My knowledge of poets tends to be acquired in a desultory fashion, so I’d never heard of Frederick Seidel until I read “The Edge of Night,” an entertaining and well-written review of Seidel’s collected poems by David Orr of the New York Times. Seidel is an anomaly as a professional poet, in that he’s rich and disconnected from the literary-academic world; apparently he’s also “one of poetry’s few truly scary characters.” This may seem nonsensical to you unless you’ve ever read a poem that made you wince, or cringe, or hunch your shoulders and shiver and try to forget you ever read it (and I don’t mean in a that-was-so-bad-I-wish-it-never-existed way, which of course happens too, and more frequently); then you should know how viscerally emotional and disturbing poems can be.
The excerpts of Seidel’s work featured in the review seem menacing, meaty (in both sense of the word), and evilly funny. I’ve read some pretty horrifying poems – I’m thinking of some of C. K. Williams’ early, angry poems here, one of which I would quote but am embarrassed to – and many cringe-inducing poems (mmm, Sharon Olds*), but I’m not sure I’d be consitutionally capable of reading a whole collection of Seidel’s work. The full poem featured in the review made me feel as though someone with too-cold hands had run their fingers through my hair the wrong way. Brrr. Orr also provides some useful, interesting commentary on Seidel’s place in modern American poetry, particularly his early relationship with Robert Lowell’s work and his later parallels with Sylvia Plath. Orr also comments on Seidel’s none-too-infrequent exclusion from anthologies – a fact that would also explain my lack of knowledge of him.
Also, I love articles that send me off on multiple fascinating tangents generally culminating in a trip to Wikipedia – in this case, Orr’s reference in the review to the perhaps apocryphal funeral tradition of sin-eating. Too cool.
*Sharon Olds is disarmingly adorable in person. If she ever reads near you, go. I didn’t like her poetry until I got to see her read it.