The Saturday Review
AUGUST 17, 1957
The Spell of a "Natural"
Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems by Eli Siegel
(Definition Press, 107 pp.), is the first book of verse by a poet
who has been writing for more than three decades.
By Selden Rodman
Like his own poems (their quality of timelessness), Eli Siegel seems to have been around a long time, and it may well be a criticism of us and of our time that we have not been aware of it. The title poem of his new volume "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" appeared in a magazine as far back as 1924. Others appeared in such long-gone little magazines as Modern Quarterly and The Hound and Horn; others have been appearing in little magazines of very recent vintage; yet this is Mr. Siegel's first book.
In a "letter" prefacing the book, William Carlos Williams, placing him "in the very first rank of our living artists," apologizes on his own for the general neglect, and then characteristically adds: "Either a man has quit or gone forward. And if he's gone forward he's headed straight into disrepute."
I'll confess that I was a little put off by the superlatives in this introduction. I'd read others in which Dr. Williams's humanity, generosity, and partiality for what they call in baseball the "nothing ball" sometimes got the better of his judgment; so I approached the poems in a hypercritical mood. I began by jotting down random reactions on a back flyleaf, as follows: "Eccentric, innocent, diffuse, compulsive, pure, original, crank." This was getting me nowhere, so I expanded a little: "One moment as wise as Socrates and the next as crazy as Benjy ..." "It's not that what he writes of isn't one of the important facts of existence, but that he seems to believe it the only one ..." "Curiously impersonal; all we know is he likes cats . . ." "Often banal but never second-hand or phony . . ." "Essential quality: elegiac, generalized compassion . . ."
I was being won over in spite of myself. I wouldn't take back any of these observations, but I would have to say (as I couldn't honestly of the reading of any new poems in the past decade except those of Stanley Kunitz and Richard Eberhart) that I was under the spell of a "natural," a man who obviously wrote poetry not to prove anything but because he had to, and in the doing of it adapted no "stance," employed no "tricks." This, just as obviously, accounted for the fact that the poet seemed to feel no bitterness for the neglect of his poems, or of himself.
Blake's passion is not felt, nor Whitman's hypnotic incantatory roll—nor Sandburg's journalistic sing-song, nor Stein's opaque ego—but the compulsion in all these writers to get at the heart of the matter in plain words, side-stepping "literature," is Siegel's too. What is he saying?
|Dr. Williams talks a good deal about Siegel's originality of technique, implying that he has no ancestors. I am struck rather by an almost complete rejection of techniques; and in this Siegel is quite in the company of Whitman, Sandburg, Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, and Dr. Williams himself, all of whom from time to time, but never imitatively, he resembles. Blake, too:
The years may go, and parents may be far
From knowing, clearly, who their children are.
—Morris H. Jaffe.
Eli Siegel—"full of surprises."
The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past is in it ...
Anywhere's anywhere, anywhere's everywhere ...
Flora has altered,
And her sitting room is now furnished otherwise.
The sight of a certain mountain once had by her,
Has been had ...
The question then is,
How much can we be the allness of things?
Is what remains
When everything you can think of
Is a sudden inability
To say no.
Like "Leaves of Grass," Siegel's book is maddening but full of surprises. He comes up with poems like "Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers," "She's Crazy and It Means Something," and "The World of the Unwashed Dish" which say more (and more movingly) about here and now than any contemporary poems I have read.