The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Poetry and the Drama about Sincerity

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Poetry and Technique, a beautifully definitive 1948 lecture by Eli Siegel. And we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Derek Mali presented this October at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Does a Man’s Contempt Make Him Strong or Hurt His Mind?”

There is nothing I love more in this world or see as more important than the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry: Eli Siegel’s showing that in the technique of a true poem are the answers to the fiercest questions of people’s lives. “All beauty, he explained in the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And it is my happiness to comment a little here on a magnificent matter that Mr. Siegel shows to be central to poetry, but about which men and women quietly ruin their lives day after day, thinking they are being smart and protecting themselves. That beautiful matter is sincerity; and Mr. Siegel describes it early in Poetry and Technique:

It can be said that the purpose of a person is to have a technique that grows from what he is and is indistinguishable from what he is. We can have a rift between what we are and what we manifest...because we want to have contempt for other people....Technique should be a means of helping honesty; but it usually isn’t.

Sincerity—the non-rift between what we are and what we manifest—is something all people will say they are for, but which people are terrified to have. Meanwhile, day after day people despise other people because each sees the other is not sincere. People may laugh together, do business together, kiss together, raise a family together; but there is the disgusted and angry feeling, “This person is putting forth something that is different from who he or she really is.”

We all have “technique”: our technique every hour of our lives is how we say things, what we say and don’t say, how we smile—how we use the material that is ourselves. And the disjunction between what we are and how we put ourselves forth is an everyday form of that which Mr. Siegel showed to be the source of all injustice and cruelty: contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

Let us take a representative American: Phil Corrigan, a painter of houses in Ohio. He does not feel the world is good enough for him to show the depths of himself to. And his purpose is not to find out who he is, try to be exact about what he feels, and show it: his purpose—and he is a very affable person—is to impress people, have them like him, manage them nicely so he can get what he wants.

Even with his wife, Beth, what he mainly goes after is getting along with her: pleasing her and having her please him. He is a “considerate” husband, and fixes things around the house. But the idea of asking himself as deeply as possible what he, as a whole, intricate self, feels about Beth in her wholeness, the idea of trying to see what he feels about everything and trying to show that to Beth—is far away. They have been married 8 years and will stay married. Yet essentially they are each using themselves strategically: to manage themselves and the other. And so Phil has a daily feeling of emptiness, loneliness, and irritability. He takes this painful feeling for granted, as “life.”

Phil does not know that last week, when he was painting a room a light blue, the reason he had such a good feeling was that he was using himself—his knowledge, body, and thought—to try to have a color he cares for very much meet the wall as accurately as possible. He was having his technique—his use of himself—represent what he felt within, not hide it or put it aside. He doesn’t know he was more sincere in his painting than in his conversations with his friends or wife.

Where Sincerity Begins

In “An Outline of Aesthetic Realism” under the heading “Sincerity Is Oneself As Real,” Mr. Siegel writes:

When one sees that it is best to be exact about oneself, for oneself is as real as anything in the world, sincerity is liked and followed.

I love, tremendously, this statement and Aesthetic Realism for enabling its meaning to be in people’s lives—in my life. And I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that poetry is that which can have people not be afraid of sincerity but see how beautiful, powerful, and practical it is.

Sincerity begins with the feeling—beautifully proud and humble at once—“What I am, feel, and think is certainly me, but it is also part of the world. My feelings have the same reality as a traffic light or a table; and I need to see them truly. Though they are of me, they are not mine to twist and manipulate and lie about.” That way of seeing is in opposition to the state of mind in people—which Phil has in his affable way—that we do not have a self in order to be exact about it, but to wrest things from the world. And people are terrified of seeing their feelings truly, because if your purpose is to be exact about yourself you cannot use yourself to fool people, hide, and look down on anything you please. As soon as you are sincere, you feel reality, truth, the facts are running you; you are not running them—and contempt hates that idea. At the same time, in not wanting to know and show ourselves truly, we insult ourselves, for we are saying that what we are is not good enough to know. Therefore, we feel pervasively ashamed.

Poetry Is Sincerity

Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that poetry is the same as sincerity—the sincerity we thirst to see and have. In every good poem, a person’s purpose is not to impress someone or manage the facts: it is to see and feel in a way just to the depths of an object and the world; and to use words and what oneself is, to show this feeling truly. In poetry, Mr. Siegel explained, a person has been so sincere that his words have music. They have a sound that embodies the world itself—that is “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality.” Poetry shows that authentic, passionate sincerity is a person’s grandeur—is loved, joined, ratified by the structure of the whole world.

I thank Mr. Siegel with all my life for enabling me to love sincerity, and for being himself utterly sincere—so respectfully and magnificently sincere all the time. In the decades I had the honor to study with him, I never heard from him a single insincere sentence or tone. His complete sincerity is embodied in every aspect of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The World in a Line

By Eli Siegel

The purpose of technique is to give everything to the feeling that it has, through how you show the feeling. So if one goes at technique honestly, it will mean that one will see one’s feeling better. That is the purpose of studying technique: not to decorate the feeling, but to know it better.

In the problem of technique we have the vowel and consonant; and vowels stand for rest, consonants for motion. In the word brisk, the i is the sound that you don’t use lips and teeth to make; it is a rest place. But i is the quickest vowel; ow is slower; oo is slower. If you say “Oooo” long enough, you'll get somebody feeling so wonderful and so lazy, he won’t want to move. But the fact that vowels stand for rest is clear when we think that we can make a separate word out of oh, but we couldn’t make a separate word out of t or even st.

If you go at “technique” (in the false sense), and you know what an “open vowel” is and a “closed vowel” and a “swift consonant” and a “slow consonant,” you try to arrange them; and you write a little bit like Austin Dobson or Robert Lowell. It is very fine to have our consonants arranged and our vowels arranged; but along with that, there must be the surge. Surge into precision, and, through precision, the better understanding of surge, is what technique is about. Vowels and consonants are important, and any person who wants to be interested in poetry or writing and doesn’t have a love for vowels and consonants is a person really who doesn’t have a love for writing at its most intense.

As we feel a poem, we get the sense of contraction and expansion, delicately but unmistakably. The world can be seen in the atom, and it can be seen in a single group of words. The way of getting to the feeling that the world makes sense is through a specific line of poetry—that is, if we know what the line is about and we really can distinguish it.

Another thing about technique is slowness and speed. A word like deliver is rather fast. A word like necessary is faster. But words like calm, cool, pool, cloud are slower. Suppose we say “the necessary pool.” What do we have? We have a putting together of that rather self-contented idea, the pool, with a rather urgent and swifter idea like necessary. Suppose we take a swift idea like reed, and we put with it ancient: “the ancient reed.” Now, this cannot be done in cold blood, and I am not doing it in cold blood. But the sound of sh in ancient is very different from the sound of reed; and further, in the idea of reed is something that sways, something that may be there for a while but may be gone after a while; and in the word ancient there is much time.

Take a line of William Carlos Williams: “Now that I have cooled to you.” This could be said in ever so many other ways: “On this occasion, when I have lost interest in you.” What is the difference? The reason that the line “Now that I have cooled to you” is so big a line—it is one of the best lines in American poetry of the 20th century—is that it has in it coolness and heat. There is a feeling that something is going on in the nature of coolness, but there is warmth in the line. It happens that a sound like now (and even the placing of the word cooled) makes for warmth.

So we find that technique in the most delicate sense of the word has to do with how you felt something.

A Man’s Contempt

By Derek Mali

I am tremendously grateful to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for their scientific and kind seeing that every person has two opposing drives: the desire to respect the world, see meaning in it; and the desire to have contempt for people and things. As a boy, I was hoping to like the world as I read many books with great pleasure, and as I would hover about when my father built a bookcase or a repairman fixed a stove, to learn how they did it. Soon I began taking things apart to see how they worked or to fix them. But I also used things I met to see the world as cold and inimical and to have contempt.

For instance, while my parents were amiable and ever so civil to each other, there also was a coldness between them that made me feel love was a fake and marriage a sham. I came to feel more comfortable amidst tools, sawdust, and wires than with any person; and in spite of my silent vows not to be like my parents, I became increasingly cold and withdrawn.

Though this contempt for people made me feel pained and lonely, I thought it was the only safe approach, and I did not know why at the age of 12 I felt so old and only half alive. I thought it was a sign of weakness to show emotions and worked hard to make sure nothing would affect me very much. How wrong I was! And how happy I am to know it!

In a 1964 lecture, The American Question, Mr. Siegel said: “Life for man is the being able to respond to the things that may be. Hiding and contempt are two ways of not responding. The difference between death and life is that life responds. If the ego is a means of limiting response, then the ego is working for death.” This explains why I was becoming like a lamppost, dentable and sometimes bright, but rigid, and as much as possible unaffected by people. It also explains why I felt so separate and hard.

In 1970, in my first Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel explained the mistake I was making that had weakened my whole life. He asked me, “Do you think there was a satisfaction in thinking the world was a flop?” “Oh, yes,” I answered. And he continued, “What do you think of that? Let’s say the world is unfortunate, is a cosmic botch. Still, do you think we should rejoice in that? The thing that we do is feel that we could do better and that the world is malformed.”

Then Mr. Siegel explained, “What is recommended is this: if the world is seen as unkind, malformed, inefficient, that there be a sadness for all humanity and not just for oneself, and that there be a regret that existence in its dark trying doesn’t do better—instead of saying, ‘Huh, what a world I got myself into!’ There is only one pitfall that man has, which has in it all kinds of sub-pitfalls: to see the world badly as a means of exalting oneself. That is the pitfall. It is the perceptive form of selfishness.”

Mr. Siegel’s critical good will was beautiful! Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I no longer feel the world is a flop: I have been able to have great emotions about poetry, drama, history, and many friends for whom I care deeply. I have a proud conviction about the economic justice people everywhere deserve. And I am so fortunate to be married to my dear wife, New York City high school science teacher and Aesthetic Realism associate Sally Ross, whom I love so much. Only when Aesthetic Realism is known and studied will the real power of respect have a chance to show all that it can do.