darwish, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Randall Jarrell, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, John Balaban, etc.

Anonymous said...

The line from Waste Land is "i HAD NOT thought death had undone so many," and I see no relation to Seidel's poem.

Philip Metres said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for the clarification of the line, which I'd misremembered. As for the connection to the Waste Land, I was thinking in particular of the Waste Land's reference to falling towers and the people streaming over the bridge:

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

What Seidel does similarly to Eliot is to see the destruction of the city as a distant event, as almost unreal.