Eli Siegel

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Eli Siegel
Eli Siegel in 1947 (photo by Louis Dienes)
BornAugust 16, 1902
DiedNovember 8, 1978(1978-11-08) (aged 76)
  • Poet
  • critic
  • educator
Known forFounder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism

Eli Siegel (August 16, 1902 – November 8, 1978) was a poet, critic, and educator. He founded Aesthetic Realism, a philosophical movement based in New York City. An idea central to Aesthetic Realism—that every person, place or thing in reality has something in common with all other things—was expressed in the title poem of his first volume, Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. His second volume was Hail, American Development.[1]

Siegel's philosophic works include Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, and The Aesthetic Nature of the World. His teaching of Aesthetic Realism spanned almost four decades and included thousands of extemporaneous lectures on poetry, the arts and sciences, religion, economics, and national ethics, as well as lessons to individuals and general classes which showed that questions of everyday life are aesthetic and ethical.[2]

His lecture on the poetry of William Carlos Williams, which Williams attended, is published in The Williams-Siegel Documentary and his lectures on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw were edited into a critical consideration titled James and the Children. Siegel's philosophy, and his statement, "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites", has influenced artists, scientists, and educators.[3][4][5][6]


Born in Dvinsk, Russian Empire, Siegel emigrated to the United States in 1905 with his parents, Mendel and Sarah (Einhorn) Siegel. The family settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where Siegel attended Baltimore City College and joined the speech and debate team now referred to as the Bancroft/Carrollton-Wight Literary Societies. He contributed to the senior publication The Green Bag and graduated in 1919. In 1922, together with V.F. Calverton [George Goetz], he co-founded The Modern Quarterly, a magazine in which his earliest essays appeared, including "The Scientific Criticism" (Vol. I, No. 1, March 1923) and "The Equality of Man" (Vol. I, No. 3, December 1923).[7]

In 1925, his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" was selected from four thousand anonymously submitted poems[8] as the winner of The Nation's esteemed poetry prize.[9] The magazine's editors described it as "the most passionate and interesting poem which came in—a poem recording through magnificent rhythms a profound and important and beautiful vision of the earth on which afternoons and men have always existed."[10][11] The poem begins:

Quiet and green was the grass of the field,
The sky was whole in brightness,
And O, a bird was flying, high, there in the sky,
So gently, so carelessly and fairly.

"Hot Afternoons" met violent opposition, according to William Carlos Williams, who wrote, years later: "Only today do I realize how important that poem is in the history of our development as a cultural entity."[12] [13][14] "In Hot Afternoons", Siegel later explained, "I tried to take many things that are thought of usually as being far apart and foreign and to show, in a beautiful way, that they aren't so separate and that they do have a great deal to do with one another."[15][16]

Siegel continued writing poetry throughout his life but devoted the majority of his time over the next decades to developing the philosophy he later called Aesthetic Realism. After moving to New York City, he became a member of the Greenwich Village poets, famous for his dramatic readings of "Hot Afternoons" and other poems. His two-word poem, One Question, won recognition in 1925 as the shortest poem in the English language.[17] It appeared in the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post:

One Question
I —

This poem was later reprinted without the author's name in an anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer and an anthology edited by Max J. Herzberg.[18]

For several years in the 1930s Siegel served as master of ceremonies for regular poetry readings that were well known for combining poetry and jazz.[19] He was also a regular reviewer for Scribner's magazine and the New York Evening Post Literary Review. In 1938, Siegel began teaching poetry classes with the view that "what makes a good poem is like what can make a good life". In 1941, students in these classes asked him to give individual lessons in which they might learn about their own lives. These were the first Aesthetic Realism lessons.[20]

In 1944, Siegel married Martha Baird (University of Iowa), who had begun studying in his classes the year before. Baird would later become Secretary of the Society for Aesthetic Realism, and also a musicologist and poet in her own right.[1]

In 1946, at Steinway Hall, Siegel began giving weekly lectures in which he presented the philosophy he first called Aesthetic Analysis (later, Aesthetic Realism) "a philosophic way of seeing conflict in self and making this conflict clear to a person so that a person becomes more integrated and happier".[21] From 1941 to 1978, he gave many thousand lectures on poetry, history, economics—a wide variety of the arts and sciences. And he gave thousands of individual Aesthetic Realism lessons to men, women, and children. In these lessons the way of seeing the world based on aesthetics—which is Aesthetic Realism—was taught.

In 1951, William Carlos Williams read Siegel's "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" again, and wrote to Martha Baird: "Everything we most are compelled to do is in that one poem." Siegel, he wrote, "belongs in the very first rank of our living artists".[22] The prize poem became the title poem of Siegel's first volume, Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, nominated for a National Book Award in 1958.[23] A decade later, his second volume, Hail, American Development, also met with critical acclaim. "I think it's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets", wrote Kenneth Rexroth in the New York Times.[24] Walter Leuba described Siegel's poems as "alive in a burning honesty and directness" and yet, having "exquisite emotional tact". He pointed to these lines from "Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers":[25]

Find the lost lines in
The writing that is your child, mothers ...

At the age of 76 Siegel had an operation for a benign prostatic condition. He called it "the operation so disastrous to me". As a result, he lost the use of his feet and was unable to sleep. According to Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, the operation was "the cause of his dying 5-1/2 months later".[26]

Aesthetic Realism[edit]

The basis of Aesthetic Realism is the principle, "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."[2] In the book Aesthetic Realism: We Have Been There, six working artists explain this principle in life and their own craft. Reviewing them, the Library Journal tells us: "Heraclitus, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and even Martin Buber have posited contraries and polarities in their philosophies. Siegel, however, seems to be the first to demonstrate that 'all beauty is the making one of the permanent opposites in reality'." (September 1, 1969) [3]

The ethics Siegel taught—"the art of enjoying justice"—includes this definition of good will: "The desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful." Good will is necessary, he stated, for a person to like him– or herself: "This desire is the fundamental thing in human consciousness." (The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue no. 121)



Among Siegel's many published works are:

  • Siegel, Eli (1984). Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Definition Press. ISBN 9780910492287.
    "Whether child or adult is spoken of, this book sees a person's concerns with dignity and compassion." (February 1982) [4]
  • Siegel, Eli (1968). James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James's Turn of the Screw. New York: Definition Press. OCLC 499982351.
  • Siegel, Eli (1982). Goodbye Profit System: Update. New York: Definition Press. ISBN 0910492336. OCLC 64124306.

Books of Poetry[edit]

From Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems and Hail, American Development[edit]


Some of his many essays and broadsides include:

  • "Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?"', The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 2, December 1955 (see Terrain Gallery).
  • "Husbands and Poems", Today's Japan, 1960.
  • "Alcoholism; or, You Got to Find the World Interesting", Definition, 1962.
  • "The Ordinary Doom", A Book of Nonfiction, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), pp. 250–255.
  • "Assonance Is Like This", New York Quarterly, no. 2 (1970), pp. 82–90.

Comments on Siegel's work[edit]

William Carlos Williams wrote of the poem Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana, "I say definitely that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world."[5] Williams was an early supporter of Siegel's poetry and defender of his views. He wrote:

I can't tell you how important Siegel's work is in the light of my present understanding of the modern poem. He belongs in the very first rank of our living artists.

And Williams added:

The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received from the "authorities" whom I shall not dignify by naming and after that by neglect. ...[27]

John Henry Faulk, speaking of the poems in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana, said on CBS radio, "Eli Siegel makes a man glad he's alive."

Kenneth Rexroth wrote in the New York Times Book Review of Hail, American Development that Siegel's poems contained "...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", adding, "...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." (March 23, 1969) [6]

In Contemporary Authors Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, stated (in a book published by Definition Press, said Foundation's publishing arm):

Eli Siegel's work, which in time became Aesthetic Realism, was the cause of some of the largest praise, the largest love in persons, and also the largest resentment …
In writing an entry about [him] for Contemporary Authors, you are somewhat in the position you would be writing an entry on the poet John Keats in 1821. That is, if you were to rely on what was said of Keats by most established critics (critics now remembered principally for their injustice to one of the greatest English writers), you would present the author of `Ode to a Nightingale' as a presumptuous `Cockney poet' whose works were `driveling idiocy.' In writing about Eli Siegel [now], you are writing about a contemporary who is great; who all his life met what William Carlos Williams described him as meeting, `the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new'; who now, after his death, is beginning, just barely beginning, to be seen with something like fairness.

Huntington Cairns, Secretary of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., described Siegel's place in the understanding of aesthetics—the branch of philosophy which studies beauty—as follows:

I believe that Eli Siegel was a genius. He did for aesthetics what Spinoza did for ethics. [7]

Donald Kirkley wrote in The Baltimore Sun (1944) reporting on Siegel's reaction to his 1925 national fame,

Baltimore friends close to him at the time will testify to a certain integrity and steadfastness of purpose which distinguished Mr. Siegel ... He refused to exploit a flood of publicity which was enough to float any man to financial comfort ...[8]

And William Carlos Williams also wrote,

Only today do I realize how important that poem [Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana] is in the history of our development as a cultural entity. [9]

In 2002 the city of Baltimore placed a plaque in Druid Hill Park to commemorate the centennial of Eli Siegel's birth. [28] That same year, on July 26, 2002, Representative Elijah E. Cummings read a tribute to Siegel in the United States House of Representatives. [10]



Eli Siegel Historical Marker, Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, MD

The following are lines from Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana, one of the poems which Selden Rodman commented "say more (and more movingly) about here and now than any contemporary poems I have read". (August 17, 1957 Saturday Review) These lines stand for what Ellen Reiss has described as Siegel's "beautiful, faithful, passionate, critical, loving attention to the world and humanity."[12]

The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it!
The past is in it;
All words, feelings, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls,
trees, stones, things of beauty, books, desires are in it;
and all are to be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world;
And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!


  1. ^ Rexroth, Kenneth (March 23, 1969). "Hail, American Development; By Eli Siegel. 194 pp. New York: Definition Press. Cloth, $4.95. Paper, $2.45". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 31, 2023.
  2. ^ Shapiro, Alan (September 20, 2017). "The Fight about Knowledge—in Schools & Everywhere". Aesthetic Realism Online Library. Retrieved March 31, 2023.
  3. ^ Kranz, Sheldon; et al., eds. (1969). Aesthetic Realism: We Have Been There: Six Artists on the Siegel Theory of Opposites. New York: Definition Press. ISBN 0910492115.
  4. ^ Perey, Arnold (1976). "The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel as Teaching Method in Anthropology". Anthropology & Education Quarterly. Wiley. 7 (4): 46–48. doi:10.1525/aeq.1976.7.4.05x1663y. JSTOR 3216520.
  5. ^ Green, Edward. "Aesthetic Realism and the Need for a Philosophic Musicology". International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. Croatian Musicological Society. 36 (2 (Dec. 2005)): 227–248. JSTOR 30032170.
  6. ^ Monendra Grover; Dwijesh Mishra; Rajesh Kumar; Sudhir Srivastava. "Computation, Mathematics or Aesthetic Realism: Revisiting the foundations of modern biology and agriculture". International Journal of Current Research and Academic Review. New Delhi, India. 2 (8): 175–177. ISSN 2347-3215.
  7. ^ Siegel, Eli (1997). The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism 1922-1923. New York: Definition Press. ISBN 0-910492-35-2.
  8. ^ Editors' Note, The Nation Vol. 120, No. 3110, page 148 (February 11, 1925): "there were 4,000 manuscripts submitted to the poetry contest."
  9. ^ Mark Van Doren in Prize Poems, 1913-1929 page 19 (NY: Charles Boni, 1930): "The Nation prize ... was always a spectacle to be looked forward to, and the fame which came to certain poems like Stephen Vincent Benet's "King David" and Eli Siegel's "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" was an interesting index of the importance attributed by the lay public to poetry."
  10. ^ Editors Oswald Garrison Villard, Lewis S. Gannett, Arthur Warner, Joseph Wood Krutch, Freda Kirchwey, and Mark Van Doren, The Nation Vol. 120, No. 3110, page 136 (February 11, 1925).
  11. ^ Alexander Laing in "The Nation and its Poets," page 212. The Nation, Vol. 201, No. 8 (September 20, 1965): "This year they chose 'Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana' because it seemed to them 'the most passionate and interesting poem that came in.'"
  12. ^ Something to Say—William Carlos Williams on Younger Poets, edited by James E. B. Breslin (New York: New Directions, 1985), p.250
  13. ^ Deborah A. Straub in Contemporary Authors: "Siegel immediately became the focus of a literary controversy. His innovative technique and unorthodox approach to his material tended to polarize reviewers' reactions to the poem; as [Michael] Kernan remarked [in The Washington Post, 8/16/78], "some critics loved it, others were outraged."
  14. ^ Alexander Laing in "The Nation and its Poets," page 212. The Nation, Vol. 201, No. 8 (September 20, 1965): "The vigor of The Nation's influence was demonstrated in an immediate editorial uproar across the country ... Much of it assumed the form of raucous parody ... This is notable because the award to Siegel helped to dramatize, for a large audience, a transition in the perception of literary values which at this midpoint of the 1920s was already evident, although still arcane. If The Nation's choice, 'Hot Afternoons,' is thought of as nothing more than a catalyst, the magazine's willingness to stand up for the unorthodox in poetry was symbolically important."
  15. ^ Deborah A. Straub, Contemporary Authors: "Siegel composed "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" with this principle in mind, taking "many things that are thought of usually as being far apart and foreign and [showing], in a beautiful way, that they aren't so separate and that they do have a great deal to do with each other."
  16. ^ Corbett & Boldt: Modern American Poetry, page 144. The Macmillan Company, 1965: "Siegel's poetry reveals a view of reality in which 'the very self of a thing is its relation, its having-to-do-with other things.'"
  17. ^ The Baltimore Sun, April 25, 2002
  18. ^ The Williams-Siegel Documentary, edited by Martha Baird and Ellen Reiss (New York: Definition Press, 1970), p.133).
  19. ^ J. Dosbriora Irwin, "Village Portraits", in Greenwich Village Weekly News May 1933, Number 33, page 3: "Someone told me, a few days ago, that, to-date, Eli Siegel was the most popular man on what may be termed the left wing of the Village. This is no doubt true, but Eli Siegel, as I know him, is not a politician ... He is too utterly true and too sincere to lobby, handshake or praise. Eli Siegel has another mission in life than to be popular amongst men. That mission is to be true to himself, to his soul, to his work. Hence he gains respect, which is ever so much more important than popularity. I do not mean by this that Eli Siegel shuts himself into an Ivory Tower ... no ... not exactly. He has actually many friends and his friendship is just the human exchange to give and take that real friendship should be. But because he is a little finer, a little more idealistic, more sincere than most, and because work means to him a little more, one classes him amidst the rather superior beings one is privileged to meet here and there through life, and that one can, perhaps like or love, despise or envy, but always must respect. ... Also, he composes the delicate or violent, the sentimental or humorous poems he recites evenings, and prepares the highly documented literary lectures he delivers at the Sam Johnson. For Eli Siegel is a past master at entertaining, at holding the interest of an audience, also at gathering about him men and women of talent and at encouraging them in the field of their particular endeavours. Despite the genius of his profound mind, Eli Siegel is not egoistic, but sensitive to all beauty, appreciative of all artistic expressions.
  20. ^ Deborah A. Straub in Contemporary Authors: "Siegel continued to be preoccupied with studying and teaching the new philosophy of life and art he had begun to develop in the 1920s and 1930s. Known first as Aesthetic Analysis and later as Aesthetic Realism, this philosophy sprang from Siegel's belief that "what makes a good poem is like what can make a good life ..."
  21. ^ Donald Kirkley in "Poet Outlines a Philosophy," Baltimore Sun, August 2, 1946: "More than 160 persons ... attended the introductory talk. Subsequent lectures will be given weekly at Steinway Hall. Tonight's theme was "Self and World." In it, Mr. Siegel affirmed his belief that "aesthetic analysis can be of help to everybody." It is, he said, 'a philosophic way of seeing conflict in self and making this conflict clear to a person so that a person becomes more integrated and happier.'"
  22. ^ William Carlos Williams, Something to Say, ed J. E. B. Breslin pages 249, 251 (New Directions, 1985): "I can't tell you how important Siegel's work is in the light of my present understanding of the modern poem. He belongs in the very first rank of our living artists....Everything we most are compelled to do is in that one poem."
  23. ^ URL: "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on June 20, 2010. Retrieved November 13, 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. ^ Kenneth Rexroth reviewing Hail, American Development, (March 23, 1969)
  25. ^ Walter Leuba in New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1957 (University of New Mexico): "[H]e never once betrayed a false attitude. Alive in a burning honesty and directness, he had none to betray....He is at every step the poet and his directness and mastery of technical devices allow him frequent perfections. He is not mannered and he does not write for effect. Everything he writes is emotionally honest and therefore of interest...[T]he number of consummate poems and passages is extraordinary. Everywhere there is an exquisite emotional tact: "Find the lost lines in/The writing that is your child, mothers. . . ."
  26. ^ Shapiro, Alan (November 3, 2004). "Always: Love of Reality". Aesthetic Realism Online Library. Retrieved March 31, 2023.
  27. ^ "A Letter by William Carlos Williams about Eli Siegel's Poetry". April 14, 2005. Archived from the original on April 14, 2005. Retrieved March 31, 2023.
  28. ^ "Eli Siegel Historical Marker".

External links[edit]