Frederick Seidel

‘1968’ describes the aftermath of a raucous Hollywood party. Seidel works into this context a broader critique of sociopolitical realities.

Frederick Seidel

Nationality: American

Provocative and controversial, Frederick Seidel's poetry challenges conventions with audacity.

He fearlessly pushes boundaries in his works, crafting poetic masterpieces with audacity.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Not all that shines is gold

Speaker: An anonymous observer

Emotions Evoked: Amusement, Boredom, Depression

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

This is definitely one of the outstanding poems in Frederick Seidel's second, award-winning collection. At the same time, it employs themes - notably "high living" and money - and evinces political concerns that would remain with Seidel in the course of his career.

‘1968’ presents a snapshot of the Hollywood scene in the 1960s. Despite the poem’s neutral – even indifferent – tone, and the absence of any too-obvious value judgments, one can hardly call the picture it paints anything less than scathing.


The poem ‘1968′ begins with the sight revealed as the sun rises over an unnamed rock star’s Bel Air residence.

In the aftermath of a fundraiser for Robert Kennedy, a party has turned into – we are given to understand – something of an orgy. Now, as the dawn breaks on the scene, yesterday’s benumbed revelers face the new day under the speaker’s merciless eye.

This poem was published in The New York Review of Books in 1978 and was later included in Seidel’s award-winning collection Sunrise (1980). It opens the collection.

Structure and Form

The poem is written in free verse. There is no rhyme, and the stanzas, like the lines themselves, are of variable length. There are several straightforward and rather striking iambs (for example, the opening verse: “A football spirals through the oyster glow”) but no regular metrical pattern. Overall, this is a form typical of much Anglo-American modernism.  

Literary Devices

There are several instances of alliteration in this poem – instances of both assonance (“A rising starlet leans her head against the tire”) and, more notably, of consonance (“out of focus in the fog,” “serves on a silver salver”). Metaphors and similes are also used (“a bonfire of red hair,” “exposed as snails”), though sparingly.

One can wonder, nonetheless, whether it is possible to argue that these elements are employed strategically and with evident purpose. The one figure in the employment of which such intention is easily discernible is synecdoche – the use of a part to denote the whole.

The most striking example of this is the stoned foot taking the kick in the opening stanza. Also striking are the “herds of breasts” and the “Shining eyes,” which, as stand-ins for their barely-mentioned and bovine owners, turn at the sound of the bodyguard’s entrance. There are also other instances which, while not strictly speaking synecdochic, manifest a similar focus on the physical to the expense, as it were, of the whole.

We have the boy’s hands plucking the guitar and the guests’ sprawled “famous bodies” that have filled so many dreams – and which, indeed, as already seen, are likened to snails. Seidel’s use of perspective, whereby individual personality is consistently displaced by the anonymity of simple flesh, effectively demonstrates the voluntary dehumanization to which the persons in the poem may be said to have succumbed.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

A football spirals through the oyster glow
Of dawn dope and fog in L.A.’s
Bel Air, punted perfectly. The foot
That punted it is absolutely stoned.

As the poem starts, the first thing one sees is a football flying in the air. One then learns that the person who shot it is stoned.

The stanza is only four lines long (this is called a quatrain) but already gives most of the essential information – such as the time, the location of the action, and the state of the actors. It is cogent and, with its unexpected viewpoint, a rather cinematic opening.

Stanza Two

A rising starlet leans her head against the tire
Of a replica Cord,
Vascular spasm has made the boy’s hands blue
Even after hours of opium.

In this stanza, the boy serenades a “rising starlet” (the description is an interesting twist on the cliché of the “rising star”) who leans her head against the replica of an antique car.

Bel Air was enough to evoke it for most, but here one gets a further sense of luxury (the Cord). The theme of disease that permeates the poem is reflected in the boy’s hands. The patriotism of the song he “plucks” on the guitar is mocked by the state he and his auditor are in.

Stanza Three

Fifty or so of the original
Four hundred
Out on the paths, and in the gardens, and the drive.
Many dreams their famous bodies have filled.

In the next stanza, we learn more about the occasion for the party, and the participants, whose current state is not too flatteringly depicted.

The picture is one of near-perfect dissolution, with the guests sprawled out pell-mell around the estate. While, again, it is important to note there are no judgments on the part of the speaker, it is certainly possible to argue that these are left for the reader to make. The celebrity status of the plastered party-goers, the fact that they populate many an ordinary person’s dreams, adds an extra touch of irony.

Stanza Four

The host, a rock superstar, has
A huge cake of opium,
Which he refers to as “King Kong,”
Except the fuzz,
Sticky as far, the color of coffee,
A quarter of a million dollars going up in smoke.

A quarter of a million dollars going up in smoke.

In this stanza, the host – described as a superstar – appears and serves his friends, dishing out portions of a huge lump of opium.

The fact that the host’s friends are “all mankind apparently” may imply that he has no actual friends and also reflects, sarcastically, that period’s belief in a vague concept of universal love. This isn’t taken any more seriously by the speaker than is the stereotypical hatred of “the fuzz” which – we are to conclude – is one of the host’s silly affectations. Finally, the evaporation of a quarter million dollars in a matter of minutes puts this fundraiser for a worthy cause in a certain perspective.

Stanza Five

This is Paradise painted
On the inside of an eggshell
Voityck Frokowski, Abigail Folger and Sharon Tate
Sit together without faces.

The poem turns to rhetoric, memorably describing this not-too-appealing microcosm enfolded in its cocoon as a painting of Paradise within an eggshell. It also introduces three faceless ghosts. “Frokowski” (actually Frykowski), Folger, and Tate were three of the six victims of the so-called Manson murders.

The reference is an anachronism, for the latter were committed in 1969. At the time, they were seen as a sign that the swinging culture of the 60s, which the poem describes,  had gotten seriously out of control. Hence, the idea of the eggshell suggests, perhaps, that the protective layer separating wealth and privilege from the outside world is flimsy.

Stanza Six

This is the future.
Their future is the future. The future
It is 68, the campaign year—
And the beginning of a new day.

The poem’s narrative element is still in suspense at this point as we are offered a few somewhat ambivalent musings.

“The future” is, of course, the politicians’ stock-in-trade, as are clichés about the dawning of a new day. Robert Kennedy, specifically, was promised a moral revolution and regeneration, so the idea that this is the future trumpeted is deeply ironic. We are immediately told, however, that this is not the future as such but its “afterbirth,” that is to say, the membrane following the expulsion of an infant: the placenta. What this metaphor exactly signifies is a matter of conjecture, but the image proposed is (appropriately) unappetizing.

There is also, here, an interesting development of the synecdochic movement prevalent in the poem. Instead of the substitution of the whole by the part, there is an attribution of the part’s physical attributes to the inanimate, even an admixture of the two.

The “acres” seem to measure not only land  (“flowerbeds”) but also people (“stars”), and the flowerbeds themselves are, in turn, described as “bloodshot” and “blue,” a color previously used to describe the hands of the boy playing guitar, but which of course can also denote a melancholy state following immoderate revelry. The excess of signification is intriguing, if somewhat perplexing.

Stanza Seven

People are waiting.
When the chauffeur-bodyguard arrives
Shining eyes seeing all or nothing,
In the silence.

The host’s chauffeur/bodyguard comes to work. His entrance into the recording studio is followed by the gaze of a group of women. It is not too clear who these are, but one could assume they are fans waiting for the rockstar’s appearance.

Seidel hasn’t hidden his admiration for Baudelaire – himself a chronicler of decadence – and there is here an echo of the opening of “Damned Women,” which runs: “Like musing cattle lying on the sand / They turn their eyes to the sea’s horizon.” The unflattering designation “cattle” is, in both cases, meant to convey the passivity of those so described.

Stanza Eight

A stranger, and wearing a suit.
Has to be John the Baptisit,
Self-consciously, meeting their gaze.
That is as sensitive as the future gets.

The bodyguard returns the women’s gaze in this stanza, and the poem ends. It is ludicrous, of course, to describe the bodyguard as “at least” John the Baptist, which would make his employer “at least” Jesus (though this is perhaps a hint as to the given superstar’s identity).

This momentary exchange of glances, with the man’s “self-conscious” gesture presumably meant to emphasize his position of authority and thereby impress the assembled harem, is described as the height of sensitivity of which “the future” is capable. The future is obviously not very sensitive.


What is the tone employed by this poem?

The tone of ‘1968’ is reserved but unmistakably mordant. Indeed, the poem gains its effect by carefully evading anything resembling a moralistic attitude, even though the reality it portrays might appear a prime target for moral condemnation.

Is this a typical example of Frederick Seidel’s poetry?

The political and social preoccupations of ‘1968′ are certainly not alien to Seidel’s larger body of work. In addition, the poem is, in various ways (such as in its use of unexpected and original perspectives, for example), typical of the collection in which it appears.

What type of poem is ‘1968?’

1968′ is a satire, even though its frigidity may tend to conceal the fact. The satirical intent is obvious in the way Seidel portrays his characters and the way they relate to the world.

What is this poem about?

In a broad sense, ‘1968′ is concerned with the often sordid reality behind glittering surfaces. More concretely, it contains a fairly savage attack on the presumptions of what journalist Tom Wolfe called the “radical chic” of the 1960s.

Similar Poetry

The highly critical attitude, to put it mildly, of ‘1968‘ may invite comparison to poems like:

Poetry+ Review Corner


Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Frederick Seidel (poems)

Frederick Seidel

'1968' is an early poem and one in which, arguably, Seidel's voice has not yet fully crystallized. One finds in it, for example, a rather innocuous free verse rather than the plodding, bungling rimes that ironically embellish more recent work. In terms of its themes, however, the poem gives a fine sense of what would follow and is by no means an unaccomplished poem in itself.
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20th Century

This poem effectively captures the spirit of an important moment in 20th-century American history. '1968' is often seen as the "annus horribilis" of that turbulent decade, a year marred by the assassination of major political figures and other eruptions of shocking violence. From the vantage point afforded by the lapse of several years, Seidel attempts - obliquely - an assessment of the year and the decade. Underneath its obvious political manifestations, he detects a substratum of moral decline.
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The poem first appeared in 1978 (that is to say, ten years down the road from the moment in which its title places it.) Enough time had elapsed by that point to permit a more clear-headed look at the 1960s in America, and it is just this that the poem offers. The 60s were, of course, a turbulent decade not only in the US but the world around, and 1968, in particular, is often seen as the culmination of that turbulence. The poem effectively captures something of that sense of crisis. One could agree with its argument or not but one should allow that it is driven home with force.
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The poem registers in a memorable fashion what it conceives to be the birth of a new era. Hence: “The future / has been born.” Labor and delivery are here metaphors of course, rather than actual, physical processes but they are employed very effectively to give an idea of the monstrosity of the future that the poet fears (or rather, writing subsequently, knows) is coming.
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Along with birth, death is never very far away from the picture here. There are various references to disease, addiction, and lethal violence. There is also the reference to Paradise – which is what this little world of privilege is ironically compared to. Of course, paradise is where one goes after they have died.
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The poem relentlessly suppresses the individuality of the persons depicted. Thus, anything one might call a relationship is essentially precluded. Of course, this is very much the intended effect of the poem. Like practically everything else, relationships are here something very different and much less appealing than what one understands this term to refer to. Once more, one could claim that relationships are here the absence of relationships.
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The setting of the poem is, of course, one where (so-called) amusement has been taking place. In addition, the poem itself, paradoxically given the subject matter, is, in its dark way, rather amusing. Indeed, for reasons not perfectly clear, the sight of excessive indulgence, intemperance, and what one might, finally, call folly can be funny. This is what makes satire possible.
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While not directly referred to or represented, boredom is arguably a major force in '1968.' The implication here, if nothing else, is that luxury (and by extension indolence) breeds decadence. Sunrise, after all, is a time of day when people are meant to just be waking up rather than to be lying around a swimming pool in a state of stupor. Also, we already referred to the Baudelairean echoes of the poem – and of course boredom, ennui, indolence, sloth, are the Baudelairean themes par excellence.
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This is not a declared emotion of the speaker or any of the characters. Rather the feeling of depression is given very subtly through the sense of emptiness the poem emanates. Put another way, it is the sense of distance from what one may suppose to be the prevailing mood that creates this sense. After all, some of the people depicted are possibly having the greatest time, yet the speaker – whoever he or she is – steadfastly refuses to share in the fun, and along with them, so do we.
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Drug Addictions

Drugs are everywhere in this poem. They make their appearance in the very first stanza, with the "absolutely stoned" foot punting the football. At the same time, however, they are felt to be almost incidental to what we might take the poem’s argument to be. They are certainly not denounced – but then nothing else is either. Rather, they are an essential but nevertheless minor element of the picture
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The Manson murders are the immediate future that the poem, so to speak, foretells, the implication being that they were a product of the decade’s licentiousness. In a broader sense, the coming age is one of complete apathy, disconnection, and insensitivity. The poem openly declares its interest in the future, and the picture it gives thereof is bleak but definitely arresting.
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While the mansion is called a “Paradise”, the appellation is, without a doubt, heavily sarcastic, and when one looks carefully at the stanza in question, one finds elements one would more readily associate with hell – the subtropical clamminess, the foggy vision, and of course the faceless victims of murder. Indeed the belief one is in paradise, which some of the participants in the part presumably share, may be part of the setting’s hellish quality.
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This poem depicts a scene from the life of the affluent and famous. While it opts decidedly for irony and sarcasm as opposed to outspoken condemnation, there can be little doubt that the reader is not meant to find the images presented appealingly. This is interesting because, in the later stages of his career, Seidel would be accused, among other things, of flaunting his wealth and social status. It might therefore be worthwhile to consider what might have caused his departure from the stance evident in this poem.
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Free Verse

This is a fine example of how free verse can be used to produce a memorable effect. The “freedom” enjoyed does not preclude the presence of verses and combinations of noteworthy metrical sonority. The poem is also remarkable for its economy of expression. One of the difficulties of free verse is that (in contrast to pre-set forms) one doesn’t necessarily know where or when to stop. This is certainly not a problem here.
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While fairly subtle, '1968' is obviously satirical in intention, and it deploys some of the standard elements of the genre. The focus on what one might call vice and folly is such an element, as is the use of humor, sarcasm, and irony in their exposure. It is, one may add, a rather effective satirical poem.
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Alexandros Mantzaris Poetry Expert
Alexandros Mantzaris is a freelance writer and a lover of poetry. He has published scholarly articles on literary subjects as well as various book reviews. He holds a PhD in English (American Literarure).

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