The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Success of Poetry and Education

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the definitive, beautiful 1965 lecture Poetry Begins Somewhere, by Eli Siegel. And—from a public seminar titled “The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method: The Solution to Our National Emergency in Education!”—we print a paper by Patricia Martone, who is an Aesthetic Realism consultant and New York City teacher.

I have the honor and happiness to comment here on two of the greatest facts in human history: 1) Eli Siegel has explained—after centuries—what poetry truly is. And 2) the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is the means—proven for years, including in public schools in some of the most troubled neighborhoods—of students’ successfully, eagerly learning. It is the means of ending racism and other cruelty at last.

The Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry and Aesthetic Realism’s historic, infinitely kind success in the field of education are inseparable. I love Mr. Siegel with all my mind and life for showing that the difference between real poetry and what may look like poetry but is not that, is the most important difference in the world. That difference stands for the fight in every person—including every child in a classroom and every teacher. The constant fight in us, which Aesthetic Realism describes and explains, is: Should I see this world as something to know, to value justly, to respect; or should I have contempt? Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

Aesthetic Realism shows that poetry says: There is value in every instance of reality, including what is ugly; when you see anything truly—accurately, widely, deeply enough—the words with which you tell of it will have music, beauty. Poetry finds in any object—whether a rose or an ailment, a kiss or an insult—the structure of the world itself: the oneness of such opposites as delicacy and force, surprise and everydayness, quietude and stir. “In reality opposites are one,” Mr. Siegel wrote; “art shows this.”

The Purpose of Education

The purpose poetry is true to, the purpose that impels every authentic line, Aesthetic Realism explains, is also the purpose of education and of every child’s life: to like the world honestly. That purpose is completely contrary to the thing Aesthetic Realism has—so greatly—shown to be the source of “learning disabilities” and also of all cruelty: contempt, the feeling, “This world is not much good. I should get away from it, not let it get within me. I don’t have to be fair to those representatives of the world, facts or people or subjects taught in school. I should beat out the world—manage things and people or get rid of them in my mind.”

(I note here too that many, many poems now praised in schools are not true poetry, but arise from the very contempt which has people sneer at each other and be unable to learn. False “poetry” comes not from an intense desire to see something truly, but from the desire to manipulate the world—in the form of words and ideas—to make oneself important.)

Schoolchildren and other Americans are suffering now from one of the largest instances of contempt in history: an economic system that has made millions of American children poor; makes “middle class” parents work two or more jobs, without benefits, and worry about feeding their family; makes high school students hopeless about finding decent work when they graduate.

The True Seeing of Ugliness

Americans—including schoolchildren need to see that ugly thing, profit economics, the way Wilfred Owen, in the poem Mr. Siegel discusses here, sees an ugly thing: the effect of poison gas during World War I. They need to feel, “I despise this—but the world as such is worth seeing, worth feeling justly, and I want to know it! I want to see the ugly thing I am meeting—this profit economy that is making me and others suffer—with great exactitude, not use it to hate everything.”

Children and other Americans need to learn that the profit system comes from human contempt: it is the seeing of people not in terms of who they are and what they deserve but in terms of how much money you can get from them. They need to know what Mr. Siegel explained: that the profit system has failed in the last years of this century, because it is unethical. Children in America now need desperately to use the economic contempt that has robbed them to be clearly against contempt anywhere—in economics and in themselves.

And the Aesthetic Realism teaching method grandly shows that the world itself seen truly through any subject can defeat a child’s contempt and despair—and enable that child at last to learn, with pleasure and pride!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Truth Is Effective

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing critically Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” about a soldier gassed in World War I.

“But someone still was yelling out and stumbling”: in that line disorder is presented pretty well; though I think it could be done even better.

This is a horrible thing, to see a person drowning (in the gas) and choking at once: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” I think that while Owen was sticking to the fact, there was also a tendency to charge it. And Owen never had a chance to do his best work: he lived from 1893 to 1918; and he is one of the real poets of the war. But I think “In all my dreams” is going too far—there were some dreams in which this did not occur. And I wouldn’t say this man plunged, either. If he is drowning or choking, he can’t do such good plunging. Still, what Owen is trying to do is present the truth as effective. One of the elements of beauty is effectiveness, efficiency. Poetry is a matter of truth and beauty, and in this instance, terrifying truth.

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in.” This is said with some quiet. The line that is clearest and most classical here is “Behind the wagon that we flung him in.”

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Bitten as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —

Though this is a terrifying poem, what used to be called rhetoric is here-because the words do not stand for things wholly seen. “Innocent tongues” gets one away from the immediate matter; and what is the “cud / Of vile, incurable sores”? But Owen is very much affected.

He says, If you had seen this, you wouldn’t be quoting that phrase in Latin which means Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest”—high and zest are opposites; zest standing for intensity or stir, and high for something lofty. I don’t think they go together as well as they might. “To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.”


They Now Love Words

By Patricia Martone

One of the most terrible aspects of education today is that students go from grade to grade without learning to read, and teachers feel there is no answer. It is a beautiful fact that through the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, students learn how to read! This is what the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students in my ESL (English as a second language) classes at PS 97 on New York’s Lower East Side are happily doing. Many had not been able to recognize the simplest words. Now they come to class eager to learn new words every day.

These children are from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras. Several live in the center for homeless families around the corner from the school. Some come to school in winter in thin jackets and shirts, and many look tired and worn. They see poverty and despair at home and violence in the streets. At the beginning of the year, they were constantly arguing—accusing each other of taking things that belonged to oneself—and would shove each other. Children who spoke English made fun of those who spoke mostly Spanish or had an accent.

The first day of classes I told the students what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: we are born to like the world, and no matter what happens, how bad things can seem to be, we have to do all we can to like the world or we will weaken ourselves. When we think we’re big by making fun of things and fighting with people, we are having contempt, and we won’t be proud of ourselves. I told them how unjust it is—and how angry it made me—that they and so many people in America are suffering and have to worry about food, clothing, and a place to live. Then I asked the children, how would they be stronger: by learning about things in the world, about words; or by trying to keep the world out of their minds? Which way would make our minds bigger? “By learning,” Carla* said. And the other children agreed.

Words Have the Opposites

“Reading,” I said to them, “is a big way of liking the world. Words on a page stand for the world.” The students were excited and looked very happy when I asked, “What do you think happens to you when you take words into your mind?” Jaime said, “We grow.” I read to them Eli Siegel’s surprising and kind description of words, from Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters: "Words are a way of feeling things without having those things under your nose.” I said, “When you hear the word elephant, do you get a picture of an elephant in your mind, without an elephant being in the room right now?” They were delighted! As they said the word elephant, they could imagine a large, heavy animal with a rising graceful trunk and flapping ears. The word itself, we saw, puts together lightness, with the ele, which has a lift, and heaviness, solidity, groundedness, with the phant.

I asked, “Are these opposites in us? Can we feel light, happy sometimes, and then sad, heavy?” They agreed. This word shows that heaviness and lightness can be one!

I told the class that a word shows the world is made in a way they can like and respect: it has a structure of opposites as one. Every word we can think of has (for instance) hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness, rest and motion. The children had a good time seeing opposites in the sounds of words like mountain (which rises, then falls) and moon (which has wonder and space with oo, yet ends with the definite sound n). “As you think about these words,” I asked, “do you feel bigger?” “Yes,” they said. And their eyes looked brighter.

Why Children Can’t Read

Armando began coming to ESL classes in mid-November because his teacher said he wasn’t able to read. When I asked him what word he liked he said, “Hate. That’s what I feel inside.” I wrote the word hate and under it the word like. I said that they are both words, both have four letters, and they represent opposite feelings in everyone; somebody you don’t know thought of them long ago, before you were born—and now you can use them to express what you feel inside. I told Armando and the other students that I learned we are in a fight every moment between the desire to like the world, and the desire to feel the whole world is mean and we have a right to hate and have contempt for it. “There are things in the world we should hate,” I said, “but we shouldn’t use them to feel the whole world is no good and we're better.”

It is a great thing that Aesthetic Realism explains, for the first time, what stops a child from being able to read. “If a child dislikes the world,” writes Ellen Reiss, “...that child deeply won’t want to affirm, honor, have within [him or her] those representatives of the world: words” (TRO 982). I asked Armando, “When do you think you're more important—fighting with people or getting along with them?” “When I'm fighting,” he said. “But,” I asked, “do you think your anger with other people may stop you from being able to learn words, which come from the same world people do? Do you see words on a page as friends or as enemies you have to be against? The purpose of our minds is to know and like the world, not fight with it—that’s not what we were born for."

When he heard there were two desires in everyone—to respect and to have contempt—and that he could make a different choice right then, Armando stopped arguing with the other children and began to listen very thoughtfully. A few days later he brought a notebook to class and said he wanted to learn words and write them down. I asked, “When are you stronger—learning or fighting?” “Learning,” he said.

Through the Aesthetic Realism Method, students in my ESL classes have come to love words-and to be kind to each other! They take books home every night and are eager to learn new words. They are learning to read! They stand for children everywhere, desperate to recognize and feel what words are and mean, and through them see sense and beauty in the world.

*The students’ names have been changed.