Monday, July 6, 2009

Sui Seidel

An excellent piece of criticism by Ange Mlinko on Frederick Seidel, the improbable anti-darling of the poetry world.

I had a discussion with someone recently about the validity of comparing and contrasting one poet's work with another in a review. It's something that's often done badly (which is to say arbitrarily or inappropriately, with the reviewer essentially saying something as critically vacuous as "look, this isn't real poetry, this is poetry"), but when chosen well, as Mlinko does here, a comparison can be damningly effective.

I recently read Ooga-Booga and found it quite striking. One doesn't see many poets--hardly any--intentionally embracing objectively bad writing for aesthetic effect. I wonder if anyone has ever drawn a link between Seidel and John Skelton? Another poet he reminds me of is the Roman dialect writer Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, a selection of whose vulgarly gossipy sonnets I've been reading lately, as translated--quite brilliantly--by Mike Stocks. All three poets are entertaining, but not terrifically profound.

I like that Mlinko brought up the problem of Seidel's range; how his signature style palls over the course of a collected volume. Ooga-Booga is occasionally brilliant and disturbing, but even over the span of that relatively short collection, Seidel's trademark techniques come to feel like one trick repeated over and over. And a pretty cheap, gaudy trick at that. Range--and its corollary, development--is to me one of the defining characteristics--if not the defining characteristic--of really great poetry: how a poet adapts his or her voice to a variety of modes, moods, situations and subjects; how a poet moves from one thing to another, both in the short term of a single collection and over the long haul of a lifetime's work; how open a poet is to experimentation--not for its own sake, but for the sake of getting the poem right. (Of course, openness to experimentation at one point in a poet's life can easily--especially when that experimentation leads to the serendipitous discovery of a signature style--calcify into rigid sameness later on.) Lack of range is the Achilles heel of an enormous number of talented poets and what leads so many in later work into self-parodic repetitions of earlier more successful efforts. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of credibility. If a poet repeatedly hits the same note, I have a hard time believing that there's a complete, authentic engagement with the world and with the poem. The poem starts to seem like a slapped-on lamination or a shake-n-bake recipe, more an issue of the poet's ego expressing itself than integrating itself with its environment.


Zachariah Wells said...

Brian Palmu, who apparently had trouble posting here, writes in with the following comments. If anyone else has had problems posting, please let me know.

Zach, this is a fascinating topic, and has many parallels with creators in music and painting. I haven't read Seidel, so I'll just respond generally.

I agree that range is important, and I always look for it, especially, as you rightly note, in a long poetic "career". I have less of a problem, though, with a lack of range if that lack results from personal limitation. Many people have one dominant emotion (sadness, anger, goofiness)or theme (unrequited love, poverty, ten-pin bowling), and I see it as honest obsession. Not particularly healthy, but I don't think it results from laziness as much as the classic fox vs hedgehog split. Incuriosity in more than a few poets? Yes. But others do a pretty good job of depicting their constrictive world (W Kees, for one).

More important for me is that a poet writes about what moves him/her, and I'd rather have a wholesale, passionate engagement with the evolution of origami in three volumes (well, maybe that's a bit extreme) than a superficial hodge-podge of Middle Age wars to generational contrasts to spiritual "truths", all displaying the "big-hearted" nature of the poet.

Many poets, in life or art, don’t have a great range of interests , or if they do, lack the technical virtuosity to incorporate those concerns. It sure is wondrous to have depth and breadth, though.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for the comments, Brian; excellent points. My only response is that I was talking about "really great poetry." I highly value an awful lot of work that is a notch or two below that level, including Seidel's (and to be fair, I haven't embarked on the new Collected, and there is a growing mass of critics who disagree with Mlinko, so it could be she's missing something). Range, when considering a poet's overall oeuvre, is often the difference between an A and an A+.