Letter from Poetry Magazine

Adam Kirsch Responds

by Adam Kirsch

While Michael Robbins warns against taking the lines he quotes from Frederick Seidel “out of context,” I think he has done just that, and that a closer look at the poem from which they come—“God Exploding,” from Area Code 212—will reveal how completely he mistakes Seidel’s sensibility. The poem takes its place in a series dealing with political violence and trauma—the previous poem in the book mentions the Kennedy assassination, and the following one addresses the September 11 attacks. “They all claim responsibility for inventing God, / Including the ruthless suicides who call themselves God Exploding,” this poem begins, before describing the invention of rock ‘n’ roll (half, but only half, ironically) as another kind of “terrorist act.”

Between these two poles—the sacred and the profane, here imagined as equally violent and lawless—Seidel then suddenly introduces a third, redemptive possibility: the sacred music of the medieval carol “I sing of a maiden that is makeles,” whose full text makes up the next three stanzas of the poem. The introduction of this song at this point in “God Exploding,” and in the book as a whole, is very moving—it is a reminiscence of a lost mode of being, whose serenity contrasts painfully with the torment that is Seidel’s usual keynote. Then come the lines Robbins quotes:

Wel may swich a lady Godes moder be. I hate seeing the anus of a beautiful woman. I should not be looking. It should not be there.

The whole point lies in the switch from the medieval reverence for the Virgin Mary to the poet’s insistence on her humiliating corporeality. This is a truly modern kind of debunking or vandalism, and one with a long poetic history (Seidel alludes to Swift, who lamented the fact that “Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” as long ago as 1732).

What we see here in miniature is the compulsion to disgrace and vandalize what once was, or could be, holy—above all, sexual love—that runs through all of Seidel’s work, and gives it its terrible power. Robbins sees Seidel as a happy vandal, a sadist; but genuinely untroubled transgression is possible only for psychopaths like Sade, and it has little appeal to other kinds of readers except as a clinical study. (Who now reads Justine?) Seidel’s precursor is, rather, the Baudelaire of “L’Héautontimorouménos,” (“The Self-Torturer”), who declared: “I am the wound and the knife! I am the blow and the cheek! I am the limbs and the wheel, and the victim and the torturer!”

What T.S. Eliot said of Baudelaire can also be said of Seidel: his Satanism is more than a pose insofar as it affirms the old, discredited language of good and evil. Sin is only painful if one is conscious of it as sin; and few poets have given more terrifying objective correlatives of that consciousness than Seidel, with his constant imagery of isolation, living burial, and suffocation. To me, one of the most memorable Seidel poems is “Contents Under Pressure,” which describes an astronaut cut loose from his ship:

Absolutely nothing can be done. The spacecraft is under orders not to try and to return and does. He urinates and defecates And looks out at the universe. He is looking out at it through his helmet mask.

Could even Robbins read this nightmare emblem of solipsism as an image of “power and delight”? This is not a confession of suf- fering—Seidel’s advance on Berryman and Lowell is to distort the autobiographical basis of “confession” in the funhouse mirror of his self-made myth—but it is an expression of suffering. To a serious reader, I think, it is only this kind of honesty that can make a poem “disturbing and provocative,” not the kind of obscenity which, based on this letter and his other recent interventions in Poetry, seems to strike Robbins as so delightfully transgressive.

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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 Adam  Kirsch


Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (2008) is published by W.W. Norton. His second collection of poems is Invasions (Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

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