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Eli Siegel

 

I

I was afraid Eli Siegel had become one of those vanished monuments of the past which it is hard to convince myself existed, like my pet Airedale, my ukulele lessons, my signed copy of Ernest Dowson — not that I ever really had any of those things. It seems that Siegel is still going strong and not very different from what he was in the old days. The poems in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana date from 1924 to 1956, and they change hardly at all. I think he is pretty good.

The book has a wild letter of praise from William Carlos Williams. Perhaps Williams was so enthusiastic because the poems resemble the work of a very good poet only he and I seem to remember — Wallace Gould. That is, they are a sort of whimsical, wistfully clownish reworking of certain of the more outstanding of the devices of the Whitman idiom — a Whitman who is no longer able to take his bright-eyed gospel very seriously, but who still thinks it is about the best.

Incongruity and relatedness are of the essence of Whitman’s lists for instance; here they are pushed to an extreme, an extreme that would simply be a formula if it did not always slip over into humor. Some of these poems are terribly funny. Here is a part of “The Unbrought Me: Henry James Dearly Suffuses”:

Thoughtfully he looked at her profile there,
Sensitive in the London air
Pervading the distinguished room.
Something in him began to flutter and loom,
If loom is not to utter a verb. —
Ah, but now the profile did not disturb;
From interior something there was access
Of saving, beseeched for consciousness,
Annulling Valton’s unshaped distress.
The lady said: It is not last year. —
Valton said: Ah, the fear
That once abided in such a phrase.
(Has, for you, fear ever abided in a phrase?)

Some are quite profound; some just don’t come off and are pretty lame. Certainly it is a thoroughly enjoyable book to read, and it is fine that at last Eli Siegel has got himself printed in a book, because he is someone we couldn’t afford to miss.

[1957]

 

II

Most of us who were there remember Eli Siegel as almost the sole survivor of the Golden Age of Greenwich Village. Sadakichi Hartman, Hippolyte Havel, Polly Halliday, Harry Kemp, Maxwell Bodenheim, John Rose Gildea, Little Joe Gould and all those wonderful girls who wrote poems about Italian truck drivers for Joe Kling’s Pagan they are all gone, if not into a world of light, at least gone from the Minettas, MacDougal Street and Hubert’s Cafeteria. 

Eli is still there and comes up in this book with a lovely nostalgic poem to Sheridan Square, that Local Stop. Eli Siegel has had his audience down the years, generations of devoted maidens whom he taught to write verse, and a few people motivated by intelligent taste rather than fashion. But these latter, including myself, have always looked on him as a kind of le douanier Rousseau of poetry, a deeper, and broader, and older, and wiser, and wittier Gregory Corso. 

I am afraid that at this late date we must admit we were mistaken. Odd he may be; nave he is not, and he is very far from being unlearned or devoid of insight into the works of the great dead. Scattered all through Hail, American Development are translations, mostly from the French, that show a penetration both original and extraordinary. His translations of Baudelaire and his commentaries on them rank him with the most understanding of the Baudelaire critics in any language.

His own poems are like nobody else’s which is probably the reason his reputation is limited. Where can one go for parallels? Morgenstern. Robert Desnos’s “Bestiary.” Edward Lear. W.C. Fields. Osip Mandelbaum. Yuri Olesha. Zamiatin. And now that I am turning names over in my mind, above all, Heine, a Heine who had learned from the Imagists and cubists. 

Siegel may not be as good as all these foreigners, but he is as odd, and for the same reasons. He can be hilariously funny, but he can also be uncannily profound, and if you read him aloud, you immediately discover that he is a master of a prosody as subtle as it is idiosyncratic, and as skilled as it seems simple. He can also do all sorts of things other people can’t. He is the only American poet who can write imitations of Japanese haiku without sounding like a lonely Middle Western housewife studying flower arrangement by mail. 

I think it’s about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets.

It is impossible to convey how funny something is just by saying so, although the book’s title alone is a masterpiece. The book has Humor (“Kangaroo”):

God said: I knew
Some day there would be a kangaroo.

Socialist Realism (“The Waving of the Grain”):

In summer, the waving of the grain
In the western United States,
Is a sight, tinged with economics,
And prevailing for acres, miles.

Logical Positivism (“Note on Circles and Spirals”):

Circles don’t like
To be compared to spirals.
It is unjust to,
Unsettling for, both.

Meta-epistemology (“You Can’t Miss the Absolute”):

In every illusion,
There must be something
Which isn’t illusion.

Nature (“Approaches”):

In Autumn
One leaf
Approaches
Another leaf.

These are just a few of the little bitty ones. There are big ones and medium size ones and little ones, all with the same incomparable sensibility at work saying things nobody else could say and in the long ones the rhythms are as new inventions as once were Blake’s or Whitman’s or Apollinaire’s. Eli Siegel besides is as local as Sheridan Square, that Local Stop, the unlaureled laureate of below 23rd Street, as pure a New Yorker as his beautiful contemporary, Starr Faithful. As the song says, “I just love a New Yorker,” especially you, Eli, as I would have loved Starr Faithful if I’d ever had the chance.

[1969]

KENNETH REXROTH

 



These reviews of Eli Siegel’s two volumes of poetry — Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana (1957) and Hail, American Development (1968) — originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (28 July 1957 and 23 March 1969). Copyright 1957 and 1969. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Several of Siegel’s poems are online at http://aestheticrealism.net/poetry/. His books, which include interesting prose works on a variety of topics in addition to his poetry, can be ordered from the publisher, Definition Press. A few other remarks on Siegel’s works can be found in my Gateway to the Vast Realms.

 

[Other Rexroth Essays]

[REXROTH ARCHIVE]

  


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