Aesthetic Realism class
"Freedom and Order in Poetry"
by Lynette Abel
Learning from Aesthetic
Realism what poetry is, I’ve come to see, is a means of understanding our
lives and the world. Eli Siegel, critic and scholar, explained for
the first time, that in every instance of true poetry, opposites that are
the permanent structure of the world--rest and motion, oneness and manyness,
freedom and order--are beautifully and musically made one. And these
are the same opposites we want to put together in ourselves. This
is what we were studying in the two classes I am honored to report on now,
taught by Ellen Reiss, in which we heard a tape recording of a lecture
Eli Siegel gave February 4, 1970, titled "Freedom and Order in Poetry."
Mr. Siegel began:
Using many examples,
Mr. Siegel showed that while in the history of poetry people have gone
back and forth between saying "order is the thing we should go for" and
saying "freedom is what we need," in all true poetry--whether of the 17th
century or the 20th--"the music that is freedom and order at once has to
be there." And he showed too, that poetry has what people urgently
need. "To see the history of poetry," Mr. Siegel said, "we
have to see how, as people at night go from one part of the bed to the
other--there is a feverish going for freedom and order."
It can be said that the whole history
of poetry is for the purpose of showing that the utmost freedom is the
utmost order. There have been revolts in poetry sometimes going for
a new kind of precision, order, lack of roughness, control. And there
have been [revolts] that say all these rules are of no use and we should
just go by abandon.
To show what
he called revolt in behalf of order and precision in poetry, Mr. Siegel
read from the 17th-century French critic Nicolas Boileau's L'Art Poetique,
The Art of Poetry, translated by Sir William Soame with the assistance
of the English poet John Dryden. Boileau said that French verse had
"depended too much on the whims of persons," and, Mr. Siegel pointed out,
"he asked for a certain respect for the art of verse.... a clear control
in poetry." In L'Art Poetique--one of the most famous writings in
world literature--Boileau criticizes in poetic verse the excesses and discordance
of earlier writers, and sets down the literary laws of classical poetry.
This is from Canto I:
"That is a call for order," Mr. Siegel
said. "And order," he explained "can never be suppressed because
it is of reality itself. The atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons
and positrons all have a little yearning for order...and they would also
like to be free. These things are not rules of poetry," he continued.
"Poetry is trying to show the beauty of the co-presence of free-dom and
order." Mr. Siegel then translated from the French, the lines
where Boileau says it was the late 16th, early 17th century poet Francois
de Malherbe who brought a new and needed order to French verse. Though
that is not strictly true, Mr. Siegel noted, Boileau says it very poetically.
He read the first two lines in French and then his translation of what
he said is the most famous critical passage in French poetry:
Write what your reader may
be pleas'd to hear;
And for the measure have a careful
On easy numbers fix your happy choice;
Of jarring sounds avoid the odious
The fullest verse and the most labor'd
Displease us, if the ear once take
Enfin Malherbe vint, et, le
premier en France,
Fit sentir dans les vers une juste
Then, to show
poetic revolt of the opposite kind, Mr. Siegel spoke about the poetic renaissance
in the 20th century, beginning in 1917. "There was a feeling things
had been too orderly" he explained "and poetry had fallen into the hands
of the metrists and the academicians. So there was the free verse
revolt." Mr. Siegel read many instances from the anthology The
New Poetry, of 1917, which he said is valuable, a book that was revolutionary
at the time. It contains important instances of poetry in a new form
free of traditional metrical structure. This, I learned, came to
be the hallmark of poetry in the 20th century--free verse. Meanwhile,
Mr. Siegel noted the book also consists of people hardly known today.
And he first read lines from some of them--Joseph Warren Beach, and Skipwith
Cannell, and later Florence Kiper Frank. "Most free verse is like
most rhymed verse," Mr. Siegel said, "not resplendent. But it is
possible," he continued "to use free verse in the way Homer used hexameters--it
can be used very well." We heard a powerful example of it in the
poem Mr. Siegel read next: the "Oriad," by H.D. or Hilda Doolittle.
"[This]," he said "justifies free verse." Oriad was a nymph of a
mountain. This is the poem:
Finally Malherbe came, and
the first in France
Made one feel in verse a just cadence
Put in its place, he taught the power
And reduced the muse to rules (of right)
By this wise writer the language now
Offered no longer anything rude to
the purified ear.
Said Mr. Siegel: "In the same way as candles
stand out in a dark room and [as Shakespeare said] "a good deed" stands
out "in a naughty world," so this poem in its music stood out among the
sheaves, pages, reams of free verse." I was swept by the sound of
these lines--they are free and yet so precise--they soar in a careful,
orderly way. And it means so much to me to know this is how I want
to be--to be able to let go and be exact! Mr. Siegel described how
the structure of the world is in this poem: it is freedom and order at
once. He explained:
Whirl up, sea--
Whirl your pointed pines.
Splash your great pines
On our rocks.
Hurl your green over us--
Cover us with your pools of
2 of "Freedom and Order in Poetry"
"Whirl up, sea" is smooth and regular
with some roundness. Then the oneness of sea turns into the manyness
of pointed pines: "Whirl your pointed pines." This is one of the
unquestioned art occurrences of America, of the world, in this century.
It is a musical picture with concentration and expansion, control of shape
and quantity, and also a feeling for the oneness of land and water."