Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Aesthetic Realism class report:
"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:

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.
      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."

      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:

 Write what your reader may be pleas'd to hear;
 And for the measure have a careful ear.
 On easy numbers fix your happy choice;
 Of jarring sounds avoid the odious noise:
 The fullest verse and the most labor'd sense
 Displease us, if the ear once take offense.
 "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:
 Enfin Malherbe vint, et, le premier en France,
 Fit sentir dans les vers une juste cadence,
 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 mended
 Offered no longer anything rude to the purified ear.
      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:
   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 fir.
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" 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."
     Part 2 of "Freedom and Order in Poetry"

 

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