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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1818.—March 14, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

New York, the Opposites, & People’s Hopes

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is our fifth installment of New York Begins Poetically, by Eli Siegel. He gave this great lecture on October 11, 1970. And in it, through various documents, literary and historical, mostly not so well known, he has us feel the city as a rich, surprising, deep, delicate, sometimes cruel, sometimes humorous, grand relation of opposites. New York—like art, like us—is described by this 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.”

New York Is Sameness & Difference

The two biggest opposites in the world are sameness and difference. Every city has these. After all, in any city the people are different from one another while simultaneously being related, akin. But it is well known that in New York there are, occupying one city, more people of more different places and backgrounds than in any other metropolis on the globe. That one can walk in New York streets and pass people from all the continents—and not just tourists but people who live here—is beautiful. It is related to the beauty of music, in which many different notes come together and make one passage, one song, one concerto. It’s related to the beauty of poetry, in which different words and sounds make up, gracefully and powerfully, the same line. It’s related to the beauty of a painting in which different shapes and colors compose the same unified work.

Yet sameness and difference, which are one in all art, are also central to all cruelty. That’s because, horribly pitted against each other, they’re central to contempt; and contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is what every cruelty begins with, goes after, has in it. Contempt is “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” In New York, as in every place, there has been contempt: people have wanted to look down on those different from them.

One of the ugliest dealings with sameness and difference is what I wrote of in the last issue: the fact that there has been, in New York and elsewhere, that phony, completely unnecessary, hideously mean difference which is wealth and poverty; the fact that some few persons are very rich and so many others are poor. There is enough real drama in humanity’s likeness and distinction without the fake, filthy difference of wealth and poverty.

New York, as to those biggest opposites, sameness and difference, represents both the hope and mistake of everyone. Our huge mistake, that which most weakens us, is our feeling that the way to be ourselves is to look down on and exploit what’s other than us. And, as I said, there certainly has been much of that in New York. Yet we all long, more than anything, to feel what New York so much stands for: that a wide world different from us, people different from us, are related to us, part of us.

These Opposites Too

In the section of the lecture printed here, we meet other opposites the city has. There are self and world, in the form of human beings and land (a NewYork street is as much land as a farm in Kansas is). And there are tumult and quiet.

As to the latter opposites: how much we long to have motion and calm be one in us! We can go from feeling chaotic, beset, turbulent, to feeling immobile and dull. But the fact that there can be, in a terrifically active city, a sense of repose too, gives us hope about ourselves. That’s why people like, for instance, to sit quietly under a tree in a New York park with a busy city around them.

New York & a World to Like

In this issue we are honored to publish one of Eli Siegel’s many poems about New York. He wrote “Summer Sunday Morning” in 1928. The New York in it, and the emotion in it, have exuberance, lightness (there’s frolic in the poem’s exclamations), and also dignity, depth.

What is the meaning of the “ring” in this poem? Certainly, a ring can be a social thing, an amatory thing, like an engagement ring. But a ring, with its circularity, is also the infinite—become, on our finger, immediate, touchable, of us. And that is what we’re after: we want to feel largeness, wonder, is close to us and even soothing. The poem says a New York Sunday morning in summer may be a means of our feeling this.

The poem also brings us New York as quiet and activity at once.

It brings us, too, those geological contraries which New York has so mightily, land and water. The water around Manhattan can seem much calmer than the hubbub that takes place on New York’s land. Yet the water is in motion while the land is not.

Then, we have in the poem, in various ways, New York as personal and impersonal. For instance, there are very particular people, with names: Marjorie, Grace. Yet there are, with them, the city’s bigness and that circular abstract shape—a ring. The word sweet is in this poem many times, including in the beautiful line “How sweet the universe can be.” For the universe to be sweet is for largeness and tenderness to be one.

Eli Siegel wrote “Summer Sunday Morning” long before he founded the philosophy that states: “Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.” Yet it is clear that he felt New York was a means of attaining our deepest desire: it was a means of finding the universe sweet, and ever so worthy of our respect.

I love this poem, and the person who, at age 26, wrote it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Summer Sunday Morning
By Eli Siegel

How good a thing

A ring is

On a Sunday morning,

In New York, summer,

Warm breezes over, about New York,

Blowing into faces of men, girls, boys dressed lightly and in colors.

And leaves on the streets blown from trees by summer winds.

And the stillness of a Sunday morning,

New York, summer.

Ring, a ring-ring,

What a big thing

A ring is, a ring is,

On a Sunday morning,

New York, summer.

Men near docks,

Laughing loudly near ships,

And breezes by ships,

Near New York, summer, Sunday morning.

Hi, hi, hey, hey,

What a sweet way

Has nature here, or if you please, the world,

On a Sunday morning,

With summer breezes blowing

All about and over

The New York I know.

Whee, whee, see, see,

How sweet the universe can be,

By docks in New York

In summer in New York,

Of a Sunday morning.

Grace, a Sunday morning

With soft, soft breezes blowing

All about and over

The New York we know.

Hi, hi, my, my

Hear breezes sigh

And sigh, and keep on sighing,

On Sunday in the morning,

Of a sweet New York,

With breezes, sweet, Marjorie, breezes,

About and all and over

New York and all and over

And all and over, Marjorie,

Everywhere, New York, summer Sunday morning.

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New York: Busy & Still
By Eli Siegel

There is much said by Walt Whitman on the subject of New York. He has the greatest number of things about Manhattan that are poetic and at the same time fairly exact. In an early part of Specimen Days, Whitman tells of what he used to see. He doesn’t say everything, but you get the feeling of the streets of New York. This is from a section called “Broadway Sights”; writing fairly late in the 1870s, Whitman tells about the people he met:

Off and on for years, I knew and frequented Broadway—that noted avenue of New York’s crowded and mixed humanity, and of so many notables. Here I saw, during those times, Andrew Jackson, Webster, Clay, Seward, Martin Van Buren, filibuster Walker, Kossuth—

Walker tried to take Cuba for the South in the 1850s. Kossuth was the Hungarian hero who caused a big furor in America.

—Fitz-Greene Halleck, Bryant, the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, the first Japanese ambassadors, and lots of other celebrities of the time. Always something novel or inspiriting.

Whitman here is like Jonathan Edwards: he tells of how New York was inspiriting and strengthening to him.1 This is the first time the two have been compared that way.

I remember seeing James Fenimore Cooper in a court-room in Chambers street, back in the city hall, where he was carrying on a law case—(I think it was a charge of libel he had brought against some one.) I also remember seeing Edgar A. Poe, and having a short interview with him, (it must have been in 1845 or ’6,) in his office, second story of a corner building, (Duane or Pearl street.)

The idea of Poe’s having an office—dear me! And to get something of New York: have a rainy afternoon and walk on Duane Street, with buildings just high enough to keep the light away. Duane was a figure in early American history, in the late time of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson.

He [Poe] was editor and owner or part owner of “the Broadway Journal.” The visit was about a piece of mine he had publish’d....I have a distinct and pleasing remembrance of his looks, voice, manner and matter; very kindly and human, but subdued, perhaps a little jaded.

Which means he was modern. And that journal has a story to it.

On the west side, just below Houston street, I once saw (it must have been about 1832, of a sharp, bright January day) a bent, feeble but stout-built very old man, bearded, swathed in rich furs,...led and assisted, almost carried, down the steps of his high front stoop...then lifted and tuck’d in a gorgeous sleigh.

This man, I’ll anticipate, is immortalized in a part of Queens now: Astoria.

The sleigh was drawn by as fine a team of horses as I ever saw....Well, I, a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen, stopp’d and gazed long at the spectacle of that fur-swathed old man, surrounded by friends and servants, and the careful seating of him in the sleigh....It was John Jacob Astor.

His life is so different from Whitman’s. The difference is, John Jacob Astor not only made a living, but made enough of a living, I would say, for 20,000 people. Whitman didn’t do so well.

The years 1846, ’47, and there along, see me still in New York city, working as writer and printer, having my usual good health, and a good time generally.

A purpose of this talk is to relate Edwards and Whitman, who, through New York, bring the possibilities of man together.

A Sentence Describes Manhattan

Later in Specimen Days—this is 1878—we have one of the best prose sentences of Whitman. It is in a section called “Manhattan from the Bay”:

And rising out of the midst, tall-topt, shiphemm’d, modern, American, yet strangely oriental, V-shaped Manhattan, with its compact mass, its spires, its cloud-touching edifices group’d at the center—the green of the trees, and all the white, brown and gray of the architecture well blended, as I see it, under a miracle of limpid sky, delicious light of heaven above, and June haze on the surface below.

The possibilities of haze in Manhattan have not been appraised justly. The haze near buildings and near water is something.

Early Morning & a Sonnet

Jumping from Whitman for a while, I’m going to read one of the best poems about Manhattan. It’s “New York at Sunrise,” by Anna Hempstead Branch (1875- 1937), who wrote those Sonnets from a Lock Box which I used in a Goodbye Profit System talk.

In this poem she sees New York from some high place, likely high up in an apartment building, with that haze and softly timeless quality that Manhattan can have and present. I’m reading it from an anthology given to cities; there are a few like that. Manhattan is here, but Chicago is too, and other cities—London. It is The Soul of the City, compiled by Garland Greever and Joseph M. Bachelor (Houghton Mifflin, 1923).

This is a sonnet, and it’s a good sonnet. The center of it is the Tombs.2 The vagueness here is part of the dawn coming to be, as it has every one of these days:

When with her clouds the early dawn illumes

Our doubtful streets, wistful they grow and mild;

As if a sleeping soul grew happy and smiled,

The whole dark city radiantly blooms.

Pale spires lift their hands above the glooms

Like a resurrection, delicately wild,

And flushed with slumber like a little child,

Under a mist, shines forth the innocent Tombs.

Thus have I seen it from a casement high.

As unsubstantial as a dream it grows.

Is this Manhattan, virginal and shy,

That in a cloud so rapturously glows?

Ethereal, frail, and like an opening rose,

I see my city with an enlightened eye.

The softness can be seen in early morning. And if you’re seeing it from on high, you feel what Wordsworth says in the best sonnet about London, perhaps, the sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”: “And all that mighty heart is lying still!” This poem is not as good as the Wordsworth sonnet, but it’s almost as good. It has a mingling of brightness and darkness, slowness and trippingness.

“When with her clouds the early dawn illumes / Our doubtful streets, wistful they grow and mild.” That word “doubtful” is valuable for streets. You can object to “wistful,” but it’s possible to see the streets as longing to be in action. I think that Anna Hempstead Branch was sincere in seeing the streets as wistful.

“As if a sleeping soul grew happy and smiled.” The city is compared to a sleeping soul, seeing something and being happy about it. That is New York emerging from dark—with the right tempo of the universe—into brightness. The meter here is arrested; there are some delicate Hopkins procedures: “As if a sleeping soul grew happy and smiled.”

“The whole dark city radiantly blooms.” That is too much gorgeousness. And the adverb, I think, is not as well placed, and perhaps not as well chosen, as might be. But the music is there. This is a Petrarchan, or Miltonic, sonnet.

Then, to compare the Tombs to a little child is notable: “And flushed with slumber like a little child, / Under a mist, shines forth the innocent Tombs.” The Tombs is innocent, because architecture is innocent. The Tombs was very carefully built. It has a history, and got to have this name, the Tombs, which has stuck. But that is not what it was called in the beginning.

“Is this Manhattan, virginal and shy?” Manhattan is seen as a virgin. All of Manhattan, including the clothing district, and the financial district, is seen as virginal. That’s the way it can seem. There’s such an innocence in early morning, from on high.

New York Can Be This Way

“Ethereal, frail, and like an opening rose, / I see my city with an enlightened eye.” This is bold: to say that Manhattan is “ethereal, frail,” “like an opening rose.” But a city, becoming busy, and not yet busy, in early dawn, can be seen as like an opening rose. The comparison is somewhat just.

“I see my city with an enlightened eye.” Anna Hempstead Branch was mystical. And she wants to see that city as the City of God, of St. Augustine. Well, this is a good poem, though it has its frailties. black diamond


1Earlier, quoting from Edwards’ memoirs, Mr. Siegel described what no other critic had realized: that this 18th-century New England theologian says New York made him deeper, better, more religious.

2The Manhattan prison, or (now) Detention Complex, has been called the Tombs for about 175 years.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
 

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

 

2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

 

3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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