"It Is, As
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel
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."
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:
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:
You come along...tearing your shirt...yelling
Where do you get
What do you know
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
blabbing we're all going to hell
straight off and
you know all about it.
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:
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:"
You come along
Tearing your shirt
Yelling about Jesus.
"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:
Dust as we are, the immortal
Like harmony in music;...
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
2 of "It Is, As It's Elsewhere"