National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week 2012: Frederick Seidel’s “Fog”

April 21, 2012

Frederick Seidel at home in New York, 2009. Photo by Antonin Kratochovil/Vii

Poet Michael Hofmann, in his entertaining review of Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009, writes that “from the beginning, Seidel was always a bogeyman, a Bürgerschreck, an épateur—a carnivore if not a cannibal in the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry.”

Hofmann draws comparisons with V.S. Naipaul and quotes from a new biography of that author saying the two are purveyors of “picong, a Trinidadian term, ‘from the French piquant, meaning sharp or cutting, where the boundary between good and bad taste is deliberately blurred, and the listener is sent reeling.’”

The New York Times called Seidel the “Laureate of the Louche,” which is to say simultaneously rakish and appealing. He is a poet with a penchant for the most expensive hotels, bespoke suits, handmade shoes, and Italian racing bikes – of the motor kind, not pedaling – and a strange, nearly fatal attraction to all that is dark and violent and decadent.

One is never quite sure if Seidel is putting it on – does he really do the things he says in his poems or is it all a persona? Is he playing with the reader the way he plays with form, with lines, with puns, with rhyme? That is to say, masterfully.

“Convinced life is meaningless, / I lack the courage of my conviction,” Seidel wrote in an early poem, “After the Party,” but then opens two poems – “Racer” and “Fog” — with the same line: “I spend most of my time not dying./ That’s what living is for.

Seidel’s poetry burns with a fury matched only by the leatherclad poet hitting 120 MPH on his custom-built Ducati. He takes a perverse pleasure in imagining his own fiery death, which hasn’t come; the poet turned 76 this year.

Take these lines from “A Gallop to Farewell,” quoted by Hoffmann:

The most underrated pleasure in the world is the takeoff
Of the Concorde and putting off the crash
Of the world’s most beautiful old supersonic plane,
with no survivors,
In an explosion of champagne.

Readers and critics either love or hate Seidel. There is no middle ground. But he couldn’t care less. He’s never taught or sought tenure or prizes or even a “career” in poetry, which is kind of an oxymoron anyway. He studied with Robert Lowell, but shook off his teacher’s influence pretty early on and hasn’t been associated with any poetry “movement.”

And while Seidel’s first book came out in 1963, he blossomed late, with 17 years between his first and second collection and 10 books published over the past two decades, culminating in his 500-page, 50 years worth of poems, which is the best of poetry I’ve read in a long time. What I mean by that is Seidel’s POEMS does what William Styron said a good book should: it leaves you slightly exhausted at the end because you lived several lives while reading it.

Here is Frederick Seidel’s “Fog”:

I spend most of my time not dying.
That’s what living is for.
I climb on a motorcycle.
I climb on a cloud and rain.
I climb on a woman I love.
I repeat my themes.

Here I am in Bologna again.
Here I go again.
Here I go again, getting happier and happier.
I climb on a log
Torpedoing toward the falls
Basically, it sticks out of me.
At the factory,
The racer being built for me
Is not ready, but is getting deadly.

I am here to see it being born.
It is snowing in Milan, the TV says.
They close one airport, then both.

The Lord is my shepherd and the Director of Superbike Racing.
He buzzes me through three layers of security
To the innermost secret sanctum of the racing department
Where I will breathe my last.
Trains are delayed.
The Florence sky is falling snow.

Tonight in Bologna is fog.
This afternoon, there it was,
With all the mechanics who are making it around it.
It stood on a sort of altar.
I stood in a sort of fog.
Taking digital photographs of my death.

–Frederick Seidel

One Response to “National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week 2012: Frederick Seidel’s “Fog””

  1. […] National Poetry Month Poem-a-Week 2012: Frederick Seidel’s “Fog” ( […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: