Ooga-Booga, poems by Frederick Seidel (FSG)

Seidel's been around for a long time. He was a founding editor of The Paris Review and conducted its 1961 interview with Robert Lowell ("The Art of Poetry, No. 3"). His first book was published in 1963. Later came Final Solutions: Poems, 1959 - 1979; then Sunrise (1980), which who the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the Lamont Prize; My Tokyo (1993); and Going Fast (1998). His new book, Ooga-Booga, finally caught the notice of critics who used the occasion to remark on his personal eccentricities and lifestyle, but who had remarkably little to say about the verse itself, beyond what they all repeated: what an acerbic tone, what dash and swagger! I didn't encounter his work until 2001, when The Wall Street Journal published a poem of his per month. The poems jolted me, their quatrains jammed with nervous ideas, blurtings, warped epigrams, smarmy detail, and yes, that sneering tone.

But I don't think Ooga-Booga is the very best of Seidel; some of it is self-imitative and gratuitous in effect compared to Area Code 212 (2002), which along with Life On Earth (2001) are my favorites -- sly, shrewd, entertaining, remarkable poems about the modern, the violent, the stylish. (That said, Ooga-Booga is a more gratifying read than most of what appears during the National Poetry Month glut.) Perhaps the most unique of his books is The Cosmos Poems, a concept-book, a linked meditation on the nature of the universe and relativity. (All three titles are now available as The Cosmos Trilogy.)There's nothing like it -- a masterpiece that prompted critic Adam Kirsch to make the curious comment, "He [Seidel] is in fact one of the very rare contemporary poets who can be transgressive." What? Name a great poet who hasn't traded in the mythically profane. It's Seidel's excellence that makes him rare, not his tone, for which critics usually find some way to set him apart as an oddity, a naughty boy in the corner.

The best thing ever written about Seidel may be Adam Phillips' "Frederick Seidel's New Poetry," collected in his book of essays Promises, Promises. He noted "the relationship between sophisticated complicity and stark outrage ... Seidel is not writing about anything as consoling as moral muddles; he is writing about how life collapses the moral distinctions we make in order to live it." In other words, Seidel's purpose is serious. Funny how American critics often miss both the cultural significance and formal sophistications of Seidel, and focus instead on his most extreme singularities and personality as if they're writing for People magazine.