"There Is More American Poetry"

Report of a Lecture by Eli Siegel

"There Is More American Poetry" was the title Eli Siegel gave to his lecture of November 11, 1973.  In it, he spoke about the relation of poetry to various arts, and to life itself. 

Every person, Aesthetic Realism shows—and I've seen this in my own life and in the young persons I teach—wants to find meaning in the world, to have large emotions about what is outside of ourselves.  And that is what poetry stands for.  Poetry, Mr. Siegel stated, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites of reality as seen by an individual."  And throughout this talk we heard in many, rich ways how poetry puts together such opposites as the ordinary and the wonderful, wandering and staying put, logic and feeling, personal and impersonal.  Said Mr. Siegel, "If a person asks what they are looking for in life; they will come to all the subjects of aesthetics—poetry, music, painting—and religion will be there, too."

Reading from Modern American Poetry, an anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer, Mr. Siegel began with a line of Walt Whitman from his Song Of the Exposition—a poem about the first exposition in New York City of the world's machinery, tools, and utensils. The poem describes the Muse of Poetry—migrating from ancient Greece to the West, America, and has this line:

She's here, install'd amid the kitchen ware!

Commenting on this, Mr. Siegel said: “The universe as finite and infinite is here," and he continued: “The thing that makes this poetry, also explains religion"—that is, religion attempts to see the large, infinite meaning of reality present among ordinary, everyday objects.

Then, Mr. Siegel read this line from another poem of Whitman, his "Song of Myself":

"The regatta has spread on the bay, the race is begun how the white sails sparkle!"

About this, Mr. Siegel said: "Poetry presents the world as wandering and the world as staying put."  Here, the white sails are fixed to the masts, yet the boats are "spread on the bay"—they seem to wander, and it's tremendously satisfying, because to be fixed and free is what everyone wants.

Then, Mr. Siegel pointed to how poetry does something which people have looked for very much—it makes a one of personal feeling and something wide and impersonal.  These opposites are also in religion, which, Mr. Siegel said, deals with "how a world which seems to have nothing personal about it, does have the personal within it, or seems to have been caused by a person."  Any time the inanimate is personified, he explained, we are in the field of poetry and also of religion. In Whitman's "Song of Myself," he has this beautiful line:

"I am he that walks with the tender and growing night"

Here, "night" is made like a person, seen as "tender and growing—a being one can walk with.  And I was thrilled as Mr. Siegel spoke of how these opposites are in two arts I love: sculpture and painting. He said:
"In Michelangelo's sculpture, night is given meaning and personified.  The animate and inanimate are present in the relation of person and background in painting. (And) God represents the personal giving form to the inanimate world [in the Bible], as he divides water from land."

I was in awe hearing Mr. Siegel relate painting, sculpture, poetry, and religion with such scholarship and ease.

The most noted American poet after Whitman is Emily Dickinson, and Mr. Siegel read and commented on nine of her poems, beginning with this one, which he said is as good as any she wrote:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A traveling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.
A narrow wind complains all day
How someone treated him
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

Weather, noted Mr. Siegel, is inanimate, yet it affects us in personal ways, as when we use the phrase “I'm under the weather.”  "For the sky to be low is very insulting, but it can be low" he pointed out, and "to change the wind into a person with the power of complaint" is also to make it closer to ourselves—and this, too, is in the religious field.

We learned more about the meaning of personal and impersonal in poetry and life as Mr. Siegel read from the first large dealing with Emily Dickinson, an essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which appeared in the October 1891 Atlantic Monthly.  It was published five years after her death, and Higginson tells of the letter Miss Dickinson wrote to him, dated April 16, 1862, in which she included four of her poems and asked for his criticism, and which began:

"Mr. Higginson, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?  The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.  Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude...."

Hearing these sentences, which make for such respect for one of America's true poets, I felt more keenly than ever the tremendous privilege it is to hear the exact, life-giving criticism of Aesthetic Realism; and how much, despite what the press has tried to foist on people—every person is thirsty for this honest criticism in order, as Miss Dickinson says, to see oneself "distinctly," and to know what is good and not good in one, and to be able to change.  In her next letter, she responds to questions asked by Mr. Higginson:
"You asked me how old I was?  I made no verses, but one or two, until this winter, sir.  You inquire my books?  For poets I have Keats, and Mr. And Mrs. Browning.  For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations.  You ask of my companions?  Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me." 

There is large personal feeling here, such a desire to be exact, as she tells him the things she cares for.

Mr. Siegel spoke a little of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, saying:

“He was the one person in literature with whom Emily Dickinson had correspondence. He was born in 1823 and died in 1911—he was 7 years older than she. He was very shortly to form a black regiment in the Civil War, and is famous for a book about this Black regiment."  [His essay about the letters he received from Emily Dickinson] “is important in American literature.”

Then, in keeping with the title of this lecture—“There Is More American Poetry”—Mr. Siegel read and spoke about works of Edward Rowland Sill, Sidney Lanier, James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Fields, William Vaughan Moody, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

"Man with a Hoe"
by Jean Francois Millet

And he read Edwin Markham's "Lincoln, the Man of the People" and another poem, "Man with a Hoe," inspired by a painting of the same name by Jean Francois Millet.  The poem begins:
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;

This, Mr. Siegel said, is “one of the important poems of man’s injustice to man in terms of economics, with blank verse that is beautiful."

He took up what he called one of the few American sonnets that is authentic poetry, “Tears” by Lizette Woodworth Reese.  And speaking of another pair of opposites, he said: "There is a kind of majesty and delicacy that makes this poetic."  “And a large problem of religion is present here: what shall we do [about] a loved thing that dies?"  The sonnet has these lines:

When I consider Life and its few years—
A wisp of fog betwixt us and the sun;
A call to battle, and the battle done
Ere the last echo dies within our ears;…
I wonder at the idleness of tears.

Near the end of this magnificent class, Mr. Siegel spoke about a distinction that is crucial: the difference between true poetry and lines arranged metrically that lack authentic music. When Emily Dickinson asked if her verse was "alive"—if it "breathed"—she was asking about this, because the difference between good verse and bad, Aesthetic Realism explains for the first time, is the difference between sincerity and insincerity, life and death.

Mr. Siegel asked people to compare Edward Arlington Robinson of America and the great English poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson, both writing on the same subject: the hills at sunset.  “The Dark Hills," an early poem of Robinson, is "likeable, one of his best" but has things "so wrong," Mr. Siegel explained, "that poetry is not the word for it.  Robinson’s “way of seeing the world should be looked at as a fully as can be," he continued, "but he is not a true poet."  This is the poem:

Dark Hills at evening in the west,
Where sunset hovers like a sound
Of golden horns that sang to rest
Old bones of warriors under ground
Far now from all the bannered ways, 
Where flash the legions of the sun, 
You fade—as if the last of days
Were fading and all wars were done.

Then he read a song from The Princess, by Tennyson, “The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls,” saying, “One of the important trials of poetry” is to see why one is poetic and the other is not. Here is Tennyson:
The splendor falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying.
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

"The echoes are dying," Mr. Siegel commented, "but they make for a kind of immortality, and that is why it is hopeful.  These lines have the greatest sadness together with the greatest joy."

 As he concluded this lecture, he said, “I should like poetry, music, painting to be seen as equivalent to life and useful to persons as they live in the five boroughs.  Poetry is the same thing as what a person is looking for.”  Both personally and as an artist and teacher of art, I very glad to be in the midst of this large, beautiful study.

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(c) by Donita Ellison. For permission to reprint please contact me by email:  DonitaEllison@msn.com