from: Personal and Impersonal: Six Aesthetic Realists: Louis Dienes

 

 

We are proud to present poems of mine from Personal and Impersonal: Six Aesthetic Realists and to include excerpts from Eli Siegel's important preface to the book.

I had the honor and the pleasure to be among Mr. Siegel's earliest students, beginning my study of Aesthetic Realism in 1943 at the age of 17. In his Wednesday poetry classes at 67 Jane Street in New York City, Eli Siegel, through his great love for poetry and knowledge of it, created a milieu in which persons had large and deep emotions from poetry while becoming educated about the technical matters that distinguish true poetry from verse that fails to attain poetic music. Further study in college and on my own convinced me that Eli Siegel, besides being a great poet himself, is the greatest literary critic who ever lived.

In his Preface to Personal and Impersonal, Mr. Siegel is at ease with the subject of poetry, scholarly without a trace of the academic, humorous, and able to explain difficult philosophic matters with vividness and clarity. I believe that the writing of poetry will benefit immeasurably when his work receives the universal recognition that it deserves.

                                                                                                                                    --LD 2015


Personal and Impersonal

Personal and Impersonal: Six Aesthetic Realists

Preface

by ELI SIEGEL


          1. The Ever-Living Question

THE QUESTION, What is Poetry?—is as alive today as ever; it is likely more alive, for it is felt increasingly that what poetry is deeply and immediately concerns what our lives are. On the one hand, asking what poetry is seems wearisome, repetitious, flat; on the other hand (what hands!), the question is perky in the manner of the newest possible thrush, wide as tundras and continents and sizable segments of space. Life is repetitious; poetry is repetitious; this is one way they're alike. (Life and poetry, of course, are not just repetitious.)

It is the viewpoint of the present writer that there is poetry in the work to be found in this book of Kranz, Fein, Dienes, Baird, Starrels, Herz. So this means what? It means that the poems of the writers mentioned are happenings; and as happenings have something in common—poetry, to wit—with the poems that have happened before and can happen later. One elementary thing arises here: A poem is a happening that has a cause in common with other poems-as-happenings. If this does not seem elementary, let us be jovial anyway.

Do poems of all languages, times, localities have something in common? I have said—and called it elementary—that poems as happenings have a cause in common. Poems, like other happenings, have two more ways of being seen: these ways are as processes or means, and as effects. So a poem can be seen as cause, as process, and as effect. Do all poems have something in common as to their cause, their process, their effect? The answer in this writing is yes. And the present writer, as sincerely as he can, states that as to cause, process, effect the poems in this book are, generally, poetic happenings. What poetry needs is some resounding dogmas, that one can stick to through thick and thin, rhyme and free verse, assonance and beat, weepiness and glumness, tricksiness and stolidity, Matthew Arnold and Jack Kerouac.

Most persons would say that an emotion is necessary for a poem to happen. It is so. Unless you are making a bracelet in space, or a string of beads in possessed vacuity, an emotion does come in. For a poem to be, the writer of it must have an emotion. Here I see Paul Eluard agreeing with Alexander Pope; and the attractive creator of Casey Jones with the attractive maker of the Chanson de Roland; and Louise Labé with Edna St. Vincent Millay. Who, indeed, would not agree, once the meaning of the words is seen? You need an emotion to do anything of consequence on your own power; so why shouldn't you need an emotion to write a poem, or just to get to one? Faugh! how elementary!—as some Restoration D. H. Lawrence might have said.

It is equally clear that emotions as such don't make a poem. For everyone has emotions. When you miss a bus, you have an emotion; when you're on a plane, and the plane sinkingly, suddenly does a strange thing, you have an emotion; when Miranda, sobbingly, calls you up and tells you she can't keep a date, you have an emotion; when an employer calls Raphael, the shipping clerk, into his moderate-sized office, Raphael has an emotion.

But you and Raphael don't necessarily have poetic emotions because these things have come to you and Raphael. What we can't grant to Raphael, we can't grant to anyone.  It is only personal emotion, not poetic emotion or art emotion that so far has been had.

    And so we come to Personal and Impersonal.

          2. Personal and Impersonal

What distinguishes a poetic emotion or, generally, an art emotion from the customary kind is that while a poetic emotion is personal and impersonal at once, the customary kind can be seen as just personal.

Burns suffered from love, and saw his suffering with impersonality, too. So there were poems. Many other Scotch young men in the 1770's and 1780's suffered from love, but the way they saw what happened to them was not the way Robert Burns saw what happened to him. Burns made a poetic happening out of what happened to him with Mary or Jean or Nancy. In so doing, he was impersonal, too; abstract, universal, all-things, all-persons. Clearly, if Burns' songs were just personal, they would be like Donald or Jamie or Gilbert complaining, of an evening, bitterly, in some Ayr hostelry. Donald's, Jamie's, Gilbert's complaints we can surmise; they have not come to us; Robert Burns' complaints, yearnings, contemplations, ardors have come to us; they were impersonal-and-personal; they had and have what is called form.

What has been said of Robert Burns could be said of François Villon. He, too—Villon did—hoped and endured and surmised with form. Villon surmised, endured in the form of a resonant, tremblingly tidy ballade. Villon was personal-and-impersonal, ballade-wise.

Are all poems, in terms of their cause, personal and impersonal at once? Do all successful instances of verse or poetic showing have, as a cause, emotion that is personal and impersonal? Affirmative is the answer here.

I have already admitted that I won't eschew dogma in this preface (I think a dogma, at times, can be pretty and salutary). A study of criticism, historically, shows that one dogma has been around in some way or other at all times. This dogma is: Successful poems, authentic poems have as their cause emotion which is personal and impersonal at once.

That, in a poem, a man stands for the universe, and the universe stands for him—this can be found in varying manners in Latin critics, Greek, French, English, American, German critics. Matthew Arnold with supple rationality and William Butler Yeats with ardent, wondering, gentle contemplation—meet here. The world is somehow adequately in a man's mind before he writes a poem, according to Arnold: he could never have the "grand style," otherwise. And the hidden, sweet impetus of the real though shadowy universe must somehow be in a poet's mind, according to Yeats.

    Often, often, indeed, something like this has been said. Suppose we take a recent instance. Poésie Ouverte: Poésie Fermée, by René Nelli (Cahiers du Sud, 1947), is one of the distinguished critical works of recent years. In the section, "Les Constantes Poétiques" (page 80), M. Nelli, concerned with the poetic cause or state, writes:

Il nait dans le coeur une secrete joie quand le monde objectif et le monde subjectif, comme l'a montré Mme de Staël, s'expriment l'un par l'autre, ou l'un en memê temps que l'autre.

This "secret joy" of M. Nelli—which can be a most manifest joy—arising from the fact that "le monde objectif" and "le monde subjectif" express each other—is in poems generally. As I see it, this secret joy of the impersonal world and the personal world—"objectif" and "subjectif"—meeting, is in the following poems of Herz, Baird, Dienes, Kranz, Fein, Starrels. You have to expect it, if poems are at all.

The foregoing, as theory, goes along with the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism. It is beautiful when the personal and impersonal worlds are one. It also makes for the happiness philosophers and charwomen desire. Poetry is the happiness of musical, logical form. This is commented on in an earlier passage of René Nelli's work (page 43):

Au point, que la beauté, comme le bonheur, correspond ici à moment d'équilibre qui s'établit, par miracle, entre nous et le monde, quand nous nous sommes préparés à accepter le réel et nous accommoder de notre finitude.

In poetry, there is the "équilibre" of form and happiness. In poetry, we do accept the real; but with what a glorious, honest how!

And when this is shown in words—that self and universe, form and personal, happy assertion are one—the words then take on a music, which is the poetic music.

          3. Music in Poetry

Do all poems have a music which comes from seeing? Do the words in a poem have a logical music, and musical logic? The answer, I think, is yes.

One cannot in a preface say what music is in a poem. It is just too much. When I deal individually with the work of Herz and Kranz and Fein, Starrels and Baird and Dienes, I shall show, as well as I can, that the poetic music is in their work.

In the earliest years of poetry, it was felt that poetry had to be musical. You see association of poetry with "lyre," "harp," "song," "rhapsody." Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Boileau, Burns, Yeats, Whitman, Baudelaire all have passages implying that poetry has to be musical, just as water has to be drinkable, or cloth foldable. And only recently, Kenneth Burke, writing on that glaringly contemporary Paul Valéry of France, said (Kenyon Review, Autumn 1958, page 537) in describing Valéry's poetics:

We are told that the only test of a poem is whether "it sings."

How Valéry goes along with the feeling of the ages! And it is a true feeling.

For when mind is personal and impersonal, there is a seeing that is also hearing. The words in a poem are heard musically as they fall logically. There is the spontaneous contrivance of verbal accuracy and verbal resonance. Logic trembles euphoniously, surprisingly.

The theoretical question is, Whether in a poem there is a personal-and-impersonal emotion, which being that, is seen in words and heard in words—words which are accurate about the personal and impersonal emotion? Yes.

    We come to accuracy in poetry.

          4. Accuracy in Poetry

It has been a feeling for a long time that while poetry is musical, it is accurate, too. The words can't be sloppy. The syllables can't be careless, superfluous. The interaction of sounds must be right. Metre must proceed with angelic, geometrical mobility.

And poems are accurate. They are accurate about the world and an individual at once. Therefore, they seem accurate in an uncustomary way. But accurate they are.

Boileau felt this, as had Horace earlier. Coleridge goes for accuracy in the first chapters of the Biographia Literaria, and never stopped going for it, really. The Imagists in the years of the First World War called for accuracy, as against the bedizened or pastoral slatternliness of the Georgians.

Accuracy is deeply present in the work of the Six Aesthetic Realists.

There is an accuracy in this book that goes well with the accuracy sought for by the poetically existing Francis Ponge of today's French Literature. The poetically notable Monsieur Ponge writes in View of November 1945:

If I admit existence at all, it is on condition of complete acceptance of it, inasmuch as everything is involved by it .... The infinity of propositions contained in the least worthy objects is so manifest that I am as yet unable to report on anything but the simplest ones: a stone, a blade of grass, a block of wood, a piece of meat.

The views of M. Ponge point to the quality in the work of Rebecca Fein and Martha Baird, most plainly; but work consonant with accuracy and the cosmological and precise naiveté of Ponge is to be seen also in the work of Herz and Dienes, Starrels and Kranz. Wherever poetry is, precision and wonder have met as one: value and the right word have met as one.

In these early paragraphs, a way of seeing poetry has been—with limitations—presented. It is the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry. I now illustrate this way by pointing to the value of the individual work in Personal & Impersonal.

******

         6. Louis Dienes: The Ethics of Imagination

The manner of Louis Dienes is undoubtedly different from that of Sheldon Kranz. Kranz goes for sharpness; there is rotundity, and there is blur in the musical effect of the Dienes lines. And then Louis Dienes likes to be lapped lengthily within his imaginings. In bold vision, ethical problems are tackled, and not with haste, either. Impatient Expresses in a way is about expresses hardly impatient. The vision is an altering processional. Is the self expansive or self-contained? Tell me, O expresses of my imaginings.

     What do we want to hear in this world? How is it that we're afraid to hear what we desire most to hear? I Asked for It is about this. The lines are of a smoldering delicacy; rotund in metrical dreaminess.

     Ha! the introspective made narrative—let this be said again—in Impatient Expresses!

And how the world will invade the caressed precincts of consciousness, is in Craters. Craters are symbols, you see, of the holes dug in self by the rude, eternal outsideness of things.

     There is the humor of broken loneliness in Cross-country Telephone Pole. The critical ear is notably pleased by the sibilance and scope, the whisper and grandeur of the sounds in this poem. The lines hiss continentally. Somewhere, Mr. Dienes has "know-how"—that not so much used word these days.

The People in the Mountains represent the hell-and-gone, loafing and Hamlet spirit of possible persons. They want to play glorious hide-and-seek with the why-should-it-be-there universe.

Ethics is the hero in the poem Resolution. Down with the politics of self! Down with the double game of consciousness!

Let us see what is really so, the poem says. It is always time:

To mount the stairs and investigate the doings of the back-room boys.

When that line, by the way, is tried on the poetic tympanum, the tympanum says O.K.

     Love, and the self as exactitude and chemistry, and the self as wonder and elusiveness—these are major in Strangers to Each Other.  And lines like:

She wired back, "My blood has passed
Into the flowers and stones,
Has flowed into the sun at dawn. . ."

have a ring Catullus would not have minded, had he come across it. The lines can be liked by non-Roman lyrists in 1959 and later.

     The sincere jugglery of perception is in Pitcher of Cream. What does go on in mind?—what changes is mind capable of?—how is mind stillness and diverse motion?—these questions are relevant to the poem In Mind. Meantime, the poetic line continues fortunate.

Mr. Dienes has a tendency to use subways and tall buildings and steel girders and stairs within his ethical parables. The meandering of the mechanical is in Images; the dreaminess of high, deep, altering municipal construction.

In the poem Hot Protest Against Ambiguity of Life, Louis Dienes sees it as proper to be fierce against the dualism of complacency. So he shows he can be ethical without narrative-in-dreaminess. This is to the good.

Generally, in Dienes' work, we have imagination audacious in behalf of ethics. The dream has become Jeremiah, the revery a John Bunyan in contemporary metre.

Louis Dienes is the antithesis, in style, of Robert Herrick, Matthew Prior, Walter Savage Landor, and The Greek Anthology. He misses something there. But he has something —something I've tried to show, because it can be seen. Ave!

 

Links to Poems

I Asked for It
    Images
    Craters
    People in the Mountains
    Hot Protest Against Ambiguity in Life
    Strangers to Each Other
    Cross-country Telephone Pole
    In Mind
    Pitcher of Cream
    Resolution
    Impatient Expresses

 

Personal & Impersonal (New York: Defintion Press, 1959)

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