Poet Frederick Seidel relates his inspired life

Seidel: 'I like being alone, ... I like the sense of being safely enclosed'

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

NEW YORK - Frederick Seidel, one of the world's most inspired and unusual poets, orders an espresso and Pellegrino at the Carlyle Hotel.

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It is late morning, dark and cozy in the Carlyle's Gallery lounge. The Twin Towers have fallen. George W. Bush is president. Robert Kennedy is dead. Ezra Pound is a modernist. Seidel rides a motorcycle. The poet is 71. He loves Fred Astaire.

"I want it all to matter," he says, "whether it gets down on the page or not."

For more than 50 years, Seidel has been writing poems - topical poems and timeless poems. Poems about sex, the cosmos, motorcycles and growing old. Difficult, troubling poems that may or may not have rhyme or meter, or may or may not have an obvious meaning, but still leave brave readers feeling the presence of a strange and brilliant mind.

"What I like best about his work is the utterly unique way it manages to be both inclusive, bringing a vast range of themes and subjects and people into the poems, while managing to make them at the same time formally and musically audacious," says Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams. "He has a poetic voice unlike anyone else's."

Wearing a jacket and slacks, no tie, Seidel is a casual, cultured man with a high forehead and a spark of scandal in his eyes. He almost never talks to the press, but agreed to an Associated Press interview in support of "Ooga-Booga," his most recent collection. The Carlyle, across town from his Upper West Side apartment, is a favorite locale, honored in his poem, "Frederick Seidel," in which he declares: "I am a result of the concierge of the Carlyle."

"I like being alone, and I like hotels," he says, noting that hotels often are in his poems. "I like the sense of being safely enclosed, anonymous, but not - able to feel cosseted and comforted and protected by what's around, but left alone by it. That's what I think is terrific about hotels. You're alone, but you're not."

He writes day and night, he says, and appears not to worry about who reads him. A recent nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, he didn't attend the ceremony and didn't bother writing a statement in case he won (he didn't). Even his new book's cover, a mocking, menacing head shot of Seidel taken in a photo booth, has an "open, if you dare," quality.

"I don't love it," his friend Elisabeth Sifton, a senior vice president at his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said with a laugh about the cover.

Asked what his reaction would be if Oprah Winfrey came calling, Seidel dismisses the idea, then briefly welcomes it, if only for the weirdness, like being paid to write a poem while bungee jumping. But in a way Seidel might appreciate, he's the type of artist Winfrey would probably admire, for his poems are a triumph of cosmic awe in the face of earthly terror.

The news is often bad in his work, whether the crash of the World Trade Center or the failings of his own body ("The melanoma on my skin/Resumes what's wrong with me within"). The same man who spells suicidal "sui-Seidel"), remains wondrous, fascinated, grateful to be alive, much in love with "the sky above."

"I'm quite taken up with what's going on now, when it's going on. I like the times I'm living in. In fact, it's been a privilege, a fascination, to be living through these decades," he says.

A native of St. Louis, Seidel has been a dedicated writer since age 13, when poetry cast its spell. The author was seated in a school library, reading Time magazine instead of doing his homework, when he spotted an article about Ezra Pound and read an excerpt from one of his cantos, "What thou lovest well remains/the rest is dross."

"It was just a wand, a Disney wand with sparkles, touching me, sparkles almost piercing - the almost unbearable beauty of those lines, which are as beautiful now, some years later, as they were then," he says.

A young modernist was born, who would well carry on the tradition of classical learning and contemporary dread. Seidel not only read Pound and T.S. Eliot, but got to know them. He's met a lot of people: from fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to John F. Kennedy, who visited the Harvard University campus while Seidel was a student and Kennedy a senator.

"If you to go to Harvard, and you stay alert, you can meet the most amazing people," says Sifton, who attended Radcliffe College while Seidel was at Harvard.

Fitting for a wealthy man's son - his father ran a coal-and-coke business - Seidel did not really ask to see his heroes, but insisted on it, presented himself as an agent of fate. He remembers first contacting Pound in the 1950s, when Seidel was an undergraduate and Pound was institutionalized at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Months later, an airmail special delivery postcard arrived from St. Elizabeth's, with "an illegible scrawl on it." Upon close inspection, Seidel realized he had received an invitation.

"I took a Greyhound bus from Cambridge, Mass., to Washington and saw Pound. I planned to stay a couple of days and stayed more and more," he recalls.

With Pound's help, Seidel met Eliot, when the poet was living in London and working as a publisher at Faber & Faber. Seidel never doubted they would get along. Both were poets, from St. Louis, friends of Ezra Pound. A meeting was arranged at Eliot's office, where Seidel encountered his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, who would soon become Eliot's wife.

"When I arrived, 17-18 years old, she said to me, in a very shocked way, and an unfriendly way, 'You shouldn't be here at all. He shouldn't be seeing you at all. He's quite sick, so for heaven's sake, don't stay long."'

He stayed long.

"Hours," he says. "We had a wonderful time."

Seidel caused a bit of controversy - "Scandal!" he calls it, eyes alive with pleasure - even before his first book, "Final Solutions," came out. In 1962, he was to receive a poetry award from the 92nd Street Y in New York City, but was told to remove some references to former first lady Mamie Eisenhower, for fear of libel.

The request was denied, the award revoked. Atheneum Books had promised to publish his book, changed its mind and "Final Solutions" was eventually released by Random House. Seidel waited 17 years before putting out another.

"I wrote a bit after that, but then I stopped, because I felt I did not know how to say something new, and that it would be important to wait until I did," he says.

One reason he resists interviews is not just protection of his private life, but the conservation of his creative life, as if every word released were so much energy burned. Poetry, he explains, is a state of mind apart from the poet, yet also above the poet, below the poet, and deeply within.

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