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Frederick Seidel


Frederick Seidel was born on February 19, 1936 in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard University in 1957.

He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Peaches Goes It Alone (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2018); Nice Weather (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2012); Poems: 1959-2009 (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010); Evening Man (2008); Ooga-Booga (2006), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Cosmos Trilogy (2003); Going Fast (1998), a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in poetry; My Tokyo (1993); These Days (1989); and Poems: 1959—1979 (1989). His awards include a Lamont Poetry Prize and a PEN/Voelcker Award.

Seidel's first collection, Final Solutions, created a controversy in 1962 when it was chosen by a jury of Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz, and Robert Lowell for an award sponsored by the 92nd Street Y which included a $1,500 honorarium and publication by Atheneum Press. The Y rejected the manuscript, claiming that one of the poems libeled a famous living person and Seidel was unwilling to make the requested edits. In protest, Stanley Kunitz resigned as director of the Poetry Center's workshop, along with Betty Kray, who had worked as the executive secretary for twelve years. Initially, Atheneum agreed to publish the book, even without the Y's support, explaining to the New York Times: "The poetic diction and style may have obscured the intended message, but it is a sincere, honest, and dramatic work of great intensity and was selected by the unanimous decision of three distinguished judges." However, Atheneum eventually dropped the book and it was later published with Random House. Seidel did not publish another book for seventeen years.

In 2003, Seidel published The Cosmos Trilogy, comprised of three earlier volumes: The Cosmos Poems, Life on Earth, and Area Code 212. The trilogy of books is loosely modeled on Dante's Divine Comedy, though it moves in the opposite direction, beginning in the heavens and ending on the streets of Manhattan, in a post-9/11 landscape. The first section, The Cosmos Poems, took shape after the American Museum of Natural History commissioned Seidel to write poems to inaugurate the opening of the new Hayden Planetarium. Many poems from the final section, Area Code 212, were first published in the Wall Street Journal, where they were serialized monthly for nearly two years.

Seidel's brutal and fearless work is frequently described in terms that are simultaneously praise and censure, depending on perspective, and often conflated with speculations about his notorious wealth, Italian motorcycles, and famous friends. "A violent misogynist, or an elegant seducer, or both?" asks Adam Kirsch in The New Republic.

In a 2002 profile of Seidel in The Nation, Robyn Creswell writes: "He is not a satirist, though he can be very wicked, and the comedy of his poems is not the comedy of manners. Instead, it is the more desperate, more affecting comedy of belatedness, in which the poet finds that his voice is only an accent, and that all accents are only echoes. What makes Seidel stand out among American poets, however, is not just his air of early-blooming ennui but the fact that he is uniquely contemporary."

Frederick Seidel
Photo credit: Mark Mahaney