Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet (1919-1980)
Aesthetic Realism Class of July 10, 1968
Taught by Eli Siegel
Report by Sheldon Kranz
Eli Siegel has been giving a series of classes on the anthology of Chinese poetry titled The White Pony, edited by Robert Payne. And he began the July 10th class with a discussion of two poems by the 4th-century Chinese poet, Tao Yuan-ming, whose poetry we've been studying. What made this discussion particularly valuable was that poems sounding not grand or impressive were shown to be authentic. For example, take the poem “In Early Morning” which begins:
In early morning someone knocks at my door.
Throwing on my unbuttoned clothes, I open the door myself.
”Who are you, my friend?” I ask.
There is an old, kind, good-hearted man,
Bringing with him a wine pot,
Believing that I have fallen on evil days.
Structure and Melody
About the first line--"In early morning someone knocks at my door"--"This," Mr. Siegel commented, "is melodious but plodding, like a tired angel going upstairs." In the second poem, "Living in the Country," the most thrilling line is: "Why should I care when my clothes are wet?"
At the foot of the south mountain I sow beans;
The weeds tangle them, the bean shoots are weak.
I rise early and scratch in the wilderness.
Under the moonlight I return with my hoe on my shoulder.
The footpath between the furrows so narrow, the grasses so long
That my clothes are moistened with dew.
Why should I care when my clothes are wet?
I only hope to make myself a hermit.
(Translations by Yang Chi-sing)Poetry can come in many modes, and this can include the subdued, restrained, leisurely style of Tao Yuan-ming of the 4th century, who has structure and melody and belongs to literature.
Lafcadio Hearn: He Saw Art as KindnessThen Mr. Siegel looked at the poetic prose of the American writer, Lafcadio Hearn, who lived from 1850-1904 and wrote a good deal about Japan and the East, where he married and spent the last 14 years of his life. Mr. Siegel was continuing a discussion of Hearn begun the week before, and he explained, "I am discussing him further because Hearn came exceedingly close to seeing art as unselfishness or good will. It sounds corny to say Hearn saw art as kindness, but it is so. Tolstoy was saying something of the same thing about this time. But Hearn's way is worth studying." Here are two key sentences from a lecture he gave while he was teaching English literature at the University of Tokyo from 1896 to 1903. This lecture is called "The Question of the Highest Art." Hearn writes:
Just as unselfishness is the real test of strong affection, so unselfishness ought to be the real test of the very highest art....If a work of art, whether sculpture, or painting or poem or drama does not make us feel kindly, more generous, morally better than we were before seeing it, then I should say that, no matter how clever, it does not belong to the highest forms of art.
"Hearn is saying that what love does in the personal field, art does in the impersonal field," Mr. Siegel observed.
Art as unselfishness was shown dramatically in a story by Hearn called "The Soul of the Great Bell." In this story, a mandarin is unable to cast a great bell successfully for the emperor. The emperor informs him that if he fails in his third try, he will be beheaded. The mandarin's beautiful daughter discovers that the only way the bell can be made is if the body of a maiden is melted in the crucible and blended with the metals. To save her father's life, she leaps into the crucible, and the great bell is cast successfully, beautiful in form and wonderful in tone. Art, Lafcadio Hearn is saying, is successful if there is selflessness.
Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo), wife Setsuko Koizumi, and child
in Matsue, Japan (photo courtesy of Toki Koizumi)
Terror and Tenderness in "Chita"
As Siegel discussed this story and a well-known one called "Chita," a sense of Lafcadio Hearn as artist and person was felt vividly. And a basic principle of Aesthetic Realism was shown in action: that all prose and poetry is a making one of the permanent opposites in reality. For example, in the story "Chita," Mr. Siegel showed how a definite effect is achieved again and again by putting terror and tenderness or terror and purity together. There is the sentence where the innocent child, Chita, feels a snake move frighteningly under her feet:
All at once something long and black and heavy wriggled almost under her naked feet--squirming so horribly that for a minute or two she could not move for fright.
And there is the purity and delicacy of this description of the world in the the midst of intense suffering:
He rushed to the windows, flung the latticed shutters apart, and looked out. Something beautiful and ghostly filled all the vistas--frost-haze; and in some queer way the mist momentarily caught and held the very color of the sky. An azure fog!...How sweet the morning! How well life seemed worth living.
This amidst intense physical pain.
There was one paragraph in this story which Mr. Siegel saw as worthy of particular attention. "Hemingway," he said, "could with simplicity place people and a few objects in a way that one remembered. This paragraph of Hearn's is as good as Hemingway. It is as if a painting were painting itself before you. It is simply a gathering--but what a gathering!" Here is the paragraph:
All proceeded to the house under the great trees; Feliu and Capt. Harris leading the way. It was sultry and bright; --even the sea breeze was warm; there were pleasant odors in the shade, and a soporific murmur made of leaf-speech and the hum of gnats. Only the captain entered the house with Feliu; the rest remained without--some taking seats on a rude plank under the oaks--others flinging themselves down upon the weeds--a few stood still, leaning upon their rifles.Then Carmen came out to them with gourds and a bucket of fresh water, which all were glad to drink.
Mr. Siegel said: "The measured triumphant power of this paragraph is a highpoint of Hearn's. This is one of the best bringings together of the offerings of the world." Through this discussion I felt that a new dimension had been added to the seeing and critical appreciation of the prose of Lafcadio Hearn.