The Most Important Distinction for Our Lives
Dear Unknown Friends:
In our serialization of Eli Siegel’s great 1948 lecture Poetry and Technique, we have reached the point at which Mr. Siegel speaks about T.S. Eliot and technique that is false. Eliot is much less revered now than he was for many years of our century. But it is Eli Siegel who showed—he said it as early as 1933, reviewing Eliot for Scribner’s magazine—that the author of “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland” is not a true poet. And Mr. Siegel is the critic who showed why that fact matters so much—why the difference between real poetry and that which merely looks like it, is the difference between honesty and dishonesty, that which is alive and that which is dead.
So the question of T.S. Eliot is a question of what poetry is—but also of what kind of self you or any person wants to have. And as I comment on Eli Siegel’s seeing of Eliot, I am very grateful to be commenting on what I love more than anything else on this earth: the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry, the basis of Aesthetic Realism itself.
Eli Siegel is the person in history who truly understood the human self. He defined the crucial matter in the life of everyone—that on which our happiness and the goodness of our minds depend. He explained that going on constantly within every person is a fight between our deepest desire—to like the world honestly—and the desire to have contempt, to get a “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.” Contempt, the desire to be more through making things and people less, is, Mr. Siegel greatly explained, the beginning of every human cruelty, from everyday quiet aloofness to “ethnic cleansing.” Meanwhile, a good poem, he showed, whether it is encomium or complaint, love lyric or scathing satire, is always respect for the world. “Poetry,” he wrote, “arises out of a like of the world so intense and wide that of itself, it is musical” (TRO 181).
And so, the distinction between a true poem and a false is the most important distinction for ourselves. To see an adroit arrangement of words that is really contempt for the world and call it “poetry” is to call the worst possibility of ourselves the best and to ask never to be able to distinguish between them. Yet this is done in literary criticism and in schools again and again. It was done monumentally with T.S. Eliot.
He Made Contempt Seem Sensitive
In various discussions of Eliot over the years, Mr. Siegel described his quality and appeal. He said that Eliot was able to take the contemptuous disgust for the world which people really despised themselves for having, and make it appear sensitive and high class. And Eliot took one’s ill-at-easeness with self and made it seem a distinguished thing, delicately reeking of one’s superiority. That quality is in these noted lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question.
Along with the fact that the metaphors here are ridiculous and unbelievable (biting off a matter, smiling while one bites it, followed by squeezing the universe into a ball, then rolling the squeezed universe—and toward a question), there is an atmosphere about all this that makes you feel profound. There is a sound, which is not the real poetic music, but a tepid, aloofly rolling sound, that makes you feel you are among the select.
In Poetry and Technique, Mr. Siegel explains that true technique arises from emotion that is intensely honest, has fire, the primal, and also tremendous exactitude. I learned from him that the emotion that makes a poem is: “This matters! and as I feel this matters I am caring terrifically for the world itself, the world in its point and great width, in its tumult and order"; for what we hear in the music of a real poem is the structure of the world—the oneness of opposites. “Poetry,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “ ..is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.”
While Eliot is an aloof arranger, lacking fire, let us take these lines by a contemporary of his, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)—the first lines of her poem “Sea Gods”:
They say there is no hope—
sand-drift—rocks—rubble of the sea—
the broken hulk of a ship,
hung with shreds of rope,
pallid under the cracked pitch.
These lines are beautiful; they have that intensity of honesty which makes for poetry. The first line tells of utter, aching emptiness. But the sounds of the words, the two long a sounds at the beginning, the two large o sounds at the end, the weight given to each word, make for a great fullness at one with that emptiness. And the line, in its miserableness of message, comes with that thrust, that surge, that passion which makes for a grandeur of strength that also trembles. In the other lines too there is the real music, as H.D. gives to fairly wretched things a loving dignity: a firmness, force, which says that even in their feebleness they are. These lines are fervent love for the world as the oneness of emptiness and fullness, wretchedness and glory.
Again: Aesthetic Realism shows that the choice between the Eliot way and the H. D. way—the poetic way—is deeply a choice between contempt for the world and respect for it. The attraction to Eliot, the making him stand for poetry, came from something that is driving people today and hurting them enormously, including people not interested in literature at all: the desire to have one’s ego justified and glamorized, to feel that if one is bored, disgusted, ill-at-ease, it is not because one is unjust but because one is of a higher type than other people.
Eli Siegel—who is, I say with care, the greatest of all literary critics—understood not only the poetry of Eliot and its inadequacy, but Eliot himself. His description of Eliot’s contempt and fakery, with their ensuing pain, was ratified years later by many statements in Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography, T. S. Eliot: A Life. Ackroyd writes, for instance, that Eliot had a “shuddering disaffection towards the ordinary world,” and tells of his “anxiety and dread” (pp. 37, 113). Eliot wowed people, including critics, with his “scholarship.” But as early as the 1933 Scribner’s review, Eli Siegel, whose own scholarship was unsurpassed, wrote courageously: “Mr. Eliot is not learned. He has a most successful show of learning.” Such a statement seemed literary blasphemy. Then, decades later, in the 1984 biography, we find an admission by Eliot himself about his impressive notes to “The Wasteland”: he braggingly called them his “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship” (p. 127).
I am not speaking here—as I have on other occasions and certainly shall again—about the relation of the poetry of Eliot and that of Eli Siegel. But I shall say simply this: After Mr. Siegel won the 1925 Nation poetry prize for his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” and there followed for months as large a stir in America as any poem ever caused—when the literary people of this nation chose to boycott Eli Siegel and tout Eliot, they were hurting horribly not only the future of poetry but the rest of the 20th century. For they chose dishonesty over the most beautiful honesty that ever was. They chose conceit, snobbishness, and fakery over that way of seeing which came to be Aesthetic Realism and which could have had people see the world and each other with a kindness that is the same as intellectual power.
T.S. Eliot, Ackroyd writes, “had a clear understanding of the mechanics of making a literary reputation; he understood the importance of being mentioned regularly in the newspapers” (p. 101). Eli Siegel, on the other hand, never buttered anyone or compromised his honesty for fame—as he could have. He was, all the time, passionately, beautifully, gracefully sincere and great—like poetry itself.