Eli Siegel: A Centennial Celebration
By Alice Bernstein
This year is the centenary of Eli Siegel (1902-78), the great American
poet and educator, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism. He grew
up in Baltimore. It is here that his thought and writing began. And in
a proclamation issued last month, supported by Enoch Pratt Free Library,
Congressman Elijah J. Cummings, Maryland Historical Society, Coppin State
College, Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, Morgan State University,
former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and others, Mayor O'Malley writes: "I...hereby
proclaim August 16th 2002 as "Eli Siegel Day" in Baltimore, and do urge
all citizens to join in this celebration."In particular, I want Baltimoreans to know about the major poetry event
which took place on Sunday, April 28th at the Enoch Pratt Free Library,
"The Poetry of Eli Siegel: A Centennial Celebration." In it people
heard poems Mr. Siegel wrote over six decades — about people and feelings,
everyday happenings and objects, love, nature, history. Through the poems
people saw the world and ourselves newly: with depth and humor, logic and
wonder.In 1925 Eli Siegel came to national attention when his "Hot Afternoons
Have Been in Montana" won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize. This
poem of 99 vivid, musical free verse lines caused a tremendous stir. The
title was often quoted, including in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. And poet William Carlos Williams wrote of it years later: "I say definitely
that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter
century, secures our place in the cultural world" (Something to Say,
New Directions, p. 250). A highlight of the Pratt event was a tape recording
of Eli Siegel himself reading this poem. Here are eight lines from it:
Quiet and green was the grass of the field,
The sky was whole in brightness,
And O, a bird was flying, high, there in the sky,
So gently, so carelessly and fairly.
Here, once, Indians shouted in battle,
And moaned after it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man,
Each is one man by himself, taking care of himself
all the time, and changing other men and being changed
About Eli Siegel's poetry as a whole, Dr. Williams writes:
This is powerful evidence of a new track. . . . The evidence
is technical but it comes out at the non-technical level as either great
pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the breath, a feeling of cleanliness,
which is the sign of the truly new.
In 1941, Mr. Siegel founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism. It arose
from the way of seeing that is in his poems, and is based on the principle "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness
of opposites." He gave thousands of lectures on the arts, sciences, history,
economics, humor. He gave lessons to individuals (I say with enormous gratitude,
I was among them) which changed their lives. This important education is
taught now at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York
Kenneth Rexroth wrote in the New York Times Book Review that
Eli Siegel's poetry can be "hilariously funny" as well as "profound," and
continued: "It's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our
acknowledged Leading Poets." The April 28th gala poetry event included
"Love Lurches Along," "Hymn to Jazz and the Like," "Thrills, Life and Reading,"
and "Quiet, Tears, Babies," which Mr. Siegel began with his hearing a crying
baby on North Charles Street.The poems were read — some were sung — by actors Anne Fielding, Carrie
Wilson, Bennett Cooperman; sociologist Devorah Tarrow; composer Edward
Green. All are on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.Critic Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, wrote of
Eli Siegel: "In his poetry and his life he put together the utmost in logic
and the largest feeling, complete exactitude and the kindest imagination."
I am proud to agree. At this time of turbulence and terror, there is less
belief in the goodness of the world. The poetry of Eli Siegel is needed
more than ever, because it enables us honestly to think better of people
and reality itself. The noted CBS commentator John Henry Faulk said, "Eli
Siegel makes a man glad he's alive." On April 28th, Baltimoreans heard
why! And as this thrilling event concluded, the cheering audience gave
it a standing ovation!
Alice Bernstein is an Aesthetic Realism Associate and journalist
whose articles appear in many newspapers including her regular column "Alice
Bernstein and Friends."