"The Rhythms: They Are There"
A report of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel.

By Miriam Mondlin

Part I & 2

The lecture Eli Siegel gave July 22, 1970, was titled "The Rhythms:They are There," which had in it a new approach to the subject of rhythm. Mr. Siegel explained he was going to be casual in his approach and present what rhythm is in as many ways as possible, using as his text a single issue of a 1920 journal, The Dial, a literary magazine concerned with the arts.


"The idea of rhythm," he explained, "is in keeping with the Aesthetic Realism definition of aesthetics—the seeing of difference and sameness in an object. It comes from the Greek word, ritmos, meaning measured motion." Mr. Siegel then defined rhythm as: "sameness in difference of sound; or of anything."

"I will begin with a very simple notion of rhythm in lines I wrote for this occasion." he continued, and he gave these surprising elemental lines of which he said "I can see this being played of an evening in an Osage Indian encampment with a drum:"

Ah ta-ta, ah ta-ta,
Ah
Ah ta-ta ah, Ah ha-ta,
Ah ha-ta, ah­-ha
Ta, ah.

He then showed how, by giving these syllables different emphasis, we could hear different rhythmsin them: "Ah ta-ta" he said, is an amphimacer, a poetic foot of three syllables—long, short, long—"Ah ta-ta." Changing it to a dactyl, it is long, short, short-­"Ah ta-ta,/ah ta-ta,/ah ta-ta,/ah."

"The purpose this evening," Mr. Siegel stated, "is to relate the rhythm that can be seen here to the rhythm that can be called cosmic, philosophic, scientific rhythm….Rhythm," he said, "is always sameness and difference as the opposites are.''

I learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism how we are the same and different from everything else—a mother, a book, a tree, a glass of water, a person in history. This knowledge makes for the crucial difference between liking and not liking how our minds work. It is respect for the world and as this class showed, it makes for the greatest pleasure.

On page 1 of the August 1920 issue of The Dial, Mr. Siegel read an advertisement for a novel published by MacMillan, "The Stranger" by Arthur Bullard, and showed how the idea of sameness and difference—and therefore rhythm—is in what this novel is about, the sameness and difference of spirit and matter. Mr. Siegel read from the ad:

The victory of the spirit over material things furnishes the theme of the new novel in which love, faith and artistry, transcend the barriers of alien creeds.

"The first thing in rhythm," Mr. Siegel explained, "is related to contrast" and he gave this humorous instance—"It's like Mutt and Jeff ...(high and low) [also] the rough and smooth are in a state of rhythm; church spire and cellar are in a state of rhythm: The opposites, seen dramatically, are always in a state of rhythm." "The purpose of rhythm," he said, "is through contrast to make reality clear."' And he showed the large meaning this has when he said:

The rhythms of the world taken all together are the world itself. They will occur. Some rhythms have never been evoked—­some of them will be evoked tomorrow and people won't even know they are doing it. The rhythms do want to get on the stage of the universe.

Rhythm is being shown to have such wideness. Like most people, I saw rhythm as having to do with music, and certainly, the dance—but in this class Mr. Siegel was showing that rhythm has to do with everything you can think of, and even what you haven't thought of!

The next advertisement in The Dial for a 1920 novel led to an exciting discussion of one of the great, puzzled-over passages of the New Testament. Mr. Siegel read from The Book of Revelation—about the Four Horsemen, who stand allegorically for war, famine, pestilence and death.

"The Book of Revelation is one of the most congested, divine works ever." It's difficult to make sense of. He spoke of Chapter 6 with the Four Horsemen, and said it is greater poetically than the chapters around it—5 and 7. And he noted, "I am seeing it from the point of view of... rhythm."

Chapter Six begins:

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, come and see.

The fact that a quiet, gentle Lamb is opening a seal accompanied by a loud noise, Mr. Siegel said "can be called the thunder and mouse rhythm." "This has wildness," he explained, "It has contrast—a Lamb opening a seal [on the document] is already strange."

The most famous lines from Revelation, he said, concern the opening of the 4th of the 7 Seals. "This," he said, "has that interior rhythm called melody:"

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
On the opening of the Sixth Seal, there is a great earthquake:
And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

Commented Mr. Siegel:

Here we have a simile—it places sameness and difference in one situation. It is replete with rhythm. You have the stars of heaven mingling with figs falling from fig trees. It is like two frenzied dancers. They go so fast you don't know which is which. This can be called The Flamenco of Divinity

I believe that If people saw the world as having wonderful, mysterious, unexpected, beautiful rhythms every moment, as Mr. Siegel was showing in this class, they would like it more, they would see more sense in it, and see the drama in themselves and other people.

As Mr. Siegel read from the August 1920 issue of The Dial, we heard many instances of how rhythm is in prose and even in painting. Mr. Siegel read and commented on a short story by the Irish writer, James Stephens, an essay about Shakespeare by the French author, Romain Rolland, and an art chronicle by Henry McBride, who discusses in particular the work of artist Charles Burchfield, whom Mr. Siegel described as "The Terror of Ohio." He said that in Burchfield's paintings there is an ethical drama of good  and evil given true form.


Burchfield's Lavendar and Old Lace

As a young girl, I remember looking at Burchfield's paintings, feeling both terror and fascination. Mr. Siegel talked about the rhythm in the paintings:

[Burchfield's] rhythm has to do with expansion—and the getting in of a sinister quality—things even when they are new, are really old and things are haunted by time and ill will and death: and there is the rottenness of organic expansion. The wood seems to say "I am going to get you! ...Those pictures of Burchfield should be seen.  We have the terrain of America writhing.


Burchfield, Moon Flowers at Dusk

And Mr. Siegel continued:

The rhythms in painting are as definite as the rhythms in music, in a dance, a ballet, in drama, photography—and wherever there is art, there are the opposites and the rhythms—and reality as a mother can take care of them all.

He read an advertisement in The Dial for a new book of poems by Witter Bynner. He commented that years ago many people were affected by Bynner's poems and were ready to call him an important poet. But, we learned, Bynner's poetry lacks something critical—truly poetic music. Mr. Siegel explained, "'If the rhythm in a poem is not mighty, it cannot be a poem. The rhythm is the heartbeat. Rhythms...after all are about the truth of the world. They carry a mighty lot of logic with them."  He then read Witter Bynner's poem, "Dream," from Harriet Monroe's The New Poetry, which has these lines in it. Bynner is trying to make a relation of person to landscape:

For how could the motion of a shadow in a field
Be a person?
Or the flash of an oriole-wing?
Be a smile?
Or the turn of a leaf on a stream
Be a hand?
Or a bright breath of sun
Be lips?

"A question of poetry or non-poetry," explained Mr. Siegel, "can be found in a comparison vividly and keenly between this poem and William Carlos Williams's "Portrait of a Lady." Mr. Siegel showed that Williams' poem is true to the relation of person and world, abstract and tangible in a way Bynner's poem is not, and because it is, it has a true musical rhythm not found in Bynner. "There is a difference of essence between this poem and the Witter Bynner poem," commented Mr. Siegel. He then read "Portrait of a Lady" by William Carlos Williams:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow., Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
—as if that answered
anything. Ah, yes—below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which shore?—
the sand clings to my lips—
—Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

In the first lines there is a most surprising comparison: "Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky." Mr. Siegel explained that "All comparisons—the epithet, the figure, metaphor, simile, are always about rhythm."       

"There is an attempt to use the apple trees and blossoms to present the hardness and softness of thighs," Mr. Siegel explained, "and also there is loftiness with a touch of divinity in 'touch the sky.' There is the strength of apple trees, the roundness of apples, but there are delicate blossoms that are also pointed to."

About the next lines: "Which sky? The sky / where Watteau hung a lady's/slipper," Mr. Siegel said: "The rhythm here is of the daintiness of a lady's slipper and the vastness of the sky. There is the rhythm of the remote," he continued, "and the rhythm of what is before us"—the sky and a lady's slipper.

Of Williams' lines "Your knees/are a southern breeze—or a gust of snow," Mr. Siegel explained that "When someone is cared for there is something forbidding, something that makes one question oneself—cold like snow, and then [there is] the warmth [of a "southern breeze."]

People need to know what Mr. Siegel was explaining about these lines—that you can care for a person truly only when you see that they, like the world, have in them a rhythm of forbiddingness and warmth, remoteness and intimacy, hardness and softness. When we care for a person, he was showing, there is always a questioning of ourselves because a person represents the outside world as the same and different from us.

The poem ends:

the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore—
Which shore?—
the sand clings to my lips—
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

And Mr. Siegel asked: "Is the world then like petals, but also like sand, like a gust of snow, like that which forbids and frightens?" There is the hardness of appletree and the softness of petals—the softness with those p's. There is a debate here—an orchestrated debate."

In this class, using just one issue of a magazine,  Mr. Siegel showed so many different instances as he found them on the pages of the August 1920 issue of The Dial —how "rhythm is always sameness and difference as the opposites are." We felt how much more life there is in things as he showed the rhythms are there in the arts—music, painting, poetry, literature, ourselves, and in the world..

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