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.