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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1473.— June 21, 2001

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Poetry & Honesty about America

Dear Unknown Friends:

In our serialization of his magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Speed, we have come to the point at which Eli Siegel begins to speak about "The Santa-Fé Trail" of Vachel Lindsay. His discussions of Lindsay here and over the years are hugely important in literary criticism. While other critics have mainly seen Lindsay as a kind of showman, Mr. Siegel saw him as a major American poet, and showed his "Santa-Fé Trail" and "The Congo" to be two of the great poems of the world.

Poetry, Mr. Siegel explained, is full honesty about an object, oneself, and reality. It is exactitude so deep and wide that the result is musical: we hear the structure of the world itself, the oneness of opposites, in the poet's lines. In every true poem we hear, in a different way, tremendous freedom joined with tremendous order; delicacy at one with strength; thought inseparable from feeling. "All beauty is a making one of opposites," Mr. Siegel wrote, in a principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism, "and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." There is nothing I love more in this world than his showing what poetry is; and how in all poetry there is the way of seeing we need, and our nation needs, for our lives to go well.

America is present in this poem of Lindsay. He sees the land in the midst of America as standing for what people are looking for: something beautiful and kind. For example, he writes these lines about Kansas, "land that restores us," and the music has glory and yearning:

Sunrise Kansas, harvesters' Kansas,

A million men have found you before us.

A million men have found you before us.

So I comment a little on something people in America are looking for now, including people from the many cities mentioned by Lindsay as he tells of automobiles crossing the land: "Cars from Concord, Niagara, Boston, / Cars from Topeka, Emporia, Austin. / Cars from Chicago, Hannibal, Cairo .... "

The American Land vs. Profit

In the 1970s, Mr. Siegel showed that there was a way of using people and the earth itself—not as things to comprehend and be fair to, but as means for personal profit—that could no longer succeed. He explained: "The profit system of America is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system" (TRO 522). That the American land with its wealth should be owned by a few people, while so many are poor and thousands of children are hungry; that people should have to worry about paying for medicines and medical care; that persons who could be useful should find themselves jobless, because having a job depends not on usefulness but on whether somebody can make profit from your labor: all this, men and women across America deeply and intensely resent.

Profit economics, Mr. Siegel showed, is based on contempt, that purpose in self which he identified as the source of every hurtful human procedure, from ordinary selfishness to racism and war. He defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." The profit motive—the trying to get as much from and give as little to a fellow human as one can—is not basic to America: there is nothing about it, he pointed out, in the US Constitution.

What Americans in Boston, Topeka, Chicago are looking for, without wholly articulating it, is something truer to what America is, something respectful of themselves. They come home from work furious at being seen as a mechanism for someone's profit, paid too little and made to work too long. What they are looking for, Aesthetic Realism says, is aesthetics, the oneness of opposites: of the American earth and the self of every American. It is what Mr. Siegel describes in these sentences of his Self and World:

The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.
[P. 270]

Debt in America

I have in this journal shown with much detail how happenings and feelings in today's America ratify Mr. Siegel's statement that until this land is owned "by the people living in it," economics will not fare well. Now, in honor of Lindsay's true American poem and Mr. Siegel's great seeing of it, I mention one important showing that "individual psychology in America is now against the profit system." It is the fact, much reported in the press these years, that huge numbers of Americans lack any savings, and that, as the New York Times put it, "in recent years, Americans have built up hundreds of billions of dollars of debt" (12 June 2001).

Economists and the media have given various reasons why Americans have been spending more than they earn and accumulating massive personal debt. To be sure, credit card companies want it that way and have made overspending very easy. And we are told that the soaring of the stock market had people feel that if they went into debt today, they could pay it off tomorrow, or next year. But I have come to see that the enormous debt in American households, and also the personal bankruptcies, represent something larger and deeper. They represent a terrific protest. They represent the feeling: There are things I deserve, and I'm going to have them, even though I have been rooked by the profit system.

What Impels It?

Americans' going into debt so continentally is an objection to the profit system. We need not praise the accuracy or wisdom of the spending, but we need to see truly what impels it. It is a saying: I will not be content with what my income permits me to get. I will not simply yield to the fact that I can make only so much and therefore cannot afford many good things that exist. I should have nice clothing. I should have a car. I should have video equipment. I should be able to send my children to college.

There is a feeling throughout America that the goods of the earth are around, are plentiful, and I have a right to them; they are being kept from me for no good reason. The personal debt in America constitutes a basic non-acceptance of the profit system: of the fact that you are paid only a certain amount because the wealth you have earned is pocketed by a boss and stockholders, and therefore there are things you simply cannot buy.

There are three reasons a person may run up credit card debt: 1) Some people are in debt because they simply do not have the necessities: they go into debt in order to eat and have a roof over their heads. And that so many people in our land are in this situation, in itself shows that profit economics is a cruel failure. 2) Then, of course, people can run up debt because they are greedy, and just want to grab things to themselves. 3) But then there are the people I am mainly writing about here, the millions of middle class people whose large personal debt has been seen as historically unprecedented. A good deal of their spending comes from the feeling: Yes, I could do without this piece of furniture, this new software—but why should I! It shouldn't be just for rich people. I have a right to it; my children deserve it: I'll get it on my Visa card.

That feeling could be called, from one point of view, recklessness. Yet from another, the personal debt, the personal bankruptcies in America are a quiet, not wholly conscious, but monumental objection to how the wealth of America has been distributed—and a doing something to change it.

Meanwhile, Americans—to put it mildly—don't want to be in debt. What they want is an America, as Mr. Siegel wrote, "truly theirs." He is the person who, in his beautiful courage and scholarship, truly understood the three big things this issue of TRO is about: America, people, and poetry.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Speed and Vachel Lindsay
By Eli Siegel

There is something even speedier than Kipling's "Fuzzy-Wuzzy." I consider it one of the great poems of the world. You have heard me read it, but today, as far as I can, I'm going to discuss it and show its place in the history of civilization, the history of poetry. This is "The Santa-Fé Trail" of Vachel Lindsay, published in book form in 1914, written, I imagine, a few years before then.

This gets in machinery. There hasn't been any poetry about the airplane that stands up. People usually get scared, and they begin writing in fancy terms; they begin getting soggy and pudding-y. There is an anthology of aviation verse, but I don't think it has much to it. However, in the early time of the auto, comparatively early—that is, in the second decade of the 20th century—there was this poem, which stands, in the most successful manner that I know of, for the speed of machinery.

The poem deals with two moods: the quiet mood that the West can give, represented by a bird, represented by vegetation; and then, the sense of speed going through space that cars in Kansas and elsewhere can give. There is too the feeling that America is the home for speed of all kinds, with the railroads going in and out, and all the dynamos and turbines of America. These go on, and in the meantime the grasshoppers do their work, birds sing, strawberries grow. And all this, the poem puts together. [Note. Mr. Siegel reads the whole of Lindsay's 155-line poem. Then he begins to comment on it:]

Space is related to speed. And the fact that America had so much space—the fact that there were miles and miles of land, seemingly the same, rolling gently but not decisively; that there were mountains; that all that quiet could exist while there were cities—this has to do with poetry as American history. And Lindsay, in his fashion, was aware of it.

That there can be something in us so quiet and slow and something so speedy and noisy, is a fact people have felt in one way or another ever since there has been feeling. That is the way we are. There is something in us that is quiet, seemingly undisturbed; then there is something that can be so overt. The interaction of slowness and speed, of quiet and noise, is one of the important interactions in a person. And it is represented by this poem. The self is also delicate: we see in "The Santa-Fé Trail" that while trains go, a bird can sing. This bird is the Rachel-Jane. Lindsay begins by saying he asked a person:

"What is that bird that sings so well?" He answered: "That is the Rachel-Jane." 

Hasn't it another name—lark, or thrush, or the like?" "No. Jus' Rachel-Jane."

The idea of giving this bird personality seems to be here. The feeling is that the bird represents two things: something mighty general and something very specific, because the bird is like an individual chorus in this poem.

Then, the title of the first section: "I. In Which a Racing Auto Comes from the East." Racing is speed which is aware of itself: that is, you are conscious. You are racing in order to do something as against another possibility.

It is interesting that the word auto has to do with self. Automobile means self-moving. And before the auto, the idea of something moving from itself was not around so much. The train also moves from itself: that is, the power is given to the train through heat or electricity, and with the car it is through gasoline. But there is the feeling that the motion—different from that of something pulled by a horse—comes from itself. There is a feeling that with a steam-ship the motion comes more from itself than with a sailboat. A motor in a vehicle seems to be more intimate than a horse pulling it; but a motor is also faster.

Lindsay Tells of Morning

This is the order of the music of the morning:—

First, from the far East comes but a crooning.

The crooning turns to a sunrise singing.

Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn.

Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn.

This has to do with the fact that all of nature varies speeds. The fact that dawn comes up earlier in summer than in winter is related to the idea of the universe as speedy and slow. Winter seems to be slow and fast. In winter, though everything seems to be cold, you have to be speedier. The relation of slowness and speed, being such a part of life, has to be present in poetry.

And that is what we have here: the notion of dawn coming with slowness, but with some vividness—that is, "The crooning turns to a sunrise singing." Then, with dawn, comes the phenomenon of cars speeding along.

"Hark to the pace-horn, chase-horn, race-horn." Lindsay uses a technique which would have been frowned on once: these three rhymes. When you repeat something with swift succession, a feeling of speed occurs. A drum beaten very fast is a sign of present-day music. That wouldn't have been done in the 18th century. There were drums, and in war the drum was beaten pretty fast; but for music straight—hardly. There is a certain beating of the drum now which is so deft, as represented by the most famous of drummers of this century, nearly: Gene Krupa. It shows that the world is trying to change speed into beauty. That has to do with what jazz means; swing, bebop even, means.

The Great Unifier

New things are being done with speed, and the reason is that speed is the great unifier. If one can go from New York to Denver in a moment, it is about the same as being in New York and Denver at the same time. Thought is like that; thought is supposed to be the speediest thing in the world. So the greatest speed can be said to be the greatest being, the greatest remaining. And one of the good reasons for present-day speed is the unification. Because a jet plane goes across a continent in an afternoon or something like that, people say that the world is becoming closer.

Hark to the pace-horn, chase-horn, race-horn.

And the holy veil of the dawn has gone.

Swiftly the brazen car comes on.

Those lines are very good. There is a disposition of syllables as weight and as speed in "Swiftly the brazen car comes on." There is a feeling of weight, determination, and speed.  black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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