Good Poems About Ugly Things

Is Frederick Seidel an exquisite misogynist?

by Molly Young

Frederick Seidel. I wonder: Is it all true? I begin to read his Poems 1959–2009, and the first thing I notice is his poetry's dazzling mix of the historical and the individual. Into the emptiness that weighs / More than the universe / Another universe begins / Smaller than the last. The second thing is the vaginas. Or I guess I should say “vaginas,” since Seidel’s women feel less like people and more like abstractions. Nonetheless, the “vaginas” are everywhere: in Seidel’s dreams, in the eyes of a Modigliani subject, on the poet’s motorcycle. All it lacked / Between its wheels was hair. / I don’t care / We do it anyway.  

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Seidel had long been in my mind a figure like Clarice Lispector or Georges Simenon: someone of debated importance whose work I’d failed to investigate for no real reason. There must be a German word for this type of figure. Every reader has his own gallery of them.

Poems 1959–2009 is arranged in reverse chronological order—a decision that squares with the poet’s obsession with aging and deterioration. As the poems grow younger, they become less powerful, less potent, less vehement. They are still these things, but without the full force of Seidel’s maturation. Reading the book is an experience in moving from forte to mezzo, the body’s slowing opposed by the sharpening of Seidel’s mind. The arrangement is a smart idea— what other book progresses in a manner that mimics its primary theme? Act your age! / I don’t have to. I won’t. You can’t make me. I’m in an absolute rage.

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Profiling Seidel in April, 2009 for the The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Mason excerpted a recent poem, “Climbing Everest”—  
    The young keep getting younger, but the old keep getting younger.  
    But this young woman is young. We kiss.  
    It’s almost incest when it gets to this.  
    This is the consensual, national, metrosexual hunger-for-younger.  
and noted that “much of your susceptibility to Seidel’s poetry depends upon how you receive—or are repelled by—such loaded lines.” I don’t speak for all of us in that strange minority of female Seidel readers, but repulsion is not something I particularly feel when absorbing Seidel’s poems. As is usually the case with poetry, one identifies with the voice of the poet rather than with his subjects, and the voice here is all too human. My own poetry I find incomprehensible. / Actually, I have no one. Seidel’s women, on the other hand, feel less like people than like forces reacting to the poems’ speaker. Without feeling empathy for the women of Seidel’s work, it’s hard to take offense at his brutal talk. When it comes to his notorious “I make her oink when we fuck,” there’s simply not a “her” to be offended on behalf of. He might as well be fucking air and making it oink. Which turns out to be quite a feat of willpower and imagination.  

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

I wonder if this is what the crowd of male critics who have been oinking appreciatively since Poems was released last year feel when they read Seidel. The bulk of these admirers seem to me to be smart, youngish city-dwelling men (does Seidel have a rural constituency? Can someone be devoted to both Jim Harrison and Frederick Seidel, or does the sensibility simply halt at the thought?). I have to wonder if some of these men adore Seidel the way their forebears might have adored Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski: as a stylish, debauched avatar to borrow from selectively, but also as a retro figure planted firmly in the past. I remember the vanished days of the great steakhouses. / Before the miniaturization in electronics. / When Robert Wagner was mayor and men ate meat

Like that of Miller and Bukowski, Seidel’s style is one of incriminating self-exposure coupled with an exacting (and therefore imitable) aesthetic. But here’s a funny thing. Writing a poem about lust, pride, imprudence—about ordering a call girl or staying at “literally the most expensive hotel in the world” or racing a bike at 200 mph—has a way of neutralizing the unpleasantness of that vice. To write a good poem about an ugly thing, as Seidel does often, is not to write an ugly poem.

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.


Poems 1959–2009 is a book in which it’s not surprising to encounter the words “anus” and “herpes” or “Hadrian” and “Stradivarius.” In other words, it feels like an accurate X-ray of Seidel’s concerns, a suspicion fortified by the comprehensiveness of the collection, which shows Seidel to have the same voice at 29 as he did at 70. Not unchanged, but certainly constant. A large part of this consistency boils down to Seidel’s vigor—sexual vigor, imaginative vigor, an appetite for experience on every part of the globe. And those vaginas.

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Seidel is still often miscast as a chauvinist or a perv when what he comes closest to embodying is that bygone type: the rake. He even uses that word to describe himself, along with “heartless” and “dashing,” in “In the Mirror.” These words are used tongue in cheek, of course, but not entirely. It’s never easy to tell when he’s joking. He speaks casually of naked women, war, and Ducati motorcycles, all of which is unsettling to readers who like their “indeterminacy” a little more determined. And then he goes and calls cunnilingus “muff-diving.” Is that horrifying? Or is that funny? If you’d never seen a photograph of the poet in your life—if you closed your eyes and conjured an image—he might look something like Jean-Paul Belmondo or Serge Gainsbourg. Someone filthy-minded and French but with the slightest trace of an American smirk. I want to date-rape life.

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Instead of a mindless Dionysus or a guilt-wracked wretch, Seidel often comes across as a man who can’t help thinking cynically about things that might lend a less complicated human an easy pleasure: fucking a younger woman, buying a dozen lilies, wearing a platinum watch. Christian Lorentzen called Seidel’s America “a land of endless delight and unceasing atrocity,” and it is true that the two sensibilities are never far apart for the poet. This is another one of those charms that we enjoy so much in our literary antiheroes, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Kerouac. Perhaps like those men, too, the poet has an unmodern way of seeing people—especially women—that is more a stark beholding than any attempt to empathize. Ah, Tallulah— / Always standing there with her mouth hanging open.

Regardless of whether this is acceptable to the equity-minded modern conscience, the aesthetic consequence is that Seidel’s men and women remain categorically distinct in a way that feels occasionally fierce and occasionally antiquated. The ways in which the sexes relate in his poems are based on the differences between them and not the common ground, the differences that allow them to dance and to mate, both literally and figuratively, without ever fully understanding each other. This may be disheartening for the poetic utopian who balks at conflict, but isn’t conflict one of the endlessly fascinating ways of the world? This is as sensitive as the future gets. 

Origianl illustration by Paul Killebrew.

Original illustrations by Paul Killebrew.

Originally Published: February 24, 2010


On February 25, 2010 at 6:33pm William Ankrum wrote:
I am enjoying your articles more and more.

On February 26, 2010 at 1:12am Jennifer Fitzpatrick wrote:
I don't know why this pervert deserves a special feature. He was just a pig dressed in a suit. And his poetry sucks.

On February 26, 2010 at 9:21am Daisy Fried wrote:
Seidel is at least as brutal to himself as he is to women in his poems. And like most very good poets, he's showing how things are as much as he is expressing his feelings. Of women I know who have read Seidel, all but one think very highly of him. That one really can't stand his work--and that seems to me a sign of his importance--strong reactions both ways, rather than a lukewarm shrug. I suppose women who read *about* him may not be drawn to read him by what they hear, and that's a shame. He's among the very best. Thanks for the article.

On February 26, 2010 at 10:45am Ron Houchin wrote:
An incredibly sensitive and intelligent article that makes me want to read Frederick as well as meet Molly.

On February 26, 2010 at 1:02pm Geneva Lorrain wrote:

I made an incredible discovery, at least for me, about five years ago. I discovered that I need to read a writer or a poet regardless of what her or his views are. I am so glad I did that because I would have missed some wonderful writers and poets if I had stuck to those I agreed with. I have never read Frederick Seidel's poetry before I read this wonderful article by Molly Young. Years before I would have crossed him off my list of poets to read. Not so now. I am definitely going to give him a try. Oh, I also want to say, that I enjoyed the drawings by Paul Killebrew which made the essay even more enjoyable (if that was possible). I would like to encourage this marriage of drawings and words. It is rather like the old Chinese art I have seen in museums that helps the more visual of us enjoy the essays even more. Thank you....

On February 26, 2010 at 1:30pm Wyn Cooper wrote:
This is a great (if short) piece on one of our best poets. As someone who lives in a town of 800 people in Vermont, I wish to report that Seidel doesn't appeal only to urban readers. And for the record, I'm also a fan of Jim Harrison. Great illustrations!

On February 26, 2010 at 2:18pm liz booker wrote:
Seidel kicks major butt. if you don't see that, that's sad. who else can manage those rhymes; must all be boiled down to "content," however spuriously conceived.

and if one is going to only read works that one agrees with in the first place, one's pretty boring and narrow-minded.

On February 27, 2010 at 1:11pm Kent Johnson wrote:
Excellent piece.

In another discussion about Seidel--under a review of his *Poems* in Poetry Magazine--I asked and proposed the following (pasted below). Daisy Fried disagreed with me on the word "sneer," and we had a brief exchange on that. But the point about Wilmot seems defensible to me!

> I'm curious: In the developing critical literature on Seidel, has anyone yet proposed that he is "our" John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester?

Not only in the ways "abject" subject matter is put into overdrive in each poet's case, but also in the ways that form (namely couplet and rhyme) so often play off such content with marked ironic sneer?

Obviously, in Seidel the irony in that latter regard is even more extreme, with rhyme counterpointed to theme in marked parody and burlesque... But the pairing of FS and Wilmot seems a perfectly reasonable one to make-- and might have some "heuristic" potential to recommend it, I think.

Has anyone brought up Wilmot, then, do you know, in criticism on Seidel?


On February 27, 2010 at 4:06pm Dana Levin wrote:
I love Seidel's work, not least because of
its unapologetic persona, one rarely (if
ever?) seen on the contemporary page:
rakish, louche, privileged---and then
shocking, with the laser eye it brings to the
politics and blindnesses of wealth and
power. Who would assume the rich bastard
pays this much attention? Who couldn't
love a book called Ooga-Booga, where the
cover art is a photo of the aging poet?
Seidel knows what he's about. Thanks to
Molly Young for this article!

On February 28, 2010 at 3:45am Marz wrote:
I haven't read Seidel, but I will definitely seek him out. I must say, as a female I have loved Miller and Bukowski since I was a teenager. Their poetic vision is beyond gender, beyond stereotypes, possibly even beyond what they write about.
I think many people are put off by a quote, or an idea that has been referred to them. Like Nietzsche being called a misogynist! Yes, one line comes across as misogynist; but in context of the complete writing the sentence is transformed.. Which is why as the above reader said it is important to READ a poet, regardless of the views you are under the impression they hold, or believe they hold. For, in a way, it is everything, to write good poems about ugly things. It can change the nature of beautiful and ugly itself, and our preconceptions along with it.

On February 28, 2010 at 11:25pm Steve wrote:
Daisy, have you written about Seidel yourself at any length?

On March 1, 2010 at 12:26pm Daisy wrote:
Steve--just at Harriet a couple years ago. The link is to the side of Molly's article, "Ooga Booga"...Daisy

On March 3, 2010 at 5:46am Michael Hudson wrote:

Leaving aside the thought that Molly Young, by writing somewhat despairingly about Frederick Seidel’s treatment of women for the Poetry Foundation, has probably turned old Fred on, that he probably has visited her blog, seen her photos on the web and gotten his freak on (for the purpose of writing a poem that he could recite to her if they bump into each other in a bar), I think Young has done him a disservice by concentrating on his reduction of (some or most) women to vaginas and failing to mention some telling lines in Poem by the Bridge at Ten-shin, which, as far as I know, is his freshest poem in the public arena. In the third stanza Seidel wrote: I live flap copy for a children’s book. He wants to lick. He wants to look. A tiny goldfinch is his Cupid. Love of cuntry makes men stupid. Here I think Seidel is (in a hilarious and masterful way) expressing regret for the way his sexuality has led him to reduce (some or most) women to vaginas, that he is calling this kind of sexuality childish and stupid. I think Seidel would agree with Young’s view that “the ways in which the sexes relate in his poems are based on the differences between them and not the common ground, the differences that allow them to dance and to mate, both literally and figuratively, without ever fully understanding each other.” The American Goldfinch, though generally monogamous, makes for a poor Cupid as it displays sexual dimorphism in its coloration. And what’s more the bird is yellow, bright yellow in the case of the male. Could Seidel be shyly avoiding romantic love? But wait! There’s more! Young wrote that the first thing she notices when reading his poetry is his “dazzling mix of the historical and the individual” and that the second thing she notices is “the vaginas”, which obviously don’t dazzle her at all. So how, I wonder, does she feel about a mix of the historical, the individual annnnnd vaginas? With the same lines I think Seidel is (in a hilarious and masterful may) also expressing not only personal regret for patriotically supporting the Bush Administration’s aggressive foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, as he did so memorably and more solemnly in several poems in Ooga Booga, but also the view that pacifism is childish. I think he was (in response to the rise of Obama) and still may be struggling to stand on solid ground somewhere between the extremes of the Bush Administration and the pacifism of some Liberals. I think the first lines could be paraphrased as “I am childishly embracing the fairytale of Obama and the fairytale of peace through pacifism, which both sound good on paper in a few words but might not, in the case of Obama, and will not, in the case of pacifism, make America safe, because I hate Bush so much – I just want to lick and look at Obama”, and the next lines as “But look, when I think of that “cunt” Bush and the blind patriotism and bloodlust he rode into Iraq, I do sincerely want to be as non-aggressive and yella as an American Goldfinch, so where the hell do I stand?” And then, a little later in the poem, there’s the double-barreled shotgun that is the entire fifth stanza, which expresses similar sentiments and, in my opinion, is even more funny. He begins: I knew a beauty named Dawn Green. I used to wake at the crack of Dawn. I wish I were about to land on Plymouth Rock, And had a chance to do it all again but do it right. Got it. Seidel’s America: a former beauty so scarred by a perverse “love of cuntry” under Bush that he wishes he could rediscover the land and refound the nation. And he wishes he could go back in time and view the beauty inside more women. He goes on: It was green dawn in pre-America. I mean Great scented forests all along the shore, which now are gone. Got it, I think. Seidel wishes he could go back to a time before America’s environment was polluted and threatened by factories and cars and politicians, before it’s spirit was befouled by politicians, and live off the land with a beautiful, unspoilt Indian woman with pubic hair. He goes on: I’ve had advantages in life and I pronounce Iraq “Irrock.” The right schools taught me how to tock. I’m tocking Turkey to the Kurds but with no end in sight. These peace tocks are my last. Goodbye, Iran. Iran, good night. They burned the undergrowth so they could see the game they hunt. That made the forest a cathedral clear as crystal like a cunt. Their arrows entered red meat in the glory Streaming down from the clerestory. Got it, I think. With these words Seidel has resigned from the world of politics and taken a partly self-serving parting shot at Iran for adopting a severe religious attitude toward women, sexuality and the West. In the name of peace both in Iran and around the world, and to make up for reducing women to vaginas in his poetry, old Fred’s saying that the misogynistic religious leaders in Iran should stop perversely viewing the West and all women as clean-shaven “cunts”, or as the same clean-shaven cunt. Bring back the good old days, I think he’s saying, before the pornographication of the world via the internet, when all women had pubic-hair and the majority of men and women around the world had a more healthy, more natural, more innocent and saner view of sex and each other, when people were less hypocritical and thus angry and Muslim nations viewed the West and the West viewed Muslim nations more sanely! That’s at least what I want the stanza to mean. That would be hilarious. That would be wise. And because it leaves the reader with the impression that Seidel, possibly too old to change his ways, may have resigned from politics because he doesn’t want to be a hypocrite, that would be sad and admirable, even great. In conclusion, let’s say this is why he resigned from politics, that he’s too old to change his ways and can’t quit reducing women to clean-shaven vaginas like a mad Ayatollah. Let’s say he devotes his entire writing life from this point on to celebrating clean-shaven vaginas. In my opinion, it would still be wrong to attack Seidel on the basis of his obsession with vaginas without mentioning the lines I’ve interpreted from Poem by the Bridge at Ten-shin, which is possibly his best poem. Indeed, it would clearly be wrong not to mention the poem even if I’ve wildly misinterpreted the fifth stanza. And, needless to say, there is a difference between a poem making up for poems from the past and a poem excusing poems from the past. Molly Young is not the first person and definitely won’t be the last to paint an incomplete picture of Seidel’s treatment of (some or most) women, so consider yourself armed for combat.

On March 16, 2010 at 11:42pm Charles Fiery wrote:
I agree with W. Ankrum. Excellent piece!
I'll be checking out Seidel for myself
thanks to this.

On December 17, 2010 at 10:10pm megan wrote:
I miss reading your tumblr, your voice was so identifiable. I adored your observations and you need to smile

On January 29, 2011 at 10:05am here is a fantasy wrote:
I love Siedel's work, too, even though I am a third-wave feminist (kind of). I apprecciate emotion and expression, regardless of the political bent. Siedel could spew like a volcano about the evils of coal mining and as long as he did it with such heft and grace, I would still read his lines.

On February 13, 2011 at 8:08pm Elizabeth wrote:
This was a brilliant article.

I agree with Megan. I miss your tumlr too. I used to look forward to reading your querky and relatable reflections, that never took themselves too seriously.

I also enjoyed exploring the artists/writers/etc..that you regularly referenced too.

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Molly Young's writing has appeared in n+1 and the New York Observer.

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