Stand Up, Friend, with Me, by Edward Field; and Final Solutions, by Frederick Seidel
Two Young Poets
Stand Up, Friend, with Me.
by Edward Field.
Grove Press. 77 pp. $2.50.
by Frederick Seidel.
Random House. 50 pp. $3.75.
Edward Field’s first book, the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1963, appears when the author is thirty-nine; it is a thoroughly achieved job of work, offering forty-three poems genially poised, most of them, at the center of a restless, cocky, hard-bitten Manhattan existence. Mr. Field has been a musician (he performed with two of his sisters in the Field Family Trio), a navigator of Flying Fortresses, and lately seems to have had various office jobs and acting parts in off-Broadway and summer stock.
Mr. Field has Grove Press and Evergreen Review behind him, and socks us with blunt hints of a fashionably raffish ambi-sexuality in a long mock-heroic “Ode to Fidel Castro” (the best poem on Castro we are likely to have in English), and regularly uses “like” for “as,” but he is still only a random tourist in beatdom, that fading paradise of the irrational. That real craziness, man, is not for this stubbornly secular, romantic-anti-romantic, self-mocking poet, whose taste runs closer to the rational comedy of Heine than to the vatic style of Ginsberg; Heine out of Cummings out of Delmore Schwartz.
Mr. Field sounds like one of the more amiable characters in a Malamud novel. He has that obstinate poetic prosiness, the more given to plain sense the more bedeviled he is by the abuses of sense that flourish in New York. He is goliardic, un-Byzantine, refreshing: he has a family, window-boxes, a tough time finding a decent apartment, a gift for describing animals, a trip to Greece. He is very much still there, after surviving a miserable childhood, and amazed by it.
After the war, poets could no longer get much mileage from the mere pathos of being intellectuals. Our new computer-manager society put an end to that. Even the astronauts in their uterine capsules are presented to us as brainchildren, dial-hungry and headphone-happy. So poets like Edward Field—of course there is no poet quite like Mr. Field—have had to make new explorations of American secularity, so much more attractive, it seems, to foreign literary tourists than to the princes of our own land. Nevertheless Mr. Field has won the Lamont prize and well deserves it. He is as bold as he need be without wishing to be a spokesman for much more than himself and his breed of urban cliffhanger. He likes to tell Stories. He is Cummings’s I x I fallen on slimmer times, perhaps—the typewriter looms as large as the bed. Auden has intervened and the Audenesque deflated fable, the punctured fairy-tale, which Mr. Field does with considerable brio. A livable New York survives in these poems.
My memory is erratic, but I can’t recall another debut like that of Frederick Seidel in which a poet of solid gifts appeared so completely clothed in the mind, milieu, and rhetorical habits of another poet. In an excellent review in The New York Review, Anthony Hecht tells us that the award that should have gone to this book was not granted, “through no fault of the jury” which chose it for the award, and speculates that “it was felt that some of the poems were dangerously indiscreet, and that others expressed shocking attitudes.” If this is true, it is more fantastic than the failure of Edward Albee to win the Pulitzer Prize this year. But I doubt that matters were quite that simple, whatever the prize committee may have said. The truth is—and it’s curious, outlandish, whatever you like—that Mr. Seidel at twenty-six or twenty-seven has decided to publish a piece of ventriloquism of great virtuosity. The poet “imitated” is Robert Lowell, one of the jury that passed on the manuscript, himself a very distinguished ventriloquist in his book of Imitations. How could Mr. Lowell in good conscience fail to praise these poems, which indeed he does in a handsome jacket testimonial, and how could anyone with even a bad conscience foment a crise de moeurs over Mr. Seidel’s resuscitation of the Lowell universe? Is Mr. Seidel’s dramatization, by means of dramatic monologues in the first and third persons, of various people at the end of their tethers, or almost, more shocking than Baudelaire’s confessional revelations? Or are the words “penis” and “masturbate” the exclusive privilege of the sexual “scientists”? The possibility of this book being too shocking to reward with a literary prize is too absurd to think about.
Not shocking, then, but difficult in the way Lowell’s superb Imitations is difficult, closer to home, with less curricular prestige behind it. By hewing so closely to what has become almost a convention—the Lowell world of an apocalyptic Boston (“To My Friend Anne Hutchinson”), Propertian Rome (“The Heart Attack”), a doom-haunted modern Europe (“A Year Abroad,” “Americans in Rome”), childhood, and a brooding, dramatized pity for la miseria in general—and much more than that, by playing expert variations on Lowell’s gutsy, allusive, learned, Latinate, fire-eating prosody and its virtuoso play with end-stopping by striking verbs and nouns within a long paragraph of run-on lines, its fondness for the grand style worked into the dramatic texture at appropriate moments, its love of apostrophe, exclamation, and incantation, Mr. Seidel has asked the reader to do considerably more work than a first book usually requires. Because he is distinctly not Robert Lowell, or he would not have risked this near-identification. He takes the Lowell corpus—Berryman may be an influence too, as Eliot certainly is—and uses it for all it is worth to come nearer to his past and his obsessions, to build a framework that will hold both the obsessions and their healing reflections in the past, and create their heroic image—to domesticate even Bellevue.
It is very much a young man’s book, but one with great interest and promise.