The Tumult about Lightness and Heaviness
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the present section of the historic lecture Poetry and Technique, which we are serializing, Eli Siegel speaks definitively about what has been called “light verse.” And through the difference between light verse that is true poetry and light verse that is not, we can see something of how great, kind, intensely and achingly needed is this principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” For every day, people are tormented about the opposites of lightness and heaviness.
A young man in Denver can feel weighed down by his thoughts. His confusion about women, work, money, family, about whether he is really useful to anyone and whether anyone has real meaning for him, sometimes affects him like lead, pressing upon him. Then, he can go after being ever so light: can crack one joke after another with his friends; can try to feel nothing really matters: you take things as they come, you laugh and have a “good time” and don’t let anything get to you deeply. After week-ends spent this way, he feels miserably empty and ashamed.
Millions of people in America now are shuttling between a feeling of painful heaviness and the empty giggle or guffaw. And Aesthetic Realism says, so kindly: What you want is what art has—a oneness of opposites. You want to feel that you are light-hearted, not through getting rid of meaning, but because something means a very great deal to you. You want to feel that because you are trying with all of yourself to understand and be fair to something or someone, to give that thing or person respectful weight, you are at once happily grounded and buoyantly free. I am proud to say, with gratitude equivalent to my very life: through Aesthetic Realism, people can have at last that ached-for state of mind and feeling.
Since the distinction between light verse that is real poetry and light verse that is not, represents the difference between the life we want and the life we don’t want but may have—it is necessary to see what that distinction is. So let us look a little at a poem by a person Mr. Siegel here calls “not a poet,” the witty and famous and suffering Dorothy Parker. This is titled “Comment”:
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
We Want Meaning Too
This quatrain is, from one point of view, well done. It has irony. It tells us that a wide-eyed, gushing praise of life is fake; and it does so through three exuberantly bounding utterances—followed by a fourth that fits rhythmically and rhymes, but sardonically negates the others through being patently false.
The quatrain is likable. Yet it will leave people feeling as unclear, bitter, and empty as they were before they met it, and perhaps more so. And the reason is that while we want to be as skeptical as possible, while we want fakery punctured, while we want to see how meaningless life can be—we also want meaning with our meaninglessness. We want to see beautiful sense in things even as we’re seeing all the falsity and pain life can give. And—because the writer did not see truly enough—the way this poem is made, the relation of word to word, syllable to syllable, does not make for that depth within the lightness, that richness within an awareness of emptiness, that we thirst for in order to feel our lives have sense and wholeness.
I present for comparison the first stanza of an instance of light verse that is true poetry, “The Policeman’s Lot,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance:
When a felon’s not engaged in his employment,
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man’s.
Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty’s to be done.
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
These lines of W.S. Gilbert present the view, with which Aesthetic Realism agrees, that a criminal is not entirely different from someone who is not a criminal. There can be terror in the fact that a man who may hold up six people at knife point on 35th Street tomorrow has much in common with you. He may like the same music you do, and look for love as you look for love. Further, Aesthetic Realism shows, what enables someone to do something criminal is that which all people have: contempt. Mr. Siegel described contempt in the following great principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” And he showed that this ordinary making less of what is not ourselves is the beginning of every cruelty. That fact is illustrated here by Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin: we publish part of a paper he presented in October at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, “Does a Man’s Contempt Make Him Strong or Hurt His Mind?”
W.S. Gilbert Meets Our Hopes
Meanwhile, there is the Gilbert true light verse. It is, in its way, as breezy as the Dorothy Parker quatrain; and at least as chilling—for there is nothing more chilling than the confusion of good and evil. Yet in these lines are the richness and sense of the world. That is, we see and hear reality’s opposites as one—and as we do, we hear poetic music, and feel the world has meaning.
In the first line, the activity of a person standing for evil, a “felon,” is made quite everyday and businesslike in the dignified, innocent phrase “engaged in his employment.” Through a rhythm in words that is factual, reasonable, evil and innocence are wed in this line. They are made matter-of-factly, scarily, rather thrillingly the same and different. And running through the line, heard five times, joining the business-like part and the criminal part, is the eh sound—like a person’s struggling to make sense of something. The line is light, and it is deep, at once—as we long to be—and as we do, we hear poetic music, and feel the world has meaning.
The second line has, along with its comedy, a richness: “Or maturing his felonious little plans.” It has—with rs, ls, with its full-sounding, even mouth-watering words maturing and felonious—a relish, and you do not know if that relish is innocent or evil. The way felonious ripples with a certain rightness into little makes one feel felonious must mean something much nicer than it does. But to feel the rightness and evil of the world as the same even while we know they are different; and to feel this sameness and difference, rightness and wrongness, making sense and music in a line, is to have that state of mind which Aesthetic Realism shows we were born to have: it is to like the world.
People have hoped to feel weighed down in order to have contempt for the world: because there is a triumph in feeling that this world consists of one burden after another and we are too sensitive and good for it. And people have “made light” of things out of contempt: for there is a triumph in showing that things mean nothing to us—we are above them all. Meanwhile, the feeling that lightness and seriousness or weight cannot go together in this life, makes for a deep agony. Aesthetic Realism grandly ends this agony.
Eli Siegel himself was the most respectfully, courageously serious person in history—he wanted to be and was fair to every person and thing—and his humor was magnificent. The philosophy he founded is, forever, the means for people to have true lightness of heart—which arises from the world seen, with resplendent seriousness, as a friend.