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.