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Every day in America, on public radio stations across the land, a short program airs called “The Writer’s Almanac.” Hosted by the writer, musician and impresario Garrison Keillor, the show’s five minutes begin and end with a ceremonious progression of melancholic piano chords. Between these bookending strains, in his lulling baritone, Keillor catalogues the high-points of the date in literary history: which writer was born, what book appeared, who passed away. And then, before bidding us adieu (“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”), Keillor reads a poem. Though the authors he includes vary in age and gender, race and reputation, the poems themselves share a kind of soothing sameness–if not of subject or style or accomplishment then surely in the tone in which Keillor delivers them. Warm, winsome, tolerant, reassuring: whether the poem is one of longing or of losing, of joy or of grief, Keillor’s tone seems aimed at providing an almost analgesic relief to the listener — at proving that poetry is the balm that can heal any wound.
I find that tone a toxic thing, for it makes poetry into a kind of pillow, something puffed up and upon which one comes tiredly to rest. Whereas poetry at its best is a vigorous thing, an enlivening art, vibratingly alive, alive in its language and its music, a field of force and of forces. A poem in the collection Sunrise by American poet Frederick Seidel, suggests as much, concluding with the following lines, lines that give a potent sense of poetry’s better purpose:
At a very formal dinner party,
At which I met the woman I have loved the most
In my life, Belleville
Pulled out a sterling silver–plated revolver
And waved it around, pointing it at people, who smiled.
One didn’t know if the thing could be ?red.
That is the poem.
Frederick Seidel, for fifty years and across ten collections, has been writing our most serious, beautiful, and essential poems, poems that are shocking in their art and astonishing in their truth, and that remind us, in their forms, why poetry was once a vital part of cultural life (and not, as Keillor seems to have it, a respite from it). This week, Seidel’s collected Poems 1959-2009 appears, 500 pages of astonishments that renew the cultural definition of what a poem is: a thing that wakes us, shakes us, moves us, and pays equal attention to the details of living and the art of poetry.
The collection is already receiving intelligent attention. This magazine’s Christian Lorentzen has a fine essay in The National. Harper’s readers will also recall Benjamin Kunkel’s excellent essay on Seidel’s previous book,Ooga-Booga. As Kunkel wrote perceptively in these pages:
The suave tone setting up the shock, the excellent table manners combined with a savage display of appetite: this is what everyone notices in Seidel. Yet he wouldn’t be so special or powerful a poet of what’s cruel, corrupt, and horrifying had he not also lately shown himself to be a great poet of innocence. Critics have tended to miss or dismiss this in him, skipping ahead, as it were, to the good stuff. But for now let us go back to what, for Seidel, is clearly the beginning: the innocent oblivion that precedes everything. It seems that for him it is an important feature of a spoiled person, country, or planet (“Contorted and disfigured nature in the dying days of oil”) that at one time these things were nothing at all, and might just as easily have been almost anything else.
Poems 1959-2009 allows all of us to go back to Seidel’s beginnings, on his terms. This book of cunning art is itself a cunning thing: Seidel has organized his collected works backwards. Whereas one typically reads through a collected poems in the order that the collections first appeared, Seidel has ordered his from the most recent work to the most distant. Thus we begin by reading his new poems, those of the limited edition chapbook Evening Man, and march steadily backwards to Seidel’s first collection, Final Solutions. The effect of such inversion is an inversion of expectations: great poets’ early poems tend, when compared with those of the more mature writers they must become, to suffer by comparison. In Seidel’s case, what one notices as one reads towards his beginnings is how much of his present sensibility and capacity were already alive in his early work, and how dedicatedly he has tuned and challenged that sensibility as he has continued to surpass himself.
This Sunday, as your weekend read, I propose you spend a little time with Seidel. First, you can read many of Seidel’s poems online in the Google Preview of Poems 1959-2009, here. Begin, why don’t you, with “Boys”, a poem first published in Harper’s. And then, in the New York Times Magazine, you can read my profile of Seidel, wherein are included recordings of Seidel reading from his collected works (making it admittedly a weekend listen as much as a weekend read). Bon weekend.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Conversation — October 2, 2015, 8:26 am
“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”
i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Average number of Americans who are injured by chain saws each year:
A farmer in Kenya bit a python who tried to eat him.
A former prison in Philadelphia that has served as a horror-movie set was being prepared as a detention center for protesters arrested at the upcoming Democratic National Convention, and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump fired his campaign manager.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”