History and Children
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Poetry and History, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. The large, warm, exact way of seeing history which is in it, and which is central to Aesthetic Realism, is in keeping with this principle, on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the present section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the opposites of the fixed or definite and the unplaced, the unknown, in history.
We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled “What Do Children Really Want from Their Parents?” All through history, parents have not known the answer to that question. Children have been born, grown up, had children of their own, without parents knowing what their children most wanted from them. And parents have not understood, either, the biggest mistake they were making with their children. The paper by Mr. Blaustein is courageous in its honesty.
I am very glad, now, to quote from two poems by Eli Siegel. Both appear in his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. And both bring together children and history.
I think “Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers” is one of the most compassionate poems ever written. It has compassion and grandeur. Here are the first 14 lines; and a child is shown to be like history—literary history—in the last of these lines:
Fly, birds, over all grieving mothers.
Tell them, if they know more,
They will grieve less.
Tell them that the children they grieve for
Are as mysterious as the God they pray to;
For God’s way is in them.
Tell them that the children who came from their bodies
Have come from so far away,
And from so much;
And that these children
Are going for so much
Of Hell and Heaven, dark and light—
That mothers can be as away from them
As from lost lines in the early poetry of France....
There is so much to say about this enormously musical poem—including the fact that the second and third lines have in them what Mr. Siegel believed to be so about everything in a person’s life: “Tell them, if they know more, / They will grieve less.” Most people feel that the more you know, the more painful you will find things. But Mr. Siegel loved knowledge passionately and completely.
How Wide Is a Child?
The central matter in this poem is also the central, unrecognized matter around every crib or playground: how wide is a child?; how much of the world is in her, including history? Aesthetic Realism explains that every child has to do with the whole world—nothing less. She is related to every happening of humanity’s past, every fact of science, even every bird or flower. For one thing, it will be possible for her to have these in her mind. And she has in her the structure of the world itself, the oneness of opposites: she is a particular drama of reality’s repose and tumult; surface and depth; pleasure and displeasure; simplicity and terrific complexity.
Parents, this poem says, need to see their child as very close to them, yes; but also as being just as strange, unsum-up-able, unhad by them as “lost lines in the early poetry of France.” That phrase itself by Mr. Siegel is, musically, both so tender and so gracefully wide.
Aesthetic Realism shows, what a child most wants from her parents is that they encourage her to like the world—this world to which she is infinitely related. If they don’t, no matter how much of a fuss they make about her, she will feel deeply rooked.
The Parental & Human Mistake
Mr. Siegel is the person of thought who has explained the source of every injustice, whether international or personal. That source is the desire for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Everyone goes after contempt—but it is always completely ugly. The huge mistake of parents is to use a child to have contempt for the world by seeing her as superior to the rest of reality. This is also contempt for the child; because in making the child too good for an unworthy universe, the parents have really made her small: they have taken away the biggest, most beautiful thing about her—her relation to the world and her thirst to like reality itself.
Another poem in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems is “Night in 1242.” This poem shows that two children and what they did on an ordinary day are part of history—as much as Napoleon or Caesar. It begins:
In 1242 people looked at the sun.
Let’s have some fun,
Said Jane Terrell to John Hodge in 1242.
Jane was so little, John was so little, in 1242.
So they tried to pull off some branches
from a tree, a tree that was near them....
In these lines we see that the matter-of-fact, presented musically, has wonder. I love the line “Jane was so little, John was so little, in 1242”: there is such tenderness toward these children—and there they are, in the 13th century; we feel the distance of the world as time is with them. They are far, and so near. They are little, and given such respect.
Eli Siegel is the educator who articulated the deep hopes of children, and who stood up most fully for what children really want. It moves me tremendously to say he did that with me. I am looking at notes of an Aesthetic Realism lesson my parents, Daniel and Irene Reiss, had when I was two years old, and I see these words of Mr. Siegel:
You don’t bear a child to have a possession, but in order to have that child like the world....Ask her, “Ellen, do I make you like other people or do I make you dislike them?”...Do you think in some way you encourage Ellen to grow up a snob? She doesn’t want that from you. She wants to be known and understood and not coddled and to be a snob.
Eli Siegel was the person who most respected children—and adults. Because of his honesty, knowledge, and courage, he has made it possible for people of any age to meet each other’s hopes.