What Poetry Has and Is
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Words, by Eli Siegel.
More than ever before, people want to be affected by poetry. Poetry readings abound; and there is this increased interest because people are looking for something in poetry, though they don’t know what. Aesthetic Realism explains what they are looking for; Eli Siegel is the critic who has explained, after all the centuries, what poetry truly is. And if people, going after being affected by poetry, don’t know what it is, they will take the false thing for the true; they will not be affected in the way they really hope to be; they will be affected in a way that bilks the depths of themselves. And that, a good deal, is what is going on.
Aesthetic Realism is based on the showing by Mr. Siegel that poetry, art, beauty itself has what we want for our lives. I consider this Aesthetic Realism principle to be the most important single statement in both art criticism and the understanding of human life: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Occasionally in the history of criticism, a person has said that poetry is necessary for life to go well, but before Aesthetic Realism, there was always a large vagueness about what that might mean. There is, for example, Matthew Arnold’s statement “Poetry is at bottom a criticism of life”; and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I see those statements as exceedingly important, passionate, sincere, and true. But just what they mean, with specificity, is not to be found in the writing of Arnold or Shelley—both of whom I care for tremendously. It is Eli Siegel who has shown why poetry is an urgent thing—magnificently urgent—for every person’s life and for nations, including America now. There is nothing I love more than the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry, and I am glad to say something about it now, as we serialize Poetry and Words.
In his essay “The Immediate Need for Poetry,” Eli Siegel writes: “It happens that our deepest desire is to make sense of the contrarieties in this world .... Poetry meets this need” (TRO 758). Let us take two opposites in everyone’s life: logic and emotion. People have pain every day—have ongoing shame, quiet misery, anguish—because these opposites are apart in them. A person feels his emotions are not logical. And as he goes after being “reasonable,” he feels he’s cold. But in every good line of poetry, these opposites are one! “Poetry,” Mr. Siegel writes in his “Outline of Aesthetic Realism,” “is logic and emotion brought together so well, music ensues.”
This Line Meets Our Hope
Logic and emotion are one in this line by Emily Dickinson about Indian summer: “These are the days when birds come back.” Though the statement is surprising, there is also a reasonableness in describing a warm day of late fall in terms of how confused birds might see it—that is, logic is working here. And the relation of surprise and rightness makes for a deep charm, also a grandeur. Meanwhile, as the statement comes from reason and affects our reason, there is very big feeling in it: there is a sigh in those accented syllables; there is a yearning; there is a wonder. We hear that sigh, yearning, wonder, through a terrific relation, in the line, of syllabic abruptness and lingering, swiftness and slowness.
So I have mentioned three pairs of opposites in the line: surprise and rightness; swiftness and lingering; and that pair I am chiefly speaking of, logic and emotion. Because logic and emotion were one in Emily Dickinson as she wrote the poem, a “music ensue[d]” which I have described a little.
Humanity’s hope is in that line—and in every poetic line: for our emotion to be large yet exact too. That hope is impelling the increased interest in poetry. And the horror in the way poetry is presented these days—both in the “popular” field, the various readings at coffee shops and festivals, and in the academic field—is that things are called poems which are not poems because emotion and logic are as severed in them as in people’s ordinary, mixed-up lives.
There is a tendency to call anything in lines that seems to express your “feeling” a poem. There is also a tendency to see any clever arrangement of words and ideas in line structure as a poem, even though the writer’s feeling was not very large. I have used the word horror about this way of seeing and presenting poetry, and I mean it. Not to make a distinction between a line like the one of Emily Dickinson I quoted and so much now called poetry, is to have people feel that the awful severing between emotion and logic, which makes them ashamed and weakens their minds, is inevitable and even good.
Two Ways of Contempt
Aesthetic Realism explains that the most dangerous thing in us is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” A big aspect of contempt is to see our own feeling as right and even wonderful or holy just because it is ours. Our feeling, Aesthetic Realism shows, needs to be just to the object; it needs to be just to the world; we need to be critics of our feeling. People have been mean and even murderous because they had a “feeling” and they glorified and went by that feeling because it was theirs. Meanwhile, all over America, in high schools and in poetry workshops, people are putting “feelings” in a line arrangement and being told they are writing “poetry"—though they are not trying to see their feelings exactly or trying to have their feelings be fair to the object. As they hear praise for a sloppy, albeit verbally decorated, expression of feeling, they are hearing praise for the most hurtful thing in themselves.
Another aspect of contempt is coldness, aloofness. And, as I said, so much is called poetry which is really an aloof management of words. For instance, I think the following line by W.H. Auden, from his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” is not poetry: “But for him it was his last afternoon as himself.”
That statement is somewhat interesting, and there is a certain kind of logic or reasoning in it. But the line has a tepidity, dullness, flaccidity; the syllables putter along; and there is a sloshy quality to the sound of “was his last afternoon.” The line is not musical. Of course, I can be disagreed with, and I am ready to give much more evidence for what I am saying, but the emotion in the Auden line and poem is not big enough, exact enough, intense enough, wide enough, to make for poetry. (The person the line is about, Yeats, has written some of the true, big poetry of the world.)
I learned from Eli Siegel—and I have seen it to be so—that poetry arises from a tremendous honesty. When there is that tremendous, uncorrupted desire to be exact about one’s own feeling and everything else, one’s words have a sound which is different in every instance but which stands for the whole world. That is, the music of poetry is always the oneness of reality’s opposites: motion and rest, freedom and order, force and delicacy, continuity and change. And this music, Mr. Siegel showed, is the decisive thing in poetry. It is the sign that a person’s feeling, while his own, is not narrow—but has taken in, and been fair to, reality as a whole.
There is nothing people need more now than honesty. People are disgusted by the dishonesty they meet—over the airwaves, from politicians, from people they know, and yes, from themselves. The biggest hope for the world is the full honesty of real poetry. The reason is that poetry shows 1) a person can express his particular self and be grandly fair to what’s not himself at the same time (something people mainly think can’t happen); 2) the world seen honestly is something we can like—it is musical!
When instance after instance of non-poetry is called poetry, what has occurred is a saying that no distinction exists between honesty and non-honesty, or between sincerity in its fullness and something tinged with pretense.
What Kind of Sound?
A sign that Aesthetic Realism is affecting persons who speak about poetry is the fact that how a poem sounds is increasingly being pointed to as crucial. In previous decades, what was made preeminent were such things as imagery, tensions, ironies, and later, “marginalized elements.” In the introduction to his book Fooling with Words (Morrow, 1999), we find Bill Moyers saying the big thing in poetry is its “music.” But one can use the word music, like the word love, carelessly; and that, I believe, is what happens in this collection of televised interviews by Moyers. I comment on instances from it.
On page xxi Moyers praises his teachers, saying they “simply believed in the magic of poetry’s music.” Then he quotes poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s advice: “Read [the poem] aloud to relish the consonants and vowels.” The trouble with this way of speaking, in terms of “magic” and “relish[ing],” is that it belittles the size, depth, and importance of the effect poetry can have on a person. It is also a severing of sound in poetry from meaning. Further, there can be many vowel and consonant arrangements which are unusual or quaint or striking, yet are not musical; and there is no attempt in the Moyers book to distinguish.
On page 215, Pinsky comments on how he wrote his poem “Shirt,” and we see something of what he means by sound in poetry: “I thought about how the word treadle chimed with needle. Then I had bobbin and union, and from there it took off, guided by the sounds.” Pinsky is speaking about something Mr. Siegel talks of in the section of Poetry and Words published here: sameness and difference of words. And as Mr. Siegel shows, the mere fact that words have this sameness and difference does not make for poetry: in fact, juxtaposing words that are alike and different can sometimes make for pretty shabby effects. I think the lines with the words Pinsky speaks of are not very good. They are: “The needle, the union, I The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze / At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.”
In these lines, words do not bring out the strength, the power of each other. The meaning of union is lessened as that word is linked with bobbin and swiftly grouped with it and treadle and needle. And the way the Triangle fire is made to patter in as part of a list, trivializes it.
The title Fooling with Words does not describe what poetry is or does. To fool, in the sense of dupe, is completely opposed to the honesty which impels poetry. In the other meaning of fool—to toy, play around superficially—the phrase “fooling with words” is also against poetry. To use a term of Matthew Arnold, good poetry, even the most lightsome, always arises from a “high seriousness.” Take these lines—musical, funny, wild—by Lewis Carroll. They come out of a deep respect for words and reality:
He said, “I hunt for haddocks' eyes
Among the heather bright,
And work them into waistcoat-buttons
In the silent night."
There is much more to say about what poetry is. For now I’ll say: Eli Siegel was the greatest critic of poetry. And in his own poetry, and his prose, written and spoken, he always had that greatest, most beautiful thing: honesty with words.