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the smith

How a Major Poet Is Ostracized
By Lit Cliches: Eli Siegel in View


When Eli Siegel's poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" was awarded The Nation poetry prize in 1925, there were a lot of exclamations over that award: Critics were sharply divided on whether the poet really knew what he was doing in the poem, or whether it was all some sort of monstrous literary imposition. The critics could have relaxed about the whole matter, however, as Eli Siegel was never really a threat to any of their comfortable enclaves. Instead he seems to have quietly retired into as ambiguous a literary reputation as any American poet has had to endure during this century.

I believe The Nation exercised rare good judgment in awarding its poetry prize to "Hot Afternoons." This is a remarkably original long poem, and it may be one of the very few effective long poems in American poetry. It is, however, philosophical in import, which automatically restricts its popularity. It is very deceptively philosophical, however; it is written in an appealing plain style, using a colloquial American diction which is still very much tuned in to our time. That is why you'll sometimes hear sports announcers refer to the title of the poem, during a long hot afternoon in Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field.

The poem exemplifies a way of seeing reality which is sane, humorous, and casually artful. Here is a part of the poem:

Hot afternoons are real; afternoons are; places, things, thoughts,
        feelings are; poetry is;
The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past is in it;
All words, feeling, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls,
        trees, stones, things of beauty, books, desires are in it;
       and all are to be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world;
And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!

The whole poem is rhythmically meditative; it is a demonstration of a mind which is determined to encompass reality, embrace it, make it friendly. William Carlos Williams wrote of the poem, it should set Eli Siegel "in the very first rank of our living artists."

And yet the poem did not appear in book form for 33 years, not until 1957, when it was gathered together with other Siegel poems such as "Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later"; "To Dylan Thomas"; and "The Dark That Was Is Here." And when "Hot Afternoons" was reviewed as a book in 1957 in The Saturday Review, Selden Rodman wrote that certain of these poems,

Say more (and more movingly) about here and now than any contemporary poems I have read.

In spite of this, word had gotten around that Siegel was a "one poem poet," that he would never be able to match the early tour de force brilliance of "Hot Afternoons." The fact is that Siegel had been writing and publishing other poems for almost fifty years and these other poems are extraordinary by any standards. Following is a poem taken from Siegel's second published book of poems (Hail, American Development; Definition Press, 1968):

"Towards Homer: Free Verse, Beginning With The First Lines of Pope's Translation of The Odyssey"

O Muse, tell of
The man diverse in wisdom,
And much, in his life, with sorrow.
He helped, with his might, to have Troy fall,
Troy with its meaning, Troy seen sadly by destiny.
Her divinely built wall stood no more.
This man wandered from land to land,
Observing as he went from place to place.
The ways of men he noted, how their lives were.
Oh, the seas in tumult that he contested were innumerable.
All, so that, safe with his friends, he come to be on the shore he saw first.
The trying of this man was vain.
The god of the sun                                                                           
Became angry with those men of his who meddled with the herds
        that were the god's.
This god ordained that these not reach
The shore of their first mornings.
O muse of heaven, take some of what happened.
Now lying within fate as record,
And narrate it to our world.

The reader might especially note the tenth line above, and try to determine what it is that gives this line its classic depth and balance of tone.

Here is another Siegel poem, also from Hail, American Development: "Helicopter Explains"

I was a helicopter.
I was used in Vietnam.
They say I was shot down.
This is not so.
I didn't like what I was doing—                              
Stopping Vietnamese from having their land.
Not liking what I was doing,
I, a helicopter, fell.
So I was a helicopter.

Poet/translator Kenneth Rexroth reviewed Hail, American Development in the New York Times in 1969, and he wrote:

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.

Rexroth concluded this review with the comment:

I think it's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets.

Now, we have a very interesting question to settle. Why, with all of these tributes and testimonials, has Eli Siegel not been accorded the honor of being one of our outstanding American poets, by whatever Literary Establishment may be said to exist in our very own city?                           

The answer to this question lies somewhere in some of his other activities over the past half century. Eli Siegel has been one of our busiest poets, working continually, writing and publishing books on almost every subject imaginable. There is his study of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, entitled James and the Children (Definition Press, NY), which critic Hugh Kenner says is indispensable to an understanding of the James work. And there is the Siegel reading of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, which has been embodied in an off-Broadway production of the play, to the great amazement and praise of Time magazine.

And for almost half a century, Eli Siegel has been pouring the major part of his energies into the working out of a systematic world view, called Aesthetic Realism.

He continued to publish engaging pamphlets above the Definition Press imprint, on The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict, and Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics, and other matters. These pamphlets are invariably entertaining, always good sense, and all of them revealing an underlying passion to put Self and World in perspective, to see Self and World as essentially harmonious with each other, when one has a proper understanding of the opposites.

Eli Siegel has suffered disregard for some of these activities, because in the past half century we have seen the accepted role of the poet shift through certain very clearly delineated postures: there has been the poet as lover, as libertarian, as educator, as artificer, as critic, as spokesman for social protest, as fakir, as activist, as aesthete, and as religionist. But we can see that Siegel is emphatically a maverick. For although his own work has touched on all of these areas, he has always been essentially something else. He has been the rarest of all animals, an epistemologist. He wants to know how we know that we know. And because he is an epistemologist, he may well be a "makir" in the truest sense of the word, because he wants to create a radical world view by reevaluating the very roots of our conceptual experience.          

But no wonder he's never been particularly popular. Epistemologists never are. The Athenians couldn't stomach Socrates because he undercut the foundation of everything they thought they knew. And D.H. Lawrence couldn't stand the thought of Edgar Allan Poe:

These terribly conscious birds, like Poe and his Ligeia, deny the very life that is in them; they want to turn it all into talk, into knowing. And so life, which will not be known, leaves them.

Lawrence was right, of course; there's something inside all of us that recoils in horror from someone who wants to know so much. And in our own time, no less an artist than William Carlos Williams shied away from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism. It's all set down in The Williams-Siegel Documentary (Definition Press, 1970)—how the good doctor from Paterson, the pathfinder of modern American poetry, the man who kept insisting "no ideas but in things"—how Williams came up against Siegel, the epistemologist, the knower, philosopher.

Our good sense tells us that "knowing" and "creating" are not mutually exclusive. Georges Seurat was no less an artist because he felt the need of developing a dogmatic approach to art, embodied in his Pointillism; and in our own time, Charles Olson expended considerable energy on the aesthetics of his Projectile or Objectivist Verse.

And as far as Aesthetic Realism goes, it is eminent good sense. Eli Siegel has boiled it down to a simple formula:

In reality, opposites are one; art shows this.

An artist will try to see the opposites in action, in himself and in his world and eventually in his own work. It means that the artist must be as perceptive about himself as he is about his surroundings and about his craft.

The method has two distinct advantages: first, if you can learn to criticize yourself accurately, chances are you will come to like yourself more honestly and openly. And second, the method fills a cultural void, it helps supplement a civilization which is conspicuously lacking in a balanced, objective approach to reality.

The western mind has always tended to see things in terms of either/or. The East has always held to the dynamic interaction of opposites. Yin and Yang are not immutable absolutes, but mysterious principles which are simultaneously present in each instance of reality. The goal of the enlightened life is for the soul to be at one with this miracle of simultaneity at all times.

The opposites can be seen in action everywhere, and this explains Siegel's multifariousness. Opposites are in art, in love, in politics, in religion. They are in economics.

For fifty years, Eli Siegel has been persisting, and his critics have not been able to get him away from his central thesis of Aesthetic Realism. And so far not very many people have been up to making an assessment of the whole approach, fairly and objectively. Or maybe it's just plain bothersome to some people to think that in this day and age, anyone can make such complete sense out of anything.

This was written prior to Eli Siegel's death in 1978.

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