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The Baltimore Times

Vol. 16 No.34
May 10 - 16, 2002

Eli Siegel: A Centennial Celebration

By Alice Bernstein

This year is the centenary of Eli Siegel (1902-78), the great American poet and educator, founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism. He grew up in Baltimore. It is here that his thought and writing began. And in a proclamation issued last month, supported by Enoch Pratt Free Library, Congressman Elijah J. Cummings, Maryland Historical Society, Coppin State College, Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, Morgan State University, former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and others, Mayor O'Malley writes: "I...hereby proclaim August 16th 2002 as "Eli Siegel Day" in Baltimore, and do urge all citizens to join in this celebration."In particular, I want Baltimoreans to know about the major poetry event which took place on Sunday, April 28th at the Enoch Pratt Free Library,  "The Poetry of Eli Siegel: A Centennial Celebration."  In it people heard poems Mr. Siegel wrote over six decades about people and feelings, everyday happenings and objects, love, nature, history. Through the poems people saw the world and ourselves newly: with depth and humor, logic and wonder.In 1925 Eli Siegel came to national attention when his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize. This poem of 99 vivid, musical free verse lines caused a tremendous stir. The title was often quoted, including in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. And poet William Carlos Williams wrote of it years later: "I say definitely that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world" (Something to Say, New Directions, p. 250). A highlight of the Pratt event was a tape recording of Eli Siegel himself reading this poem. Here are eight lines from it:

Quiet and green was the grass of the field,
The sky was whole in brightness,
And O, a bird was flying, high, there in the sky,
So gently, so carelessly and fairly.
Here, once, Indians shouted in battle,
And moaned after it.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man,
Each is one man by himself, taking care of himself
   all the time, and changing other men and being changed by them.

About Eli Siegel's poetry as a whole, Dr. Williams writes:

This is powerful evidence of a new track. . . . The evidence is technical but it comes out at the non-technical level as either great pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the breath, a feeling of cleanliness, which is the sign of the truly new.

In 1941, Mr. Siegel founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism. It arose from the way of seeing that is in his poems, and is based on the principle "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." He gave thousands of lectures on the arts, sciences, history, economics, humor. He gave lessons to individuals (I say with enormous gratitude, I was among them) which changed their lives. This important education is taught now at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City (

Kenneth Rexroth wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Eli Siegel's poetry can be "hilariously funny" as well as "profound," and continued: "It's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets." The April 28th gala poetry event included "Love Lurches Along," "Hymn to Jazz and the Like," "Thrills, Life and Reading," and "Quiet, Tears, Babies," which Mr. Siegel began with his hearing a crying baby on North Charles Street.The poems were read some were sung by actors Anne Fielding, Carrie Wilson, Bennett Cooperman; sociologist Devorah Tarrow; composer Edward Green. All are on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.Critic Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, wrote of Eli Siegel: "In his poetry and his life he put together the utmost in logic and the largest feeling, complete exactitude and the kindest imagination."  I am proud to agree. At this time of turbulence and terror, there is less belief in the goodness of the world. The poetry of Eli Siegel is needed more than ever, because it enables us honestly to think better of people and reality itself. The noted CBS commentator John Henry Faulk said, "Eli Siegel makes a man glad he's alive." On April 28th, Baltimoreans heard why! And as this thrilling event concluded, the cheering audience gave it a standing ovation!

Alice Bernstein is an Aesthetic Realism Associate and journalist whose articles appear in many newspapers including her regular column "Alice Bernstein and Friends."

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