Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
The Self: Clever, Deep, & Confused
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third section of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Cleverness. Here too, from a recent public seminar, is part of a paper by Leila Rosen, teacher of English and Aesthetic Realism associate. The seminar’s title was “How Can a Woman Be Sure of Herself in Life & Love?”
In the lecture Mr. Siegel speaks about various aspects and ways of cleverness. That word, cleverness, can include so much—from cruel trickery, to charm, and even, he shows, beauty itself. But it’s usually associated with a certain superficiality, not depth; with smallness, not grandeur; with deviousness, not sincerity and kindness.
Aesthetic Realism is based on the principle that “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In the previous paragraph I mentioned opposites that are severed in the notion had mainly of cleverness, in the kind of cleverness people largely go after. Most men and women feel that to take care of themselves they have to be adroit, manage things and persons astutely, or nimbly shrug them off—not see them deeply, be stirred mightily, be richly just. This cleverness, with its rift between opposites, has made for misery.
Yet art, Aesthetic Realism shows, has a different cleverness: in true art, deftness is for the purpose of being just; adroitness is fair to what is deep; agility arises from large feeling. This is a big reason why we need to learn to see in our own lives as art sees—and there is nothing kinder and greater in the history of thought than the education, Aesthetic Realism, that teaches us how.
In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about a poem of Robert Browning. Then, in what he calls an “interlude,” he comments very briefly on several short poems of his own. I want, in the space available, to say more about at least three of them. So my commentary will be in two parts. I’ll pause for now; then, after Mr. Siegel’s discussion and before Ms. Rosen’s paper, I’ll continue.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Serious, Too
By Eli Siegel
There is a kind of cleverness that has in it the cleverness of word structure, and in this field Robert Browning was, on the whole, the cleverest of the major poets. Byron did all kinds of things, too, in Don Juan, but Browning, generally speaking, was the cleverest. Take this poem, called “Misconceptions”; it has a difficult rhyme scheme, but the thought also is unusual. The poem is obscurely clever:
This is a spray the Bird clung to,
Making it blossom with pleasure,
Ere the high tree-top she sprung to,
Fit for her nest and her treasure.
Oh, what a hope beyond measure
Was the poor spray’s, which the flying feet hung to,—
So to be singled out, built in, and sung to!
This is a heart the Queen leant on,
Thrilled in a minute erratic,
Ere the true bosom she bent on,
Meet for love’s regal dalmatic.
Oh, what a fancy ecstatic
Was the poor heart’s, ere the wanderer went on—
Love to be saved for it, proffered to, spent on!
There is an unusual idea in this poem, and something very fetching.
“This is a spray the Bird clung to, / Making it blossom with pleasure.” In other words, the spray felt that the bird’s being on it, even for a moment, was good for the spray. And the spray liked it, was grateful.
The rhymes sung to, hung to, sprung to, clung to give something of the bird going up the tree.
Then there is another moment—Browning is the poet of moments:
This is a heart the Queen leant on,
Thrilled in a minute erratic,
Ere the true bosom she bent on,
Meet for love’s regal dalmatic.
(A dalmatic is a kingly robe.) This moment can be taken in various ways. It is a moment going toward something else, but still seen: Browning says of it, “Oh, what a fancy ecstatic / Was the poor heart’s, ere the wanderer went on.” Something is seen and something beyond is looked for, but the beyond and the moment are seen in relation. There is a good thought here, and the structure is decidedly of the clever kind.
Now, when we think of cleverness, we also think most often of that which is funny. This can be—the two can be together—but need not be. And here it seems right to have a little interlude. Take, for example, a poem I seriously came to as a serious thought—the poem that has been called by others the shortest poem in the world. It appeared in the New York Evening Post, and it happens to be in an anthology of Untermeyer’s without my name. People thought that this was meant to be “the shortest poem in the world” in that clever fashion. I didn’t mean it that way. When I wrote “One Question” it was because I thought about it and then said:
I thought this was the most economic way of putting a big problem. I didn’t mean it to be clever at all. But it is seen now as the shortest poem in the world.
Another one—though not as short—I also didn’t mean to be clever. It’s called “Humanity”:
Then, there was the one that appeared in a Hearst newspaper, the New York American, some time ago, called “History of Love”:
I didn’t mean that to be clever either: it was meant to express, by interjections, possible feelings. But it was taken as clever.
You can do things with rhymes—sometimes you can make awful rhymes and sometimes make rhymes one doesn’t expect. Take, for example, this thing, which I regard as going pretty far in a rhyming way; I call it “Relation to Prokofiev”:
His hat took off he if
He heard Prokofiev.
All right. You don’t expect words to be that way. —Or the other one:
There’s nothing I can be more sick of
Than the way he plays Rimsky-Korsakov.
This kind of rhyming is interesting, and sometimes it occurs naturally. If it doesn’t occur naturally—then out with it!
Meanwhile, in life itself, very often if an accident occurs what happens is that one has to be clever. You’d be surprised how clever we are, what people can do. For example, the fact that blind people can read from raised type is a very wonderful thing, something that seems very difficult to a person who doesn’t need the Braille type. Such things are. And we are more clever than we know; that is, we can meet a difficult situation with more resilience, with more adroitness, and also with more profundity, than we have imagined.
About Three Poems
Commentary of Ellen Reiss, continued
No poet wrote in more varied forms, genres, styles than Eli Siegel—from free verse to the sonnet to, even, the ballade, and more; from long poems to short ones. He wrote poems of sweeping lyricism, philosophic poems, playful poems. And in all of them, he honored with logic, feeling, and music the meaning of things.
“One Question” has that music. The first line, with its vertical I sound, rises: “I.” It is the self asserting itself with large, proud firmness. Then there is the second, rhyming line, which is so different: “Why?” It expresses the bewilderment this self can have. And in its sound, the bewilderment of “Why?”—though it trembles a bit—is wide and large too. The self as proud, in its strong “I,” and the self as vastly uncertain are one in this poem—with grandeur.
Then, “Humanity.” Its two words are a sentence. The first line is a surname as representative as any in English: “Jones.” As sound, it’s substantial, and rotund with that o. Through the second line we go within Jones. We see something of his feelings, his pain, with that slow-moving, large-sounding “Moans.” And the m in that line, “Moans,” is tender, kind. How different the poem would be if it were “Jones / Groans”: we would not hear the tenderness, the honoring, that are in the poem as Eli Siegel wrote it.
Along with what he himself says about the third poem, “History of Love,” I add the following: It goes from the wonder two people can feel about each other (“Oh, ah”) to the disgust, unsureness, even boredom that so often take its place (“Huh, pah”). The rhyme, in its sameness and difference, brings to us the deep drama of how feelings can change. In the lives of men and women, it’s a drama that has much suffering with it. Yet in giving neatness and swiftness to confusion, the poem also makes for a feeling of buoyancy, and hope. Aesthetic Realism is the education that explains the confusion so much in the “history of love.” And, I say with infinite thankfulness, Aesthetic Realism can teach people what love really is, and how to have it.
These poems are beautiful, and immensely kind.
Can We Be Sure in Life & Love?
By Leila Rosen
Years ago, the last word I’d have used about myself was sure. Though I worked hard to appear imperturbable, as if nothing could shake my confidence, inside I was anything but. Talking to people was an ordeal. And I became agitated when I had to make even a simple decision, including about what I should wear. The change in me on this subject is among the largest reasons I’m grateful to Aesthetic Realism. I learned both the cause of my painful unsureness and what would make me honestly sure and proud.
A woman will be sure of herself, I now know, when her purpose is to be fair to the world and people, and when she feels they’re related to her and can add to her. That purpose and that feeling of relation, writes Ellen Reiss, are the source of “the authentic, big, deep, modest, proud sureness every person wants.” An important aspect of this sureness is that it “doesn’t evade self-questioning but contains it” (TRO 1271).
Yet often people feel, as I have, that questioning ourselves at all is unwelcome. “We just love to be sure,” Mr. Siegel explains, “and if we aren’t we either become hidden or resentful, or both.” I was both. I tried to get to a quick sureness through feeling superior, and literally told myself the only way I’d be confident around people was to “have one-up on them.” This is contempt, which, Eli Siegel showed, is the greatest weakener of our minds—and in going after it we insult the best thing in us, our desire to be fair. It’s a beautiful fact that this fake sureness really makes us more unsure.
From very early, I felt most truly sure of myself as a student, especially in relation to language. The process of learning itself is a oneness of sureness and unsureness—as, for instance, with English spelling, which I loved. It takes time to be fairly sure about spelling rules and the exceptions to those rules. But as we learn, our unsureness isn’t debilitating: knowing we need to know more helps us get to a better understanding of the language and more ease even when we aren’t certain how a word is spelled. I liked the rule “I before e except after c, or when sounding like ay, as in neighbor and weigh.” Though I later learned there are even more exceptions, respecting the rule enabled me to have confidence.
In 6th grade at Brooklyn’s PS 212, I looked forward to our international dance festival. We learned folk dances, like the Sicilian tarantella, and after the first tentative steps I became surer: I knew I could count on the lively music, with its strong beats and light, swift ones, to know when to stamp my feet, when to kick them in the air, and when to jingle my tambourine. Dancing with others, I felt confident and at ease.
But in most of my interactions with people, my unsureness was tormenting, and I could barely speak when I met someone new. What I called my shyness, I was to learn from Aesthetic Realism, really came from a fake sureness: my sureness that I was more sensitive than other people, whom I saw as crude and unworthy of me. This way of seeing had an ethical kickback: I felt people I’d looked down on would do the same to me, so I was fearful of them.
Unsureness as to Love—What’s the Cause?
In high school, I envied girls who seemed able to talk easily with boys. I felt it was humiliating to have to show I liked someone. Instead, I’d furtively gaze at the young man, hoping he’d figure it out and naturally reciprocate. I found, to my chagrin, that telepathy doesn’t work. Then, when I saw Mitch laughing with Debbie, or noticed Danny and Karen holding hands in the hallway, I felt stupid to have cared for boys at all. Convinced no boy would see my value, I used this inaccurate sureness to have contempt: well, if they weren’t interested in me, who needed them? I assumed a poker face and a cool manner.
As I got older and saw that men were affected by my womanly form, I felt: At last, I have a way to make a man be attentive to me. As women have done for centuries, I used this power to get to a kind of confidence. But I hated myself for what I was going after, feeling I’d cheapened myself. When I began to study Aesthetic Realism I learned why: in wanting men to be stirred up by my body, my hope was not to respect them but to have contempt for them. My Aesthetic Realism consultants asked about this way of affecting a man, “Was it your greatest victory and your greatest defeat at once?” Yes it was, and it made me even more unsure that I’d ever have a deep relation with a man.
I was surprised when my consultants asked, “Do you think one of the reasons you are unsure of yourself as to men has to do with the contempt you have for your father?” This question began some of the most valuable education in my life.
I was troubled by my relation with my father, Barney Rosen. He was the person with whom I felt closest—and also angriest. Sometimes we’d go for walks together and have serious conversations, and I liked that. But I used his attention to be smug. I saw him as existing to make much of me, felt sure I was more important to him than my mother was, and didn’t feel any obligation to know him. Then, when he would become very angry or sullen, I would feel, not that there was something I should try to understand, but that the rug was pulled out from under me.
I learned that I’d used my father to feel that the function of masculine humanity was to praise me, and that if this didn’t happen I had a right to be hurt and scornful. I needed to change my purpose with men, beginning with my father. My consultants asked: “If you could have a good effect on him and have him think more of himself through you, would you be surer of yourself as to men?”
I wanted to find out. To encourage me to think more deeply about Barney Rosen, they gave me an assignment: to write part of an imaginary Aesthetic Realism consultation he might have, with questions like those I was hearing—about what he might have against himself, what worried or confused him, what he was hoping for—and to use my imagination to see how he might answer them. I was being encouraged to have good will, which Eli Siegel defined as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
It was a life-changing assignment. For the first time, I saw my father as a real person, with real hopes and self-doubts. And I took seriously the criticism he’d expressed of the unfair way he felt my mother, sister, and I saw him. My consultants respected what I wrote, and asked whether through it I saw my father more as an individual in his own right, and also as more like me. Yes, I did! Seeing my relation to him, I became kinder, surer of myself—with him and other men.
Good Will Is Love, & Makes for Sureness
Now, in my marriage to jazz pianist and educator Alan Shapiro, I’m very glad to be seeing more every year that good will is a beautiful oneness of sureness and unsureness. When a woman wants to have good will for a man, she’s sure she wants him to be stronger, more himself—and so she’s deeply, sensitively, imaginatively inquiring in order to see how that can be. She asks, for example, without wanting to get speedily to an answer: What does he feel? What might be affecting him that I don’t see—and that even he himself might not see? How can we look together at these things? What does he hope for from me? How can we speak about all this in a way that has us both like the world more? Asking questions like these has had a strengthening, deepening, exciting effect on our marriage. I love and respect Alan more with every month, including very much for his critical encouragement of me.
Women everywhere will be grateful when they can learn from Aesthetic Realism the kind, needed way of seeing that will make them increasingly sure of themselves, in life and love.