Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Michael Robbins

Dear Editor,

I was sorry to see that Adam Kirsch [“How Ya Like Me Now,” February 2011], like other prominent reviewers of The Anthology of Rap, failed to note that the volume is so rife with transcription errors that it is impossible not to conclude (as Paul Devlin did in Slate) that in many instances the editors simply relied on notoriously inaccurate online lyrics databases.

More important, from my perspective, is Kirsch’s misreading of Frederick Seidel as “finally so ethical, despite the sexual hostility that [he] express[es], reprove[s], and atone[s] for.” This repeats the common error of regarding Seidel as a mere inheritor of the confessional mode of masculinist self-reproach, rather than as the much more disturbing and provocative poet he actually is. Seidel’s descent from his confessionalist forebears is complicated by a swerve away from them that allows him to stake out his own poetic ground: he adopts, and amps up to absurd proportions, their theatrical self-regard, but precisely in order to refuse the expiation that confession seeks to secure. Many of his most offensive lines cleverly build in the possibility of redemptive readings, but only in order to more gleefully refute them with ever more exuberant assaults against taste.

To read Seidel as atoning for the sins he so exhaustively chronicles for us would be to read him as just another memoirist of bad behavior, ready for his appearance on Oprah, where he will urge the impressionable young not to follow him down that lost highway. What could be triter, more expected, than that a poet should salivate over his lurid excesses only to, sigh, reprove himself in a moralistic effusion of rectitude? No, Seidel is closer to Sade than most of our critics are quite comfortable with—which is to say, he does indeed have an ethics, but it is one opposed to the ethics Kirsch has in mind (perhaps a closer analogue is Machiavelli, forever being read as if he did not mean a word he wrote). Seidel’s repudiation of a morality based on taste is total: he sneers at the illusions of our decorum in order to convert the self’s worst impulses into sources of power and even delight. We should at least attend honestly to what his poetry demands of us; de-fanged, it would hardly be worth reading at all.

“I hate seeing the anus of a beautiful woman,” Seidel writes.“I should not be looking. It should not be there.” Only out of context can these lines seem sincerely apologetic. In fact, he is looking into the anus as into a mirror, and what he sees there is: I’m the asshole. What value there is to be had from this insight lies in our taking it seriously.

chicago, illinois

Originally Published: May 2, 2011

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This prose originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2011


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 Michael  Robbins


Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his critical work in Harper's, London Review of Books, The New York Observer, the Chicago Tribune, Spin, and several other publications. He is currently at work on a critical book, Equipment for Living (forthcoming from Simon & . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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