|Hail, American Development
By Eli Siegel.
By KENNETH REXROTH
Most of us who were there remember Eli Siegel as almost the sole survivor of the Golden Age of Greenwich Village. Sadakichi Hartman, Hippolyte Havel, Polly Halliday, Harry Kemp, Maxwell Bodenheim, John Rose Gildea, Little Joe Gould and all those wonderful girls who wrote poems about Italian truck drivers for Joe Kling's Pagan — they are all gone, if not into a world of light, at least gone from the Minettas, Macdougal Street and Hubert's Cafeteria.
Eli is still there and comes up in this book with a lovely nostalgic poem to Sheridan Square, that Local Stop. Eli Siegel has had his audience down the years...whom he taught to write verse, and a few people motivated by intelligent taste rather than fashion. But these latter, including myself, have always looked on him as a kind of le douanier Rousseau of poetry, a deeper, and broader, and older, and wiser, and wittier Gregory Corso.
I am afraid that at this late date we must admit we were mistaken. Naive he is not, and he is very far from being unlearned or devoid of insight into the works of the great dead. Scattered all through "Hail, American Development" are translations, mostly from the French, that show a penetration both original and extraordinary. His translations of Baudelaire and his commentaries on them rank him with the most understanding of the Baudelaire critics in any language.
His own poems are like nobody else's — which is probably the reason his reputation is limited. Where can one go for parallels? Morgenstern. Robert Desnos's "Bestiary." Edward Lear. W. C. Fields. Osip Mandelbaum. Yuri Olesha. Zamiatin. And now that I am turning names over in my mind, above all, Heine, a Heine who had learned from the Imagists and cubists.
He can be hilariously funny, but he can also be uncannily profound, and if you read him aloud, you immediately discover that he is a master of a prosody as subtle as it is idiosyncratic, and as skilled as it seems simple. He can also do all sorts of things other people can't. He is the only American poet who can write imitations of Japanese haiku without sounding like a lonely Middle Western housewife studying flower arrangement by mail.
I think it's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets.
It is impossible to convey how funny something is just by saying so, although the book's title alone is a masterpiece. The book has Humor ("Kangaroo"):
God said: I knew
Some day there would be a kangaroo.
Socialist Realism ("The Waving of the Grain"):
In summer, the waving of the grain
In the western United States,
Is a sight, tinged with economics,
And prevailing for acres, miles.
Logical Positivism ("Note on Circles and Spirals"):
Circles don't like
To be compared to spirals
It is unjust to,
Unsettling for, both.
Meta-epistemology ("You Can't Miss the Absolute"):
In every illusion,
There must be something
Which isn't illusion.
These are just a few of the little bitty ones. There are big ones and medium size ones and little ones, all with the same incomparable sensibility at work saying things nobody else could say and in the long ones the rhythms are as new inventions as once were Blake's or Whitman's or Apollinaire's. Eli Siegel besides is as local as Sheridan Square, that Local Stop, the unlaureled laureate of below 23d Street as pure a New Yorker as his beautiful contemporary, Starr Faithful. As the song says, "I just love a New Yorker," especially you, Eli, as I would have loved Starr Faithful if I'd ever had the chance.
Mr. Rexroth's books include "An Autobiographical Novel" and his
recent "Collected Longer Poems."
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