Widening Income Inequity by Frederick Seidel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 118 pages, $24. Frederick Seidel celebrated his 80th birthday on Thursday. Anyone searching desperately for contemporary relevance in a contemporary poet – especially one who just entered his ninth decade – could frivolously call Seidel the “Bernie Sanders of contemporary poetry.” To tote up the similarities: both are old and have spent lives vehemently outside the mainstream of their chosen professions. Both are known for railing – sometimes brutally – at the uglier corruptions of American life as it can be seen from the top down. (Seidel’s first poetry collection in 1962 went unpublished for a long while because of, among other things, publisher worry about libeling Cardinal Spellman and Mamie Eisenhower.)
The very title of Seidel’s new collection of poetry is telling you that a very prominent Sanders theme has been on Seidel’s mind for much of his life. The opening lines of the poem by the same name that ends his book: “I live a life of appetite and, yes, that’s right/I live a life of privilege in New York … I have a rule/I never give to beggars in the street who hold their hands out … The poor are poorer than they ever were/the rich are richer than the poor … I admire the poor profusely/I want their autograph/ They make me shy/ I keep my distance … You see what happens if you don’t make sense?/It only makes sense to not.”
There, under glass, is the dark and brutal and truly deadly rictus grin of Seidelian irony, where sense can only be made by not making any.
In a Paris Review interview, he talked of being a young Jewish aesthete at Harvard being implored by Ezra Pound to implement Pound’s most anti-Semitic ideas. Seidel confessed, in his way, to feeling Pound’s existence in every line of his work – a radically slanted irony from the heart of 20th and 21st century American literature if ever there was one. What has long been obvious is that Seidel is a unique living poet whether here, remembering Elaine’s oh-so-literary pub where “we drank our faces off until the sun arrived” or writing a “Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri” (“Some victims change from a corpse to a cause.”) Ezra Pound’s classic definition: “poetry is news that stays news.” – Jeff Simon