Aesthetic Realism Class About Poetry

 Poetry Is about One Living Thing
A report by Amy Dienes




In the class I am reporting on we studied via tape recording one of Eli Siegel's great lectures on poetry. Originally given on December 10, 1967, he titled it “Poetry is About One Living Thing,” and he began: 

As I said in the essay “Art As Life,” whenever something is seen as art it does have the quality of being one thing...and alive. In the history of poetry, there has been a looking at one living thing, and occasionally a poem has come from it....When reality is animated, something of poetry is taking place. The word animal is related quite clearly to the word animated.
Eli Siegel is the philosopher, I believe, who asked more deeply than any thinker or scientist, “What does it mean for a thing to have life or to be alive?” Aesthetic Realism itself began with his seeing that poetry has what life is going after. In this class, he said that what makes for a thing being animated or alive has not been looked at technically enough, and that is what he did, as he looked at poems by Matthew Arnold and Christopher Smart.

Anything can be given animation, Mr. Siegel observed, and he pointed to the phrase “We care for America,” and the line from a poem of William Cowper: “England, with all thy faults, I love thee still” to show that an object, when seen with personality, can take on life. And he added that the “one thing” seen poetically can be collective: “When you think of things which are in a higgledy piggledy way, a flight of wild geese, or insects flying around a pool, and you give them the quality of junction, you have something more alive.” 

 Mr. Siegel then read what he called the best poems about a cat and a dog in the English language--Christopher Smart's poem about his cat, Jeoffrey, and “Geist's Grave” by Matthew Arnold about his dachshund, Geist. These two authors were born 100 years apart--Smart in 1722 and Arnold in 1822--and there is a difference, we learned, in the way each saw the beloved living being he was writing about: “Smart sees this cat as definitely in the religious field while Arnold, who was the most constant lover of animals in English poetry, sees a living being as having a life of its own.” 

Christopher Smart and Jeoffrey, a Cat

Technically, Smart's poem “is a kind of free verse, but it is musical free verse, and that is what makes it a poem.” Although it was written in the 18th century, it was only discovered, we learned, in 1939. It begins:
 
For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he
    worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round 
    with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of 
    God upon his prayer.
           ...[And later]...
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider
     himself.

I was very glad to be introduced to the poetry of Christopher Smart by the way Mr. Siegel read this poem and spoke, both technically and lovingly, about its quality. As I listened, this cat, of the 18th century, came alive, with vivid particularity--and at the same time the way Smart saw him as having large meaning made for respect and wonder. Mr. Siegel commented:

It would be well to think we don't see wholly the feeling of Christopher Smart. The purpose of a poem is to bring about useful humility in you, pleasurable humility, and this poem can do that.
He related what he called “that eminent sport of pussycats”--leaping at an object--to a boy rolling down a snowy hill and having snow on him when he gets to the bottom. “There is something religious in it,” he commented. Later there are these lines:
 
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

“This getting in of solemnity on the doings of a pussycat is remarkable,” said Mr. Siegel, “there's activity and meditation.” And he explained that the word “for”--which begins each line and is the conjunction of cause--is one of the great words of the language. The way it is used makes for religious feeling in this poem.  Smart has these lines about Jeoffrey as a mouser:
 

For tenthly he goes in quest of food. 
. . . . . . . . . .
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when the day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and
     glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

Placing Christopher Smart historically, Mr. Siegel said, “This hints of William Blake later in the century [whose poetry has] something sweet and fierce, cherub and Tiger.” And he described technically the quality of the poem:

The big thing is the continuous music punctuated by brisk visual items and also items pointing to the existence of divinity as present.
 
 

Part 2
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