Technique, Kindness, and the Poetry of Eli Siegel
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we publish the conclusion of the definitive 1948 lecture Poetry and Technique, by Eli Siegel, I am grateful to speak a little here about the poetry of Mr. Siegel himself—which is, in my careful opinion, some of the greatest poetry ever written. This principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism, is true of all poetry, including Mr. Siegel’s own: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
No poet wrote and was at ease in a greater variety of styles and diversity of poetic forms. Eli Siegel wrote in couplets, stanzas, blank verse; he wrote some of the best sonnets in English; he wrote in such intricate verse forms as the medieval French ballade and the rondeau; he wrote much, much free verse. In his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems and Hail, American Development are some of the most complex poems in American literature, and some of the simplest. His poetry is passionately serious—and sometimes wildly funny. In the 1960s he wrote with musical intensity and sometimes satirically against the Vietnam war; he wrote with passion about what human beings deserve economically—and he also wrote “To a Slushy Pear” and about determinism and free will in lifting a water stopper.
The large matter is the way of seeing the world which is in the poetry of Eli Siegel: it is, in my opinion, the most beautiful, complete, truest way of seeing the world that ever existed in a person, and it makes, in his poems, for music that is very large.
William Carlos Williams, in his famous 1951 letter to Martha Baird, describes, as he sees it, the quality and importance of Eli Siegel’s poetry. Of “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” which won the Nation Poetry Prize in 1925, Williams writes: “I say definitely that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world.” And he continues, about other poems of Eli Siegel:
As I read his pieces I am never prepared for what will come next....This is powerful evidence of a new track….The evidence is technical but it comes out at the non-technical level as either a great pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the breath, a feeling of cleanliness, which is the sign of the truly new.
Williams describes too what Mr. Siegel met from the literary establishment: “The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received from the ‘authorities’ whom I shall not dignify by naming” (Something to Say: William Carlos Williams on Younger Poets, ed. J.E.B. Breslin [New York: New Directions, 1985], pp. 250-1).
A Child: Dignified and Bewildered
On pages 80-83 of Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems are “Twenty-one Distichs about Children.” I use four of these distichs or couplets to comment on the poetry of Eli Siegel, which they represent, and on Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of people. The first is:
1. Bernice thinks a little.
Bernice is two months old; the world is new for her.
Ah, will her parents’ angry world quite do for her?
I love this couplet for what it comprehends and for its beauty. Here, through the measured, firm, thoughtful sound in iambic hexameter rhythm, a little child is felt as having dignity; and also, as these two long lines reach out in delicate wonder, we feel too her bewilderment.
The deepest desire of every person, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world. Meanwhile, often a child very early is aware, from a bassinet or crib, of two representatives of this world—her parents—showing anger, scorn, displeasure toward each other and at other things. Sometimes they clutch at the child for consolation against a world they dislike; sometimes they want to dismiss that same child, who is part of the disliked world. And so a child, Bernice, who wants her parents to help her in what is most important for her life—to like the world she was born into—becomes mixed up. She may be praised, hugged; she may receive presents; but she is being thwarted as to her deepest, most essential hope. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson when I was two years old, Mr. Siegel said to my parents, who had just begun to study Aesthetic Realism:
You don’t bear a child to have a possession but in order to have that child like the world. If you don’t like the world, you can’t show a child how to do that. Ellen wants to be known and understood and not to be coddled and to be a snob. I am interested in Ellen’s not withdrawing and thinking the world is a mess.
I thank Eli Siegel for understanding me and everyone; for fighting to have the best thing in a person win, fighting (to use an old-fashioned word) for my soul. The lines about Bernice stand for the powerfully beautiful way of seeing that was present every time he spoke to a person. Within the dignity of the first line is a drama of two sounds: the inwardly whirling er and the sound of happy, outgoing wonder: oo. A child as in herself and out, confused and sunny, is in that dignified musical line: “Bernice is two months old; the world is new for her.” Then, the second line has a wide ache or sigh: “Ah, will her parents’ angry world quite do for her?”
Littleness and Grandeur
The tenth distich is called “Magnificence in Jackie”:
A child has come—we know not whence—
In Jackie, there’s magnificence.
This couplet, with its concise four-beat lines, has neatness and grandeur, small and large, as one. The name Jackie is so non-mighty. Yet it has a likeness in sound to the exceedingly different word magnificence: the as are in common; the ck is related to the hard g. Eli Siegel has us feel organically, through the way the words as sound and meaning are used, that indeed “In Jackie, there’s magnificence.”
What is the magnificence of a child—or any person? It is not, Aesthetic Realism shows, in the fact that the child may be yours, or the person may make much of you. The magnificence of any person is that the structure of the world itself—the oneness of opposites—is in him. Every child is hoping to be, at once, in motion and at rest: to feel agog, keenly interested, and also composed. Every child is one and many-has many thoughts, many feelings, often swirling within a single being who takes up not so much room on his father’s lap. Every child wants to be free yet also just to the things and people he meets. These opposites—reality insisting within him-are the magnificence of Jackie.
I shall comment on two more of these beautiful, comprehending distichs. First, “14. Alexander has failed”:
He was a man of means; his name was Alexander;
His little Helen asked in vain; he failed to understand her.
The technical beauty of this couplet is the way it makes a one of pomp in the sound of the first line and such pathos in the second. And in that second line, with sounds having pain—the short is, eh, the long as—there are respect and tremendous compassion.
Distich 18, tells of the biggest mistake people make:
As much as little Alice was unknown,
She thought, I’m in myself and just my own.
In an Aesthetic Realism principle—a landmark in civilization—Mr. Siegel explains: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” Alice, like thousands of children right now, is using the fact that no one sees or wants sufficiently to see what goes on within her, to feel she doesn’t have to be fair to the world: that what’s inside her is warmer and better than what’s outside. This poem has compassion for Alice, yet also embodies in its second line some of the bad triumph and smugness children can have—but which deeply they long to find unnecessary.
Standing for myself and them, it is my happiness to say with love: Dear Eli Siegel—you understood the hopes of children, and adults. You understood mine of once, mine of now. Because of you, little Alice or Jackie or Helen or Bernice need no longer be unknown. Because of your Aesthetic Realism—which criticizes contempt and teaches a person how, honestly, grandly, to like the world—the true self of every person can be a flourishing thing.