Poetry, Self, and Love
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin this new year the way Aesthetic Realism itself began: with the showing by Eli Siegel of what poetry is. He explained that what makes for a true poem is the very thing that will make a person’s life happy, intelligent, proud. What takes place in the technique of a good poem is what we need, and we suffer because we do not have it: “All beauty,” he showed, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We publish his 1960 essay “What Aesthetic Realism Adds to Poetry; or, If One Wishes, Just Says about It.”
The title is very modest—because what Aesthetic Realism adds to poetry is the biggest thing in the centuries-long history of poetic criticism. It is what such critics as Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Boileau, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold thirsted to see: the thing that makes one arrangement of words poetry and another not.
What, also, Aesthetic Realism adds to poetry is this: it enables poetry at last to be really, fully useful. Poems, of course, have affected people, sometimes mightily, over the centuries; but a tremendous usefulness latent in poetry could never be for people until Mr. Siegel as critic explained it. Matthew Arnold wrote that poetry is “a criticism of life,” but just how it is, he did not know. Eli Siegel explained that how, and Aesthetic Realism is the result. Aesthetic Realism itself is the aesthetic criticism of life and self. An instance is in this issue of TRO, as we print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis, from a recent public seminar titled “Vanity vs. Happiness: Can a Man Distinguish between Them?”
Emergencies in Our Lives
In “What Aesthetic Realism Adds to Poetry,” Mr. Siegel speaks about many pairs of opposites in the poetic state of mind and technique. They are all emergencies in our lives. They are all sources of pain because we feel them to be apart in us and fighting—not one, as they are in poetry: for instance, depth and surface; rise and fall, or high and low; assertion and meditativeness; togetherness and detachment. And Eli Siegel, the person who writes here so technically and deeply and with such liveliness about poetry, is the same person whom Ernest DeFilippis quotes, speaking so kindly to a man about love. The basis of both—the poetic criticism and the criticism of self—is the same.
There is nothing in this world I love more than the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry and Mr. Siegel’s magnificent, deep, charming, humorous, thrilling, vital presentation of it in thousands of instances in Aesthetic Realism classes. To say it was my good fortune to attend these classes, is an understatement. To say it means my life to me—cliché or not—is exact.
There Is Emily Dickinson
I’ll comment now on some lines by Emily Dickinson as a means of showing, a little, what poetry says about our lives. Here are the first two stanzas of a poem by her about disappointment in love. She is writing about a man and says that after a while, the big effect of separation from him has seemed finally to abate:
I got so I could take his name—
That Stop-sensation—on my Soul—
And Thunder—in the Room—
I got so I could walk across
That Angle in the floor,
Where he turned so, and I turned—how—
And all our Sinew tore—
The first line is very simple: “I got so I could take his name.” It is beautiful because it makes the everyday and the wondrous, the casual and the tremendous, inextricable. And it does so both through the meaning of the words and the sound.
“I got so” is offhand, everyday, idiomatic. But in “take his name” we have the wideness, the spread, the wonder of the long a sound. In “take," that a has pain with it, through the k; in “name,” it has softness, through the m. But it is large. And as we feel this largeness, in a line composed entirely of humble monosyllables and beginning with that casual phrase, the effect is deep and fine.
Those very opposites, the everyday and the wondrous, are opposites people make a huge mistake about in love. A woman, for example, feels the ordinary world is dull, and what’s big, what’s wonderful, is having a man make her more important than the rest of reality. Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of love, like the purpose of art, is to like the world; and the pain about love arises from using a person to have contempt for the world, including the world of every day.
Emotion and Logic
The momentous and everyday as one, continue in these stanzas. And other opposites do. We hear emotion told of in a matter-of-fact manner: we hear logic and emotion as one. In the first section of his essay, Mr. Siegel speaks about the iambic, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented. This poem is in iambics; and the way Emily Dickinson uses them gives strictness, precision, to unbounded feeling. Take these lines about huge feeling, told of in three definite iambics: “And Thún | der ín | the Róom”; “And áll | our Sí | new tóre.” How much people feel their emotion is not precise, and their logic is apart from feeling, is cold!
The World Is There
In the essay, Mr. Siegel writes about the oneness in a poem of “individual consciousness and the entire world.” Aesthetic Realism explains that in a good poem a person is trying to see something—including her own emotion—with such depth of honesty, such fulness of accuracy, that the structure of the world itself is present: the oneness of opposites. As a result, there is what Mr. Siegel showed to be the decisive thing in a poem—music. That happens in Emily Dickinson’s lines. For example, abstraction—with the conceptual words “so” and “how”—joins terrifically with body in “Where he turned so, and I turned—how— / And all our Sinew tore.” These too are reality’s opposites, which so often torment people because they are not one.
In every good poem a person has expressed herself or himself by being just to the world. That is why, in order to combat contempt, the most hurtful thing in the human self, we must see what poetry is. Unless we feel we’re expressed, truly selfish, in being just, we’ll be unjust. Poetry, then, is an urgent and beautiful necessity. And so is that which explains poetry and us: Aesthetic Realism.