Sentences — April 10, 2009, 7:05 pm

Weekend Read: Frederick Seidel, “A Poet of Great Innocence”

seidelbymahane

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
Article
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer

Number of African countries with vaccination rates higher than that of the United States:

16

Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A farmer in Surrey, England, was ordered by the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council to tear down his cannon-equipped castle, which he had built secretly and then concealed behind hay bales.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today