The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Love Lurches Along

By Eli Siegel

I

In love, you don’t know what you’re getting in Elizabeth, N.J.,

And you don’t know what you’re getting in Pottstown, Pa.

So why should New York be different?

Since when was New York heavensent?

II

See you tomorrow, if I can make it, dear.

So you don’t want to see me; I could have known it long ago.

Not tonight, Elmer, I just don’t feel like it.

You won’t get the children if I can help it.

Good night.

You see, I got a boy friend.

What’s happening to us?

Don’t you think you should see somebody about it?

You’re breaking my arm.

What is that stuff you’re wearing, Grace, it’s something.

III

Love goes on merrily,

Goes on wearily.

Sixth Avenue had an L,

Now it hasn’t.

Edith had James,

Now she hasn’t.

IV

Valises, Kinsey Reports, grass.

Central Park, Prospect Park, calls.

Visits, embraces, and stalls.

Oh, what’s the matter? alas!

John O’Hara and the blue sky,—

There still must be a reason why.

V

Mystery goes on in Pottstown, Pa.

The same goes on in Elizabeth, N.J.

New York is a little more recherché,

But mystery’s there in the same damn way.


Sincerity & a Building

By Eli Siegel

I’ll read a poem by Edna St.Vincent Millay that is like Wordsworth’s “Reverie of Poor Susan.” In “City Trees” Ms. Millay says that if these trees that are in Manhattan were elsewhere, you could hear them rustle; they’d act like complete trees. Her popular poem about New York (somewhat) is “Recuerdo,” beginning “We were very tired, we were very merry— / We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.” That’s not strictly about Manhattan; it has in it a certain mingling with exotic Staten Island. “City Trees,” however, is:

The trees along this city street,

Save for the traffic and the trains,

Would make a sound as thin and sweet

As trees in country lanes.

 

And people standing in their shade

Out of a shower, undoubtedly

Would hear such music as is made

Upon a country tree.

 

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb

Against the shrieking city air,

I watch you when the wind has come, —

I know what sound is there.

This is clever in the best sense of the word. And it is poetic.

Was He Sincere?

I think it well to read one of the latter-day bad poems about Manhattan, written by none other than Ezra Pound. It’s one of the worst poems, but I ask again that people not take any of my opinions raw, as an oyster. Do not do it. I do not intend that. I’m presenting an opinion. I’ve had it almost since Grant took Richmond—but still. Pound calls the poem “N.Y.”:

My City, my beloved, my white!

Ah, slender,

Listen! Listen to me, and I will breathe into thee a soul.

Delicately upon the reed, attend me!

 

Now do I know that I am mad,

For here are a million people surly with traffic;

This is no maid.

Neither could I play upon any reed if I had one.

 

My City, my beloved,

Thou art a maid with no breasts,

Thou art slender as a silver reed.

Listen to me, attend me!

And I will breathe into thee a soul,

And thou shalt live for ever.

This has some of the purpose of the Anna Hempstead Branch poem.1 Pound wants to change the city into something likable, human, abstract, graceful. But he doesn’t have the impetus that is so strong as to be sincere in the time of syllables.

“My City, my beloved, my white!” That phrase “my white” is cacophonous. Besides, while the city has some white, there’s also color. You can just call it building-rising-high color, with space and street.

“Ah, slender.” It’s true that Manhattan can be seen as slender. The construction of Manhattan is like that of no other city, including Amsterdam, Rio de Janeiro, and Quebec.

“Listen! Listen to me, and I will breathe into thee a soul.” Well, that is false. It’s good to change a city into someone who can listen. But the presumption! Walt Whitman is presumptuous very often. Whitman sometimes says that Manhattan was not Manhattan until he started walking around on it, or near it. But Pound is unlikable: “Listen to me, and I will breathe into thee a soul.” If I were Manhattan I would say, “No thanks.”

The best part is the part in italics. But the poem is not a structure as a cherry is, or a blade of grass, or thistle. “For here are a million people surly with traffic”: that’s nearer to poetry. “This is no maid”: it wasn’t necessary to say that. Then “My City, my beloved, / Thou art a maid with no breasts”: that’s very unfortunate.

“I will breathe into thee a soul, / And thou shalt live for ever.” This is presumption. Manhattan has done pretty well since Minuit. But the point is whether the emotion is sincere. I don’t care what Pound is saying—he can say Manhattan is all he claims it is. He can say Manhattan is a certain light in his retina if he wants to. He can say Manhattan is between the second and third toe—as long as he means it. He can call Manhattan a virgin all he wants, or a maid. But from what does this emerge or come? That should be seen critically.

Architecture & Feeling

I’m going to read from a work of 1923, Landmarks of New York: An Historical Guide to the Metropolis, edited by A. Everett Peterson. He’s one of the scholars of New York. There’s much here, and the landmarks idea took the form recently of having the city designate places as historic centers.

With the Municipal Building, New York has insisted on itself. Many persons had seen the City Hall, and they also had seen the Hall of Records, and the courthouses. But through them New York didn’t make a big impression. It did, however, make one with the Municipal Building, which, as you walk on Chambers Street toward the East River, meets you, looking twice at you. Then, there is so much emotion about it: it is the marriage center. And there’s what it has in it. At one time it was the great place, and still is, for New York records, some of which haven’t been seen yet—not by recent eyes.

There’s a description of the Municipal Building in this work, and I present it as poetic because of those records. I’ve seen some of them. Somebody gets a voucher for six shillings: he helped with a dray on State Street. There are thousands of them. Most, frankly, are dull. But the city fathers, every time they paid out money, didn’t want to throw away the receipt. They had vouchers, and these haven’t been thrown away since. There are other documents. There are notes of the Common Council, which were put into volumes first in the time of Tweed, and later reprinted. I thought of quoting them, but I couldn’t quote everything.

So, there’s a description of the Municipal Building. I see another period of New York history with that building, just as another period came to be with Radio City, Rockefeller Center. The writer says:

Arching over Chambers St. rises the new Municipal Building erected in 1911. Above the great columns are shields representing the arms of the present city and state, New Amsterdam, New Netherland, and the province of New York (1664)...; allegorical figures representing “Executive Power,” “Guidance,” “Civic Duty,” “Progress,” “Civic Pride.”

One sculptor, Frederick MacMonnies, is still remembered for the brightest, most scandalous work of the time in sculpture.2

On the 24 floors of the building,...scattered among [the administrative] bureaus are invaluable record-books and documents, many of them connected with the Dutch city.... Assessment rolls of ancient days are in the keeping of the Board of Taxes and Assessments. There is very great need of a city archivist or historian to give these treasures intelligent care....There is no way to know positively where the particular document you wish may be found.

That is quite true. There have been changes, and there have been works using these documents. There was one by Pomerantz.3 And work is still going on. New York history is studied. But this building is imposing. It’s even imposing from the back, where it does look very different, I must say. Then, nearby, are the tremendous city housing projects on Monroe Street. 

1Mr. Siegel had earlier discussed her “New York at Sunrise” and called it “one of the best poems about Manhattan” (TRO 1818).

2Mr. Siegel is likely referring to MacMonnies’ dancing Bacchante, which caused an uproar in Boston when it was displayed there. His statue of Nathan Hale is in NY’s City Hall Park.

3Sidney I. Pomerantz, New York, an American City, 1783-1803 (NY, 1938).