by Ernest Hilbert on 28/11/12 at 3:43 pm
The latest issue of The Dark Horse contains new poems by the likes of David Mason, Jason Guriel, Nicholas Friedman, and Linda Besner. It also contains a selection of poets writing on famous first books, including Wendy Copy on Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street, Clare Pollard on Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, A.E. Stallings on Turner Cassity’s Watchboy, What of the Night?, and Anne Stevenson on Richard Wilbur’s Poems, 1943-1956. I contributed a short essay on Frederick Seidel’s infamous first book, Final Solutions, which I reproduce below.
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Frederick Seidel’s Final Solutions, 1963, by Ernest Hilbert
I am sure
Of nothing—just the moon, brassiered and soap-sleek, pure
Perfumed Spellman, stinking with allure.
These brief lines—curiously beautiful, venomous, and sexually redolent—refer to Catholic Archbishop of New York Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman. Today, such goading would likely pass wholly unnoticed among the avalanche of new books that tumbles upon us each year. Yet these, along with a small handful of like passages in American poet Frederick Seidel’s 1963 Final Solutions, were more than enough to spark what may be the most public scandal attending a first book of American poetry in the last century aside from the turmoil that surrounded Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the middle of the previous decade. The outrage would prove a fitting start to the career of a poet who specializes in verse that courts controversy and hones his poems until they become “daggers that sing.”
In the early 1960s, a young Seidel, heir to a family coal fortune, had already befriended his heroes Ezra Pound and fellow St. Louisan T.S. Eliot and was comfortably ensconced in Paris when he submitted a manuscript with an incendiary title to the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association poetry prize, administered through the Poetry Center of the Y.M.-Y.W.H.A. in New York. The winner would receive $1,500 and publication by Atheneum Press. The three judges, Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan, and Stanley Kunitz, unanimously selected his book. At first, Atheneum proudly boasted that the collection constituted a “dramatic work of great intensity,” but this auspicious start to a young poet’s career soon collapsed into a snarl of accusations and seemingly endless complications.
According to the New York Times, “the national head of the Y.M.H.A. grew concerned about the content and possible libel” of the poems in the book. Of particular interest were the reference to Cardinal Spellman and another to Mamie Eisenhower, first lady of the United States from 1953 to 1961. It was also suggested that the book was both anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. In a Paris Review interview, Seidel describes the tense early days of the drama.
On the day the winner was to be announced, I heard nothing. I obviously hadn’t won. But then it turned out that no one had heard anything. No announcement had been made. Finally someone, it may have been Lowell, sent word, saying, You’ll be hearing soon what happened. Still not telling me that I’d won.
It soon became evident that there was “a problem.” The publisher, fearing repercussions, notably those cited by the Y.H.M.A., demanded that Seidel alter or remove the offending poems. Seidel flatly refused. Having at first failed to extract the potentially libelous sting of the book, Atheneum briefly toyed with the idea of inserting a disclaimer to the front matter along the lines of “any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Again, the recalcitrant young poet refused to budge. He meant what he wrote. Atheneum declined to publish the book, a decision that stimulated all three judges to resign from the board in protest. Kunitz also resigned as director of the Poetry Center’s workshop, and Betty Kray, executive secretary for the previous twelve years, soon followed in his wake. The scandal, fueled by what Seidel labeled “paranoia and bogus morality,” quickly became newsworthy.
Determined to see the book in print, Seidel personally conveyed the manuscript to Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, who “enthusiastically accepted it,” though Bennett Cerf, famed head of the firm, harbored concerns. It soon became clear that the book had not been saved from oblivion at the hands of Random House at all. At the time, Random House’s offices were located in the Villard mansion, an 1882 Renaissance-style structure behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 51st Street in Manhattan, rented to the firm by none other than the Catholic Church, whose Archbishop had been thoroughly burlesqued by the poet. Seidel recalls strolling with Cerf, who pointed up at Spellman’s office window and claimed the Archbishop would “throw me out of my office” if he published Final Solutions. Still, no one was ready to abandon the book. The contortions continued. Epstein went so far as to suggest to Cerf that the book be smuggled onto the market through Random House’s children’s-book line, which Seidel drily pronounces “a very classy idea.” In the end, Cerf overcame his hesitations and the book was issued in the simple but elegant dust jacket design used for W. H. Auden, another Random House poet. The bottom of the front panel plainly states “A Random House Book.”
None of the book’s troubles can be seen as entirely unforeseen. Problems could have been quite easily avoided if Seidel had lacked the necessary courage. The age itself played a part as well. After all, it was 1963, the year Larkin memorably locates in “Annus Mirabilis” as falling “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” The gates of permissiveness had not yet been flung open. Perhaps it was the last time in American history when a collection of poems could cause such a stir, but Seidel did his part from the beginning. He confesses that he enjoys “writing disagreeable poems,” if only in order to say “beautifully what people don’t want to hear.” The offending lines in Final Solutions certainly contain a fine music, but there is no denying that they are also jagged and accusatory, even if rather anodyne by our standards (readers today may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about).
Reviews of Final Solutions hinged less on its offensiveness than what was perceived to be its author’s excessive debt to Robert Lowell. Kirkus hailed Seidel’s ability to sum “up a generation’s concern with love-hate relationships, childhood alienation, way-out sex, and sanatorium stays,” the quintessence of what would be called the Confessional School, though Seidel has always hung aloof from the label. William Jay Smith hailed the book’s attempt to express “the grotesque on a grand scale.” James Dickey, however, derided the book’s “historical references, the inflated, hortatory style,” which he felt amounted to nothing less than “slavery” to Lowell’s style (Lowell’s era-defining collection Life Studies appeared in 1959). Dickey went on to scold Seidel’s “imitation and shock tactics” which he felt “are no substitute for personal creativity,” a charge some critics level to this day. Jonathan Galassi, Seidel’s current editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, remarks that “the influence of Lowell” was unmistakable in the “high rhetoric, that resonance with that old tradition, the great tradition” that “most people sort of threw that away.” William Logan observes that “Seidel began as a Lowell imitator,” though the critic prefers the “ironic flair” with which the book handled Lowell’s example to the more exaggerated style that Seidel has since advanced: “now Seidel’s irony tends to wear jackboots and carry a ball-peen hammer.”
In a perceptive review of Final Solutions in the June 1963 New York Review of Books, fellow Jewish poet Anthony Hecht explained that readers “who are horrified” by Seidel’s candor may “make the mistake of identifying the characters’ sentiments with the author’s,” while acknowledging that the poems “are often filled with violence, revulsion, fear, and hopelessness” (admittedly these are traits that would more likely engage than repel an artist of dark materials like Hecht). While the defamation of the Archbishop and attendant anti-Catholicism may be argued, allegations of anti-Semitism are harder to validate. Seidel certainly knew that the title would conjure Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish problem,” but the book does not further this incitement in any explicit way. Hecht elaborates: “The characters Mr. Seidel delineates with ruthless care have all come to a stalemate in their lives, an impasse which is a sort of ‘final solution,’ an annihilating judgment on life.” Adam Kirsch acknowledges that the Holocaust figures in Final Solutions but hardly in a way that could be construed as anti-Semitic. Kirsch feels the book’s “vision of a corrupt and endangered human species is deeply informed by the Holocaust, which took place during his safe American childhood.”
Seidel’s first published poems contain the rancor, profanation, haughtiness, and wild music readers have come to expect. Lines from “The Heart Attack” could as easily appear in one of his recent volumes.
I slit my wrists. Your prize,
Queered, arrow-eaten legionnaire,
Just back from Hatra, boy-starved, flies
To watch the lions get a Roman—daily fare
In Rome like pasta: armpit air,
A crush of bodies, fear. The one time we were there
You gagged and nearly fainted. Fail to feed
The raving masses all they need
Of vomit from the state’s gorged throat,
And they may use you as the reed
To tickle up a gladiator.
It would be over a decade and a half before Seidel would publish a second book, Sunrise (Viking Press, 1979), but that had little to do with the scandal. By the time Final Solutions appeared, he had relocated to New York City, and while he admits that he was afraid of “repeating” himself he also explains that “New York offered diversions. I dare say there was desperation in this.” Seidel has retained his reputation as a provocative poet—literally provoking readers with outrageous statements and, I have come to believe, even daring readers to dislike poems that verge on doggerel. Seen in this light, Final Solutions can be understood as a very successful opening broadside, declaring his willingness to shock while establishing an intoxicating bravura that Kirsch identifies with the poet’s later work, “ugly surrealism, the jaunty, singsong rhymes, and the disgust with wealth and power.”
Seidel would never again be as visibly inflammatory as he was in the early 1960s, partly because the world has changed (we should also remember that much of the fuss was preemptive and cautionary). He erupted onto the scene in a tremor of controversy that signaled the arrival of a new kind of poet, even if sui generis, and that very approach has come to define him. One would be thought naïve to register shock at his poems today. While he continues to play l’enfant terrible well into his eighth decade, it is worth noting that, after his first book, he never managed to rouse much in the way of genuine controversy. Critics periodically rail against suspected misogyny and sometimes sniff about his unabashed expressions of wealth and privilege, but it is hard to become too exercised about poems, however provocative, amid the din of reality TV and the outrageous cornucopias of the Internet. Certainly, one cannot imagine his poems being censored by a publisher. Was the struggle over Final Solutions a significant gain in the time-honored struggle for freedom of artistic expression or the trifling consequence of a privileged author’s unwillingness to compromise even in relief of his own benefactors? It was very likely a mixture of both. The result was a brilliant poetic debut that captured the attention of the nation and launched one of the most important poetic careers of the last century.