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Two New Collections:
THOM GUNN + FREDERICK SEIDEL

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Friday, June 05, 2009


Selected Poems
By Thom Gunn
Edited by August Kleinzahler
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Collected Poems
By Frederick Seidel
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Reviewed by Greg Purcell

Since World War II, the art of writing in traditional formal verse has been the art of softening its effects and making it sound like ordinary, spoken language. I can’t explain why this is: Perhaps it has something to do with the pervasive 20th-century mania for realism, whereby “realism” always equates to that which is already familiar. Or perhaps it’s the last strategy of an unnoticed art to gain some credibility among a mass audience. Either way, formalist art has become increasingly difficult, for it presumes that ordinary English speakers still use as many Anglo-Saxon-derived words in their sentences as they once did, words that naturally fall into iambic patterns, without getting sidetracked into the hard-pounding Latinate of business and academic jargon, or the softly-stressed continental strain of Spanish, or the Calypso variants derived from the British enterprise of the 19th and 20th centuries and best represented in rap and dancehall reggae. It takes a special kind of conservative personality, a certain eccentricity, to make this presumption: thus Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop are ranked as among the very few fine formalists of the late 20th century. They made the language they were most comfortable with seem like the only language worth using. Such extraordinary hubris, however hard-hearted, makes for great art as these things are ranked.

Thom Gunn, on the other hand, had an emotional, liberal temperament. Known as a formalist, his formality is an armature for feelings and sentiments that were otherwise out of his control. It’s as if he badly needed formality but could not take formality as a given. His language rarely feels modern, and he frequently (and sometimes flailingly) evokes antiquity. It’s difficult to see how the figure of Achilles’ son factors into Gunn’s early poem, “The Wound,” except that Gunn liked the scansion of “Neoptolemus, that stubborn boy.” Gunn’s work is full of things that Gunn perhaps liked too much to remove. His content often strains against his form, like glue dripping from a perfectly matched dovetail joint, and the effect is that his verse clicks back and forth between frostiness and gooey sentimentality. Some would say he should be ranked less than the greatest poets of his time. Some people, poets mostly, have affection for his frayed edges, and that's enough. Among his best poems is about a motorcycle gang. It's called "On the Move." A few of its lines sum up the Gunn's situation too succinctly but well enough for a quick review:


Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.


Gunn will be a perennial presence in anthologies for years to come on the basis of his best poems, which are spread about his oeuvre like flowers in a trim suburban lawn. A cluster of these are to be found in Gunn's collections Touch, Moly, and the beautifully realized meditations on the AIDS crisis and its effect on Gunn's homosexual milieu, taken from The Man With Night Sweats. This collection ranks with Tony Kushner's Angels in America in the canon of literature on the subject. These good books come from his later period, starting from the late Sixties through to the end (Gunn died in 2004). It was a period in which the poet became more open about his relationships with other men and began to publish more free verse, which did wonders, incidentally, for the free play within his formal verse, especially the title poem of Moly, with its striking zoology — "Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea./ What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me" — so different from the positioning of his youthful work.

One suspects that the latest selection of Thom Gunn's work is a bid by his great friend and editor August Kleinzahler to get younger poets to read him. Much of his work has been out of print (unless one counts the 1995 Collected Poems, which for many will be much too much Gunn). Kleinzahler has been a great friend indeed, for this is a necessary distillation of a good poet’s work, and brings many things back to light which might have been lost in the Gunn’s own oeuvre.

If one admires Thom Gunn for the hard work he put into his poetry, it is a sign of the times, and perhaps the source of the undoing of Gunn's legacy, that one admires Frederick Seidel for exactly the opposite reason. He is a dilettante — at least, he plays one in his poetry — and what separates him from the armies of dilettantes who are these days trading real estate or banking or writing poetry, what his readers delight in, is that Seidel’s poetry acknowledges the fact.

It is a special necessity to mention Seidel's biography when discussing his poetry, which is true of all dilettantes, or of those who play them. Seidel is rich, born into it, in fact. One suspects he is the only poet his rarified friends know, and this explains why his often brutal, weird poetry has been employed to commemorate the establishment of the Hayden Planetarium, or the collapse of the World Trade Center in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. There have been wealthy poets before, of course. The difference is that Seidel plays his role as a wealthy man practically as a sort of minstrel. James Merrill was wealthy, after all: He did not dote on about his fascination with the "negro" help, about their glittering skin, about how they, luridly, float in outer space into the maw of a thresher. Seidel cavorts on Ducati motorcycles and revels in his inability to feel what other people feel. Because this is new, it is welcome, up to a certain point. “The homeless are popping like pimples” he says, incredibly, in a new poem. “They’re a little dog’s little unsheathed erection sticking out red./ It makes us passersby sing/ Ho ho. It’s spring.” Never mind the unique barbarism of the sentiment, or whether or not Seidel is pulling over a “persona” or, alternately, speaking as a “truer” self unfettered by civilization’s niceties (although one notes that it has been for a long time the prerogative of the rich to sweep aside niceties when considering the poor). All of this is arguably legitimate. Legitimate, too, is the mundane use of “little” twice in the same line: after all, one doesn’t brook comparisons to Etruscan statuary when describing a person digging through the trash near New York’s midtown garment district. Not only is such a scene “little,” it is “little” twice over. What’s more, Seidel is being indolent, and indolence is a sensibility rarely captured in contemporary poetry. It’s so new one wants to see more of it.

Yet it’s that “unsheathed” and “sticking out” put side by side that bothers me. It’s a bizarre redundancy, folded within the super-redundancy of all those “littles,” almost as if something mechanical had gone wrong with the poem. In humans, such breakdowns imply alcoholism, as does the verbatim repetition of the entirety of a five-stanza poem called “Fog” in the nine-stanza poem “Racer,” both of which are found just pages
away from one another in his collection Ooga-Booga. One can’t say with certainty whether this was an oversight, committed after uncorking and draining a bottle of expensive wine (who knows what his editor was drinking), but it has that feeling.

Seidel’s new Collected Poems gathers together more than 500 pages worth of these questions which, purely from an aesthetic standpoint, are more interesting than the questions most of Seidel’s contemporaries ask — he is not a bore, even when he repeats himself. Even Karl Marx would admit that the rich are not boring. Still, the collection is too big and the work inside of it is not really made to last. The curious would do better to pick up Seidel’s greatest collection, The Cosmos Trilogy, especially the beautiful first part, in which Seidel's swollen musings seem constrained (but not suppressed) by no less than the entirety of Outer Space, the magnitude of which he cannot otherwise mirror in his consideration of other people, or in the process of writing his self-consciously "little" poems.

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