The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Poetry—& How People Affect People

Dear Unknown Friends:

The two parts of this TRO seem different; yet they are very much related. And the happiness of every person is involved with the relation. First, we continue to serialize the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Slowness, by Eli Siegel. Then, we print part of a paper by Kevin Fennell, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “The Urgent Question for Men and Women: How Do We Want to Affect People?”

Aesthetic Realism explains that the one effect we can ever respect ourselves for going after is that through us another person like the world more: that we are a means of this person’s being more interested in, fairer to, more richly and accurately joined with reality’s things and people. And the reason people can feel uneasy and sometimes desolate about their effect on others, is that this is not what they have gone after. People live whole lives feeling they have not steadily affected another person in a way that makes them proud. They may have impressed persons stupendously; they may have lived with someone for 60 years and gotten and given devotion; yet there is an unarticulated emptiness and shame—because through them a person has not liked the world more, and may, in fact, like the world less.

This matter has to do with poetry; because all poetry that is the real thing, Aesthetic Realism magnificently explains, is like of the world. No matter how sad or ugly or cruel a poem’s subject, the writer saw that subject with such sincerity that he felt in it the structure of reality itself: the oneness of opposites.

“In reality opposites are one, Mr. Siegel stated; “art shows this. People have not known that when they were moved mightily by a painting, an instance of music, a poem, they were for that while liking the world: they were meeting what the world truly is, and finding it beautiful. For example, there is the poem of Yeats that Mr. Siegel discusses here, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven—published 101 years ago, immensely musical and honest. Yeats is writing of his thought about a woman. Yet inseparable from that thought, we feel, we hear, qualities of the world itself, some of which Mr. Siegel points to: the mystery of things, at one with tremendous immediacy; the oneness of sharpness and slowness; of what’s abstract and that which weighs; of pride and humility.

The Two Effects

We have, Aesthetic Realism shows, a thirst to feel our effect on people is good. But we have another purpose, which interferes monumentally. That purpose is contempt—to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” So without being clear about it, people today went after affecting others—in love, in social and family life, in work situations—through lessening them, weakening them, making their relation to the world worse.

Take a representative person—we’ll call her Kathy. She surely wants to be kind. When she brought soup yesterday to a sick friend, she had the friend find the world more likable through that soup. But crucially, Kathy goes after the following effects: She wants to impress the persons she meets; she’s not much interested in understanding them. She would like to manage a person, get that person to do what she wants, without thinking about what might strengthen him and what he is hoping for. She wants a person, especially a man, to feel that she’s much better than other people: that they’re not worth much and she’s worth ever so much. She would like a man to be weak and need her desperately. She would like him to find life dull and inimical, and herself the only source of kindness and interest.

Kathy, through various abilities, may have these desired effects. Yet with her victories, she feels deeply rooked and ashamed. That is because her need to like the world, and to be a means of another’s liking the world, never leaves her—though she does not know the need exists, as once people didn’t know that the atoms in their body existed.

There Is W. B. Yeats

Let us take William Butler Yeats. As he wrote lines about Maud Gonne, the Irish revolutionary who stirred and confused him, he was able to have an effect immortal in its goodness: the effect which is poetry itself, the accurate and beautiful showing of the world. But as these two persons knew each other, there was suffering, and neither understood why, nor have the writers about them. In the Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry class I have spoken about the reason, which has intricacy. But chiefly the reason was: neither felt sure the other wanted to have a strengthening effect on him or her—wanted him or her to like the world, to be in a better relation with the world. Each suspected, as people suspected on dates and in bedrooms today: This person who is making much of me wants me to be somehow weaker.

What Mr. Siegel explained in an Aesthetic Realism lesson when I was 23 years old and felt pained about love, is true also of Yeats. He asked me: “What is a possible motive you and Mr. C have? There is a desire to assist another—and also a kind of ruthless sculpture. People don’t know how much they want to shape another without full regard for the other. When people suffer, they don’t know how imperial they are.”

Yeats saw the meaning of the world in Maud Gonne; through her he believed more in the grandeur of reality. Yeats also wanted to own Maud Gonne, “shape” her, not understand how she saw everything. He didn’t know the difference between those two ways of seeing a person; without Aesthetic Realism, people haven’t. But we find pain and confusion about the effect of person on person, told beautifully in poems of Yeats about Ms. Gonne. In “Adam’s Curse” he says that though love for a while had “seemed happy—“yet we’d grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” And this is from “A Memory of Youth:

I praised her body and her mind

Till pride had made her eyes grow bright,

And pleasure made her cheeks grow red,

And vanity her footfall light,

Yet we, for all that praise, could find

Nothing but darkness overhead.

There is something we want more than praise. It is to be encouraged in our deepest desire, to like the world honestly. The only person we trust—whether lover or teacher or politician or relative—is one who truly encourages us to like the world. And when we see that purpose in a person, we love him. That was Eli Siegel’s purpose with everyone. It had with it his tremendous scholarship and courage. It was his beautiful purpose with me always, and my love for him is equivalent to my very life.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Slowness and Yeats

By Eli Siegel

Slowness is very subtle. There are all kinds of rhythmical slownesses. Never mistake the slowness of a fat bird for the slowness of an oxcart. Never mistake the slowness of a tulip for the slowness of a fat Dutch merchant snoozing. They are different. There is slowness with weirdness, with fatness, with tiredness, with confusion. In this poem of Yeats, it is slowness with comprehensive Celtic yearning. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” was written fairly early in his life:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

This is a painting poem. It takes the fabric of thought and makes it almost like touchable, seeable fabric. There is ascertain relation between wideness and slowness. When you say “cloth” you think of something slow. If you say “blade” you think of something fast. Narrowness, in a sense, seems faster than wideness. And this is a wide poem.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths.” The syllables fall very slowly and very heavily. There are lots of ds in the poem. And the heavy syllables seem to huddle against each other. “Enwrought with golden and silver light”: then something that doesn’t seem to have weight, something you can’t touch, seems to be given touch.

Two things happen in poetry. Most often what happens is that you take something weighty and make it seem not weighty. But sometimes the other occurs, where you take something spiritual or formal and you give it matter, weight. Let’s say you did something like this—it is what Shelley does very often: you take an Adoration and have the Adoration touch one on the lips. What kind of business is that—Adoration touching people on lips! Or you take a ghost and have a ghost touch your hand, and maybe shake it a little too tightly.

For instance, what are “the heavens’ embroidered cloths,” and who said that heaven should have such solid things as embroidered cloths? “Enwrought with golden and silver light”: light here becomes heavy too. And when you make a light thing heavy, there is a slowness of effect.

“The blue and the dim and the dark cloths.” A monosyllable is slower than a word of two syllables, in terms of the single syllable. That is, if you say two monosyllables which are two words, it will usually be slower than two syllables in one word. As the words which are single syllables fall, one has to look at them: “The blue and the dim and the dark cloths / Of night and light and the half-light.” This makes for slowness of effect, because if you are going to look at each noun and adjective for itself—well, you are going to be impeded.

“I would spread the cloths under your feet.” There is hardly a fast verb in this poem. The verb that stands out is spread. If you are going to spread anything, you are going to take your time about it. You can’t think of spreading anything and rushing.

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams.” There is humility, and humility makes for slowness too—humility and yearning. “I have spread my dreams under your feet.” Then we have the other verb of importance: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

This is a miniature of sight and tactuality. The touch sense is slower than the smell sense or hearing sense. The poem is really a study in slowness. It is a very good poem and it can be rolled on one’s lips lusciously. There is no harm in that—it is worthy of it.


What Effect?

By Kevin Fennell

Aesthetic Realism is great in showing there is a deep desire in every person to have a strengthening effect on people.

Some of my happiest times growing up were when my sister Marion and I would sing in harmony many early songs of the Beatles. As we tried to be exact about the notes and rhythm and heard our voices blend and contrast, our effect on each other was good. Yet when I wasn’t singing, I mainly had a very different purpose. I wanted to be the most important person in my sister’s life, and enjoyed conversations with her in which I made fun of people, looked down on them, and encouraged the feeling that the world was unlikable and beneath us.

Very early, life seemed confusing and difficult; and the remedy I came to was to feel apart and superior, too good for all that. I cultivated a mild-mannered innocence, and got a lot of praise from my family—for being well-behaved, good-looking, smart. I used it to feel I had a special quality which made just my mere presence good for another person, without my having to think about or do anything. Meanwhile, I was more and more dissatisfied, and saw the rest of the world—which didn’t give me the automatic approval my family did—as harsh and unkind.

With friends in college, I wanted to be seen as witty and keenly insightful as we mocked people and pointed out the “phoniness” we’d seen in “society.” I encouraged my friends to use drugs with me, mostly marijuana. And in using them, we ratified in each other the feeling that the world was unlikable and should be put aside. One friend, David, was often torn between his pre-med studies and social life on campus. I’m sorry that I never once encouraged him to study, but instead pressured him to party with us.

Though I acted as if I could laugh everything off, I agonized about my relationships with people. I would curse myself and cringe, going over and over things I’d said and done. I despised myself and had no idea why.

I am so lucky that I met Aesthetic Realism and began to study in consultations. When I spoke about feeling very separate from people, my consultants asked, “Have you felt you should keep your distance from people while trying to have them very impressed with you?” With immediate recognition, I answered, “Yes!” They asked, “Are you proud of yourself for the way you’ve thought about people—the effect you’ve wanted to have—or are you ashamed?” I, who had wanted so much to convince people, including myself, that I was a well-meaning, nice guy, answered, “Ashamed.”

I knew that beneath my smiling surface I really didn’t care much about the lives of the people close to me. And then I saw something very important: I had actually hoped another person would dislike the world, because in disliking it the person seemed to be making more of me. The great thing that happened is that in seeing this purpose, I didn’t want to have it anymore!

I began to ask myself, as to friends, co-workers, people in my family, people I met for the first time: Do I hope this person likes things more, sees more meaning in the world around him or her, is more composed? In asking the question, I saw how much I wanted to answer yes! I felt for the first time that I was really capable of being kind.

Ten lifetimes would not be enough to thank Eli Siegel for the knowledge that loosened the tangled knot that was my life and gave me a chance to be honestly proud of my effect on people. I cherish the life I have, which includes my happy marriage to Carol McCluer and the fact that we are learning together from Aesthetic Realism about how to have a good effect on the life of our seven-year-old daughter, Sara.