Has Poetry Point?
By Eli Siegel
I have called today’s talk “Has Poetry Point?” In art there’s the idea of a center, or point, which is also composition. And the way these things are unlike and can be somewhat alike is what art is about. The fact that in a pyramid one can see a point going to something wider, or width going to the point or narrowness, is a sign of what point can be.
One of the large matters in art is the way things can be all for one, and that can make for a tremendous effect. It can be shown that this is so all the time, but the orchestra principle of ninety people playing for one instance of music is very much around in poetry, and occasionally it has a comic effect.
An example of what I mean—something which is poetic and should be known—is in the best book about the twenties that I have come upon so far: The Lawless Decade, by the once executive editor of the New York Post, Paul Sann.1 It is done well: the various things of the time, politics and liquor and social life and acting and the cinema and writing, do meet pretty well. The book is alive. And a dramatic example of what poetry can be in history is in Sann’s description of what happened in America with the Prohibition amendment. We had this situation: the government through Congress had said, There shall be no more hard liquor sold in the land; the next thing was, from all parts of the world, HOW TO GET IT THERE?
It’s hard to realize the complete opposition to that amendment, but Sann has expressed it poetically. And if one wanted to say this description is a found poem, I wouldn’t deny it. It is an example of the principle of all for one thing. In the same way that Poe said every word in the short story should go for one point, one idea, one purpose, so everything for a while goes for one thing—how to get liquor to dry America:
Our Canadian border is 3,986 miles long. An army would have a hard time policing it. Liquor flowed into the United States by land and sea from this giant spigot so freely that the supply always exceeded the demand....[Bootleggers bought it] in the overland trade, or from the boats plying the Lake Erie ports, or from the sleds that ran the stuff when the waterways froze over.
Our vast Atlantic seaboard similarly defied policing—
In other words, liquor is coming from Canada, and now from the Atlantic.
The Rum Row flotilla plied almost at will between New York and such points as Nassau (“The Isle of Rum”;) and St. Pierre of the Miquelons (“The Isle of Champagne”) and the other ports of supply. The Prohibition people, of course, publicly proclaimed the doom of the rumrunners every time a pinch was made at sea, just as they always talked of the Canadian traffic as a mere trickle that would be under control any day—or sooner.
Now consider the moonshiners, flourishing in the most unlikely places.
This means that the liquor came in from the north (Canada), from the Atlantic, and now from within the territory, moonshiners:
An abandoned church in Iowa had a $50,000 rig in its sub-cellar. A Virginia farmer sliced his dugout right into the green hills. An Omaha still trailed out of a barn through a sixty-five-foot concrete tunnel...
Beyond the Canadian supply, beyond the freebooters on the Atlantic and beyond the moonshiners lay the legion of alky cookers in the cities. It would have taken nothing short of a federal census ... to get a count on that industry’s output. The tenements simply ran with alcohol. How could you stop the flow?
Well, this has center and wideness, and has converging and diverging. This is what the world is like: it’s in reality and it is in art. As I’ve mentioned before, the idea is in the motto of America, “E pluribus unum,” “From many one.” Never can too much be known about it.
The feeling in America for a while was that everything was going on in the world to get the prohibited stuff into the country. There was a feeling of concentration and wideness, and when you have that, you have what poetry has too. I shall talk about this matter pretty often, because it has to do with the relation of two words and also with the whole purpose of a novel.
A Man’s Cynicism
By Ernest DeFilippis
In an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel described cynicism as “the belief that evil is what is real in the world and good interrupts it; that despite the appearance of things, evil is the strongest thing in the world.“ This is how I once saw, and I felt my cynicism was keen and tough. When something bad happened I’d secretly pat myself on the back, saying, “I knew it. What do you expect? That’s the way it is." I felt you couldn’t depend on anyone—everyone was a phony and out for himself; it was a dog-eat-dog world you had to beat before it beat you.
This is what many men feel, and we’ve used the feeling to be superior. In his lecture What Is in Man? Mr. Siegel explained why cynicism is contempt; he showed that it arises from a desire we have: “A cynic never says, ‘I hope something is good.’ There is an importance in feeling that nothing could stand up under criticism.” He asked: “Is there anything in this world that is worthy of respect?”
In working on this paper, I saw that one of the things I’ve loved most—baseball—was in fact a logical refutation of my cynicism.2 For example: It was the 5th inning and we were losing 6-3. I shouted: “I don’t hear you, Pete! Come on, shake it up in here. Talk it up. Let’s get a rally going. Come on, Joey, get your pitch and rip it!” When I stepped onto the field and felt my spikes sink into that welcoming earth, and threw myself into the action—hitting, running, throwing, sliding, diving, cheering my teammates on—I felt that the world and I were a team. And when I watched a game that was well played, I was thrilled. I didn’t know it then, but it was reality’s opposites as one—freedom and order, the known and unknown, the near and far, strength and grace—that dazzled and enthralled me, had me respect, with joy, existence itself.
The excitement I felt on the ball field—or when I sketched a brown and white ceramic jar, or danced all night to my favorite rock ’n’ roll tunes, or read A Tale of Two Cities—arose, I was to learn, from the deepest desire in me: to know and like the world. Meanwhile, I mocked those interests, considering them impractical in a world where people worried about money, crime, illness, war. I used these painful things to feel reality was a junk heap that I was on top of.
Said Mr. Siegel, cynicism is the feeling that “nothing will be good enough for us, and if anything is good it will soon leave.” But, he continued, “Aesthetic Realism says the opposites can be loved for the next thousand years or more with complete love. If there is something in the world worthy of respect and you don’t want to respect it, you’re hiding from the world and it is a calamity.”
I have seen in thousands of instances—from a tree in winter, to a baby’s smile, to a greasy pot, to a sunrise—that you can depend on the opposites. They’re always there, always fresh, solid always!
A Tale of Two Cynics
When we hope to have contempt, the opposites will fight. For example, the opposites of near and far, warmth and coldness, were awry in how I saw my family and love. I used my parents’ and relatives’ extravagant approval to see what was close to me as warm and what was far as cold. I felt that what would make people happy was to be comforted by me.
When my mother seemed sad, I’d give her a consoling look and say, “Don’t worry, Mom. It’ll be all right.” I was not at all interested in trying to know what she truly thought and felt. But I conveyed to her: “Mom, I know the world is no good. Other people are not sensitive to what you feel. Dad doesn’t understand you. But I do, and the one person you can depend on is me.” I also made her feel that I needed her to soothe me from the inevitable disappointments and blows of life. About my mother and me, Mr. Siegel asked in an Aesthetic Realism class, “So you were comrades in despondency?” I answered, “Yes.” And that is what I wanted with every woman I dated.
I felt the most romantic thing was to sit across from a woman in a quaint café; look at her with yearning, sad eyes; and, as she talked about her life—the difficulties at work and with her family, her past—listen “attentively,” all along thinking that what she really needed was to be lost in my arms. I wanted a woman to see the world as an enemy, so I could be important. Mr. Siegel said to me: “Your ability to be sympathetic has its peril. Does every woman need your sympathy?” “Yes,” I said. And he continued: “You take it for granted that people are suffering and that you can alleviate the suffering. You see it as valuable. If you alleviate the suffering of someone, do you respect them for it?”
I did not. And when there was sex, it intensified my cynicism. I had a sense of disappointment, thinking this was all a woman really wanted. I was often irritable as I crashed from the heights of ecstasy back to what I saw as the grind of everyday life, and expected a woman to be sweet and understanding of my sensitive nature and to devote herself to cheering me up. Then I would act unmoved and feel triumphant in my grim determination to prove nothing was good enough to make me happy, not even her. Mr. Siegel asked me: “If you’re interested in a woman, is your purpose to have her feel she should be happy or to show her she has no right to be happy?”
A Good Effect
I hadn’t understood why my relationships never lasted, and blamed my increasing bitterness about love on women’s unkindness and a mean world. But Mr. Siegel said: “If you can feel ... you can continually have a good effect, your whole life will be different. There are two sorrows everyone has had: you haven’t made anyone completely happy, and you haven’t wholly wanted to.”
He was sure right! Learning to have a good effect on people by encouraging them to care more for the world has given me a proud and happy life. And this includes having a comrade not “in despondency” but in the exciting study of what the world is: my wife of 14 years, Maureen Butler. That we have been learning to use our closeness to each other to be fair to all people, both near and far, is romance of the highest kind!