Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

"It Is, As It's Elsewhere"
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel

      I love learning from Aesthetic Realism about poetry--what it truly is--and how it is a means of understanding our lives and the world itself.  Eli Siegel explained for the first time that in every instance of poetry--from the intricate and elegant verse of the 16th century English poet Edmund Spenser to the popular and earthy American folksong "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain"-- there is something in common: poetic music, which arises from the way opposites, which are the permanent structure of reality, are made one.  "Poetry," he stated, "arises out of a like of the world so intense and wide that of itself, it is musical." [The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue 181] 

     The lecture Mr. Siegel gave on June 17, 1970, was titled "It Is, as It's Elsewhere."   He began: 

    The hardest question in poetry is to distinguish poetry from what isn't. Is there any real distinction or is it just based on how a person sees?   The position of Aesthetic Realism is that there is a difference between what is poetry and what isn't, and it doesn't come from a subjective situation or how one sees.   There is something present in every instance of poetry. 
And the difference between poetry--the real thing--and what may look like and be called poetry but isn't, Mr. Siegel said "is like the difference between life and death."   Just as life takes many different forms, so does poetry.  He explained: 
There are thousands and thousands of insects and each is alive, though the method of being alive is very different, as there is a difference between tadpole and shark, though they both need the water to live.   Life is there--it is, as it's elsewhere.   So poetry is like life. [It] can happen in ever so many ways.
     The first poem he read, to show what poetic music is, was "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter" of 1915 by Carl Sandburg.   "It is an amazing poem," he said, "and strictly speaking there is hardly anything in English like it.   It is invective, and it is important to see why it's poetry with all its invective."   The poem is a denunciation of the evangelist Billy Sunday, who lived from 1862 to 1935 and was noted for his intense, dramatic gestures, even acrobatics as he preached, saying things like "Did those Bozos ever think of their souls?   And what was the conclusion? Everlasting death!" "Sandburg is against Billy Sunday," Mr. Siegel explained, because "he wasn't interested in secular or earthly justice."   "To a Contemporary Bunkshooter," written in long, free verse lines, begins: 
You come along...tearing your shirt...yelling about Jesus. 
     Where do you get that stuff? 
     What do you know about Jesus? 
Jesus had a way of talking soft and outside of a few bankers 
     and higher-ups among the con men of Jerusalem everybody 
     liked to have this Jesus around because he never made 
     any fake passes and everything he said went and he 
     helped the sick and gave the people hope. 
You come along squirting words at us, shaking your fist and 
     call us all dam fools so fierce the froth slobbers over 
     your lips...always blabbing we're all going to hell 
     straight off and you know all about it.
     It was thrilling to hear Mr. Siegel read this poem and speak about why it is great as he discussed each line technically.   He explained: 
All physical things [have a relation of] hard and soft, flabby and firm. We don't expect a newborn infant to be firm--it's chubby. There is something beautiful about its non-firmness.   Still, we feel a baby has an interesting relation between firmness and palpitatingness.   These two things are in the physical world and have a great deal to do with rhythm and life itself....Every poem is a study in flabbiness and firmness.
A long line of verse is more flabby than a short, tight line, yet Mr. Siegel spoke of how the rhythm, the beat, makes for a certain firmness in these lines.   In fact, the first line has a beat so notable he said it could be a three short lines, which he saw as a poem in itself: 
You come along 
Tearing your shirt 
Yelling about Jesus.
Each phrase consists of syllables that are either accented or unaccented--a relation of firmness and airiness.   The rhythm of "You come along," Mr. Siegel pointed out, is like the phrase which is "as high a point in Wordsworth's poetry as any: the phrase 'Dust as we are,' from The Prelude--which he called "one of the greatest statements about the dramatic orderliness of the world:" 
  Dust as we are, the immortal spirit
  Like harmony in music;...
     "The most subtle and important thing [about poetry]," Mr. Siegel stated, "is how the beat is.   Poetry, like music, consists of things accented [the beat] and unaccented."   For example, this phrase has 5 beats: "Jesus had a way of talking soft..."--and "the syllables without the beat," he noted "say something to the syllables with the beat." In this poem, Mr. Siegel explained: 
The accents come in at the right time....The reason this is different from prose is it has the spine that the beat gives. In Sandburg's later verse we don't find that--there is not that [musical] oneness of the thing asserted and the thing meditated on. 
Part 2 of "It Is, As It's Elsewhere"
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