A popular clip on YouTube shows a local news reporter trying to interview a costume-shop owner who'd been charged with cyberstalking. The woman is dressed as a giant rabbit and refuses to take the reporter seriously. When he asks her to remove 'the bunny head' she complies, only to reveal that she is wearing a vampire mask under it. My recent interview with Frederick Seidel, ostensibly for the Village Voice, was marginally less successful than this. In keeping with his perverse ways, Seidel agreed to answer only two questions. One of my questions ponderously involved the received sense, here in the States, that poetry is no longer a vital cultural force, a feeling encouraged by the recent announcement by the National Endowment for the Arts that over the previous 12 months almost 92 per cent of American adults had read no poetry at all. What role, I wondered, can poetry play in such an environment? I had in mind something like Allen Grossman's admission that he is uncertain what poetry 'can now mean in the context of the actual human task'. But Seidel simply responded with Samuel Johnson's line, borrowed from Sidney (who got it from Horace), that poetry must please and instruct. Fair enough: so what are his poems instructing us? 'That's for you to say.' At least I think this is how the conversation went: when I sat down to transcribe the interview, I discovered, not without a sense of relief, that I had inserted the microphone cord into the wrong jack on the tape recorder. Only my questions had been preserved.
LRB 6 August 2009 | PDF Download