November 3, 1951
My dear Martha Baird:
I cannot adequately thank you for first writing me and then sending me the copies of Eli Siegel's poems. I am thrilled: your communications could not have come at a better time. I can't tell you how important Siegel's work is in the light of my present understanding of the modern poem. He belongs in the very first rank of our living artists. That he has not been placed there by our critics (what good are they?) is the inevitable result of their colonialism, their failure to understand the significance, the compulsions, broadened base upon which prosody rests in the modern world and our opportunity and obligations when we concern ourselves with it.
We are not up to Siegel, even yet. The basic criteria have not been laid bare. It's a long hard road to travel with only starvation fare for us on the way. Almost everyone wants to run back to the old practices. You can't blame him. He wants assurance, security, the approval that comes to him from established practices. He wants to be united with his fellows. He wants the "beautiful," that is to say ... the past. It is a very simple and very powerful urge. It puts the hardest burdens on the pioneer who while recognizing the virtues and glories of the past sees its restricting and malevolent fixations. Siegel knows this in his own person. He must be tough and supremely gifted.
The thing that particularly interests me, after a lifetime of pondering the matter, is the technical implication. To me it's black and white: either a man has quit or gone forward. And if he's gone forward he's headed straight into disrepute. People aren't up to it. And of those who are for you almost no one knows why. It's all right to speak of aesthetic realism and you've done good work to get behind a man such as Siegel. But it goes deeper than that — or until I understand you better I have to assume it. But Siegel isn't for me an aesthete or not primarily an aesthete; he's an intensely practical professional writer who has outstripped the world of his time in several very important respects. Technical respects.
I have to presume that he knows absolutely what he is doing and why he is doing it. I think he does. That doesn't explain, quite, how he happened to hit on the just qualities of his style in the first place — a lot of talk and verification would have to be spilled over that before we'd know each other there. But he did hit a major chord and from the first, with his major poem Hot Afternoons etc. Only today do I realize how important that poem is in the history of our development as a cultural entity — a place which is continually threatened and which we may never attain unless we develop the position which HE has secured for us. 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.
I make such a statement only after a lifetime of thought and experience, I make it deliberately. How Siegel got himself, undamaged by the past, to that position is a puzzle to me. But all genius presents unsolvable puzzles as to their origin. In any case he did, unspoiled; got to an absolutely unspoiled point of practice which no one (not even himself perhaps) was able adequately to grasp. On that rock and only on that rock can we in our cultural pattern build. And being the darlings of our era, the ones who must break with the past (as Toynbee recognizes — tho some of us saw it before him) we are obliged to follow what Siegel instinctively set down. We are compelled to pursue his lead. Everything we most are compelled to do is in that one poem.
The immediate effect is of surprise, as with everything truly new, technical surprise. There is nothing, not even an odor of Elizabethan English (on which all our training is founded. How he escaped THAT is beyond me.). As I read his pieces I am never prepared for what will come next, either the timing or the imagery. I simply do not know what he's going to say next or how he's going to say it.
This is powerful evidence of a new track. The mind that made that mark is a different mind from ours. It is following different incentives. The eyes back of it are new eyes. They are seeing something different from ours. 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. The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received from the "authorities" whom I shall not dignify by naming and after that by neglect, an inevitable neglect due not to resentment but by the sheer inability of the general mind to grasp what has taken place.
Even a person such as myself, who has been searching for a solid footing, feeling about in the mud of the times for it while the rain and the hail of opinion batters about my head — even I was not up to a full or any realization of what the Narr, the "fool," Siegel had done. But at last I am just beginning to know, to know firmly what the present day mind is seeking. I finally have caught a glimmer of the basic place which we, today, must occupy. And I have realized our place, in this cultural field, which is inevitably to be ours, to fill or to fail. We're only hanging on by our teeth and fingernails now, or even, today, loosing our grip. I think today we are (temporarily, I hope) slipping back.
For those who are working in the materials, the despised technicians, it's a heartbreaking as it is a difficult and often exasperating battle. That's why I say it's thrilling to have had you redirect my attention to Siegel.
What I can do to be of practical assistance to you in pushing Siegel's work, so monumentally neglected, I don't know. It is incredible that he has not been published. And it is just like a man like that, it seems always to come out that way (he is satisfied with the inner warmth and does not need external assurances) not to care, not to have pushed himself forward. Instinctively he knows what his significance is. He can afford to wait. But it is time now to bring him forward and I don't quite know what to do.
I can give a reading of his works and I'd be glad to do so at some favorable opportunity; I can't give much time for I am harassed by the importunities of my life as is everyone else. I have to write whenever I am able and when I turn away from that for even the most laudable purposes I feel as if I were losing my life's very blood, irreparably. There is so much to do and there is so little time.
You say Siegel is alive and working. Greet him for me and tell him of this letter. I congratulate you on the intelligent direction of your work and the heart behind it.
9 Ridge Road