BLACK AND WHITE
Poem with Photographs
“Black and White” is a poem I wrote in the spring of 1957 at the suggestion of Dorothy Koppelman, director of the Terrain Gallery in New York City. The gallery was opening a new art exhibition titled “Black and White,” featuring works by artists in various media, including photographs of mine. The Terrain was at the forefront not only in recognizing photography as an art, but in relating the space arts (visual) and time arts (sound), and pointing to a criterion for beauty in all the arts with its motto, “In reality opposites are one; art shows this”—a statement by Eli Siegel: poet, critic, educator, and founder of Aesthetic Realism.
Today, the Terrain Gallery is part of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation in New York City, where a distinguished faculty teaches poetry, music, anthropology, the visual arts, acting, and more. There are public seminars on subjects like “Cynicism: Does It Make a Man Stronger or Weaken Him?” and “Real Communication in Marriage—How Can We Have It?” There are outreach programs for seniors and children. The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company gives dramatic and musical productions throughout the country.
The poem in this book reflects the excitement that surrounded some of the early discussions of the opposites in art taking place in the 1950s in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by Mr. Siegel. It expresses the wonder I felt learning about the opposites—including black and white—and about how the meaning of reality can be in words on paper or graphic images.
In the poem I use freight cars as a metaphor to express the riches that can be in words and pictures in black and white. The photographs are, from one point of view, ordinary, everyday. The message of my book is: beauty can be seen in what you may find around you. That is the victory in the last line of the poem: the victory of respect over contempt.
Every human being, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is in a fight, all the time, between the hope to like the world, see meaning and value in it, and the hope to have contempt, which Eli Siegel defined as the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the false importance one gets making less of reality. It is the cause of all injustice, Aesthetic Realism shows, and it also weakens the person having it. I saw the truth of this through my own life.
Before studying Aesthetic Realism I had dropped out of MIT with debilitating depression. I had thought (and was advised by a noted analyst) that my suffering arose from my father, an esteemed scientist, whom I knew I had disappointed with my lack of ambition to distinguish myself in the medical field. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel showed me it was not my father who caused my distress, but the contempt I had for him and for the world in general. He asked me, “Did you have a secret victory every time you fooled your father?” I remember thinking, “How does he know?” I thought I was so keen in seeing hypocrisy in people, and felt this made me superior.
I was in awe of the fact that Eli Siegel understood what was going on inside me. He asked questions that changed murk into illumination, such as: “Do you think you act meek and obedient so that you can do anything you like with people in your mind?” I knew that I had met someone I could not fool, and I loved it. Mr. Siegel had the ability to describe the worst things in a person with respectful, wide humor, and I found myself laughing heartily for the first time in many years. I began to see how hurtful and even ridiculous it was to use my imagination to create a world apart, where I reigned supreme. I stopped blaming my parents, became more self-critical, and began to look at everything in a new way.
The present volume illustrates that new way of seeing. There are, for example, two photographs of my father, and I think he is shown as representative of humanity—a mingling of strength and weakness, severity and kindness, dark and light, known and unknown. The reference in the poem to “old man four-eyes” is affectionate, with a tough, hardboiled tone reminiscent of the novels of James M. Cain.
I came to love this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” I came to feel within a short time of beginning to study with Eli Siegel that he was the greatest of critics and philosophers, and, through much looking and comparison, this opinion has gained in strength and certainty throughout my life. When he spoke about poetry, I had huge emotions, and my respect for the world grew immensely. My imagination was also set free, but with a different purpose than once—not to despise the world, but to know it and know myself. I was able to express myself in poems that Mr. Siegel saw as authentic, having the music that arises from “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” His critical comments on my poems and on those of others appear in the book Personal & Impersonal: Six Aesthetic Realists (New York: Terrain Gallery).
My gratitude and love for the knowledge Mr. Siegel has given to the world is immense; and I am proud to study now with Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. It was her reading and commenting on “Black and White” in a class of 1998 that impelled me to join the poem with the photographs I had been looking at on that long-ago evening when I wrote it and some later ones as well. As Ms. Reiss spoke about the music of particular lines—how they were both tight and loose, fixed and expansive, firm and flexible—it made me love even more the enduring principles of Aesthetic Realism, which explain beauty in art and what we are hoping for as selves. I can only begin to express my heartfelt gratitude to her for her beautiful integrity as she teaches the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel.