Report by Miriam Mondlin of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel
In a magnificent class titled “Look,the World is Poetic!” given June 13, 1971, Eli Siegel showed the world is poetic through how the opposites of stop and flow, stillness and moving, are in reality itself, and in poetry, including Chinese, American, Arabian, French, Sanskrit, and Persian. “I am beginning with the fact,” Mr. Siegel stated, “that there is poetry in the world and it shows itself in many ways and they each say something about the other….The world is poetic in two ways: its structure is poetic, and there’s poetry in it.”
Mr. Siegel showed the opposites richly and diversely—in languages, in poetry, and in life, explaining that “languages themselves have a certain trend having to do with poetry.” Among the examples he gave were the flowing motion of Italian as against the up and down and stop qualities of Chinese and Japanese. “Still,” he said, “the two things are there.”
As his text, Mr. Siegel chiefly used An Anthology of World Poetry edited by Mark Van Doren. In 1925, when Eli Siegel, then 22 years old, won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize for his great poem, Hot Afternoons Have Been In Montana, Van Doren was Literary Editor. Afterwards, The Nation published ugly attacks on Eli Siegel. Van Doren, aloof and unjust, uncomfortable with his own great respect for Mr. Siegel’s poetry, his scholarship and humanity, didn’t stand up for his choice either in print or with his literary friends. I saw in the years I was privileged to study with Mr. Siegel, he never used injustice to himself to not have good will himself. In this class, he said without rancor: “With all the reason I have to be adverse to Van Doren, there is no better book of world poetry.”
Mr. Siegel began with early Chinese poems, which, like the Chinese language itself, are generally motion and stopping. The Book of Songs, thought to be edited by Confucious in the 6th century BC, Mr. Siegel said, “has some of the best poetry in the world.” One of the oldest is The Pear Tree. This tree is loved because a good person slept under it. “The structure is close, symmetrical and tight,” said Mr. Siegel, “but it is tender… it can cause a certain shivering and melting effect in one. It has in me.” Here is the 1st stanza:
This shade-bestowing pear-tree, thou
Hurt not, nor lay its leafage low;
Beneath it slept the Duke of Shaou.
Mr. Siegel compared this to a poem written by Li Po 1,200 years later, accenting flowingness more. In The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, a young wife, whose husband has been gone five months, uses what the world is like—how things change, move, stop and go on—to show what she feels inside. Mr. Siegel said:
“This poem in English has the effect of life itself. Something is coming to a close and going on…like a cloud moving but we know it’s there…The endless and concluding are felt at once. We have the Ezra Pound translation.”
(These lines are at the end of the poem) —
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-sa.
As he commented, Mr. Siegel showed the world, in its going on and stopping, is a means of understanding the feelings of this young woman of ancient China and to know our own feelings. Scientifically and compassionately, he explained:
“The fact that the butterflies are paired makes for repose. There is stoppage. All colors are a study in stopping and going on. Yellow is a study in going on. Yellow is different from brown… And the butterflies seem to be paired better than many people are and they make this girl feel bad.”
Mr. Siegel surprisingly went next to America, relating the Chinese poetry to poems by the two most important 19th century American poets—Poe and Whitman. First, he read Edgar Allan Poe’s To Helen, to show a poem “as having structure and also flowing, “as having something stop while having motion within it.” Here is the first stanza,
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicaean barks of yore,
That gently, o’r a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
I was honored to hear Mr. Siegel speak about Poe many times—he was always fresh, always ready to see something new. He said:
“The meaning of Helen is that which has one come back to oneself after seeing the strangeness of the world….The structure has made this poem dazzlingly immortal….Though it is in many anthologies, people have to see the strange, orderly land that is in it. It’s of the stop-go-stop kind. The lines end neatly. It is a beautiful poem.”
>> To continue reading, click here for Part 2 of “Look, the World is Poetic!” by Eli Siegel