Let us admit first in terms both literal and literary that Frederick Seidel and Bernadette Mayer do not dine at the same establishments. Nevertheless, they each have establishments to call their own: Mayer, advocate and avatar of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and central figure of the later generations of the New York School, and Seidel, who has risen (despite his truculent and coy detachment from all manner of contemporary self-promotion) to critical eminence by eschewing the politics and protocols of “academic” verse.
Of course, these characterizations concern the personae of the poets, not the poets themselves. But that is exactly the problem. We talk about persona as if it were only an affectation of personhood, what a complete person makes to approximate a self when a self is not called for or not possible. However, when all knowledge of person and persona is mediated by poems, the distinction between the two blurs. For how could we distinguish between performance and performer when the only “object” or proxy we have to evaluate requires deliberate manufacture?
Thus the whole exhausting question of voice in poetry, as if the tool of ventriloquism—even self-imitation or mockery, in which both Mayer and Seidel trade—could ever be divorced from its use. You may have a phone-solicitor voice, and a voice for scolding your recalcitrant children, and a voice for sincere apology. They are all false, all partial, yet all equally and accurately evidential of selfhood. This is an inevitable consequence of vocalization itself, and if the personae Seidel and Mayer describe occupy radically different social milieus, their formal manipulations of verse—the ways in which they test and tax the possibilities of what someone talking to you can sound like—are curiously similar.
In Seidel’s case, the development of a persona reflects the poet’s management of his social position of unambiguously grotesque privilege. He travels the earth, he solicits and rides customized Ducati motorcycles, he eats well, he allows his penis its every whim. If this being is insufferable, Seidel at least makes no pretense of excusing it; his candor is often the quality for which he is most praised, and he is remarkably candid in his admission that there is no excuse for such a being as he is, nor does he believe his recognition of this should earn him any credit. He finds himself horrifying, to be sure, but he also knows that his horror is morally negligible, since it springs from the inevitable luxury of choice by which his life is defined. Seidel is not subject to anything but the ravages of time (about which he does write with effective, merciless precision), but he acts as if that freedom comes with the burden of enforced irony: no grief or outrage can breach the sleek carapace of his comfort, and even remorse about this condition is disingenuous at best and reprehensible at worst. He has mastered the art of being unapologetic without being proud for having done so, even though this gains him yet another degree of privilege—license to say whatever he likes.
Even though this privilege most superficially derives from unearned (and unearnable) social capital, in its effect it also resembles the way in which intellect alienates and divides attention. One experiences, but also observes and comments upon that observation, each degree of remove necessitating ever-greater admissions of emotional distance, which themselves bespeak privilege. The Seidel persona is relentlessly, almost uncontrollably clever. It comments upon its own processes and proclivities with the ironically erratic regularity of a spastic tic.
Mayer’s persona is at least as witty and intelligent as Seidel’s, though it is not as louche or droll. She is more reactive, given to greater variance in her editorial tone. She is a more freewheeling companion, quicker and lighter, less wedded to her “themes” (as Seidel repeatedly names his own obsessions), and just as willing to marvel as she is to judge. The more welcoming aspects of Mayer’s persona derive from the degree to which her experiences are simply more familiar to the average reader than Seidel’s will be. Both poets are eager to address the quotidian, but what constitutes a day in the life of Frederick Seidel is both disproportionately capacious and fabulously narrow. Mayer goes to fewer places, but we are led to believe that more things happen to her because her life is made of experiences over which she has less control than does Seidel over his own. The greater openness of Mayer’s work is, in part, a reflection of this more contingent way of life: constrained by circumstance, she is also freed by it, her poems unabashed and unashamed. Her voices welcome anything and everything that is able to keep up with the speed and maneuverability of her mind. She struggles; Seidel has nothing to struggle against.
What enables such summary claims about speakers who may or may not exist the way people do, even if we cannot often or easily distinguish between the two? Though it may seem as if first-person reportage secures the right (or the irresistible urge) to deduce personhood, it comes more from the poets’ choice of discursive style. Seidel and Mayer both seem suspicious of the poetry of reflection, if that reflection grows too distant from speech as expressive of thought. Thus, each must write so that the poems seem almost, yet not quite, improvised. And this is what leads to Mayer and Seidel’s reliance on persona. For what suggests selfhood more than the sound of a discrete personality with a recognizable and expressive style now talking to you, even if that talk comes laced with poetic garnish, artfully applied to look offhand or cavalier?
Consider Seidel’s use of rhyme. He rhymes with fetishistic delight, sometimes committing to exhaustively diligent end rhyme (as in “Sii romantico, Seidel, tanto per cambiare,” in which he finds twenty-nine end rhymes for the word slide), and sometimes in a less immoderate fondness for rhymed couplets or tercets, as in “Kill Poem”:
They really are everywhere.
They crawl around in one’s intimate hair.
They spread disease and despair.
They rape and pillage
In the middle of Sag Harbor Village.
They ferry Lyme disease.
The hunters’ guns bring them to their knees.
In Paris I used to call the Sri Lankan servants “Shrees.”
Or an equally basic scheme, as in these lines, from “Portia Dew”:
The English are so goddamn glamorous,
Too fucking much to bear.
The women are both cold and amorous.
One almost doesn’t dare. . . .
‘Bloodies’ were aristocratic brutes—
Not Freddy’s cut of meat!
They liked to beat up whores and beat up fruits,
And drink and barf and eat.
Compare this to “A Month of Noons,” an example of the loose sonnet form of which Mayer is so fond:
True now & accidental I am calm enough to prop you up
One sneaky arm picks my head from the floor
Sucking up the meat spitting this on your
head: thanks to Edwin Denby & many
others for donating their lines for an imagined penny
Oh boy you are a leafless tree
you are what I all the time see
Or this, from “Pallet Sonnet”:
The moon’s only full for one day or night
I don’t want it here in my fireflight, I only
Said that cause it rhymes like grace with Hoorayce
Keep this egg moon in my infantile sight
To Murphy off the darkness of grown-up night
What is most immediately conspicuous about the way rhyme operates in these examples is how unsubtle or uninspired the aural echoes actually are. If it appears to indicate compositional deficiency, do not be fooled: both poets, Mayer particularly, are capable of exceptionally supple and inventive rhyme. But these are simplistic rhymes, dependent largely on monosyllabic affinities and requiring either a stripped-down or awkward syntax. That is not to say that the rhymes do not offer pleasure, but rather that the pleasure comes from the sense of the speaker more or less pulling the rhyme out of the air, manufacturing language in real time with all the limitations that implies.
This pursuit of a cavalier, present-tense editorial persona has consequences for the kinds of thought the poems allow. They are observational, but not truly meditative, in the sense that meditation necessarily betrays some evidence of a subject considered at extraordinary length. In her “Ode on Periods,” Mayer writes:
the penis is something that fits into the vagina
so’s the tampon or sponge
therefore Aristotle never thought of women at all
the penis like a tree fits into mouth, hand and asshole too
it can be the subject of an academic poem
disguised as a sloop, catapult or catamaran’s mastpole
never the monthly menstruation will she
belie tradition’s bloody demagoguery enough
to appear in the rough in a poem in a monthly
I dreamed I had a deep cut on my finger
filled with a delicious tofu cake
This (and the remainder of the poem) is wonderful: irritable, but also joyful, faultlessly fluent, full of sharp commentary and shaped by an even sharper tone. Yet what makes it work is the reader’s tacit belief that the voice in which the poem is spoken comes not from a construct but rather from a real live person, albeit one for whom poetic forms and devices are rhetorically second nature.
Mayer mastered this art long ago. Seidel has always shown traces of it, but his reliance on chattiness has grown over time, and served him increasingly well. For when his acerbic persona falls away, what remains is often pedantic and dull. The Cosmos Trilogy, for instance, runs apparently endlessly with lines such as these, from the poem “Beyond the Event Horizon”:
And isn’t it
The presence of a thing
That can’t be seen
More massive than the universe?
And isn’t it the strings
Of its own gut beneath infinity the bow
Who vibrate musically to make
The Primal Scene?
You realize this means
The massive spin-2 particle whose
Couplings at long distances
Are those of general relativity.
It is as if Seidel can only make his thoughts interesting when they are awful and off-hand. Who would prefer the above to something like “Drinking in the Daytime”?
A fist-fucking anus swallowing a fist.
You’re wondering why I talk this way, so daintily!
I’ll tell you after I take a pee.
Now I’m back.
Oilcoholics love the breast they attack.
This is not simply a matter of the latter material being less serious than the former, and therefore more palatable. Both Mayer and Seidel can be absolutely grim in their assessment of the social and civic behaviors they document, and their sense of history as likely predictor of our future misbehavior is icily acute. No, the lines from The Cosmos Trilogy fail because, despite Seidel’s efforts to reproduce cues and tags of conversation (“And isn’t it,” “You realize,” etc.), the poems simply do not sound as if the thoughts that inform them sprang unbidden to a clever tongue and bypassed a meditative mind altogether. Thought provokes both passages, but it is only in the latter that thought seems to come from talking, which in turn refers to and summons the reader’s familiarity with the persona the conversation invokes and engages.
If this style precludes the depth that comes from lengthy consideration, it compensates by allowing the speakers to include the apparently trivial and fold effluvia into the observational patter. Thus Mayer can note that:
New Hampshire is amazing
Everybody has a vanity plate
The stores have alot of beef and pork
And the Henniker butcher Mr. LaRosa
Says nobody wants to buy chicken but us
While Seidel, visiting Salt Lake City, can advise us to
take the free trolley three stops to the Mormon Temple.
It turns out there’s nothing much to see.
The girl guides are darling, but watch it, they’re sinister.
They’re programmed to save you right there in the Visitors’ Center.
Yet because of their reliance on (or preference for) convivial chattiness, neither poet need spend much time following through on the preconditions or implications of the claims they make. They each move on, as conversation must, perhaps referring to previous topics of discussion but never stopping over them, certainly not long enough to allow the subject to overshadow the personae themselves. In moving on, however, they cover an enormous range, even as they natter brilliantly at us through the tours they provide.
Of the two personae, Mayer’s offers better company. The life of the Seidel character is so rarefied that it precludes the kind of catchall affection for referents high and low that marks Mayer’s work. Nevertheless, both remain committed to making the monologue (albeit more quotidian than dramatic) the default unit of poetic exchange. Yet if each demands that we submit to the burden of acquainting ourselves with their proximate personae, they more than reward us by turning the most intimate and familiar aspects of character—instantly discernable voices, signature quirks and obsessions—to a wider world than interiority generally admits. Given that, the sometimes tedious consistency of their respective companionship is a small price to pay. Extravagantly selved, yes, but not selfish.