The World Seen Truly, & with Love
Dear Unknown Friends:
This week is the 36th anniversary of the death of Eli Siegel. As a means of presenting something of who Mr. Siegel was, the beauty and grandeur of how he saw, we publish 8 poems of his here, and I will comment on them. He wrote 5 of these in the very last year of his life, 1978; he wrote the others at least 50 years earlier, between 1926 and 1928.
In 1925, Mr. Siegel won the Nation poetry prize for his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” And no American poem caused more stir across this land than “Hot Afternoons” did. He later said that the beginnings of Aesthetic Realism itself were in that poem, which is about the fact that every person, thing, happening has “something in common with all things.” In the decades that followed, Mr. Siegel wrote hundreds of poems—in different verse forms and styles. In fact, no poet is more varied in form and content. And every one of his poems has that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the sine qua non of good poetry, the thing distinguishing a true poem from a false: poetic music—sound that arises because the person writing has seen with a oneness of logic and feeling, exactitude and largeness, power and grace.
A Poem of the 1920s
Let us look at the first poem printed here. “Pillars, You Are Brand New, New, New” was written, I estimate, around 1927. It has Eli Siegel’s tremendous and logical conviction that everything should be seen as new—even pillars that crumbled long ago. This was part of his respect for the world. The poem, in 16 free verse lines, is fervent and casual; there is something like slang, and there are jazz rhythms. Take these lines:
The pillars of Persepolis are all brand new things now; I’m talking of now, see.
The whole world is always brand new, and not a maybe, not, not one; even the smallest, smallest, smallest maybe.
There is a sense in this poem—with its feeling about such places as Persepolis, Babylon, Nineveh—of something central to Eli Siegel always: his large knowledge, and his making knowledge warm, alive.
I recently quoted a Baltimore Sun article in which Donald Kirkley described Mr. Siegel in the 1920s—the “integrity and steadfastness of purpose which distinguished” him. I’ll quote here from another article about those early years. In the Greenwich Village Weekly News, May 1933, J. Dosbriora Irwin writes:
Someone told me, a few days ago, that, to date, Eli Siegel was the most popular man on what may be termed the left wing of the Village. This is no doubt true, but Eli Siegel, as I know him, is not a politician; he...is too utterly true and too sincere to lobby, handshake or praise. Eli Siegel has another mission in life than to be popular amongst men. That mission is to be true to himself,...to his work. Hence he gains respect, which is ever so much more important than popularity.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Mr. Siegel was coming to the philosophy he would begin to teach in 1941. Aesthetic Realism has in it his seeing of what beauty is, what the self is, the nature of reality as such: “The world, art, and self explain each other,” he wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” And he is the philosopher who saw the thing in the human self which interferes with every aspect of our lives, hurts our minds, causes cruelty: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Eli Siegel’s vast knowledge, his critical kindness, and—as Irwin says—his utter honesty, made him greatly loved. But these also made some people furious. Even now there are persons viciously angry at Mr. Siegel and Aesthetic Realism because they respect him so much—because they cannot have the contempt for him they feel entitled to have for everybody.
In our crossing a half century—years of so much seeing, writing, and teaching by Mr. Siegel—the 2nd and 3rd poems we print are of 1978. That final year of his life he wrote many, even amid tremendous physical suffering. The two short poems “A Trill Is Trembling Continuity” and “More Lines on a Voice” are about what he heard in the singing of Joan Sutherland. We see his relishing, his honoring, of beauty at the very time he himself was in much pain. There is even the playfulness of a pun: “Where there’s a trill, there’s a way / Sound has of something to convey...” And, as always, there are that exactness and depth and width, which we hear in the poetic music. Take this brief couplet about Ms. Sutherland, so vivid as critical description, so stirring itself as sound: “Hear the voice of a child / And of something wild.”
The 4th poem, “About Fruits Somewhat,” is also of 1978. It is a musical, charming, deep tribute to things—here edible things: the fact that they have the meaning of the world in them. The poem is for all time; its value does not depend on the circumstances of its writing. But if we look at it biographically, we see references, amid the poem’s liveliness, to the pain the author was enduring. We see, in his enormous care for the world, Eli Siegel grandly, and so movingly, true to the philosophy he founded.
Over the years, I have written with some detail about how a terrible operation he underwent in May 1978 made for the dying of Mr. Siegel 6 months after. In the months preceding that surgery, Mr. Siegel’s distress had been from intense swelling of his legs and feet. Then in May he was told by doctors that it was urgent he undergo an operation for what they described as a benign prostatic condition. He did not want the surgery. The doctors—central among whom was surgeon Joseph De Filippi—said that if Mr. Siegel did not have this “simple” operation, he would die. Mr. Siegel said he would rather die than have it. His wife, Martha Baird, sought the opinion of several of his students, and we all said, with terrific—and horrible—rapidity, we thought the operation should take place.
We answered so rapidly, I told myself then, out of fear for Mr. Siegel’s life. And certainly the doctors had tried to scare us. But the truth was that I, we, were in such a hurry for the ugliest of reasons. With all our love for and gratitude to Mr. Siegel, we too resented the largeness of our respect for him, which grew every day. We too had been angry we could not feel superior to him—and now we felt smugly that we knew better about taking care of his health than he did. I am burningly ashamed forever that I did not want to have deep respectful thought about the person whose own thought (including about me) was the most beautiful thing in the world I have ever known.
Mr. Siegel underwent the procedure. It was performed by De Filippi at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. The surgeon chose to use general anesthesia, uncommon for such an operation. And after the surgery, De Filippi did not once come to his patient’s hospital room. Mr. Siegel would write of what happened as “the operation so disastrous to me,” because after it his life was ruined.
While the pain of the months before had been much, what occurred after the surgery was in a very different field. “I have lost the use of my feet,” he wrote, “which now seem to work separately from the rest of my body.” As weeks went on, he found it increasingly difficult to use his hands as he wished. Soon he could not write manually. Instead, he dictated poems and issues of this journal.
In the summer of 1978, I and others questioned De Filippi as to what had occurred in that operation. He admitted that he had been angry at the size of his own respect for Mr. Siegel. And this resentful person had used cutting instruments on the body of a great person of culture, whom he had made unconscious.
The 5th poem published here, “Quiet,” was written by Eli Siegel in 1926. You will see in it a relation, present too in some other of his poems, between walking and thought. The joining of these two was large and deep in Mr. Siegel. Central to the integrity described by Kirkley, the sincerity described by Irwin, was Eli Siegel’s desire for his thought-in-motion to meet the world justly, the earth feelingly, all the time. Now, as a result of the operation, he felt his body weakening inexorably. He wrote in a 2-line poem called “Puzzlement”: “There was a look on his face of puzzlement: / Is this what fate meant?” I am sure this beautiful, terrible couplet is autobiographical.
In September 1978, Mr. Siegel wrote several children’s poems. Two are here: “My Attention” and “Something Wise.” They have melody, factual wonder, and his desire, present under any circumstances, to see what reality is and what it asked of him.
Until the middle of October 1978, despite his torment, Eli Siegel taught Aesthetic Realism classes. In them he spoke with freshness and magnificence, definitively, about such writers as Scott, Jane Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Milton, Shelley. But he could not bear what he saw the increasing weakness of his body would lead to: an inability to meet the world with the fullness of justice that he wanted to give it. And so his death came on November 8, 1978. It was coherent with the honesty and respectful purpose of his life.
There Are Truth & Feeling
The final poem we publish here is “Sentiment Now.” Eli Siegel wrote it in 1926. And it is, I believe, saying this: our sentiment about anything—our deep, tender, yearning feeling—while so particular and ours, is related to feeling of other times, places, human beings. In our most personal emotion, we have to do with everything. The music of this poem itself is laden with feeling. Yet the idea, even as it throbs, is factual, is with scientific truth. This poem and the others stand for who Eli Siegel was and what his thought, Aesthetic Realism, is: the greatest oneness of accuracy and feeling, the scientific and the artistic, in human history.