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 NUMBER  1315 —June 17, 1998,  NUMBER  1316June 24, 1998
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Excerpts from Mr. Siegel's lecture "Poetry and Keenness" published in two issues of The Right Of. (TRO 1315 and TRO 1316), with Commentary by Ellen Reiss about H.D.:

The Sanity of Poetry; or, H.D.

Dear Unknown Friends: 

     We are serializing the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. And in the present section, Mr. Siegel is in the midst of discussing a poem by H.D., or Hilda Doolittle, to show what keenness is—in reality, art, and the human mind. Hilda Doolittle lived from 1886 to 1961, and between the years 1912 and 1918 she wrote some of the true poetry of America. Her life is a means of seeing Aesthetic Realism's greatness in explaining something not understood elsewhere, something still looked at in a barbaric fashion: the relation between art and mental difficulty or depression. Eli Siegel was born 16 years after her; and it is my careful opinion that the resentment and boycott of his work, including by many of the literary people who praised H.D., ruined her life. 

     I cannot give all the documentation for that statement here, or say with detail why the later verse of H.D. is, as I see it, unsuccessful poetically. But Hilda Doolittle, from 1920 on, was intensely troubled and suffered nervous breakdowns. In the 1930s her analyst was Sigmund Freud, and the 1982 biography H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, by Janice Robinson (Houghton Mifflin), is written from the Freudian point of view. It is only because of the boycott of Aesthetic Realism that a statement like the following from that biography can be made seriously at the end of the 20th century: "Freud, as well as H.D., knew that what we call madness and what we call inspiration come from the same source" (p. 275). This idea — still current — happens to be one of the most ridiculous and hurtful notions in the world. It equates the best thing in humanity with the worst. And only Aesthetic Realism counters it clearly. 

     Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that all art—and everything good in the human mind — comes from the desire to like the world honestly, to be just to the outside world. And he showed that all mental difficulty arises from contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." In every person who has ever lived, he showed too, a fight between like and respect of the world and contempt for it is going on all the time. Because Mr. Siegel explained this fact, provided riches of cultural evidence, and fought for justice with fidelity and courage — contempt at last can lose and respect for the world win in every person. 

The Source of Art 

Let us take a description of H.D. at about age 18, by William Carlos Williams. He met her through his friend Ezra Pound; and in his Autobiography Williams tells of walking with her in the Pennsylvania countryside near her home, when it began to rain: 

    Instead of running or even walking toward a tree Hilda sat down in the grass at the edge of the hill and let it come. "Come, beautiful rain," she said, holding out her arms. "Beautiful rain, welcome." [New Directions, 1967, p. 69] 
     It was the desire to like the world—had with terrific keenness and width, exactitude and passion—that made for the art in the Pennsylvania young woman Hilda Doolittle. And we see this desire to welcome the world with her very flesh, in Williams's description of her and the rain. 

     He also tells of a time in 1906 when their crowd went to the beach at Point Pleasant, New Jersey: 

    There had been a storm and the breakers were heavy, pounding in with overpowering force. But Hilda was entranced ....Without thought or caution she went to meet the waves, walked right into them .... They dragged her out unconscious. [Pp. 69-70]
Here Hilda Doolittle is like the poet Shelley: though her insufficient carefulness can't be praised — she wanted to be affected up-close and without limit by reality as elemental, big, strange, powerful. Sometimes she called herself Tree: she wanted no barrier between her self and what earth is. 

     Eli Siegel is the critic who has explained that nothing is saner than art. The reason is in the following principle, stated by him: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Take, for example, these lines from H.D.'s "The Garden," which Mr. Siegel quotes in Poetry and Keenness:  

Fruit cannot drop 
Through this thick air; 
Fruit cannot fall into heat 
That presses up and blunts 
The points of pears, 
And rounds the grapes.
These lines arise from the desire to see something so justly that the structure of the world itself comes to be heard in them: the oneness of opposites. We hear something weighed down and thick — and at the same time each of those lines is sharp, precise. There is a feeling of ache, oppressiveness — yet it is inextricable from delicacy, tenderness, even sweet surprise. Look at the line "The points of pears": it has slow weightedness, but also, with those ps, the treasuring precision of a kiss. H.D. has used herself to be so fair to the world that her lines have what Eli Siegel showed to be the decisive thing in poetry: music. 

     But her biography and her own later writings make evident the fact that there was a different purpose in the life of Hilda Doolittle too: a purpose completely against art, which no one ever clearly criticized — certainly not Freud. 

Contempt and Hilda Doolittle 

The 1927 novel HERmione is autobiographical. And in it, H.D. writes this about her sister-in-law: 

    Minnie was like some fraction....Minnie's very presence depreciated the house front, steps, the symmetrical recumbent jade pillars of low carefully clipped terrace .... Ringed, washed-out blue eyes, Minnie and her eternal headaches[,]... her inferior little being. [New Directions, 1981, pp. 15, 21]
     The source of these sentences is entirely different from the source of the lines about fruit and the thick air. The sentences are not exact; and they stand for what Mr. Siegel described as "the other victory" — opposed to "the aesthetic victory." "The other victory," he writes, "is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess ... gives a certain triumph to the individual" (Self and World, Definition Press, 1981, p.11). H.D. went after that victory of contempt hungrily, and no one stopped her. 

     This is how she describes the person who introduced her to much of English poetry, who recited Swinburne's Chorus from Atalanta as he kissed her in the Pennsylvania woods. She sees Ezra Pound — called George Lowndes in the novel — as 

    making circus tent noises, little faraway miniature Punchinello....George being funny is piglike .... George ... was a hideous harlequin being funny on a woodpath .... "You're nothing, George. I mean precisely nothing." [Pp. 42, 65, 66, 69] 
Ezra Pound surely can be criticized, but this writing is contempt. It was her contempt that made H.D. agitated, tormented, depressed during the last 40 years of her life. 
A Lovely Request — and Freud
I believe the large theme of H.D.'s early poems is: Will I be true to what I have seen as beautiful in the world, or will I betray it for something narrow in myself? In her poem "The Helmsman" she says, We were meant to be true to what is wide and big, here represented by the sea; but we've preferred something closer to ourselves, more comfortable, represented by land. And she requests of that bigness: Please — it is hard for me — make me be fair to you: 
O be swift —
we have always known you wanted us. 

We fled inland with our flocks, 
we pastured them in hollows. 
We worshipped inland — 
we stepped past wood—flowers, 
we forgot your tang ....

     Freud, H.D. says, told her she wrote about the sea because she was "stuck" in a pre-Oedipal stage and wanted to go "back to the womb." He also told her she had "penis envy" and wrote because "book means penis" (Robinson, pp. 279-81). Contemporary psychiatry is not Freudian; yet psychiatrists have not said that Freud's explanations were untrue, harmful, and an insult to humanity. It is Eli Siegel who had the courage to say this — and to say it when Freudianism was at its height. 

     William Carlos Williams, in his famous 1951 letter, wrote of Eli Siegel's 1925 Nation prize-winning poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana": "That single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world." He calls Eli Siegel's poems "the truly new," and writes about the anger Mr. Siegel and his work have been subjected to these many decades: "The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new" (Something to Say, ed. J.E.B. Breslin, New Directions, 1985, pp. 250-1). Yes, over the years various persons, including many with power, have resented Mr. Siegel’s beautiful honesty; his fresh, kind, vast intellect; and their own need to learn from Aesthetic Realism about everything. Their suppression of his work has brutalized the lives of millions of people, including Hilda Doolittle’s. 

     The following paragraphs contain some of his powerful, merciful, graceful understanding of poetry and humanity — and her. Had she been able to meet it, she would have felt as her friend William Carlos Williams did when Mr. Siegel spoke on poems of his: Williams said, "It's just as important — it's as if everything I've ever done has been for you" (The Williams-Siegel Documentary, eds. Baird & Reiss, Definition Press, 1970, p. 94). 

     In my own passionate gratitude to Mr. Siegel, I stand for Williams, H.D., and all the people of the future. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism-Chairman of Education---- 

Beginning section from TRO 1315, titled "Boldness, Modesty—& the Keenness of Art"

Keenness: A Desire in Art
By Eli Siegel

The universe is keen, because the universe has sharpness, point. It also has surface, dullness, nothingness, wideness, curve, and so on. 

     We should see the desire for neatness, the desire for sharp impressions, as a desire in art. There is in the history of poetry a rising awareness of keenness, as there is in art. One thing that distinguishes present-day art from the art, let us say, of the 18th and 17th and 16th centuries is the greater presence of angles, of staccato in music, of sharpness. 

     One of the things called forth by the Imagist movement in poetry was neatness; and when we say keenness, we mean neatness. A knife that is keen is also a knife that cuts neatly; it isn't brutal. Sharpness is different from brutality. Brutality is clumsy: it is wide — it has a lot of fist and thumb and no delicate finger. 

     When, in the beginning of the 20th century or so, there was the desire for the sharp effect, the desire to do away with curves, the desire also to get to a new neatness — that could have been expected with a perspective on world history. 

     Some poems that have been associated with Imagism are keen. They are good poems. "The Garden," by Hilda Doolittle, is quite evidently different from poems of the past; it has these lines: 

You are clear, 
O rose, cut in rock; 
Hard as the descent of hail. 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
If I could break you 
I could break a tree. 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
O wind, rend open the heat, 
Cut apart the heat, 
Rend it to tatters....
     That has a new endeavor in poetry. People didn't say before to the wind, "Cut apart the heat." This is part of the history of the angle appreciated, the history of cuttingness. That is important, because, if we want to see a human being as a composition of angles and curves, of softness and hardness, of enveloping and keenness, then we have to give due honor to keenness and see what it comes from. There is a desire for the point, the line, the neat division in the universe. 

     To see clearly is to see keenly; to see a thing keenly is to cut away the blur and the murk. You cut through the unconscious dead wood. At the same time, you retain everything that is truly valuable. So keenness is a matter of beautiful economy. It is a loving cuttingness. Something of that is here. 

     "You are clear, / O rose, cut in rock." It is interesting that today there is a fashion in metallic jewelry, often of flowers, and that women are fond of something looking as if it were growing, made of metal. In this way, the soft thing becomes metallic, and the growing thing takes on a permanent inanimation. This feeling is gone after by Hilda Doolittle: the rose is not seen as soft; it is seen as cut in rock. That is a new way of seeing the rose. But can it be seen that way? Or is there such a disruption between the mineral kingdom and the vegetable kingdom that one should not bring them together? Aesthetic Realism says fie upon that — there is no such disruption! We are all the kingdoms. We are the vegetable kingdom and the mineral kingdom and the animal kingdom; and if there are any other kingdoms, we might as well get interested. Here, with Imagism, the endeavor is to make the curve of the vegetable kingdom like the hardness, the sharpness of the mineral kingdom, the rock. 

Concluding section from TRO 1316

Keenness and Depression
By Eli Siegel

Then, the awful desire: "If I could break you / I could break a tree." This is the desire to change the flexible into the brittle. Why go around breaking roses? In the same way that later painting took the metallic and made it flexible, so here the growing thing is made hard and sharp and metallic. It happens that with a certain sort of fulness of perception, the petal of a rose on a hot day can take on the sharpness of something that is mineral, hard. 

O wind, rend open the heat, 
Cut apart the heat, 
Rend it to tatters.
     Well, the wind is, among other things, keen. In order to be deep, we sometimes have to cut through and cut apart. That is to be seen in the common phrase "Cut it out!" The reason is that this thing is seen as superfluous and therefore it should be excised, as a growth, unnecessary, should be excised. 
Fruit cannot drop 
Through this thick air; 
Fruit cannot fall into heat 
That presses up and blunts 
The points of pears, 
And rounds the grapes.
     The heat seems to correspond to that enveloping fog that the unconscious can welcome, that dullness — and you don't see things sharply. I've asked people, "When you were depressed, did you ever see anything sharply?" And they have had to tell me, "No." I have never yet come across a depression that wasn't accompanied by a blur, a heavy fog. It may be the unconscious self-glorifying incense that is sent forth by oneself, but the fact is that there has been a heavy mist. No depression, as far as I can see, has ever been accompanied by a bounding clarity. If it were clear, it wouldn't be depression; and so keenness is against depression. 

     H.D. sees this heat as like the enveloping sameness, dullness, inanition, and inactivity that we can welcome. So something should be cut — and the dullness should be cut. 

     "And blunts / The points of pears, / And rounds the grapes." Bluntness — that is, an absence of sharpness — is associated with dullness. If a thing is very sharp, it doesn't hurt as much as a thing that is less sharp. To be hacked about by a thing that is not sharp is cruel, while being dealt with by something very sharp is comparatively merciful. So bluntness is against keenness. Roundness is also against keenness. Roundness is important, but where roundness is against the idea of point, it is a bad roundness, because we want to have the softness that roundness represents and the hardness that the point represents. — Then: "Cut the heat: / Plough through it, / Turning it on either side / Of your path." 

     This is a quite good poem. Looking at it, we find that various elements making for keenness are present. Since the universe is both wide and keen, sharp and soft, it is to be expected that language expressing the universe be also that. 

     It is quite clear that a letter like the hard c is sharp in a way that z is not. You can also get a kind of sharpness with p; but whereas pool is not sharp, pi as in pit is — because the vowel is little, neat. There are all sorts of relations of sharpnesses and widenesses, and keennesses and softnesses or envelopingnesses in a poem. In having c a good deal — for instance, if one says "Crack, crack, crack"— one has a different effect entirely from "Ooo, ooo, ooo." And take perhaps — along with the hard sound of c — the keenest letter in the language, n. N does happen to be the letter used when you want to deny something. You say, "No, no, no, no!" as if you were cutting. 

     All the letters are presentations of keenness or softness in one way or another. So when we have "O rose, cut in rock," along with having the rose dealt with as if it were of rock, we have a certain sound. The sound would be different if we had "Cut in rock, a rose," because the final effect would be the softness of rose

     We have in this poem a good many of the hard c or k sounds; and then, we have swiftness. Swiftness is associated with keenness. We have also the visual effect — breaking. And through it all we have one of the important things in mind and in the world: division with neatness. 

     That is the big idea in keenness, because one of the things that mind does, even in feeling, is to analyze; and to analyze is to divide; and if you are going to analyze efficiently, you might as well analyze neatly. 

These issues of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known is copyright 1998 by the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.