The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Magnificent Understanding of Poetry
and Your Life

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Technique, which Eli Siegel gave in 1948. And as we do, I am very grateful to comment on what I see as the most beautiful thing in the world: Eli Siegel’s showing, after centuries of literary criticism, what poetry really is; and his showing that in the emotion and technique of every good poem are to be found the answers to the tumultuous life questions of each person and also to the troubles afflicting nations. This principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism, is resplendently true about poetry and about the life of everyone: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Since the lecture we are serializing is about technique, I comment here on that other aspect of a poem: the emotion and perception which, as Mr. Siegel shows, technique should be fair to. And I use lines by one of the poets he mentions. This is section 7 of Wallace Stevens’ symbolic, wild, musical poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?

Whatever else is in this poetry, there are thought and feeling. So what is the difference between the thought and feeling in these five short lines and the kind of thought and feeling now going on in people in the kitchens, bedrooms, offices, streets, and also legislatures of America?

People Are Narrow and Wide

Stevens’ blackbird—who, we find, has to do with everything, with “twenty snowy mountains,” one’s own mind, “a man and a woman,” a river—stands, I think, for reality itself. The blackbird is reality as not apparently glamorous, as not soothing or glorifying you, but as always present, critically asking for justice. And in the lines I have quoted, people are chided for not wanting to see how grand and beautiful this ever-present thing really is.

In the first line, Stevens is writing about persons who are contracted, who don’t want to see in a way that is large: “O thin men of Haddam.” He is displeased with them; there is a delicate revulsion as one’s lips go from the fullness of “O” to the constricted sound “thin men.” People are displeased with other people all over the world right now—but the way they are displeased makes them be mean to one another, even attack and bomb one another. The great difference between this line and the emotion in apartments and nations is that Stevens is trying, from the very center of himself, to see and feel something justly; and so he presents these men as not only contracted but as having also grandeur.

We hear both in the music of the line: we hear a timorous tremble and also a reverberating pomp. As Mr. Siegel explains—the how we are made to hear this is the technique. It has to do with the fact that the short vowels and ns of “thin men” contribute to that tremble; and the full “O” at the beginning and the resonating weight of “Haddam” at the end of the line make for a sense of pomp. But the technique arises from the justice of Stevens' feeling: his feeling as he came to this line that even persons we object to have the world in them—they are both narrow and wide, perhaps hidden yet completely real. And when we see the structure of the world in any person, we cannot be cruel to that person.

Justice Becomes Music

The next line objects to the way people can long for something falsely gorgeous—use it not to see that the real beauty, what could really thrill them, is right before them: “Why do you imagine golden birds?” This is an exceedingly musical line. It is critical, with a no-nonsense trochaic thrust: “Whý do | yóu im | ágine...” But it is also a question, with wonder, an ache, a slow, wide probing. There is a sound here that is the desire to know—to know other people from within.

There is nothing more needed in the world than this desire to see truly what another person is. It is needed desperately in marriages, because, mainly, as a wife is angry at a husband, she is not trying to know him, see his feelings with fullness. For that matter, when she is pleased with him she is not trying to see who he is either. Because her purpose is not to know the man she married, but to have him make much of her, she is ashamed of both how she is pleased and how she is displeased; she is ill-natured and feels empty and lonely. Meanwhile, in this line the desire to know is so deep that it makes for what Eli Siegel showed to be the crucial thing in poetry: music.

The third line, with its two dactyls and a spondee—“Dó you not | sée how the | bláckbírd”—has a proud strut, a triumph, even as it is so simple, modest. And the hope of everyone is here: to feel we are triumphant, struttingly important, as we see the meaning of something else. Mr. Siegel showed people won’t be just to other things and people until we feel personally triumphant, expressed, important through being just. We need poetry and the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry to be convinced that that is possible and to learn how to do it.

The last of these lines have at once the ordinary and the mysterious—with thump and nuance: “Walks around the feet / Of the women about you?” We will be kind to other people only when we see them that way—as firmly real yet having wonder, the unknown.

Eli Siegel was the greatest literary critic in history—for many reasons which I have described before and shall again. But a tremendous reason is: he is the critic who made poetry fully useful, who showed it stands for the self we want to have, and showed how we can have that self.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Poetry and Technique

By Eli Siegel

Technique has, like logic, been looked at suspiciously. It has been thought to be a way of showing that you don’t have any feeling while appearing as if you do. In other words, technique has been seen as a decorative defense for paucity of emotion. On the other hand, it can be seen as a way of being fair to what we feel.

Aesthetic Realism sees certain people, like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro, as, essentially, “the technique boys.” I have discoursed on Mr. Eliot for a long while, and though he is, I think, one of the great masters of technique, he does have an ability to change poetry into a religious game of dominoes. He doesn’t have enough animal feeling. And animal feeling with symmetry is what makes poetry. Mr. Eliot, however, can be interesting. A person like Robert Lowell is, I think, a worried and dull fellow. There is a technique—it is a mingling of the sacred poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins and sprung rhythm, ways of using words heavily, and an adroit way with punctuation—but I don’t see much fire in him. And even today in this time of the difficult metaphor, fire and the cousin of fire, music, should be present.

I don’t see Robinson Jeffers as having much honest emotion: he can make you miserable in such a way that you feel as important as the Pacific, but I don’t believe that’s the purpose of poetry. I think that a person like Hart Crane—who is as difficult as Robert Lowell—is a good poet, because, along with the technique, he has the cataracts, he has the wildness, he has the depth. I think that the early work of Wallace Stevens is the real thing. William Carlos Williams represents the real thing too. And I think some popular poets, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, are poets. I don’t think the unpopularity or popularity of a person has anything to do with it.

What We Are and What We Show

The matter of technique can be seen in terms of a flower. A flower is a what and a how; and wherever the how seems to be the same thing as the what, we have technique. It can be said that the purpose of a person is to have a technique that grows from what he is and is indistinguishable from what he is. We can have a rift between what we are and what we manifest for two reasons: because we want to protect ourselves, and also because we want to have contempt for other people. The ability to put together being and doing, what one is and what one shows, is a problem of technique in the aesthetic sense of the word; but it is a problem of happiness and being honest in the personal sense of the word.

Technique should be a means of helping honesty; but it usually isn’t. When technique is not for honesty, it is like leaves and twigs that are strange to the root. In a good tree, the leaves can be seen as being in the root. The authentic thing, the thing that did push a flower out of the ground, did make an elm to grow or an oak to grow, has to be there. And that power most often is not present.

Simplicity in Richness

To show the difference between technique and the “technique” that is a means of hiding the fact that one has nothing else, I use a simple and pretty bitter poem of William Blake. This poem, “Song,” is chiefly in iambics. An iambic is one of the most important things in the world. The fact that there can be a foot like deny, with the first syllable swift and the second syllable accented and somewhat slower, is a big thing, because it puts opposites together in a self.

How sweet I roam’d from field to field

And tasted all the summer’s pride,

Till I the Prince of Love beheld

Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He show’d me lilies for my hair,

And blushing roses for my brow;

He led me through his gardens fair

Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May dews my wings were wet,

And Phoebus fir’d my vocal rage;

He caught me in his silken net,

And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,

Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

And mocks my loss of liberty.

This is a simple way of saying that being in love is a way of surrendering to the enemy: you get into bondage. Blake writes very simply. “He loves to sit and hear me sing”: if that were sent to the Partisan Review, they’d say, “We don’t want poetry by uneducated children.” And if the Kenyon Review got “He led me through his gardens fair,” they’d say, “Cliché—‘gardens fair’! The adjective following the noun—horrible!” But this is a good poem, and one of the reasons it is good is that there is simplicity in the richness.

I have said that there is more art in “The St. Louis Blues” than there is in the work of Mr. Eliot, Mr. Auden, Mr. Spender. I think that “The St. Louis Blues” is next to John Donne, Arthur Rimbaud, the best work of Hart Crane—because it has “go,” and it has quietness, honestly. A line like this one—“I hate to see that evening sun go down”—is iambic; but along with the iambic, it has other qualities of technique: qualities of wideness and narrowness, sadness and casualness. It has what technique is really about.

Where It Begins

To show what I mean, I deal with technique where it begins. There is such a thing as a word; and if we take a word like brisk, we have a quality of speed—the sk is speedy. But suppose we changed it by adding another word, and we had a term like “brisk stoutness.” Sinclair Lewis was fond, in his early work, of such gatherings: he would have a swift word like brisk followed by a word you didn’t expect, like stoutness, and then: “The brisk stoutness of Mr. Pallou, smoking his inevitable cigar.” “Brisk stoutness” is a pretty brutal putting together of opposites, but I like it. We have a fast idea and a slow idea, because we associate fatness and stoutness with slowness.

Suppose a person said “the lightsome lake.” We don’t associate lakes with being lightsome. We associate brooks, perhaps, with being lightsome; we associate lakes with being solid and respectable—otherwise they wouldn’t be lakes. But we have “the lightsome lake.” Poetry always rearranges the world honestly, through the way words are put together and are chosen.

One of the reasons for the greatness of the line  “I hate to see that evening sun go down” is that it has in it all the sounds of pain from a vowel point of view: i, a, e, ow. And it is done naturally. Then, if we looked into the line, we should find an arrangement of vowels and consonants, an arrangement of going up and going down, an arrangement of precision and ease. It is a big line.