NEW MEXICO QUARTERLY, Autumn 1957, Vol. XXVII, No. 3
Whole in Brightness
A poet who writes for men and women on subjects close to them and full of meaning for them, in a language they can understand, and who does this naturally, with virtuosity but without condescension, is not readily found. Yet at any time since 1925 readers of English have had such a poet among them, a poet with an intensity of simple purpose so obvious and clear that it could fail of being welcomed only by not being wanted. Through a great poem in 1925 he came to the attention of a wide newspaper and magazine public, to be scorned into obscurity, except for some few remembered but remote and solitary welcomes. There was indeed what he calls "the lantern of approval on the desolate, forbidding shore." Beyond this, the record of the overnight fame of a before unknown young man from Baltimore, Eli Siegel, born at Dvinsk in Russia August 16, 1902, has been kept unexplored in minds and libraries.
A poet such as Siegel would seem to have been desirable any time these past four hundred years and inevitable in the present century. Poets of noble intention, of fancy, of learning and culture, of affable formality, and of discreet superiority are before the public and read by the critics and university wits, and by those with a stomach for refined and thoughtful diversion. The poet of swift and simple sincerity was laughed out of the headlines over thirty years ago and left unpublished until only the other day.
Eli Siegel's once notorious poem began:
and the patrons of our literature, with knowledge, culture, refinement, sensibility, and experience, saw nothing in the words beyond a stimulation to anger. Later Siegel wrote many other poems―I have no idea how many, though the ones given in the present book [Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, by Eli Siegel, with a letter by William Carlos Williams. New York: Definition Press. 1957] are a sufficient sample―in which, whatever else he did, he never once betrayed a false attitude. Alive in a burning honesty and directness, he had none to betray.
What Siegel has to say is precisely what every artist tries to say in his own idiom. Here it is in one of its forms, an Indoor Scene at Near 7 P.M.:
It would be superfluous to attempt to describe it. The difficulty is not, however, in what he says, which is at times extraordinarily complex and delicate, but in how he says it, which is simplicity all the way, simple subjects, simple words, simple syntax, and we know that a very little of this quality is enough. Writers and readers of modern high-class books have other preferences. It is other than simple that we wish to be. The modem mind is complex, and we have science and machinery and emotional disturbances and statistics and discriminations in taste perpetually with us. "I guess you know I use words very carefully," Siegel wrote in 1931; "I look upon them as explosive, possibly ruinous jewels." That care, conscious, curious, alive with conscience, is in the lines:
These words are not poured from an empty jug.
Siegel writes the common tongue, freed of its fraud and self-delusion; and he writes of common things all pretty much well-known, like daisies and subways, telephones and turtles, and of common events, love, death, punishment, change, and permanence. What happens to his triad of the ordinary―words, things, and events, is that in each separate poem associations are made in well-defined and emotionally appropriate rhythms, associations which are both momentary and lasting, real and new, associations that can stimulate even the unschooled man's sense of history, of the past, of transience, and of his immediate earth. Through successions of these associations, often of opposites in time, space, and thought, in an almost new-born plain-speaking, run (they can be found by looking for them) almost all of the wonderful arrangements of sounds and syllables by means of which words become the servants of clear intelligence and ardent emotion:
In the same year in which he wrote Encomium of Desire, from which the above lines are taken, he said in a letter: "I still write poems; they fiercely develop. They are abstract and daring." The language remains our familiar one, now rarely used by poets. It is untouched or only slightly touched by literary self-consciousness and the conventions of expression, but it can be found in many places, in places where Siegel himself certainly found it, in the Bible, in Goldsmith, in Whitman, in Thackeray, in the ballad writers, in Shakespeare, in both prose and poetry throughout literature:
The qualities of this language are natural, continuous, and conscious in Siegel. Other writers have happened upon these effects: to Siegel this is the only speech. He is at every step the poet and his directness and mastery of technical devices allow him frequent perfections. He is not mannered and he does not write for effect. Everything he writes is emotionally honest and therefore of interest. His qualities have their occasional defects; the directness is sometimes bald and colorless, the honesty sometimes simply honest. Yet he is, as Williams says, "supremely gifted" and "undamaged by the past," and for what he has to say and the unadorned idiom in which he says it, the number of consummate poems and passages is extraordinary. Everywhere there is an exquisite emotional tact:
Many of the comments and letters stimulated by The Nation prize poem of 1925 asserted or implied that Siegel was a semi-literate. Yet there were few critics at the time as widely and as well read as the object of their scorn. Siegel was an omnivorous reader with exact and comprehensive knowledge of books, but he was neither bookish nor literary. The present volume includes an amusing tribute to George Saintsbury. It is instructive to compare Siegel's use in this poem of the image of a hen scratching with Edmund Wilson's "like eating peanuts" essay on Saintsbury. The poet is the critic.
To the reader of 1925 it was obvious that Siegel scarcely touched the contemporary and popular fashion of literary allusion and what we understood to be metaphysical wit. Yet no poet was and is more metaphysical and his allusions are almost constant; but they are usually allusions to objects, experience, the world about us, and they are allusions that almost anyone can understand. They are allusions that waken the meanings of common objects of thought and experience, that make the commonplace world magical. They contain little food for research:
To the mind conscious of the meanings of associations and of the relationships of objects and feelings, these poems are deeply and clearly metaphysical. Siegel, though a plain objective poet in one sense, offering no problem of interpretation at all, is a metaphysical poet through and through, and the metaphysic can be sensed and felt even by persons having no interest in the matter. He has, however, little resemblance to the poets of the seventeenth century who are called metaphysical. Though he shares their curiosity of mind and their appetite for the implications of things, he has none of their isolation, determined subtlety, and pertinacious struggle with fixed, unpliant matter. Nor is he ever arbitrary, strained, particularly learned, or exhibitionistic with his material. He travels only into the common darknesses, where he sheds uncommon light.
He has few conceits and almost no decoration. Green grass is enough: it never becomes of itself anything so magnificently fanciful as the handkerchief of the Lord. But while, in Whitman, the handkerchief of the Lord is by itself, alone, sufficient as an image, in Siegel the grass or the green grass or the quiet grass is always in the company of other equally direct and well-known, though unexpected, manifestations of the spirit of earth; and in these companionships, either by momentary association or by symmetry or by contrast, meaning is related to meaning until definition is out of the question and we have the metaphysical.
There are more ways than one of getting deep. It can be done by digging, but also by opening windows, by knocking down walls, and by leaving the door ajar; and perhaps best of all by putting together things that like to be or ought to be so, and permitting the depth to come more from the nature of the world than from the wit of the writer. Men are alike in their billions, one little deeper or shallower than another, but the earth itself is profound, has no bottom, is deep beyond the most assiduous, well-paid-for excavation, beyond the sharpest sight and the clearest reasoning. Every man knows this and he either loves or fears it. "My poetry is colored and heated metaphysic to me," Siegel wrote in 1931. "It can be anything else to anybody else."
It is characteristic of simplicity that it cannot be studied and mastered. It is an integrity of mind that is, at best, preserved in sufficient purity to allow of its habitual projection in thought and word. And it makes possible the profoundest humor.
Though he does not write often of humorous matters or with general humorous intent, Siegel has a remarkable humor of his own, a quality absent from most serious writing. His humor is clean, precise, gentle, and intended; it is not an accident to simplicity but its core; it is never wiseacre. It is difficult to fix or define since it underlies his essential seriousness and artfulness and gives them impact. In reading his lines the effects shift, and though the humor does not disappear from the places where it has been found, it modulates in harmony with the varying impressions the passages make at different times, and with the intensity and color of the subject on different occasions. He calls his humor jesting, which it is, for it almost always appears as simple fun with ideas and objects, a lifting of the seriousness so that even the darkest thought may smile for a moment. In a letter of 1931 he wrote that "jests are made good by their hushed, ardent background." The whole of Familiar Mad Heroine is such a background against which jests are made good. In a poem omitted from the present volume, the details "Ethel, with white, white teeth; Ethel who has heard of Tennyson," who had read many books "and, a little, Elinor Glyn and Robert Browning" are such jests; and so are "God roundly condemned " in Encomium of Desire and hundreds of others. One of the best is: Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later, where one is told of the eighteenth century man-about-town's reading of Addison and Pope, of his quoting of Thomson and Young. Later this is quietly pointed and defined in the lines:
The knew Young is a fine stroke, with historical, critical, and poetic insight in one multi-colored flash. If the presence of Topeka is not enjoyed, a lot of Siegel must remain unenjoyed. It is an old device. Topeka comes into this magnificent biography exactly as Rappahannoc does in a great passage in Henry Esmond, though the one is jest, the other melancholy.
This is a book of staunch, assured poems. A reading of the book will persuade and much of the book will remain in the mind and imagination. The reader will find a combination of the elegiac, humor, brightness, and critical appraisal in the just quoted biography of Ralph Isham. He will find the sheer subtlety of The Unbrought Me; the delicacy and depth of Little Zeno; the lovely and lonely simplicity of poems like Smoke Goes up Slowly, Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers, and Meant to Be; the jesting comical depths of Partly, Baskets―Their Due, Let Fat Men in Plush Coats Do as They Please a Little, and The Proud Turtle; and finally the great slices of the earth's own poem: the title poem―Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana, The Lord Has Stolen Her Whims, Encomium of Desire, and The World of the Unwashed Dish.
The major part of this essay was written twenty years ago. In 1926 the name of Eli Siegel was a momentous one to me, and after thirty years of having many of his poems effortlessly and accurately housed in my head, the wonder of his work is greater than ever.
Walter Leuba, who has been engaged in public welfare work for the state of Pennsylvania since 1934, is the author of Poems Out of a Hat, published in 1947.
[Walter Leuba is also author of Smith Unbound: A Conversation Piece with Ernest Nevin Dilworth; George Saintsbury; The Pennsylvania Main Line Canal with Robert McCullough; No Other Mirror; Verse, Wood Engravings & Woodcuts with Norton Peterson; The Pittsburgh Bibliophiles: Journey to New York City 25-26, 1968, Autumn Adventure; Two Essays on Bach; Two Dialogues: George Santayana, Norman Douglas with Ernest Dilworth; Crusade. The Walter and Martha Leuba Collection of 20th Century fine press books, first editions, autograph letters, wood block prints and wood engravings is one of the Special Collections at University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library.]
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