The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Down With Beauty!


Dear Unknown Friends:

Aesthetic Realism has been saying for a long time that the problem of madness is the same as the problem of poetry. In madness, a person’s desire for symmetry and order is not at one with his desire for freedom or abandon. Human life with its constant temperature—when things are well—of 98°, accompanied in the body by all kinds of unsymmetrical tendencies, instances the fact that a person is order and disorder. Health is not just order; it is the oneness of order and freedom, or order and new possibility. Poetry, like the body at its best, is order and freedom at once, logic and impulse fairly had at the same moment.

Because man is both order and freedom, symmetry and abandon, he can have contempt for all of the four things I have mentioned. Contempt either for order in oneself or for impulse can make for insanity. We have to respect simultaneously our being unpredictable and our being classical.

Contempt either for order or for abandon, for beauty in the classical sense or for the principle of unsymmetry, has made for sad mental happenings. Man simply has to respect himself as the structure of poetry: order and freedom at once; symmetry and abandon in the same hour, even minute.

What I have written is illustrated by the history of all the arts, including, surely, poetry. It is necessary, though, to see the reasonableness of this statement: Poetry is sanity. It is necessary to see the reasonableness of: Art is sanity.

1. What Does Gogol Tell Us?

That strange Russian writer, contemporary with Poe, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852), shows that both literature and a person are a oneness of opposites; and furthermore, that the oneness of opposites, seen with respect, is sanity.

I have just said something about Nikolai Gogol which is hardly the accepted view of this comic and poignant Russian writer of fiction. So what can I do but look for some learned, cogent support? This support is found in Marc Slonim’s An Outline of Russian Literature, page 55. Slonim writes:

The conflict between the artist who enjoyed portraying ludicrous distortions of mankind and the religious ascetic who wanted to serve God and Morality by his writing, proved to be too much for a man undermined by fasting, illness, isolation, and horrible dreams....He died from nervous exhaustion in February 1852.

The question Gogol had was had also by the younger Dostoevsky: How can one see the world both as godly and grotesque—which is another way of saying: How can the world be seen both as beautiful and misshapen? All writers have had this question. Pope was with Gogol and Dostoevsky. Rimbaud was with Pope. Melville was with Verlaine. Whitman was with Landor. And certainly I could mention many more writers who had a tendency to see the world both as a quiet, beautiful Greek vase and as a junk shop with stench.

It is well, though, to use as many particulars as one can. Aesthetic Realism is based on respect for the particular thing; for every particular thing is related to all space and every other particular thing or every happening.

In Gogol’s most famous story, “The Overcoat,” one can see a Russian tailor, warmth, a seam, a ponderousness, and also that in which a ghost is interested. We have here the ineffably ordinary and the hilarious supernatural. Gogol wanted the icon and the heehaw to be in the same room; but he was hesitant.

2. Ezra Pound and Gogol

Ezra Pound, like Gogol, is one of those writers that biographical authorities have not demurred at calling insane—here and there, at least. A statement like that of Marc Slonim as to Gogol is made by Richard Rovere about Ezra Pound in Esquire, September 1957. When Rovere says that Pound’s life is “sheer chaos,” he is saying that insanity is next to Pound, if not in him. I quote Richard Rovere’s article, “The Question of Ezra Pound Throughout his life, he has esteemed the Confucian ideal of order, and much of his work reflects it; yet his life and his work, taken as a whole, are sheer chaos—though sometimes a glorious chaos.

Rovere’s article about Pound is careful and quite fair. However, Rovere does not see the relation of Pound’s speaking for fascism over the European radio to how Pound saw poetry.

Pound had a hard time seeing poetry as simultaneously Pope and Whitman; that is, as both order and freedom. In the same way as Gogol could not put together his feeling for religion with his love of the grotesque as profoundly critical of man and God and the universe, so Pound could not put together his desire to misspell, to talk Chicago slang, to be ungrammatical, with his desire to appreciate a phrase in Horace, a line of Sappho, an observation in serenity by Li Po.

Pound is one of the most fruitful testimonies to the fact that both art and poetry are the worship and the technique of the utmost freedom and the utmost order. Pound had an article in Esquire, “Reflexshuns on lggurunce,” which clearly shows that Pound could misspell as well as any Illinois shop-girl or Maryland shipping clerk. He certainly proves this. Here is one sentence:

It was suggested I write about Mr. Hemingway too, but Hem ain’t nearly iggurunt enough for my purpose.

How entrancingly negligée! Yet in 1920 or so, Pound used as a motto for a long poem a phrase from the 3rd-century

Latin poet, Nemesianus, Vocat aestus in umbram. I am speaking of Pound’s quite renowned poem, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: Life and Contacts.” The words of the 3rd-century Nemesianus can be translated: Heat calls for shade. At this time, that is, 1920, Pound felt that literature was too disorderly; poetry was too unkempt. Pound wanted poetry to leave some of the abandoned cacophonic possibilities of free verse and get to the neat-ness of Sappho or Malherbe or Landor. The poem begins:

For three years, out of key with his time

He strove to resuscitate the dead art

Of poetry.

And then Pound says this of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

His true Penelope was Flaubert.

This means that the exactitude of Flaubert, the mot juste, were desired by Pound’s representative, Mauberley. Furthermore, the discipline and good sense of Penelope, Ulysses’ abiding wife, were desired.

Earlier, Pound had written (1909) “Sestina: Altaforte,” which is one of the most unbridled eulogies of clashing and fighting. And in 1915, Pound translated a poem from the Chinese by Li Po, “Lament of the Frontier Guard.” This poem, so different from “Sestina: Altaforte,” tells ever so well of the dreary, unendurable effects of war. Pound goes from love of clash to love of repose, with not enough between.

It was right, then, of Pound to use these words of the little-known Nemesianus, Vocat aestus in umbram, heat calls for shade. Pound was so trying to make a one of heat and shade, of freedom and classicality, of impulse and order. Pound’s earlier poetic discrepancy helped to make the insistent, unjust political way of Mussolini attractive. Pound wanted so much to find an answer for himself; and a historic bounder like Mussolini, even, could be serviceable. Who knows what we may think can help us?

3. A Going to W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden, aware and critical of Pound, also indebted to him, had a life different from the American born in Idaho and later a cause of international turbulence in poetry and politics. But Auden, ever so sad in his last days, and trying to get away from so much, had a disabling question also about freedom and order. This question in Auden’s mind took the form of a fight between good and evil, with evil winning. Auden, for example, in the poem called “September 1, 1939,” implies that evil cannot be met or combated in a good way—that is, evil cannot evoke what is not itself:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

If this is true, as Pound might say: There isn’t a goddamn bit of hope for the world. Slavery was evil, but it was met by something good in William Lloyd Garrison, in Abraham Lincoln, and in Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A disease may make for a useful discovery. A fire can encourage the rebuilding of a city; this happened with Chicago in 1871.

Auden’s ideas of the relation of good and evil did not help his poetry nor his life. And we should see that Auden was volatile here. In a poem, “Night Falls on China,” Auden writes as if he were as much against evil as John the Baptist or Percy Bysshe Shelley:

O teach us to outgrow our madness.

Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,

Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till, as the contribution of our star, we follow

The clear instructions of that Justice....

I may mention that, as I see it, neither Pound nor Auden is an authentic poet. This is contrary, I well know, to journalistic and collegiate opinion. Yet the fact that in Pound, two great possibilities of reality did not felicitously merge, hindered him from having the deep music, the flexible music that poetry needs. The same lack is in Auden. Auden is not a poet, no matter how intricate his prosody may be, or how unflinching his dissatisfaction. The accurate, musical tumult present in Catullus, Burns, Villon, is not in Pound, not in Auden.

4. Pound, Auden, Eliot, Millay

After having said, with, as far as I can see, no obduracy and no desire to be different, that neither Ezra Pound nor Wystan Hugh Auden is a poet, I suppose I might as well say this, too: the more renowned Thomas Stearns Eliot is not a poet, either. Neither Eliot’s “Prufrock” nor his Waste Land is poetic. And that is as simple a way of saying it as I can muster now.

Eliot’s lines beginning The Waste Land are nearly as good as any he ever wrote:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

The Waste Land appeared in 1922. In the year before, 1921, Edna St. incent Millay published Second April, which may have been read by, and influenced T.S. Eliot. Anyway, in this book of Miss Millay, there is the poem “Spring” (such an orthodox title!), beginning:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

I think when it is seen that this poem of the recent Vassar girl is greater art, truer poetry than the body of the work of the renowned Ezra Pound, the much applauded W.H. Auden, and the lavishly eulogized Eliot, poetry, I believe, will come into its own. Millay does arise best out of this poetic melee; for she serves best poetry as the mingling of prosody and impetus. She serves best poetry as the mingling of precision and passion. She serves best poetry as the mingling of logic and a deep, unknown, moving sea.

Yes, in the work of Miss Millay, logic and emotion are more often and more deeply one than in the work of the authors of “Mauberley,” of “Law Like Love,” or of “Burnt Norton.” I must say this; for in order to see that poetry is sanity, the real thing must be had in mind.

So again, true poetry is like sanity, is indeed sanity, for it is the musical oneness of the two big things or possibilities in man: logic and drive. Every time we see a poem as that, not something cleverly factitious or academically eulogized or justifying something doubtful in oneself; every time we see a poem as simply that, in its gorgeousness and spareness, we are seeing a pleasing victory of sanity. For poetry, by its very nature, respects both beauty and the unpredictable, both symmetry and the grotesque, both religion and the moment, both meaning and flesh. Poetry says: Down with that which makes beauty different from power, biology, history. Nikolai Gogol is listening.

With love,

Eli Siegel