The Immediate Need for Poetry
By Eli Siegel
What is forgot these days—and it was forgot in other days, too—is the need to be affected by poetry. There has been much said about the writing of poetry, and much said about the appreciation of poetry; but not enough has been said about the possible effect of poetry. Poetry is a thing and does something. What it does, can do, should be looked at. According to Aesthetic Realism, poetry is a picture of reality at its truest, most useful. We look at reality, we look at it mostly in a contradictory way. We are for it, and we retreat from it. It is, sometimes, most sweet concord; but how much discord do we feel in it! Reality hurts and pleases. It frightens and allures. It surprises and soothes. It shrieks and coos.
It happens that our deepest desire is to make sense of the contrarieties in this world. We cannot, safely, prefer the blandishing in reality, or what seems so, to the forbidding. Our purpose, when sound, is to see what's real entirely. We need to see reality as one thing, with discord present. We need this very much. Poetry meets this need.
However, in order to meet our need to see the world as one thing, through poetry, we must see poetry as what it is, not something else—not something occasionally imposed by a timid and arrogant personality. We need poetry, and so we need to see it; not something else.
When we are born we hope to make some sense of the forces in us. We want to move, and we want to be quiet; we want to assail and we want to be secluded; we want to be delighted, and we want to be self-satisfied; we want excitement and we want repose. All through life, really, we are trying to make jarring, separating propensities to act as one; we are trying to have forces coalesce in an other than languid oneness. And it is poetry that makes jarring, separating propensities to act as one; it is poetry that coalesces forces in a oneness that is not languid.
From this one may properly gather that the immediate need for poetry (also the permanent one) is to see it as a means of our own organization, strengthening, instigating. Poetry represents the good sense we desire. Poetry is the exacting shepherd of our emotions.
Poetry, though, means something to us the more it, as such, affects us. Within a poem are possibilities of being affected non-poetically, that is, wrongly. It is so easy, in some hidden way, to use a poem to soothe a darkly exacerbated personality, or to allay a discontent of ego, without organizing that personality or strengthening it.
We should find excitement and repose in a poem; from the poem itself. However, there can be a bad exchange in one's reading of a poem. A certain excitement is found in a poem because the reader's fears are stirred, but not so clearly as to mean much; in this way a spurious repose ensues. All this is difficult; but it is true that the activities taking place in a mind during the reading of a poem may be intricately soothing and subterranean.
Admitting then, asserting then, that there can be false effects got from poetry, we should consider the possible true effect. The words in a poem are composed; and we want composition. Composition is the friendly presence of oneness and diversity. Our immediate need for poetry is our need to be composed.
A poem is excitement and repose. Our immediate need for poetry is our need to use it as an encouragement to have excitement and repose in ourselves. There are quietude and mobility in a poem. Our immediate need for poetry is our need to use an example of quietude and mobility.
This means that there are qualities in Coleridge's "Christabel" that we want for ourselves. There are dreaminess and precision in the poem of Coleridge. We need these. If we honor them in "Christabel," we call for them in ourselves. There are firmness and flexibility in the lines of Pope's "Rape of the Lock." Firmness and flexibility are of the very poetry in this eighteenth-century work. If we see the poem, therefore, we advocate firmness and flexibility in ourselves. There are wonder and exactness in Rimbaud's "O saisons, O chateaux." If we see the poem rightly, we befriend wonder and exactness in ourselves.
Poetry, then, is a beautiful necessity; a beautiful heightener, organizer, impetus, example. Poetry enables us to see reality where it starts; it enables us, also, to see reality as a process, and reality as purpose. The way beginning, process, and conclusion cohere in a poem is a picture of how we want to see reality and ourselves.
The agonies of the person are present in the technique of the poem. The swiftness and slowness of the poetic line; the smoothness and surprise of the poetic phrase; the rightness and wonder of the word used poetically, are answers to the desires of men and women. And they are the reason for poetry; they are the qualities that are immediately and permanently needed.
Poems by Eli Siegel
Speech of Moon in the Heart of Ceylon
Somewhere, in the heart of Ceylon,
There is a moon, whose rays
Carry the old message of the moon.
Men, understand each other.
Be kind. The past must be understood.
East and west must be friendly.
Man and woman must see in each other
Miraculous completion, respected at twelve, midday.
Children, animals can never be known too much.
Soldiers, there's another way of enjoying chance
And sudden, ecstatic power.
Music is the very essence of what things are.
Fingers were meant to understand flowers
And the erring cat. Hands were meant to honor
Trees and the wandering beast.
Words are to be loved and sentences remembered in many languages.
And thus the moon went on with its message
That June evening in Ceylon.
The planets heard and applauded in the way planets have.
The sages of old also heard, as did people not then considered sage.
Oh, heart of Ceylon, how rightly the rays of the moon
Came to you, with such a way of speech.
The speech of moon in the heart of Ceylon
Has been given, faithfully,
And every island can attest to this.
There never was a gentler speech.
There never was one the planets liked more.
There never was one we could profit more from,
When we listen to it with willingness unimpeded.
Cincinnati and a large tear.
And slow clouds not being looked at.
Hurrying mid autos taking girls to homes.
And a light near a mountain in cold.
O, Drusilla, you could be here
Or I could be in Cincinnati
Where you could be.
I could be looking at the sun near you
And I could be so and so in Chicago.
How often Illinois could have you,
You and me.
And days be so.
Understanding Does Not Like It
A child was born to Mrs. Richardson
In a hospital on the East Side
In December of that year.
Mrs. Richardson after some hours
Looked at her son
And thought: How much pleasure,
How much warmth,
How much glory
I will get from this, my first babe.
She did not think:
This babe is someone to understand
All the years of my life,
All the years of his life.
Mrs. Richardson preferred glory, warmth, pleasure as she understood these,
To understanding a person who came from her own body.
Mrs. Richardson may like this,
But understanding, which is God, does not.
Lines on Eternity
You want and you want,
And flowers do smile,
And eternity will come,
If you wait a while.
Whence? and Hence; and Whence?—
or, The Universe Can Mock Us, Too
Beneath the burden of our murky guilt
We go about and do our things and sigh.
In all our thoughts there is a brassy, Why?
We are not often firm with, Why? We wilt.
Our universe, our selves, seem weakly built.
What we thought fixed can seem to fly, to fly,
As if our strength is jeered, and what was high
Is prostrate, with our hope a darkened jilt.
No doubt it is a mocking universe!—
That will not stay and make some pleasing sense.
Is it a wonder that we glumly curse
A world unfixed, with us no consequence
To what is permanent? All seems perverse.
We mutter dimly, Whence? and Hence; and Whence?
Oh, this dying of persons,
That is connected with the quivering of leaves,
And the rippling of unknown waves.
A pillar is down,
A "note in music" is lost,
A page is torn,
And a morning fails to appear.
The joints and nerves withered,
The eyebrows grew tired,
The heart lagged,
And the sun shone.
Death is grateful,
Death is insistent,
Death is here,
Beautiful, terrifying, unthought of,
Unseen as it deserves,
Worse, better, itself.