|NUMBER 1875.—May 21, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The essay we are honored to publish here appeared originally in 1959 in the magazine Today’s Japan. It is “Slowness and Speed in Poetry,” by Eli Siegel. And its basis is this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
The Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry—of what distinguishes a true poem from something not that, why poetry matters, what it has to do with the life of everyone—is central to Aesthetic Realism. And as I have said many times, I know of nothing more important, more beautiful in the world. Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that the questions of every person’s life are answered in the technique of a good poem—because the opposites that are in us, that bewilder and battle in us, are made one there—in various ways but always vibrantly and powerfully. A line of good poetry is always a oneness of such opposites as activity and calm, familiarity and strangeness, freedom and order, and the opposites told of in the essay printed here: slowness and speed.
As introduction, I’ll comment on some of the ways people are mixed up, often steeply, by speed and slowness in their lives. For example, every day throughout this land people feel both agitated (badly speedy) and torpid (badly slow); they shuttle between those two feelings, profoundly disliking each.
Contempt & Respect Are There
Like all the opposites that make up who we are, slowness and speed are affected centrally by what Aesthetic Realism shows is the big fight in the human self: the fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it. Take the very frequent matter of speaking too quickly—or too slowly. To speak at all is to give a certain respect: it’s a vocal affirmation that reality, a subject, and a person addressed exist and affect us. Excess speed and slowness are both ways of lessening that respect. When we speak too quickly, we’re saying, without knowing it: “Yeah, I’m saying something about this matter, to this person; but I’ll get away from doing so as fast as possible and get back to myself. I won’t give the respect of trying to make my statements as clear as possible. I won’t honor the meaning of the situation or listener by any lingering. They don’t deserve that respect from me! I’ll just throw my syllables at them and get rid of that token of respect—what I’m saying—as fast as I can.”
Then, there is the person who speaks too slowly, who tortures you with his hesitations and pauses. That too is contempt trying to lessen the respect which is in speaking at all. It is a way of holding on to yourself while you seem to give yourself. You’re speaking, but you’re showing that you’re not doing it willingly: that reality and people don’t deserve to have your words leap gladly to meet and honor them.
Vehicles, Children, Justice
People can go after speed dangerously, including on the public roads, because they dislike the world. Speeding in cars and on motorcycles has been used to grab excitement from a world one sees as dull. It’s been used to conquer, beat out, leave in one’s dust a world that seems to get in one’s way.
There is the slowness nearly every mother recognizes. She calls a child to the dinner table—and the child makes her wait; often mama has to request the child’s presence again and again. Mothers have tried not to be irritated, but they’ve felt some contest is going on. Yes, a child, without understanding it, can get back at a world that confuses him, through showing that, well, he’ll come, but not welcomingly—he’ll punish even as he fulfills a request.
In children there can be too that painful speed which has been called hyperactivity. Pharmaceutical companies find it ever so lucrative, because millions of these children are being “treated” with drugs—which have various side effects, distressful and worse. Meanwhile, it was asked in this journal decades ago: can hyperactivity be a manifestation of a child’s fight between the desire to have to do with things and his desire to see everything as unworthy to hold him? A child goes, swiftly, from one thing to another: there are, unarticulated, a hope, “Is this for me?,” and a swift rejection, “It’s not good enough!” There are a contemptuous triumph in showing that he is not had by anything—and a large sorrow, because he has curtailed his deepest hope, to find meaning in things.
Our speed is good when the purpose we have in it is to honor the excitement, the aliveness of the world. Our slowness is good when we use it to honor the fact that things mean something and so should be lingered on.
Wherever there is contempt, both speed and slowness become cruel. This is so in the history of that contemptuous way of economics which is the profit system. For example, there has always been the attempt to make people work faster, faster, faster, so a boss can get as much profit as possible from their labor—regardless of the harm to their bodies and minds. And there has been an awful slowness urged on people to keep them from demanding economic justice; for instance: Be patient, and things will improve. Look, we’re in a recovery—you’ll find work, eventually. If corporations do well, it will trickle down to you. This is a company you can rise in some day—if you work hard and don’t complain.
A famous expression about slowness is “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” And one of the great statements of America is against deferred justice, justice made slow to arrive. In 1831 abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison expressed outrage at those who advocated what was called “gradual emancipation”: slavery, he said, should be ended speedily, immediately, not gradually, slowly; and one should be intense about it:
On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm;...tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.
Garrison’s sentences are speedy and beautifully thoughtful at once, fervent and composed. And they represent how we today should see the fact that America is owned not by all her people but chiefly by just a few: we should be passionate in our desire that this ugliness be changed fast—as close to immediately as possible!
In his essay Mr. Siegel, writing in the 1950s, says the poetry of the time accents slowness. That is largely still true in our own time, though now there is some verse, mainly performance or “slam” verse, that goes for a rhythmic rapidity, with rhyme, and has been influenced by rap music. The big matter is: for poetry to be poetry, does it need to have what we ourselves are looking for: the oneness of fast and slow, agogness and thoughtfulness? Yes.
And Eli Siegel, who showed what poetry is, had, in himself, a great oneness of those opposites. He was swift, unhesitating, in his desire to be just to any person or thing; and he never went away from knowing, from trying to see something fairly, no matter how much time it might take. His good will, his desire to know, was there immediately—and stayed.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Slowness and Speed in Poetry
By Eli Siegel
Trochee trips from long to short;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slow Spondee stalks...
—Coleridge, “Metrical Feet: Lesson for a Boy”
The tendency these days is hardly to trip in poetry—which Coleridge says the trochee does. The tendency, rather, is to stalk, as Coleridge says the spondee does. Indeed, when one is speedy in poetry, in our age, he undergoes the likelihood of being considered not quite current. So much poetry is slow; so much poetry judiciously revolves, slowly; so much poetry is a painful and thick soup of gravely presented metaphor. I should think that one reason contemporary poetry is not widely contemporary, is not welcomed very much, is that it is slow. It certainly is piquant that Mr. Eliot, the sighingly magisterial author of “East Coker,” should have edited a selection from Kipling, the bounding, thumping, once shamefully attractive author of “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.” The armchair has met the dervish.
Yet something like speed has to be in poetry always. A line of poetry is both slow and speedy, because what’s real is that way. Existence is a cunning and beautiful simultaneity of the forward and retreating. A poem is the darting kingfisher and the taking-its-time lizard. When it is said that poetry has the speed and slowness of reality, this does not mean, of course, that poetry emulates reality obviously. The lively reality-principle (in another sense than that of Freud) is gone for.
Hart Crane: Majestic & Vivid
The question of the oneness of slowness and speed is still dazzlingly contemporary. A kind of classic of our day is Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb.” What this poem is about has interestingly baffled, profoundly teased. This is not the place for an elucidation of Crane’s massively murmuring work. The makeup of the lines as lines in the poem is what is most relevant here. These lines are an interesting mingling of the grave and speedy. Take: “Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.”
Slowness and speed permeate the line. “Beat on” pounds with determination; “dusty” is quick; “shore” is slow; and “and were obscured” is a wide sigh. The line is the real thing.
Another: “And wrecks passed without the sound of bells.” Here, too, there is the crackling and the rotund, the swift and lingering. “Wrecks” and its breaking, followed by the smooth swiftness of “passed without,” is completed by the quiet loftiness of “sound of bells.” Slowness and speed are here together as red and white are together in the skin of an apple.
Then there is the line which is as “lyrical” as any; in fact, it could have found its way into one of the more passionately meditative stanzas of the so different Matthew Arnold. The line is: “And silent answers crept across the stars.” The line is slow, but, looked at closely, it also has space and speed.
One of the reasons Crane’s poetry, with all its bland uncertainty, is authentic, is that he is majestic and vivid; deeply slow, lucidly swift, musically.
Poetry, however, is associated, I’m afraid, with slowness. How difficult it would be for anyone today to present the effect of these lines from Scott’s “Bonny Dundee”:
Come open the West Port and let me gang free,
And it’s room for the bonnets of Bonny Dundee!
To be like Scott is, yes, precarious. However, this poem of Scott is poetry, because with all its clatter and going on and trotting there is control, a deep slowness of management. Moreover, in the most uproarious lines there is that in the syllables which makes for arrest and gravity.
It should be pointed out that speed by itself is here and there liked these days, but it is usually with some strangeness of manner, and unsymmetry of syntax. One of the great uses of Gerard Manley Hopkins is that he dares to shout and talk fast and repeat himself. However, in “The Leaden Echo,” with the beautiful frenzy in the lines there can also be a meditativeness, almost Tennysonian. For example:
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair.
Slowness and speed, at once, are honored by Hopkins, too.
One of the Fastest Poets
A poet whose speed is one of the factors making for the disfavor in which he finds himself is Swinburne. He is one of the fastest poets in any language. But with his speed, often, is the appropriate deep gravity, right structure.
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.
Lines like these (from the Chorus from Atalanta) once resounded eagerly in Oxford rooms. And even now, seen from the right angle, they can do poetically just things. But there is so much against Swinburne these days.
The speedy poet in English who is high is John Skelton. We have seen earthiness and the folklore quality in him; and we have seen a grandeur in his swiftness. Once, though, he was seen as some uncouth entertainer of the early 16th century. Skelton is like Hopkins and Crane: he honors speed and meditation.
Whan I remembre agayne
How my Philip was slaine
Never halfe the paine
Was betwene you twayne
Pyramus and Thesbe
As than befell to me
I wept and I wayled
The teares down hayled
But nothing it availed
To call Philip agayne
Whom Gib our cat hath slayne.
These lines from “A Little Boke of Philip Sparrow” have the praiseworthy rush of “Hey Diddle Diddle” and, strangely enough, something like the rush of Mayakovsky, the Russian poet. Speed and slowness cross the oceans.
It would be most fruitful to study lengthily the speed of Shelley—who is of speed, as Swinburne is. These lines from “The Cloud” are representative of Shelley when accelerated:
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow.
Shelley can be almost mad in his spatial intensity, but when he is most felicitous, his most unwithheld speed changes into slowness.
Keats is other than Shelley, as has been said in many rooms of learning. Keats inclines not to the hectic in his line. His syllables fall more decorously and thuddingly.
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn...
If these lines from Hyperion and the lines from Shelley’s “Cloud” are poetry—and they all are—we can perhaps see how welcoming poetry is. Keats goes from gravity to vividness; Shelley goes from franticness to architecture. The substance is akin; the first direction is different.
And Keats has written one of the classically slow lines in English poetry—in Hyperion, too: “But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.” But there are subtle currents of liveliness in this line too. In fact, it is not going too far to say that because poetry puts together slowness and speed, it also joins death and life.
To care for poetry is to care for reality as torpor and for reality as carnival. The world can be creamy or murmuring. It is murmuring, anyway, in these lines from Landor’s Gebir, about a shell:
Shake one and it awakens, then apply
Its polisht lips to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there.
These lines have been commended in the past, and they suit me. They have the requisite composed vitality. But they are so different from the buoyant, delicate
Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine;
Malbrough s’en va-t-en guerre,
Ne sait quand reviendra.
If one is to make comparisons, one could say that Hart Crane to John Skelton is what the lines about the shell of Landor are to the Malbrough song.
In poetry, to praise speed is hardly to disparage slowness. Speed and slowness are almost supernatural friends in poetry and music. Yet a nod to speed is needed now. It is necessary to dissociate speed from superficiality, vulgarity, obviousness. Speed may be the most subtle thing in the world. Life needs it, so poetry needs it. We can meditate on the gallop. Once Europe did. It was when Bürger’s “Lenore” was so popular, in the late 18th century. A ghostly horse gallops with a mighty trot. Death is approached with a nightly, untiring trot. Europe responded pleasedly and surprisedly to lines like these:
Und weiter, weiter, hopp, hopp, hopp!
Ging’s fort in sausendem Galopp,
Dass Ross und Reiter schnoben,
Und Kies und Funken stoben.
And further, further, trot, trot, trot!
Things went in a furious gallop,
Horse and rider gasped,
And pebbles and sparks flew.
I believe it is correct to ask for a further consideration of effects in Bürger’s “Lenore” and poems like it. We are not now at the beginning of Romanticism, but our interest in life should be as much as that of any awakening era. One of the lessons of poetry is that even dreariness, truly seen, is interesting. The agonizing can be seen vividly. The puzzling can be gone at with ardor. This is poetry’s way.
When misery or something else than misery is grasped poetically, one of the things that happen is that slowness takes on speed, and the fever and surprise of speed take on a form akin to slowness and rest.
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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