New York, Love, & Poetry
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have reached part 6 of the great New York Begins Poetically, by Eli Siegel. In this rich, vivid, surprising 1970 lecture we see—beginning with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan—New York as illustrating, and as understood through, the Aesthetic Realism principle “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The sixth section brings up a matter which Aesthetic Realism considers to be as important as anything in the world: what is the difference between true poetry and false? What makes one poem about Manhattan the real thing, and another not? Here, Mr. Siegel speaks about both kinds—and also about the Municipal Building!
We’re proud to include as well one of Eli Siegel’s poems about New York. “Love Lurches Along” is from his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, where he writes this descriptive note about it: “1953. Rowdy, but tearful; rowdy, and tearful.” So we have in the current issue New York, love, and poetry.
Poetry: An Individual & the World
“Love Lurches Along” is a presentation, humorous, poignant, and deep, of some of the turmoil that goes on every day about love. What does that turmoil in love come from? And what does it have to do with poetry? And with New York?
As I write a little on those questions, I’m glad to state something that I’ve expressed many times before, and for which I’m grateful without limit: Eli Siegel is the critic who, after all the centuries, explained what poetry is. He is also the person who, after all the centuries, explained what love is. And he showed that love needs to have that oneness of opposites which is in every good poem.
“Poetry,” he wrote, “is the oneness of complete individuality and the largest generality.” Every poem comes from an individual, expressing his or her ever so particular feeling and seeing. But—this seeing is so fair to the thing written of, is so deeply and widely just to it, that the world itself is present too. Reality’s structure, the oneness of opposites, is in what’s said—and we hear that structure, as poetic music.
Take the Edna St.Vincent Millay poem Mr. Siegel reads in this section of his lecture, “City Trees.” We hear the thought of one individual woman in New York in the early 1920s. But we hear too reality’s order and tumult, tenderness and force.
Then, there is “Love Lurches Along.” With all its playfulness it is a masterpiece—so much has the writer as individual been fair to the immediate subject and the world itself.
The title, “Love Lurches Along,” is funny, but true. Love is so desired and people are so unclear about it—what can it do but proceed with an uncertain thrust? The title’s rhythm lurches too. Meanwhile, the liquid ls in all three words convey the loveliness, the meltingness, that people yearn for and somewhat feel.
The qualities Mr. Siegel points to in his note are forms of reality’s opposites: “rowdy, and tearful.” People who go after love have selfishness, crudeness, mix-up; can be narrow, prosaic—yet they can ache and yearn.
Section II of the poem is composed of statements, decidedly unromantic, non-grand, of the sort people are making throughout the city now. These statements (and two questions) contain hurts, smallnesses, resentments. Yet even as the lines have us feel human selves being other than magnificent, the rhythms make for largeness and for drama.
In “Love Lurches Along,” people’s feelings mingle with things of the city: Central Park, the Sixth Avenue L (or elevated train). And as the poem’s final section says: despite all the human pettiness and even meanness accompanying romance, the grand mystery that is love remains.
So, again: a writer, in all his individualism, is seeing with such honesty that the opposites which comprise the world itself are felt and heard as one.
The Reason Why
One of the lines in “Love Lurches Along” is: “There still must be a reason why.” Why do we love? And why does love so very often go wrong? Aesthetic Realism answers both questions, and shows that the answer has centrally to do with poetry.
We go after love because of those huge opposites at the basis of poetry: individuality and generality, self and world. The purpose of our lives is to be truly ourselves through welcoming, knowing, being just to the world not ourselves. Another person, with all his or her specificity, stands for that world. The purpose of love is, in Mr. Siegel’s words, “to feel closely one with things as a whole” through being immensely fair to a particular person. Love, then, is trying to be like poetry—which has in it grand justice to the world itself through being just to a particular subject.
Love goes wrong because a person uses another not to care for the world but to get away from it, and also conquer and manage it through a human representative. With all the nuances in people’s pain about love, that is the main cause. They have gone against the principle of poetry and their lives: they have used a chosen person to have contempt for a world they were born to like.
This use of self against world, individual against general, is also the biggest cause of trouble in a city. All the unkindness, both personal and economic, that has been in New York and anywhere has come from the feeling that to be an individual is to make less of what’s not me. This rift is the basis of the profit motive: I take care of me through seeing things and people in terms of how much money I can extract from them. Such a way of seeing is like what’s behind a bad poem—where a person does not see the material as something to be just to but as something he can manipulate to make himself impressive. And so: sweatshops, child labor, the effort to smash unions have the same source as falsity in verse, and also falsity in love. The source is contempt, the sense that things, people, should exist to make me important and superior.
Meanwhile, there is the poetic principle within New York. No city embodies more richly the fact that each of us is an individual meeting a multitudinous, ever so various world of people and things different from us. Those poetic opposites, we’ll soon see, are in a passage Mr. Siegel reads about the Municipal Building. The thousands of records there concern individuals, who lived over the last four centuries. And each of these records, and individuals, joins with the thousands of others in one building in Lower Manhattan.