Modern poetry’s sentimentality problem

Two new but stale collections offer joyless caricatures of passion.

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Many years ago I found myself unable to avoid talking, on a semi-regular basis for a period of 48 months, to a young man who worked in advertising. Like a lot of coke-addled numpties, he had developed a few tics. One was his use of questioning intonation, another was his habit of adding “but not?” after (it seemed) every statement. So he might say something like: “My job is to make everything as obvious as possible? But not?” Talking to him was like a conversation, but not. It was amusing, but not. He was probably, deep down, a nice guy. But not. His habits of speech continually asked you to look beneath the surface – except there was nothing but surface. He had turned his voice into a Möbius strip. He now lives in LA.

His predicament came to mind when I was reading these two books. One appeals to the reader using the language of feeling – to the point of cloying sentimentality. The other strives to impress and/or offend the reader by making every phrase as gratingly unmusical and flat-footed as possible. Both back themselves into much the same corner.

The first poem in Niall Campbell’s Noctuary begins: “My heart had been repeating oh heart, poor heart.” Repeating is the word: “heart” appears eight times in this nine-line poem, and manages to put in 17 appearances during the course of the 42 poems that make up this book. We find it asking “the hundred questions of the heart”, or taking a nap on “the warm, creaking sleepers of the heart”, or working, since “the only work was the heart’s work”. “Heart, keep on,” Campbell implores, and keep on it does. Keats famously said that “we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us”. The reader of Noctuary should expect to feel thoroughly palped.

Titling a poem “Crusoe, One Year on the Island” is a gutsy move, given that Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” is one of the most celebrated poems of the past century. What fresh insights can Campbell bring? “Strange fruit, strange tree/the old heart running.” What is “strange fruit” doing here? The reference to Abel Meeropol’s classic song, made famous by Billie Holiday, seems coincidental: the important thing is that Seamus Heaney used it as a poem title. A few lines later we read “the forest gate opens/the same as a hundred doors”. “A Hundred Doors” was the title of a poem and a book by Michael Longley.

It’s fine that Campbell wants to be thought of alongside his heroes, but copying out their poem titles isn’t the best way to do it. The poem ends: “But a new voice calls,/and a new hand guides,/and a new heart strikes/where the old heart stood.” Seriously: a new voice? Campbell’s voice is as far from new as can be. “Things fell apart,” he says, sounding like Yeats; “I’ve wasted my life,” he says, sounding like James Wright. “Doesn’t snowfall make everything so quiet?” he asks, sounding like – oh, any number of poets, the observation is so commonplace. And what else might a poet notice about snow? “So white,” Campbell whispers. These are poems that arrive at locations where poetry used to be, but poetry doesn’t live there any more.

Where Campbell says things other men have already said, Frederick Seidel says things that other men wish they had said: “In American poetry today there is no one with Frederick Seidel’s sheer ambition,” pronounces the critic Lawrence Joseph, confidently. Dan Chiasson echoes this, saying that there has “never been a poet like this one before”. Seidel’s collected poems are, for Hanif Kureishi, “The book I wish I’d written.” What does it mean to have so many powerful critics, writers and editors praise you for being the exception, the outsider?

Seidel is certainly an unusual figure in contemporary poetry. His work, which is a straightforward development of the more histrionic and self-fascinated aspects of confessional poetry, foregrounds his lifestyle: he is independently wealthy, with a penchant for very young women and Ducati motorbikes. The resulting privileged/ underdog paradox is a very male affliction, and it underpins Seidel’s signature effect, which asks the reader to admire the poet’s bravery for declaring himself to be the helpless victim of his own virility. This bad-faith boasting is variously inflected with banality (“The girl with the face/As charming as her voice/Has a beautiful ass/Filling out her tan pants”) and disgust: “Erect as a hooded cobra about to strike, exactly what a hissing vagina looks like!”

Now 83 years old, Seidel began his career by courting controversy, titling his 1963 debut collection Final Solutions. He still likes to cast himself as a subversive element: “Each poem of mine is a suicide belt.” In reality his poems are gated communities. He is yesterday’s rebel, and his observations concerning life in the age of Trump and #MeToo sound bewildered, bored, non-committal: “Many people these days are either Trump or trans or gay…” or “Masturbating in front of women who work for you or want to,/Women who have plenty to gain or lose in this,/Seems to be a new thing men in power do…” Despite the ubiquitous air of knowingness, there is no sign of Seidel having considered how much he has in common with such men. In 2004 the essayist Philip Connors praised Seidel for being: “The writer willing to say the unsayable.” Today, these are the terms in which Trump voters justify their choice.

Both of these writers are sentimentalists. Campbell’s fumbling attempts to manipulate the reader are easier to identify, but Seidel is just as committed to a joyless caricature of passion. Here are two books that blunt the faculty of sympathetic patience. They require and reward complacency. If you like them, you’ll love vaudeville. 

Paul Batchelor’s books include “The Sinking Road” (Bloodaxe)

Noctuary
Niall Campbell
Bloodaxe, 64pp, £9.95

Peaches Goes It Alone
Frederick Seidel
Faber & Faber, 112pp, £10.99

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer