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Frederick Seidel: ‘It's necessary to criticise the left’

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New York’s ‘Kanye Baudelaire’ talks to Lorin Stein about Donald Trump, departed friends and why a life without writing is pointless

Frederick Seidel is no one’s idea of a protest poet. Born in a well-to-do suburb of St Louis, Missouri, educated at Harvard, encouraged early on by Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, he has always written from firmly within the establishment. From the beginning, his poems showed an intimate acqaintance with the powerful and the beautiful, and a fascination with the accoutrements of wealth. Seidel is known – in some circles, notorious – for writing poems about Ducatis, and the Concorde, and his tailor. (“Reading Seidel now,” Clive James grumbled, “it saddens me that I have spent my long life dressing like a student.”) His new book, Widening Income Inequality, begins with a reminiscence of Elaine’s, the night spot made famous by Seidel and his jet‑setting friends: “We drank our faces off until the sun arrived, / Night after night, and most of us survived.”

And yet, as the title suggests, this latest collection is attuned to politics, especially the politics of race. Attentive readers know this is nothing new. Racism, violence, the legacy of slavery, the connection between privilege and misery, are constant themes in his poetry. Seidel’s elegy to Michael Brown, “The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri”, sparked outrage in March 2015 when it appeared in the Paris Review – partly, I think, because it treated the shooting of a black teenager by white police as the latest instalment in a recurring nightmare. For him, Brown’s death evokes the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Seidel’s friend Robert Kennedy - events that have haunted his work for nearly half a century.

When I am writing, I feel that my life is busy. That I’m a creature with a purpose. When I’m not, I feel a bit floaty.

I drank with Francis Bacon and that vehement crowd. The nightlife, the daytimes seemed magic and exciting and different

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