The Magnificent Understanding of Poetry
and Your Life
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Technique, which Eli Siegel gave in 1948. And as we do, I am very grateful to comment on what I see as the most beautiful thing in the world: Eli Siegel’s showing, after centuries of literary criticism, what poetry really is; and his showing that in the emotion and technique of every good poem are to be found the answers to the tumultuous life questions of each person and also to the troubles afflicting nations. This principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism, is resplendently true about poetry and about the life of everyone: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Since the lecture we are serializing is about technique, I comment here on that other aspect of a poem: the emotion and perception which, as Mr. Siegel shows, technique should be fair to. And I use lines by one of the poets he mentions. This is section 7 of Wallace Stevens’ symbolic, wild, musical poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
Whatever else is in this poetry, there are thought and feeling. So what is the difference between the thought and feeling in these five short lines and the kind of thought and feeling now going on in people in the kitchens, bedrooms, offices, streets, and also legislatures of America?
People Are Narrow and Wide
Stevens’ blackbird—who, we find, has to do with everything, with “twenty snowy mountains,” one’s own mind, “a man and a woman,” a river—stands, I think, for reality itself. The blackbird is reality as not apparently glamorous, as not soothing or glorifying you, but as always present, critically asking for justice. And in the lines I have quoted, people are chided for not wanting to see how grand and beautiful this ever-present thing really is.
In the first line, Stevens is writing about persons who are contracted, who don’t want to see in a way that is large: “O thin men of Haddam.” He is displeased with them; there is a delicate revulsion as one’s lips go from the fullness of “O” to the constricted sound “thin men.” People are displeased with other people all over the world right now—but the way they are displeased makes them be mean to one another, even attack and bomb one another. The great difference between this line and the emotion in apartments and nations is that Stevens is trying, from the very center of himself, to see and feel something justly; and so he presents these men as not only contracted but as having also grandeur.
We hear both in the music of the line: we hear a timorous tremble and also a reverberating pomp. As Mr. Siegel explains—the how we are made to hear this is the technique. It has to do with the fact that the short vowels and ns of “thin men” contribute to that tremble; and the full “O” at the beginning and the resonating weight of “Haddam” at the end of the line make for a sense of pomp. But the technique arises from the justice of Stevens' feeling: his feeling as he came to this line that even persons we object to have the world in them—they are both narrow and wide, perhaps hidden yet completely real. And when we see the structure of the world in any person, we cannot be cruel to that person.
Justice Becomes Music
The next line objects to the way people can long for something falsely gorgeous—use it not to see that the real beauty, what could really thrill them, is right before them: “Why do you imagine golden birds?” This is an exceedingly musical line. It is critical, with a no-nonsense trochaic thrust: “Whý do | yóu im | ágine...” But it is also a question, with wonder, an ache, a slow, wide probing. There is a sound here that is the desire to know—to know other people from within.
There is nothing more needed in the world than this desire to see truly what another person is. It is needed desperately in marriages, because, mainly, as a wife is angry at a husband, she is not trying to know him, see his feelings with fullness. For that matter, when she is pleased with him she is not trying to see who he is either. Because her purpose is not to know the man she married, but to have him make much of her, she is ashamed of both how she is pleased and how she is displeased; she is ill-natured and feels empty and lonely. Meanwhile, in this line the desire to know is so deep that it makes for what Eli Siegel showed to be the crucial thing in poetry: music.
The third line, with its two dactyls and a spondee—“Dó you not | sée how the | bláckbírd”—has a proud strut, a triumph, even as it is so simple, modest. And the hope of everyone is here: to feel we are triumphant, struttingly important, as we see the meaning of something else. Mr. Siegel showed people won’t be just to other things and people until we feel personally triumphant, expressed, important through being just. We need poetry and the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry to be convinced that that is possible and to learn how to do it.
The last of these lines have at once the ordinary and the mysterious—with thump and nuance: “Walks around the feet / Of the women about you?” We will be kind to other people only when we see them that way—as firmly real yet having wonder, the unknown.
Eli Siegel was the greatest literary critic in history—for many reasons which I have described before and shall again. But a tremendous reason is: he is the critic who made poetry fully useful, who showed it stands for the self we want to have, and showed how we can have that self.