Interviews

Frederick Seidel, The Art of Poetry No. 95

Interviewed by Jonathan Galassi

Frederick Seidel lives, as he has for several decades, in a rambling, light-filled apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The place is comfortable and inviting, with paintings by friends on the walls and bibelots atop companionable, lived-with antique furniture. In the hallway is a life-size portrait by Alfred Eisenstaedt of the poet’s fellow St. Louisan T. S. Eliot, alongside another, of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. In contrast with the warm, stately order of the public rooms, the poet’s study at the end of the hall is a book-filled place of turbulent busyness, with an eagle’s-nest view down Broadway.

Seidel, who is seventy-three, speaks precisely, with what used to be called a Harvard accent. What can seem like hauteur gives way, on further acquaintance, to a genial sunniness; the poet’s conversation is often punctuated by peals of affectionate (or derisive) laughter. Seidel spends “gallons of time,” as he puts it, working at home. He is a dog lover, a motorcycle rider, an enthusiast of music and the movies—a solitary given to intimate sociability, an aficionado of the telephonic friendship. 

Seidel’s reserve has involved an absolute refusal to participate in the public life of poetry. He has never given a reading and, as this writer, who is also his publisher, can ruefully attest, he doesn’t lift a finger to make himself known. Nevertheless, his work has slowly gathered a remarkably intelligent body of critical recognition along with a growing following among younger readers, and there is now a broad consensus that this reclusive, proud writer of willfully “disagreeable” poems is one of the great living practitioners of his art.

The poet’s work has won notoriety for a stance of épater-le-bourgeois knowingness that asserts with a cool rhetorical elegance that Seidel is on speaking terms with the haut monde (which is true enough), and that at the same time he essentially belongs to a society of one. It is the classic antisocial pose of the dandy, ennobled by Baudelaire but notably absent from most of American poetry. Some readers have failed to see beyond the stylistic carapace into the passionate heart—fearful, courageous, and tender—that it conceals and protects. As Benjamin Kunkel observed in Harper’s Magazine: “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.”

The interview took place in the Seidel apartment over a number of sessions in the winter of 2009, with additional conversations held later on with Lorin Stein, the poet’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. On a typical day, Seidel was wearing gray wide-wale corduroys, a black knit shirt, and very shiny black patent-leather sneakers.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you know you wanted to be a poet?

FREDERICK SEIDEL 

In 1949, when I was thirteen, in the library of the Saint Louis Country Day School. I should have been doing my homework or reading a book, but instead I was reading Time magazine. I found an article about Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos winning the Bollingen Prize and the great ruckus that followed. The article quoted the “What thou lovest well remains” lyric. In reading that lyric I had a moment that’s stayed with me for a lifetime. Four years later, astonishingly, 
I was with Pound, in Washington, at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he had been committed to spare him from having to stand trial for treason.

INTERVIEWER

How did you manage that?

SEIDEL

I left St. Louis for Harvard—and for good—in 1953. In the fall of my freshman year I sent Pound a poem and a note that said, If it’s worth your while, it’s certainly worth mine. Meaning, I’d like to visit you.

No reply, until one day there arrived at Wigglesworth Hall an airmail special-delivery postcard with an indecipherable scrawl, front and back. The post office had managed to make out my name, so it got to me. I finally figured out that it said on the back, “Call Overholser.” It took me a while to realize that “Overholser” must be the name of the man who ran the hospital. I called, got permission, and boarded a Greyhound bus for Washington just before Thanksgiving, intending to stay for the weekend. I ended up staying for a week. On my arrival I presented Pound with a set of proposed corrections to his translation of Confucius, The Unwobbling Pivot. I’d been studying Chinese on my own. Need I say I didn’t know any Chinese?

INTERVIEWER

What sorts of changes were you contemplating?

SEIDEL

Clarifications. Making the language simpler.

INTERVIEWER

And what was his reaction?

SEIDEL

He was appalled, clearly. He didn’t say anything. Took the page from me. But at the end of the week, as I was leaving, he handed me a piece of paper with some of the corrections that I’d proposed for me to pass on to Professor Achilles Fang—superb name—of the Yenching Institute at Harvard, Pound’s Chinese-language man. 

While I was at Saint Elizabeths, I saw him every day. John Kasper, a notorious 
neo-Nazi, had been visiting him every day as well. At the end of my first visit I told Pound that I wouldn’t come again if Kasper was going to be there, and after that Kasper never came. I got Pound to recite poems by Arnaut Daniel and Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizzelli. It was wonderful to see him tilt his head back and orate the poems in this very old-timey way. We got on very well.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever see him again?

SEIDEL 

I didn’t. He sent me back to Harvard with a note for Archibald MacLeish. The note was on a piece of paper that was folded over once, and so of course it fell open. On the note it said, “Wake up, Archie!” Pound was angry that the various efforts to get him released from St. Elizabeths had gotten nowhere. When I handed the note to MacLeish, he was not pleased. 

It was Pound’s idea that it was up to me, personally, to save Harvard. Once he wrote to me saying, “Only you can save Harvard from that kikesucking Pusey,” referring to Nathan Pusey, who had become president of the university the fall I arrived.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still have those letters?

SEIDEL 

Alas, I don’t. I’m very bad at saving things.

INTERVIEWER

You took a leave of absence from Harvard to go to Europe, which wasn’t easy to get permission to do in those days, was it?

SEIDEL

MacLeish arranged it for me. I went to Paris first, where I took a vow of silence, which I pretty much kept to for three months. I suppose I thought it might teach me something. Meanwhile, I read all of Freud in English, and walked the streets, and attended classes at the Sorbonne, which I did not like at all. I crossed the Channel to have a look at Oxford and Cambridge, which seemed to me even sillier than Harvard. So, a bit to my own surprise, I returned to Harvard.

INTERVIEWER

While you were in London you met T. S. Eliot. How did that happen?

SEIDEL

I wrote him a note saying that I wanted to come see him, and that Ezra Pound had told me I must. And there was of course the St. Louis connection. He wrote me back a note saying, I am alarmed by your claims on me! You must make an appointment as soon as possible. So I did. I arrived at Faber and Faber to be met by a very frosty woman, Valerie—she would later become Eliot’s wife—who said, It’s unfortunate you have this appointment, because Mr. Eliot is not at all well, and I wish he weren’t seeing you, but he insists. So please stay fifteen minutes at the most. An hour or so, maybe an hour and a half later, I left. We had a rollicking, wonderful time, roaring with laughter.

INTERVIEWER

Did Pound and Eliot influence your writing?

SEIDEL

I don’t think my work sounds like Pound’s, but Pound had an enormous effect on me. His work lives line by line. The beauty of the sound has to do with the poise and definition of each line. What’s sad about Pound’s work is that he so much wanted to be clear. He wanted clarity and directness, but instead what you get is this great jumble of references, often arcane, often in ancient languages, that swamp the reader. You have to become learned to read Pound, to read his great work, The Cantos, anyway. Most people can’t or won’t, and maybe shouldn’t.

Eliot’s work seemed overwhelmingly strange and beautiful and frightening when I first read it. The urban landscape, the kaleidoscope of vignettes that had the force of myth, or of Grimms’ fairy tales, all done in this particular sound he made. His rhythm, his music, distinctly his. 

I first read Eliot as a boy in St. Louis—“Prufrock,” “The Waste Land,” “La Figlia Che Piange.” During my vow of silence period I read Four Quartets and a number of religious writers mentioned in Eliot’s prose.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever take MacLeish’s writing class at Harvard?

SEIDEL

I did. I took it in the fall term of my sophomore year. It was seven or eight of us sitting around MacLeish’s office, one class a week, and each student would read from his or her work and the work would be criticized. Standard stuff now, but at the time I think it was quite unusual. I liked MacLeish.

INTERVIEWER 

Were there other writers in MacLeish’s class who went on to be recognized?

SEIDEL

None. The only writer at Harvard with whom I had a connection—it went back to St. Louis—was Harold Brodkey. He was a senior my freshman year. He had babysat for me when he was an adolescent and, as I gather from his short stories, he had been smitten with my mother. There is a wonderful story in which the narrator babysits for a prodigiously brilliant little boy, the point of the story being that the narrator is much more brilliant than the little boy. 

INTERVIEWER 

Was your family from St. Louis originally?

SEIDEL

My grandfather had come over with his father from Russia. After my grandfather’s first wife, the mother of my father, died, my grandfather went back to Russia to find his next bride, my grandmother Sarah. Poor little Sarah, who was the first girl in her village to be given the opportunity to attend university, had to leave all that behind.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like growing up in St. Louis?

SEIDEL

I suppose it was a good place to have been from. My father had a coal company originally called Seidel Coal and Coke. It supplied those two things to St. Louis homes and factories, as well as ice in the days before refrigerators. The factories made shoes, and beer of course. All those famous breweries—Budweiser, Falstaff, Griesedieck—used a lot of coal.

I loved the trucks. I grew up with handsome dark blue trucks, some of them immense, everywhere in the city, every day of my life, passing in front of me, on the side of which in clean white lettering was the name SEIDEL. But I felt quite early on that I belonged somewhere else, and had to get to that somewhere else.

INTERVIEWER

Was your family religious?

SEIDEL

Not particularly. I went to a school where there were practically no Jews. We attended chapel, said the Lord’s Prayer, and sang the standard Christian hymns. The only time I really enjoyed being Jewish was when, as a young child, I went with my father and uncles to their synagogue, which was Orthodox. Later, when my family joined a Reform temple, I lost any sense of connection I had had.

INTERVIEWER 

In your life you seem to be both attracted to and repelled by tradition. Do you see that in your work as well?

SEIDEL

Yes, if you mean that I’m drawn to writing in formally correct ways, using rhyme and strict, regular meter, but take considerable pleasure in violating those norms. I like to hear the sound of form, and I like to hear the sound of it breaking.

INTERVIEWER

Is breaking form another way of reasserting it?

SEIDEL

It’s a fine way to assert it. One of the great instructors for me was the Milton of the sonnets. It seemed to me incredible that you could write in that heavy, monumental way and yet have it be limpid and clear. It still seems to me a marvel. And at about the same time that I was first discovering Milton, there was the example of Lowell, who was writing his own kind of monumental style. I admired Lowell immensely. 

INTERVIEWER

In the early Seidel that I know, the echo of Lowell is definitely there.

SEIDEL

He was my mentor and a friend and certainly an influence. I went to interview him for The Paris Review in 1959. It took two days, maybe four or five hours a day—an enormous amount of effort and time. At a certain moment late in the first day, my friend Whitney Ellsworth, who was manning the tape recorder, said, I’m afraid we’ve got to start over. It turned out he hadn’t had the machine on. That’s when I got to know Lowell! We hit it off, and he became a good friend.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you living in that period?

SEIDEL

I was living in West Gloucester, about forty-five minutes outside Boston, where my wife and I had found a place with a view of the ocean. It was a wonderful time, every day all day working away, taking walks. From the quiet of West Gloucester we moved to the absolute pandemonium, night and day, of Paris. I had agreed to become Paris editor of The Paris Review in 1961. I wrote a number of the poems there. I think I got about three hours’ sleep a night.

INTERVIEWER

What were your duties at the magazine?

SEIDEL

Most of the editorial decisions were made in New York, though I had my say. Otherwise it was my job to take the issue to where it was printed, which was then in Nijmegen, Holland, some distance from Amsterdam. Very pleasant trips on the TEE train, the Trans Europ Express.

INTERVIEWER 

Your first book, Final Solutions, was published in 1963. The scandal it caused reminds me of the Bollingen scandal involving Pound.

SEIDEL

The Ninety-second Street YMHA Poetry Center had forever wanted to sponsor a poetry prize. Suddenly they were endowed with the money to do it. This was 1960. The judges were to be Stanley Kunitz, Louise Bogan, and Lowell. I submitted a manuscript. I was still living in Paris but was about to move to the countryside in England. On the day the winner was to be announced, I heard nothing. I obviously hadn’t won. But then it turned out that no one had heard anything. No announcement had been made. Finally someone, it may have been Lowell, sent word, saying, You’ll be hearing soon what happened. Still not telling me that I’d won.

I then got word that, though I’d won, there was a problem. And it was easy to understand why when you saw the statement the three judges had felt it necessary to make when they announced their unanimous choice to the board of the Y. After the predictable praise for the book, the statement made it clear that in the view of the judges the book was going to upset, and probably offend, a great number of people.

INTERVIEWER

So what happened?

SEIDEL

Paranoia and bogus morality is what happened. In the end even the national organization of the YMHA was frightened that the book might harm them. The awarding of the prize had already attracted a great deal of attention in the press.

INTERVIEWER

What was supposed to be so terrible in the book?

SEIDEL

The poems were accused of being obscene, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic. One of the poems was thought maybe to libel Mamie Eisenhower. Another was thought certainly to libel Cardinal Spellman. Atheneum, the publisher so proud to be attached to the prize, hearing that there was the possibility of a libel suit, or two, tried to get me to delete or change poems. I refused, and they refused to publish.

INTERVIEWER

I can understand the concerns over libel, but where’s the anti-Semitism?

SEIDEL

It started with the title, Final Solutions. But more to the point, the speaker in the first poem, “Wanting to Live in Harlem,” seems to side with the Emperor Hadrian against the Jewish rebel Bar Kokhba. The poem indicates all sorts of reasons for this. But never mind.

INTERVIEWER

So Atheneum backed out, but what about the prize itself?

SEIDEL

I received a phone call from the very gentle and kindly man who ran the Ninety-second Street Y. In the softest way, he asked if I would consider dropping some of the poems. I was offended. I refused the prize. The judges resigned. So far as I know the prize was never offered again. Time magazine wanted to run an article about the whole thing, printing one of the offending poems, but I thought Time was a vulgar place to bring a poem out.

INTERVIEWER

So how did the book get published?

SEIDEL

Actually Atheneum, trying to force me to make changes, told me that no one was going to publish the book as it was. There was even a fantastic moment when they proposed that I include in the front matter the disclaimer that movies used to run: “Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Immediately after I said no thanks to their ultimatum, I gave the manuscript to Jason Epstein at Random House. Jason read it overnight and enthusiastically accepted it even though Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House then, was worried that Cardinal Spellman might sue because of lines in one poem that described him as effeminate: “I am sure / Of nothing—just the moon, brassiered and soap-sleek, pure / Perfumed Spellman, stinking with allure.”

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t he their landlord? Random House had its office in the Villard mansion, a building behind St. Patrick’s that was owned by the Catholic Church.

SEIDEL

Cerf and I were walking across the courtyard one day when he pointed up at the second floor of Spellman’s official residence across the way and said, Fred, it’s a great work. It’s a great book, but that faggot is going to throw me out of my office because of it. Jason, at one moment, concerned about Cerf’s uneasiness, proposed publishing Final Solutions in his children’s-book series, which I thought was a very classy idea. But finally it was published by Random House, and they chose for the cover—this was very flattering—the same colors and the same design they had used for Auden.

INTERVIEWER

How was the book received?

SEIDEL

It created a stir, including vehemently negative reviews. I already knew that a lot of the poems would be considered disagreeable. I like writing disagreeable poems, or certainly don’t mind if a poem strikes someone as unpleasant. It is possible to offend people still, and my poems not infrequently do. One way to do it is to write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.

INTERVIEWER

You think beauty enters into it?

SEIDEL

Yes. The wrong thing to say, a harsh way to say it, but done beautifully, done perfectly. I like poems that are daggers that sing. I like poems that for all the power of the sentiments expressed, and all the power to upset and offend, are so well made that they’re achieved things. However much they upset you, they also affect you.

INTERVIEWER

Do you know immediately when you’ve written an “achieved thing”?

SEIDEL 

Sometimes you finish the poem, and that last piece clicks in place. Sometimes the poem is finished with you. 

INTERVIEWER

After Final Solutions came out in 1963, the next book was Sunrise, seventeen years later. What happened in between?

SEIDEL

By the time Final Solutions was published, I was living in New York. I wrote a few poems that felt dislocated—I didn’t know how to proceed without repeating myself. I tried. I even went so far as to rent an office in a building downtown, near Foley Square. Frank Conroy and Norman Mailer and I each rented one, in this building occupied otherwise by bondsmen and private eyes. Our names appeared in the building directory as “Frank Conroy, Writer”; “Norman Mailer, Writer”; “Frederick Seidel, Writer.” It didn’t work. I pretty much stopped writing. New York offered diversions. I dare say there was desperation in this.

INTERVIEWER

You also wrote a poem about your hangout at that time, Elaine’s.

SEIDEL

Elaine’s opened in 1967. Very quickly I started spending many nights a week there—sometimes every night. It was my club. Nelson Aldrich and I brought in our friends, who actually made the place famous. Mailer, Plimpton, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, lots of movie people.

INTERVIEWER

Pretty girls?

SEIDEL

Lots.

INTERVIEWER

So you’d spend the evening there, gabbing, drinking . . . 

SEIDEL

The doors would be shut at whatever hour was the legal closing time; three, I think it was during the week. Four o’clock Saturday, I recall. And Elaine would keep the place open. There was a jukebox. People would dance. We drank. We did enormous amounts of drinking.

INTERVIEWER

What got you writing again?

SEIDEL

Getting to a place after many years where it seemed to me that if I didn’t write, I would disappear. The diversions, because that’s what they were, no longer diverted. I was left with myself and had to do the one thing I could to survive. I knew it would be difficult to write, very difficult, but I set about doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Because it would be even harder not to, you mean?

SEIDEL

I had just moved out of the house where I had been living with my wife and children to an apartment not so many blocks away but in a rough neighborhood. A stark apartment with practically no furniture. The bareness of this apartment was a help, an intensification and a simplifying. What I wrote was forced out of me, under great pressure, even if it took enormous effort to let the words out. Those poems, which ended up in Sunrise, were written very slowly, and endlessly polished. The first poems were the set of three poems that begins with Antonioni in the desert: “Antonioni walks through the desert shooting/Zabriskie Point.” That was it. I was writing again. I even wrote about my failed downtown office effort in the poem “Men and Woman.”

INTERVIEWER

Did those poems seem different from what you’d written earlier?

SEIDEL

I was writing in a different way. I would say, first of all, that I was sounding absolutely like myself. Before there had been too much Lowell in there; though now, looking back on those earliest poems, I find most of them quite satisfactory.

INTERVIEWER

Lowell was always trying to break out of his style and start something new—he did it several times in his career. Do you think your starting over was influenced by what you saw him do?

SEIDEL

Not really. Lowell mattered very much to me, but I had my own desperations. When I interviewed Lowell, while he was at work on Life Studies, he was worried about the reception his new work might get. People had their expectations. My problem was to find out how to write.

INTERVIEWER

Were you interested in other contemporaries, like New York School people?

SEIDEL

No. For the second time I was turning to Milton’s sonnets to try to understand how you could write grand and plain at the same time. It’s only in recent years that I’ve learned to appreciate what fine poets O’Hara and Schuyler are.

Speaking of grand and plain, plain rising to grand, Philip Larkin soars, not quite as high as Milton perhaps, but high. A great poet.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of Ashbery?

SEIDEL

I very much admire his work. I love the sound it makes and the utter unexpectedness of the twists and turns. He’s looking for freedom, and finds it. I guess I am too, though my work is completely different. What’s usually going on in mine is an extreme effort not to censor the flow of information, the flow of images and thoughts, while at the same time holding the poem accountable to a standard of performance. You get something paradoxical—an effort to be utterly free while censoring the results of the freedom with a supervisory, unrelenting discipline.

What I spend my time thinking about, what I need energy to do, is the discipline part, the meter, the rhyming, the formal elements, while still listening to the music of the thing. 

INTERVIEWER

There’s an obsessive quality to your work in the way you come back to certain themes and subjects over and over.

SEIDEL

Repetition is fate. And repetition is a convenience, because in going back to the same subjects and themes, you are presenting yourself once again with the way to start making another object.

I write about going fast. I write about wanting things and liking things. I stare and stare and go blind—that’s me writing, and writing about writing. I’ll leave out love and lust as preoccupations. And the wish to believe. And the near impossibility of faith. I suppose I think that art itself is the supreme theme of art. And I don’t know whether that’s a cause for despair. Probably it is. Art can’t do anything. “I don’t believe in anything, I do believe in you.” I wrote that.

INTERVIEWER

Montale also wrote about the same things over and over again, as if he could never get at what he was really trying to say. 

SEIDEL

Montale is an important figure for me. His poems are like a swaying rope ladder descending from some very high place or, put it the other way round, a ladder moving every which way, rising to the heavens. Such entrancing, eccentric, classical work. Such inspired titles. And the intensity of his women! His poetry lives much more in nature than mine does. I hope my recent owl poems sound a bit like Montale.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes you reuse the same lines from poem to poem. Sometimes you reuse the same poem from collection to collection, almost unchanged. Why is that?

SEIDEL

It’s a way of getting at the subject from a different angle and, at the same time, of saying that there is no subject. It’s also a way of making the reader look and listen.

INTERVIEWER

So your relationship to your subjects is oscillating or unstable?

SEIDEL

The minute you use rhyme, or regular meter, you are doing things to the subject matter. Just as you might very much, even desperately, want to get into your poem the astonishing gray eyes of the person you’re writing about but find the poem doesn’t really want those gray eyes, or maybe doesn’t want eyes at all. That sort of thing. The poem is making its demands of you as you make yours of it. All the while in this process something is being made, a thing is being made.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written some screenplays. How did you start working in the movies?

SEIDEL

I have friends who are moviemakers: Bernardo Bertolucci and my good friend Mark Peploe, who is Bernardo’s brother-in-law. 

Many years ago Peploe asked me if I would read one of his scripts. He’d already revised it many times. The problem was the familiar one: the principal character in the movie was so much him that he was imagining that things he knew about himself were in the script, and they weren’t. So he asked me to rewrite it. There followed many pleasant years of working with him, which included a little horror movie called Afraid of the Dark and later an adaptation of Conrad’s Victory.

INTERVIEWER

Did writing screenplays interfere with writing poetry?

SEIDEL

I thought my poems learned something from my screenwriting: creating scenes, kinds of cuts, and so on. If I’m right, a recent example would be in my poem “Arnold Toynbee, Mac Bundy, Hercules Belleville.” The poem jump-cuts between scenes without bothering to explain or justify itself. My poem “Dune Road, Southampton” is like a little horror movie. It has a plot, it sets scenes. It gives visual information but withholds other information. It postpones your understanding. I like what screenplays don’t say. I like what they withhold. But screenplays are only way stations. Poems are the way there and the there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider writing screenplays a thing of the past for you now?

SEIDEL

I do, really. I am reluctant to do anything but write poems. When we did Victory, I would get up at a tragically early hour on location in the South China Sea to work on a poem called “Victory.”

INTERVIEWER

What are your working hours now?

SEIDEL

I start quite early in the morning and work throughout the day with occasional interruptions. And again at night, when I come back from wherever I’ve gone out to, I work. I walk around the city with the poem I’m working on folded up in my pocket. It’s a rabbit’s foot. The poem’s in my head. I don’t need the piece of paper.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become a devotee of classical music?

SEIDEL

I studied music as a boy and for a little while thought I might end up being a classical violinist. I’m interested in the music of the twentieth century. The difficulty of it. I’m thinking particularly of Anton Webern, whom I wrote a poem about in My Tokyo. There’s something wonderful about how Webern thought that within fifty years schoolchildren would be whistling his impossible tunes on their way to school. I admire that. But I also admire the attitude of Milton Babbitt, who said about the difficulty of modern music, Who cares if anyone listens?

I would love to write an opera about Webern. I actually got as far as writing a scene that has Webern, Schoenberg, and Alban Berg singing a lullaby to put Webern’s child to sleep. It’s a lovely idea, isn’t it? Those three atonal composers singing a lullaby to a kid.

INTERVIEWER

You once said to me that Rilke was the greatest poet of the twentieth century. Why him?

SEIDEL

His reach is the widest of the poets I know well. The poems, and the prose too, travel far and stay right here. Tough-minded, delicate, practical, lyrical. The best of him just is: “Da steht der Tod, ein bläulicher Absud / in einer Tasse ohne Untersatz.” There stands death, a bluish distillate in a cup without a saucer.

INTERVIEWER

What languages do you read poetry in?

SEIDEL

Latin, or I used to, French, Italian with a little help, German with more help, Russian with a trot. I worked at learning ancient Greek, both at Harvard and after. Never got far enough. In high school I took Russian, an experimental course that got me to read Pushkin. I did a translation of Mayakovsky that appears in Sunrise. The twentieth-century Russian poets have meant a lot to me, Pasternak and Mandelstam especially, though I know them mostly in translation. 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t mind reading poetry at one remove?

SEIDEL

We’ve just lived through a golden age of translation—the greatest since the Elizabethans. The maxim that translation is impossible has had to give way before the sunburst of these translations. I’m thinking of Clarence Brown’s translation of Mandelstam. I’m thinking of your translation of Montale. I think of Michael Hofmann’s translations from the German. I’ve never been happy with French poetry in English, with Villon, or Ronsard, except for the great translation of the one poem by Yeats, or even Baudelaire, or, mattering more to me, Racine: the ferocious gleam of the couplets, the passionate coldness. But think of Scott Moncrieff’s Proust. Or James Strachey’s Freud. Think of Pound’s Cathay!

It seems to me that certain poets are utterly untranslatable. Until suddenly someone translates them. Brown’s Mandelstam is an example. Tsvetayeva and Akhmatova, for all the translations that have been done of their work, haven’t been translated yet. Heine and Hölderlin wait for their shining prince to come. Or princess.

INTERVIEWER

You loved France, you loved living there. What about England? I don’t think of you as exactly an anglophile.

SEIDEL

I loathe England and the English but have a very good time there and many friends there. There is something about the English I find grand and superb, that I envy and that I despise. Something about English folks who are privileged drives me crazy with fury. Now, how to explain that? I’m sort of a Pound, a provincial who moves into the fancy world with a feeling of unease and awe, which lasts for about eight seconds. In the ninth second the place is mine and I’m no longer interested. I’m bored. So it is with going into a grand hotel where you haven’t been before. A perfect example, because I’ve stayed at a considerable number of grand hotels. In the first moment I’m the St. Louis boy in awe and then it’s gone, and the hotel belongs to me. I lament the loss of that feeling, that St. Louis feeling of awe, because it allows you to feel and see certain things that you can’t afterward feel and see. I want the chandelier at Claridge’s to intimidate me. It helps me see it.

INTERVIEWER

You do dress in a distinctly English way.

SEIDEL

When I grew up in St. Louis, superiority was English. I admire things that are beautifully made. Watches, shoes, motorcycles, jewelry. And Huntsman, years ago, was the best tailor in the world. Lobb was the best shoemaker. Not the English Lobb, but the French Lobb. And if you didn’t know that, really, there was a lot else you didn’t know. Do these things matter? These things mattered.

INTERVIEWER

Would you call that a St. Louis trait of yours, or something else?

SEIDEL

Certainly it begins in St. Louis. My father had to have the best: the best cars, the best clothes. It makes me think of how, when I was eight years old, I wrote off to the Wurlitzer Collection, having learned that they had the largest collection of Stradivarius violins in the United States. I asked them to send me photographs of the violins in their collection. Back came thirty photographs of Stradivarius violins, backs, bellies, and scrolls, which I put up on the walls of my childhood bedroom. Maybe it is a St. Louis thing. I wouldn’t have thought. I would have thought it was a character thing.

INTERVIEWER

What about motorcycles? What’s that all about?

SEIDEL

I cherish the speed and beauty of them. I rode a bicycle, a very beautiful Italian racer, in New York forty years back, which hung on hooks in the front hall of my house when it wasn’t being used. But I was a speed demon and wanted to go faster, so I turned to motorcycles. I was always looking for what was just beyond my ability. I wanted to manage this enormously powerful thing. Each motorcycle I got was more powerful than the previous one, and each time the shop would tell me, This one is different. Watch out. This one is going to yank your arms out. And I would get on. And it would be just another motorcycle, however extreme and extraordinary. You don’t have to be killed on your motorcycle to love it. That said, I do have two race bikes waiting for me in Dallas that I may not live through.

INTERVIEWER

People love the title of your book Going Fast, with its two meanings.

SEIDEL

I like going fast, and I have noticed that I will disappear one day.

INTERVIEWER

One of the most quotable—and quoted—lines in your recent poetry is this: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Women, love, sex, the battle of the sexes—all are major material in your work. Why is this?

SEIDEL

Women are objects, sexual and otherwise, which the poem shapes to fit the poem. I look but I find no battle between the sexes, just a bit of a struggle to see who gets to do what. Women both lead and follow.

INTERVIEWER

Women in your poetry run the gamut from idealization to enmity.

SEIDEL

I don’t think it’s true. Where’s the enmity? As for idealization, I hope there is a considerable amount of celebrating and enjoying women, saluting them and looking up to them. Yes, the poems sometimes have a kind of ferociousness, a willingness to say things that can be considered awful things to say. But the truth is, when I wrote the line “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare,” my first thought was, It’s a wonderful line.

INTERVIEWER

It is. But people take it personally, and are offended.

SEIDEL

I can’t help that. It isn’t meant to offend. It’s meant to be part of a poem, and I would like to point out that the line is used, with certain differences, in two poems, both of which describe the difficulties that old age brings to women and men. One of the poems ends with a white-haired old man incapacitated in bed and an old woman who is about to mop up his slop on the floor. The poem isn’t about which is more fortunate than the other.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to have accelerated the pace at which you’ve written your poems, starting with your third collection, These Days.

SEIDEL

I think the speeding up started slowly, perhaps with a poem from that collection, “The Last Poem in the Book,” which an emergency movie job abruptly yanked me away from. I was sure the poem, which was already fairly long, wanted to be much longer, but when I returned to it a little while later I found to my surprise that the poem was done. I was a bit disappointed, shocked even. I had had to leave it so suddenly, and the end of the poem is itself sudden. But that was liberating. I felt freed up. This was at the end of the eighties.

Then I received two large commissions at about the same time. Both of them pushed me open and slammed me forward. The board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York commissioned me to produce a poem or poems to celebrate the opening of their new planetarium building, two years away. My fulfillment of the commission, which turned out to be The Cosmos Poems, obviously had to be finished before the building was finished. No doubt the deadline was, shall we say, inspirational. But the truth is I was already writing with greater ease and openness and urgent but happy speed.

The other commission, which arrived a little later, came in the form of a challenge from the arts editor of The Wall Street Journal, Ray Sokolov. He had already got me to write a piece about motorcycles for the Journal, an unusual thing for them to run, and they had printed a poem of mine with a motorcycle in it, an even more unusual thing, and now he was daring me to accept a commission to supply the newspaper with a poem a month on a subject of my choosing, but always with the name of the month as the poem’s title. I accepted the dare with delight. Those two things definitely got me going, opened me up, and supercharged me. For two and a half years, I gave The Wall Street Journal a poem a month, a bomb blast of energy, a joy ride. These were the poems of Life on Earth and Area Code 212.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from walking around with a poem in your pocket, do you have any distinctive work habits? Do you use a computer, or do you mainly write in longhand?

SEIDEL

I use what’s at hand to use. Literally. Sometimes, not often, it’s a pen and a small spiral notebook that I’m carrying around. Much more often, I start a poem on the computer. I sit down at the computer every morning. It’s my feeling that working on the computer puts less between me and the poem I’m writing than my own handwriting does. The computer is nearly transparent to me. As a quite separate thing, I take real pleasure in the device itself, typical sleek Apple elegance—the physical thing gives me pleasure. I travel a certain amount and the computer goes where I go.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think using a computer has had something to do with your becoming so much more prolific? 

SEIDEL

Maybe. The more important thing for me is that it allows me to see the poem on the screen and, immediately after, on the printed-out page, much more quickly than when I was using a typewriter. I revise endlessly, and print the poem as it progresses hundreds of times. How the lines look, how the stanzas look to the eye, is an important part of weighing them, hearing them, getting them to balance properly.

Many years ago I had a girlfriend who did her Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Columbia and who was constantly after me to try writing on a computer. Home computers were crude things in those days. She finally persuaded me to go up to Columbia with her where I received clearance to work for five minutes on what I believe was a Defense Department mainframe computer in a secure room. The computer was enormous and filled the room but it had such a tiny screen. I typed out the beginning of my poem “Homage to Cicero” and was hooked then and there. What hooked me was the way you could instantly change the shape of the stanza, the length of the line. It was the instantly part that got me.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say something about “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin”? That’s the title of a poem from Pound’s Cathay, isn’t it?

SEIDEL

I appropriated Pound’s title well after my poem was written. The first line came to me and got me going, shoved me off on the journey: “This jungle poem is going to be my last.” After one stanza I had a rhyme scheme, a rather eccentric rhyme scheme. The stanzas are sonnet length. At first I thought I was writing a sonnet, then I thought I was writing a double sonnet, and so on. It was very disagreeable, painful to feel that the poem wanted to go on. Because it’s difficult to go on. It’s draining, it hurts. The longer the poem gets, the more confusing it gets. It’s a serious matter to be stymied and to feel lost. To know you have to travel but not where you have to travel to, or what you have to travel through. But here’s an example of how a complicated rhyme scheme can help you. It gives you something to do when you don’t understand what you’re doing. 

INTERVIEWER

The rhyme scheme is more subdued, more traditional. The poem is in another key, one of memory or homage.

SEIDEL

Pound’s translation is about how things were different back then. That haunting classic refrain of how things were different, often accompanied by the suggestion that they were better. And that’s part of what my poem is saying. It goes back to the founding of America and before, with the idea that it would be nice to do it all over again, and get it right. 

INTERVIEWER

In other recent poems the formal elements have become more pronounced, more stylized. Take the poem “‘Sii Romantico, Seidel, Tanto Per Cambiare.’” You use one rhyme for the whole thing: “Women have a playground slide / That wraps you in monsoon and takes you for a ride. / The English girl Louise, his latest squeeze, was being snide.” Where did that come from?

SEIDEL

It’s called monorhyme when it applies to the Mu’allaqat, the great pre-Islamic odes in Arabic. I’ve tried for twenty years, and failed, to translate the two odes by Imru’ al-Qays and Labid, both in monorhyme. Someone had addressed the Italian words of the title to me, and I started the poem off as a mocking reply but was almost immediately aware that I was remembering the monorhyme of the odes.

INTERVIEWER

How does the use of monorhyme improve the poem? What does it contribute?

SEIDEL

By using monorhyme I’ve forced the formal elements to become a character. They are insisting that you pay attention to them. They are onstage with the other elements of the poem. In fact pulling off the monorhyme becomes a kind of acrobatic feat. But the truth is, despite the noise and obviousness of those rhymes, a certain number of readers will be more interested in the colorful vehemence of what the poem is talking about—“The toothless carnivore devoured Viagra and Finasteride” and “He filled the women with rodenticide”—and will hardly notice the monorhyme. But the rhymes say, The subject isn’t the subject. Don’t be fooled.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s look at another of your recent poems, “Evening Man.” I was wondering what lay behind it.

SEIDEL

The first line lay behind it. It came to me in its entirety, and I was a bit startled by it. Interested by it. “The man in bed with me this morning is myself, is me.” My memory, which is no doubt warped, is that the first line came to me and I thought, Gee! Then the second line came to me and I thought, 
Gee willikers! 

 

The man in bed with me this morning is myself, is me,
The sort of same-sex marriage New York State allows.
Both men believe in infidelity.
Both wish they could annul their marriage vows.


This afternoon I will become the Evening Man,
Who does the things most people only dream about.
He swims around his women like a swan, and spreads his fan.
You can’t drink that much port and not have gout.


In point of fact, it is arthritis.
His drinking elbow aches, and he admits to this.
To be a candidate for higher office,
You have to practice drastic openness.


You have to practice looking like thin air
When you become the way you do not want to be,
An ancient head of ungrayed dark brown hair
That looks like dyed fur on a wrinkled monkey.


Of course, the real vacation we will take is where we’re always headed.
Presidents have Air Force One to fly them there.
I run for office just to get my dark brown hair beheaded.
I wake up on a slab, beheaded, in a White House somewhere.


Evening Man sits signing bills in the Oval Office headless—
Every poem I write starts or ends like this.
His hands have been chopped off. He signs bills with the mess.
The country is in good hands. It ends like this.


That’s the poem, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

INTERVIEWER

Oh, come on now. Look at stanza two. “This afternoon I will become the Evening Man.” Afternoon becoming evening, what does that mean?

SEIDEL

It means the day is turning into tuxedo time. The lights dim under circumstances that are not inelegant, though it gets harder for this Evening Man as the poem goes on. And when you get to “An ancient head of ungrayed dark brown hair / That looks like dyed fur on a wrinkled monkey,” Evening Man is facing into cooler weather.

Now, here is a good example of how while you’re busy working on the music, the rhythm, the rhyming of a poem, other things are going on, finding the images and grammar the poem needs. Finding the subject. Isn’t it amusing! My poems have no subject, but here I am talking about seeking the subject. I don’t intend to offend, but I quite like provoking and offending. What shall I say? I hate examining my poems this way, and I really don’t know the answers to your perfectly legitimate questions. I’m in the dark, and it obviously suits me to stay in the dark. 

I will say that learning how to write has to do in part with learning how to accede to yourself and your object, instead of writing what you think you ought to write, or what at that point in time the world thinks poetry is about. Or what you think you ought to be about. The moment comes, if it ever comes, when you have enough strength to give way, to give in to being who you are, to give in to your themes. Giving in to your obsessions, giving in to the things that you will be writing about over and over. And sometimes the things you’ll be writing about over and over are things that some people don’t find very nice.

INTERVIEWER

Your collected poems, Poems 1959–2009, is arranged in reverse chronological order. Why is that?

SEIDEL

The idea originally came up when I was discussing with Faber and Faber in London how I wanted to arrange my poems in their Selected Poems. And I ended up deciding to do that book chronologically, but I found great appeal in doing it the other way round. It was a way of making you see the early poems coming out of the later ones. Or if that doesn’t make sense, maybe it just represents a preference for the most recent work over the preceding work, and that work over the work that precedes it, and so on.

Also I liked it for reasons analogous to why I reprint poems from book to book. I liked the unexpectedness of it, and I liked people asking, Why in the world are you doing it this way?

INTERVIEWER

It would surprise me if you spent much time thinking about your readers. Who do you think is reading you?

SEIDEL

I don’t think about who’s reading me. I’m rather drastically cut off from all that. I also don’t want to take part in selling my work. I don’t want to have my time taken up with that sort of thing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your critics?

SEIDEL

Some. But to tell you the truth I’m quite cut off from that too. It doesn’t affect me very much. I quite like being cut off from it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you also feel cut off from your poems once they’re written? In “Poem by the Bridge at Ten-Shin” you wrote, “I don’t remember poems I write. I turn around and they are gone.”

SEIDEL

It’s been a very peculiar experience preparing my collected poems. I read some of them with surprise, even astonishment. They’re new to me. I don’t know them. Even while at the same time, quite frequently, and not always agreeably, I remember the vast complication of rival ideas, attitudes, and feeling that went into a particular passage or a particular moment in a line, from long ago.