04 May 2015

Frederick Seidel, James Foley & refuting abusive poetry

The fact that poetry published in the London Review of Books is largely off-limits as a letter page topic may be one of the conditions pushing Seidel to his current excesses. Bad taste is a standard Seidel trope, alongside glibness, smugness, stink rotten puns, hollow oxymorons (see the LRB of 22nd January, 2015), and an irony so saturating that it would act as a permanent Get Out Of Jail Free Card, if anyone ever took him to task – which rarely happens. (Take a look at the Poetry Foundation Seidel page, to get an impression of his recent style.) But when that glibness is allowed to produce such lines as “the Sunni extremists … /As they rave their way south toward Baghdad / Beheading Shia for the sheer bliss of it”, you have to wonder if the poetry editor has been caught napping. “Shia” and “sheer”: God, Seidel, what a card! And if Seidel had just slipped in “James Foley” in place of “Shia”, would that have gone through? “James Foley” would have scanned fine into the metre of a typical Seidel line: free, baggy, as he will not tire of showing us. Though come on now, how high is LRB readership amongst devout Shia Muslims, we can't pander to minorities, can we? In a poem which also managed to fetishise the electric chair, in an analogy with some wanker type of motor-bike, I was forced to contemplate what else the poetry editor would allow to pass in a Seidel poem: bad rhymes on the subject of ritual child abuse, anyone? “Abuse” … / “funny ruse!”? Or deliberately clumsy couplets on ritualised violence against members of controversial religions, that Seidel “CIA Cells” poem we've all been waiting for?

Just ignore him, some will say. But I'm an LRB subscriber, and I always read the poems, the LRB carries great poems, Jorie Graham is a great poet. I do not know why they carry Seidel. I've heard his contract's up in 2016. I'm counting the issues. Will the great irony-maker himself deign to comment?