Sheldon Kranz, Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet

Sheldon Kranz
Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet  (1919-1980)

Turning Over a New Leaf; or, What Is Literature?

By Sheldon Kranz

Presented October 19, 1974, at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, New York City

I believe that all literature is the making one of opposites; and that when a poem or prose work stirs us, it is because the permanent opposites in reality have been made one by the poet or prose writer.

My purpose in this talk is to express my gratitude for the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing literature, a way which I have tested over many years as a college instructor, and as an editor, and which I have found to be true.  I should like to show the large cultural meaning this way of seeing literature has for the world and for every self.  It is this way of seeing that I love as much as I love anything.

When I met Aesthetic Realism, I had completed my graduate work in literature at the University of Iowa. But with all my care for the prose and poetry of the centuries, I did not like the world. And further, I did not think it was possible. Literature was a solace for me, not a means of being closer to people and things. And then, I wasn't very sure of my taste, or my basis for criticism. In fact, I didn't have a basis.  So my care for literature was also unsure. 
What the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing meant to my life, when I began to learn that literature is deeply and at every moment the same as what people are! Literature, Eli Siegel taught me, is a magnificent way of liking the world.  He said:

Literature is a way of a person seeing himself and the world as one.

I learned two things in my studies with Eli Siegel that I had learned nowhere else: (1) It is the opposites in all their flexibility and subtlety that explain the beauty of such diverse works as Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's  William ShakespeareOthello, Rimbaud's "O Seasons, O Castles," Dostoievsky's Crime and Frog, representing "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"Punishment, and  Mark Twain's story about the jumping frog. Mr. Siegel found the element all great works have in common.  It is the opposites that join the centuries of prose and poetry, and give coherence to man's emotions and perceptions. (2) A major contribution of his to literature is that the answer to every person's deepest question, How can I make sense out of the warring contradictions inside me? can be found in the technique of a successful poem, or story, or novel. To see literature this way is to see it as it is, and to answer a person's deepest hope as it did mine.

Take, for example, freedom and order.  In "The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict" [in Self and World], Mr. Siegel writes:
The question confronting everyone is: Is it possible for a human being to do truly as he show his instincts, his impulses, his drives--and at the same time satisfy his sense of order, of precision, of stability?...Aesthetic Realism says, yes....

He then proceeds to show how a novel puts these opposites together:

In a good novel you see a certain precision, "has-to-be-ness" or inevitability--that is, there is order in a good novel. And in a novel, too, you feel the characters act freely, the writer is not constrained, there is growth and there is strangeness in the novel... the novel has freedom....Freedom and order in a good novel, have their hands in friendly fashion on each other's shoulders.

For example, Jane Austen's narrative in Pride and Prejudice seems to spring from the page and to be happening at the very moment we are reading about Elizabeth Bennet, her family, and Darcy. The prose is spontaneous and free, and yet Miss Austen's novel is one of the most carefully constructed in English literature. It is tidy, and has, as Mr. Siegel puts it, a certain "has-to-be-ness." Pride and Prejudice is everywhere free and orderly, abandoned and precise, as we want to be. Take these sentences. Mrs. Bennet, whose purpose in life is to marry off her five daughters, has just heard that Mr. Collins has become engaged to Charlotte Lucas:

Mrs. Bennet was, in fact too much overpowered to say a great deal while Sir William remained but no sooner had he left them than her feelings found a rapid vent.  In the first place, she persisted in disbelieving the whole of the matter; secondly she was very sure that Mr. Collins had been taken in; thirdly, she trusted that they would never be happy together; and fourthly that the match might be broken off.

That second sentence rattles along like Mrs. Bennet's speech--foolish and a little spiteful.  But it is very tidily divided into four parts, separated by semi-colons.  It is structured carefully to give the feeling of spontaneity, while being most orderly.

In the first place, she persisted in disbelieving the whole of the matter; secondly she was very sure that Mr. Collins had been taken in; thirdly, she trusted that they would never be happy together; and fourthly, that the match might be broken off.

Wildness and order are here; and this is what we want in our lives.
1.  Feeling Good and Feeling Bad

Feeling good and feeling bad is one way of describing the life of every person. These two human emotions are the subjects of every Aesthetic Realism consultation; and they have been described honestly and beautifully from ancient times to the present.  To know that someone 2,000 years ago in Greece or someone in 17th century France could feel happy or depressed pretty much as we do, is reassuring, and makes us feel more connected to the whole world.

However, the way a poet looks at his emotion of feeling good or bad is what is crucial and what we all need to learn for our lives. People have felt good and bad and have written of these feelings badly. A good poet looks at his emotion and has an emotion about the emotion.  This makes for that most mysterious but necessary thing in poetry: music--the way one syllable goes with another syllable, the way one word goes with another word.  "What distinguishes a poetic emotion from the customary kind," writes Eli Siegel in his Preface to Personal and Impersonal; Six Aesthetic Realists, "is that while a poetic emotion is personal and impersonal at once, the customary kind can be seen as just personal."

So I begin with a poem expressing feeling good by a young woman of 19th century America.  It is a very good poem, and bold in its images, because she compares her happiness to drunkenness.  Intoxicated by the summer days, the world is like a series of inns in which she gets inebriated. 
However, the poem isn't good just because of its bold images. It is good because Emily Dickinson really felt her happiness was like a good drunkenness; and she shows it through the way she uses words.  The lines are free yet firm (as we want to be). The lines are jaunty yet modest (as we would also like to be). Here is Emily Dickinson looking at her emotion of feeling good, and having an emotion from that:

I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue,

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

Take the line, "Reeling through endless summer days." What makes that so successful as poetry is the beautiful abandon in the line, the sense of sunny space and release, while it is quite regular metrically, made up of a trochee and two iambics. The line is tidy even as it reels happily. And then the final two lines which are famous in American poetry: Seraphs and saints are going to look out of the windows of heaven,

To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

The picture of New England's Emily Dickinson as a little tippler leaning drunk and serene against the huge sun is something one might see in a good animated cartoon, showing Man and Nature in a new and happy friendship. This is Miss Dickinson's way of saying she likes the world--and it is poetic. There is also a relation of the small and large that it dramatic, both visually and verbally. "Little tippler," with the short i's makes for a feeling of the diminutive; and then this little tippler leaning against the great sun as if it were a convenient wall has love in it.  It is a little like Charlie Chaplin leaning ecstatically against a planet in the sky.

But just as the world can look sunny and blue, poetry tells us it can also look gray. Another American poet, this time of the 20th century has written a very good poem where feeling bad makes everything look cold, dull, and empty. Edna St. Vincent Millay has expressed well what millions of people have felt not so poetically. The poem is called "Ashes of Life."
Ashes of Life

Love has gone and left me, and the days are all alike.
Eat I must, and sleep I will--and would that night were here!
But ah, to lie awake and hear the slow hours strike?
Would that it were day again, with twilight near!

Love has gone and left me, and I don't know what to do;
This or that or what you will is all the same to me;
But all the things that I begin I leave before I'm through--
There's little use in anything as far as I can see.

Love has gone and left me, and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse,
And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
There's this little street and this little house.

In that final stanza particularly, we have an expression of dull, aching depression that is notable.  It reminds one of two other expressions of feeling bad, both by Shakespeare.  The first is when Hamlet says:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seems to me all the uses of this world....

And there is Macbeth's:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time....

Miss Millay has done the fine thing of expressing feeling terrible, energetically. She has presented the dreariest picture she can with spirit and with a music that is almost skipping, yet appropriate. "There's this little street, and this little house." But it is preceded by the slow and repetitious line, "And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Yet even that line has a definite beat which gives the line spirit and form. Feeling bad in real life has no spirit and it has no form.  It is a blob--that is part of the feeling bad. But Miss Millay has put opposites together, which is why her poem about feeling bad has lived.  The poem is heavy, as in feeling bad, but the lines have a life.  It is in the beat and music. You can hear it in the first line:

Love has gone and left me, and the days are all alike.

The line is melodic and lilting, though what it is saying is dismal enough. And Miss Millay, because she found this subject interesting, describing what she felt when love left her, has seen that the details have variety--something we refuse to see when we feel bad.

For instance, there is a nice distinction of verbs in the second line: "Eat I must, and sleep I will" making for color and variation in the line. And then in the very fine third stanza, she juxtaposes her inertia with the activity of others, making for a little drama--"Love has gone and left me, and the neighbors knock and borrow"--in the meanwhile that lilting rhythm continues carrying the poem along. And then life is compared grimly to a gray little mouse gnawing dully away in some wall, and there is a good sense of the endless futility of things that is so much a part of feeling bad.

And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse,
And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
There's this little street and this little house.

And so we come to one of the wonders of literature, explained for the first time by Aesthetic Realism: that a good poem can express miserable feelings just as well as it can express feelings of pleasure and joy.  It is because in both, the opposites of reality have been made one by the poet. And in this fact lies our salvation.  Poetry shows that all our feelings can be seen as objects, and, as such, they can be looked at and described well. Edna St. Vincent Millay meets Shakespeare in telling us that feeling bad can be interesting and as worthwhile a subject of study as feeling good.  In fact, it is the biggest opponent to feeling bad there is; for the expression of this perception can make for pleasure, as it did with Miss Millay, as it does with us hearing her poem. Reality may make us feel bad, but it also allows us to describe it well--and that is a large point in its favor.


Copyright 2006