Frederick Seidel writes poems the way Michael Haneke makes films -- he's a poet of discomfort. Seidel's writing has a merciless quality indeed quite rare in American letters -- and he has been achieving that elusive greatness for 50 years now, getting better -- meaner -- with age, like a fine vintage aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, an incredibly cool, expensive, vaguely creepy blackish liquid that you never knew you would love so much until you tried it for the first time.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, another great merciless dandy of literature, said: "I was a boy who liked solitude, who preferred the company of things to that of people". And Seidel's on the same boat (well, motrocycle), with his very much adult love for Ducati superbikes (“The Lord is my shepherd and the Director of Superbike Racing” he writes in "Fog", from "Ooga Booga"). He's the greatest American poet you might not have heard of, due to his well-known allergy for networking, readings, poetry departments, literary prizes (O.K., he was a Pulitzer finalist ten years ago). His gleeful political incorrectness, too.
Maybe it was the bespoke Savile Row suits (he's a Richard Anderson man), or the family money and the nice coop apartment (check out the awesome photo essay by Antonin Kratochvil on VII Photo's website), or the distant affair with Diane Von Furstenberg (they're still close friends); maybe it was America's sof spot for the petit bourgeois fantasy of the bohème as fertile ground for true art. Still, not many poets in the English language this side of Larkin and Lowell can write stuff like these lines (from Barbados):
They'd never seen anything so remarkable.
Now they could see the field was full of them.
Suddenly the field is filled with ancestors.
The hippopotamuses became friendly with the villagers.
Along came white hunters who shot the friendly hippos dead.
If they had known that friendship would end like that,
They never would have entered into it.
Suddenly the field is filled with souls.
The field of sugarcane is filled with hippopotamus cane toads.
They always complained
Our xylophones were too loud.
The Crocodile King is dead.
The world has no end.
But thankfully, he does have some loyal fans.
Katherine Taylor, in Opera Chic's dear Mark Sarvas's blog, wrote that "phrases, sentences, images, ideas sort-of make a person want to give up writing altogether, because he's already done everything so perfectly".
Seidel is, for Opera Chic, an icon of style. Literary and otherwise. Because he dances across the pages like an aging prizefighter, as if Rimbaud hadn't died young, a wealthy healthy Rimbaud who had somehow managed to keep both legs intact and had moved to the Upper West Side and fallen in love with modern Italian motorcycles. Opera Chic loves the centripetal grace of his lines and the mercilessness of his poetry (who else has written with such bemused horror about his saggy old man's bare ass caught in a reflection of a mirror at the Ritz?).
He's the 007 of American poetry, our international man of literary adventures, our secular bemused prophet of apocalyptic horrors. Or, as the great man himself, the morbid master of umorismo nero, the ashen haired Don Giovanni of the Hamptons would say,