The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Poetry, Self, and Love

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin this new year the way Aesthetic Realism itself began: with the showing by Eli Siegel of what poetry is. He explained that what makes for a true poem is the very thing that will make a person’s life happy, intelligent, proud. What takes place in the technique of a good poem is what we need, and we suffer because we do not have it: “All beauty,” he showed, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We publish his 1960 essay “What Aesthetic Realism Adds to Poetry; or, If One Wishes, Just Says about It.”

The title is very modest—because what Aesthetic Realism adds to poetry is the biggest thing in the centuries-long history of poetic criticism. It is what such critics as Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Boileau, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold thirsted to see: the thing that makes one arrangement of words poetry and another not.

What, also, Aesthetic Realism adds to poetry is this: it enables poetry at last to be really, fully useful. Poems, of course, have affected people, sometimes mightily, over the centuries; but a tremendous usefulness latent in poetry could never be for people until Mr. Siegel as critic explained it. Matthew Arnold wrote that poetry is “a criticism of life, but just how it is, he did not know. Eli Siegel explained that how, and Aesthetic Realism is the result. Aesthetic Realism itself is the aesthetic criticism of life and self. An instance is in this issue of TRO, as we print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis, from a recent public seminar titled “Vanity vs. Happiness: Can a Man Distinguish between Them?

Emergencies in Our Lives

In “What Aesthetic Realism Adds to Poetry,” Mr. Siegel speaks about many pairs of opposites in the poetic state of mind and technique. They are all emergencies in our lives. They are all sources of pain because we feel them to be apart in us and fighting—not one, as they are in poetry: for instance, depth and surface; rise and fall, or high and low; assertion and meditativeness; togetherness and detachment. And Eli Siegel, the person who writes here so technically and deeply and with such liveliness about poetry, is the same person whom Ernest DeFilippis quotes, speaking so kindly to a man about love. The basis of both—the poetic criticism and the criticism of self—is the same.

There is nothing in this world I love more than the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry and Mr. Siegel’s magnificent, deep, charming, humorous, thrilling, vital presentation of it in thousands of instances in Aesthetic Realism classes. To say it was my good fortune to attend these classes, is an understatement. To say it means my life to me—cliché or not—is exact.

There Is Emily Dickinson

I’ll comment now on some lines by Emily Dickinson as a means of showing, a little, what poetry says about our lives. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem by her about disappointment in love. She is writing about a man and says that after a while, the big effect of separation from him has seemed finally to abate:

I got so I could take his name—

Without—Tremendous gain—

That Stop-sensation—on my Soul—

And Thunder—in the Room—

I got so I could walk across

That Angle in the floor,

Where he turned so, and I turned—how—

And all our Sinew tore—

The first line is very simple: “I got so I could take his name.” It is beautiful because it makes the everyday and the wondrous, the casual and the tremendous, inextricable. And it does so both through the meaning of the words and the sound.

“I got so is offhand, everyday, idiomatic. But in “take his name we have the wideness, the spread, the wonder of the long a sound. In “take," that a has pain with it, through the k; in “name, it has softness, through the m. But it is large. And as we feel this largeness, in a line composed entirely of humble monosyllables and beginning with that casual phrase, the effect is deep and fine.

Those very opposites, the everyday and the wondrous, are opposites people make a huge mistake about in love. A woman, for example, feels the ordinary world is dull, and what’s big, what’s wonderful, is having a man make her more important than the rest of reality. Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of love, like the purpose of art, is to like the world; and the pain about love arises from using a person to have contempt for the world, including the world of every day.

Emotion and Logic

The momentous and everyday as one, continue in these stanzas. And other opposites do. We hear emotion told of in a matter-of-fact manner: we hear logic and emotion as one. In the first section of his essay, Mr. Siegel speaks about the iambic, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented. This poem is in iambics; and the way Emily Dickinson uses them gives strictness, precision, to unbounded feeling. Take these lines about huge feeling, told of in three definite iambics: “And Thún | der ín | the Róom”; “And áll | our Sí | new tóre.” How much people feel their emotion is not precise, and their logic is apart from feeling, is cold!

The World Is There

In the essay, Mr. Siegel writes about the oneness in a poem of “individual consciousness and the entire world. Aesthetic Realism explains that in a good poem a person is trying to see something—including her own emotion—with such depth of honesty, such fulness of accuracy, that the structure of the world itself is present: the oneness of opposites. As a result, there is what Mr. Siegel showed to be the decisive thing in a poem—music. That happens in Emily Dickinson’s lines. For example, abstraction—with the conceptual words “so and “how—joins terrifically with body in “Where he turned so, and I turned—how— / And all our Sinew tore.” These too are reality’s opposites, which so often torment people because they are not one.

In every good poem a person has expressed herself or himself by being just to the world. That is why, in order to combat contempt, the most hurtful thing in the human self, we must see what poetry is. Unless we feel we’re expressed, truly selfish, in being just, we’ll be unjust. Poetry, then, is an urgent and beautiful necessity. And so is that which explains poetry and us: Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Aesthetic Realism Adds
to Poetry; or, If One Wishes,
Just Says about It

By Eli Siegel

Aesthetic Realism says that every effect in poetry concerns the making one of opposites. An iambic foot, for example, is a making one of short and long, swift and slow, surface and depth. A poetic line, whether in free verse, in assonance, or rhyme, is a study in assertion and muting, up and down, wide and narrow, softness and intensity—and opposites like these. A group of lines is, furthermore, a study in rise and fall, assertion and meditativeness, elementalness and subtlety.

2. Aesthetic Realism says that every poem is a making one of individual consciousness and the entire world. Consciousness takes hold of world; world takes hold of consciousness. What the poet sees is the world as himself, himself as all that. This is shown in the words of a poem.

3. Aesthetic Realism says that consonants and vowels, syllables, words simply as sound are studies in rest and motion, depth and surface, color and auditory effect, directness and whimsy. A and r are studies, both of them, in rest and motion, depth and outwardness. A syllable like ar and one like ra are studies in opposites.

The Grammar Poetry Uses

4. The grammar, strange or orthodox, that poetry uses is, with noun and verb, adjective and adverb, preposition and conjunction, a study in solidity and mobility, togetherness and detachment, clearness and vagueness.

5. The image and the deed are together in poetry. Poetry consists of deeds as images, images as deeds or happenings.

About the Universe

6. Aesthetic Realism sees every poem as about the universe, for every thing that poetry is about, is about—as itself—the universe.

7. A poem is a deep oneness of here and there, the moment and all time.

8. Aesthetic Realism says that wherever a poem is successful, logic has taken a magnificently impeccable dress.

9. The universe as unutterably strange and tediously inescapable is in a poem.

10. Aeschylus, Villon, Pope, Burns, Rimbaud, Hugo, Shelley, Thomson—both the 18th — and 19th-century Thomson—Eluard, Yeats, Whitman, Carew, Chaucer, Isaiah were taken successfully by the same thing—the relation of the universe and themselves as making for beautiful sound and logical shape.

Poetry Goes On

11. Poetry goes on, as the universe goes on, showing that one thing, through continuous surprise, asserts itself in greater power, deeper acceptability, harsher friendliness.


P.S. The relation of Quebec in neat roughness and rockiness, there in the east of Canada, to Vancouver in western Pacific mistiness, is like the sharpness and suggestion to be found in a poem—with each becoming the other.


Vanity vs. Happiness

By Ernest DeFilippis

My notion of happiness was to outshine everyone. But the feeling of exultation I got looking down on people was, I learned, really the thrill of contempt. It was completely against happiness, which Mr. Siegel described as “the feeling that what one wants is going along with what the world is or does (TRO 1569).

I had that feeling as a boy when I built a house for my dog, Champ. I thought: What would he like? How much room did he need to be comfortable? How high should the floor be? I carefully designed the house; selected, measured, and cut the wood; framed it; then nailed the roof, sides, and floor. I felt proud of my creation and so happy to see Champ enjoy it. The materials of reality and I were in a team working to have a good effect. And I had this happiness at other times too—meeting a baseball solidly, or having my mind energetically engaged in understanding the logic of an algebraic equation.

But I couldn’t distinguish between this feeling of happiness and what I felt, for example, when I’d be greeted with, “Ah, come bello!”—“Oh, how handsome!”—by my favorite aunts. At such times I’d feel a glow as everything outside me seemed to fade into dullness. “Vanity,” said Mr. Siegel with humor, “makes us cross-eyed or dim-sighted.”

Is Our Picture of Ourselves Accurate?

I tried to maintain a picture of myself as a superior being. For example, I thought that carpentry, which I loved, was not prestigious enough—a man of my caliber should have a flashy job. And I thought happiness was being able to do what I pleased without having to think about anyone. As I went after these things, I felt increasingly pained and unsure.

When I began to study Aesthetic Realism and learned about the fight in me between vanity and justice, I began making choices that gave me the rock-solid happiness I hadn’t thought existed! I love Mr. Siegel for enabling me to value accurately what my vanity and snobbishness made me scorn. In one of the first Aesthetic Realism classes I attended, I mentioned in an embarrassed way that I was interested in carpentry. He asked: “Are you interested in the aesthetics of carpentry?” “Yes," I answered. And I was moved as he gave form to something I’d felt but could never put into words: “Would you like to feel that some beautiful thing that is useful is made by you?” “Yes.” He continued:

It is the William Morris feeling. There is a good deal of that in history. Lorenzo Ghiberti, of the 15th century, spent 50 years constructing gates and statues in bronze. He showed hands and mind can be one.

Studying the lives and work of these men had a profoundly good effect on me and encouraged expression I’m proud of.

Vanity Interferes with Love

Because men haven’t been able to distinguish between a notion of love based on vanity, and the real thing—the happiness and pride that come from encouraging a woman to care for the world—we’ve had pain and also caused it. Mr. Siegel once said of me:

Ernest DeFilippis would like someone to care for him, soothe him, make him feel mighty and important—and he would like to care for someone who would make him see all things better. That makes for trouble.

And he asked me, “What do you appeal to, the strength of a woman or her weakness?” I had never thought in terms of strengthening a woman. What mattered was whether she liked me. And the main indication of her love was whether she gave me what I saw as the ultimate approval, sex. “What do you depend on for your charm,” Mr. Siegel asked me, “truth or DeFilippis?” “My smile,” I answered.
Early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, I was seeing a woman I’ll call Carol Stevens. I liked the fact that instead of falling for my flattery, she criticized me. But I was also angry in a way I didn’t understand. In a class, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you like women to have mind?”

EDeF. I like it more.

ES. Do you feel a woman who cares for you will accept the limits you hand down? Right now quite a few men are tired of talking to a woman and want to grab her. Grabbing is the desire to stop intellect from working in a woman because it’s boring. You want her to become like a palpitating bird. Isn’t that what you want?

I answered, “Yes." And I remember his deep kindness when he asked, “Is it wise?"

Mr. Siegel always evoked the best thing in me. Seeing a woman’s mind as “boring” was pure vanity, idiocy of the highest degree. It made me miserable and ashamed, and botched up every relationship. I’m very glad that, because of my Aesthetic Realism education, I’m not the person I was.

In my 15 years of marriage, I’m having a wonderful, romantic time learning about the world with Maureen Butler, my wife. I find the combination in her of feminine beauty and ethics, intellectual tenacity and sweetness, irresistible. I want to deserve Maureen’s love, and I see knowing her as an exciting quest. And that is so as I hold her body close to me!

Resplendently Just

“Are you capable of being resplendently just to a woman?” That is a question Mr. Siegel asked me, and one we asked Ray Stanley when he told his consultants he was troubled about an argument he’d had with his girlfriend, Kate. “It all started,” he said, “when Kate acted displeased with me and I got angry and yelled, ‘What do you want from me?!’”

Consultants. Do you think men have liked thinking about what a woman feels, what she’s yearning for? Men have felt, “If she’s got me, what else can she want?”

RS. Yes, I’ve felt that.

Consultants. Is that why she was born: to comfort you, and in doing so her hopes are met?

RS. Obviously not. But you just take it for granted.

Men have wanted to make a woman’s discontent narrower than it is, thinking all she needs is a little affection and everything will be all right. We asked, “What do you think Kate was angry at? Does she feel you want to know her—the Kate of Kates, what she feels to herself?”

RS. No.

Consultants. Do you think there is something in terms of her mind that she is hoping to feel and express?

RS. Yes. But I have no idea—I haven’t thought about it.

Later we said: “The question is, what is Kate trying to get to for her whole life, and do you want to be a friend to her there?” “Yes,” said Mr. Stanley, “I do.” What he is learning, every man has the right to know.