Aesthetic Realism Looks at New York City: Poetry
From Quintillions by Robert Clairmont
The poetry of Robert Clairmont is wild and exact. It has yearning and toughness, humor and depth. It is POETRY—the real, honest, musical thing.
Clairmont has been, these decades, virtually unknown. The new edition of his 1928 Quintillions not only gives people a chance to meet his poems, which are delightful and beautiful, and to have emotions that only authentic poetry can make for; this republication gives an opportunity to ask freshly what poetry is.
It was through Eli Siegel—founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism and in my opinion the greatest of literary critics—that I first learned of Robert Clairmont. I also learned from Mr. Siegel that the difference between what is poetry and what isn't, is the most important difference in the world. That is because poetry is honesty: honesty so full and wide that it has become musical. This musical honesty is in Quintillions.
From Catullus to Robert Clairmont and before and after, every true poem, Eli Siegel showed, has come from a person's seeing something so justly that he or she has perceived in the immediate object the structure of the world itself: the oneness of opposites. And we hear that structure as poetic music. Poetry, he wrote, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual."1 That is true about every instance of good poetry—no matter what its style, or language, or in what century it was written. On the other hand, an unauthentic poem, however impressive, however praised, is insufficiently sincere. It may not lie the way various people in politics do; yet it lacks that honesty which is a self at its very center meeting what an object really is.
There is nothing the world needs more than honesty. If we don't see honesty as pleasure and as our own glorious self-expression (and mainly, people don't), then honesty is not what we'll choose when it really counts. That is a big reason why we need to see what poetry is: living evidence that honesty is music; that justice is individuality.
What a Clairmont Line Has
Take one line by Robert Clairmont, the third line of his poem "These Ever Just So Six Million New York Hearts and Dorothy." The line is:
So much can be said about it. But for now I'll say this: the line is a oneness of the rest and motion of reality, come to because of Robert Clairmont's sincerity. For example:
The line has other opposites. For instance, it has something which is large in the poems of Clairmont and stands for his style, his way, his seeing: the oneness of factuality and longing. This often takes the form, as it does here, of presenting material things, mechanical things, external things, hard things in such a way that we feel simultaneously a palpitating, hoping human heart, an inner human self. With it all are rest and motion. Here is another example from the line I've been looking at:
There is more in the line. But I am pointing to this fact: Robert Clairmont's desire to be fair to his subject was so deep that the rest and motion of things have become one in that line I quoted, as they have in the poem as a whole.
Quintillions and Other Poetry
In his essay "The New Simplicity," Eli Siegel writes:
That is what the poems in Quintillions do. And their doing so makes them related to poems that seem very different.
For example, the oneness of rest and motion, which we saw in the line about Dorothy, is present, in another way, in a line of Whitman. We hear it in the great thrust and stoppage of
Rest and motion as one is central to this line of Horace, which, in its Latin music, ripples even as it is so solid:
It is in this line from Li Po's "The River-Merchant's Wife" as translated by Ezra Pound—a line that flutters and rests:
It is in all real poetry.
And Clairmont's poems are fundamentally different from writing that is not poetry, writing in which reality's opposites are not a living oneness. Every poem that is not good is either tepid, lacking in intensity (that is, it has rest with insufficient motion); or it has agitation, frenzy, sprawl, the heaving of ego without exactitude, order, rest. There is much writing of both bad kinds these days, as in other days—some highly praised.
Three Discussions of Clairmont
I am going to quote soon two instances of Eli Siegel's commenting on the poetry of Clairmont, one brief, one longer. He knew Robert Clairmont closely in the 1920s. For anyone acquainted with Mr. Siegel's critical work, it is unnecessary for me to say that his praise of Clairmont's poetry had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they were friends. There never was a more objective critic than Eli Siegel, in keeping with Matthew Arnold's description of the purpose of a critic: "to see the object as in itself it really is." He is the critic who saw and showed the quality of Robert Clairmont. But first let us look at an important consideration by another writer, Conrad Aiken.
I learned of it because in a 1970 lecture on the meaning of Greenwich Village, Mr. Siegel said, "One of the best things Conrad Aiken did was to write a laudatory review of Quintillions in the New Republic. Otherwise the poems were not seen." The Aiken review of April 11, 1928 deals with both Quintillions and a book by Osbert Sitwell, and Aiken tends to think Sitwell's poems are more profound: Quintillions, he says, "is a pound of feathers, as against Mr. Sitwell's pound of German silver." But he calls it "an unusually delightful book." And he writes that Clairmont
carries humor into poetry unruffled, with all its wings and feathers. It is humor, and yet, because (precisely) it has this "vox," this odd something-or-other, this bloom of innocence or iridescence of the sly, this consciously bright air of always stopping (or frequently, not to flatter the author too much) at the point of maximum suggestion, it is also poetry.3
Well, my purpose is not to comment on the accuracy of Aiken's individual statements. But I am glad to quote from his review, which has historic meaning.
Now, two discussions of Robert Clairmont by Eli Siegel. Both are of 1951.
Here first is the very brief one, from a lecture of March 2, 1951, on the subject of Good Sense. This transcribed lecture was serialized in 1984 in the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, and in issue 592 we find Mr. Siegel saying:
The matter of seeing other people as having insides, seeing them from within, is very difficult. ...We have to use our sight of other people to understand ourselves; we have to use our understanding of ourselves to understand other people. But most persons don't want to do that. The comic tragedy was put in a poem that I like a good deal, "The Tan Suit Person and Importance in New York," by Robert Clairmont:
So Robert Clairmont, with all his humor, all his charm, was also dealing with the deepest, most urgent of questions: How should we see other people? How should we see what's not ourselves? Should we see these as vivid, real, or make them unimportant?
"Tears in Chicago Tonight"
The second discussion by Eli Siegel is from a class of February 12, 1951. And here I rely on notes taken at the time by poet and writer on music Martha Baird. The poem looked at is Clairmont's "Tears in Chicago Tonight":
In the notes of Martha Baird, we see Mr. Siegel explaining:
The problem in this poem will come up in music, in painting, in ever so many things: that is, the giving of quantity to quality. Tears are seen as qualitative, as of emotion, and they are made funny here by being made quantitative—"in little, blue kegs." The problem of quality and quantity is dealt with in this poem and dealt with well.
I have said for twenty years that Robert Clairmont is one of the poets of America.
Then, along with the tears and the kegs, is the fact that bells should ring in Chicago at all. This is surprising: one doesn't think of bells in Chicago.
"Sort of open, beautiful, the bells of Chicago are ringing." There is also a relation of the shape of the bells ringing and the word open. Clairmont is much given to shapes. The oscillation of bells ringing has a definite shape: a going back and forth.
And Chicago is one of the most interesting sounds in America. I know how careful Robert was about these things. We used to talk about the aroma of cities. Writing two lines, with him, was like writing an epic. He wasn't one of those people who scamper through poems. He was aware of the deepest aesthetic problems and was much affected by them.
There is supposed to be a relation between the bells ringing and the emotions of people, which are purposely vague. And the ringing bells are set off by the big horse: "A big horse couldn't haul away the tears shed in Chicago tonight, my girl." It has a shock quality. "My girl" gets it suddenly very intimate. And the "little, blue kegs" just stand out.
The three main things in the poem are: 1) Chicago is made like a town in France; 2) Frail things are given a majestic heaviness; 3) Tears are made funny through the blue kegs.
There is not only tenderness in this poem; there is brutality, given form.
We meet in these notes a showing, with scope and particularity, of why a poem by Clairmont is beautiful. And we also learn about the deep carefulness of his artistic thought. It was—as Clairmont acknowledged and I'm sure would want me to say—thought that Eli Siegel encouraged mightily.
This, Too, Is in Clairmont
I'll comment on four other poems in order to point out further some of the large matters, human and world matters, Clairmont is dealing with and making into music and form.
Many of the poems in Quintillions are free verse, but there are also poems in rhyme and definite meter. One of those is "Great King Gus":
Great King Gus is something in everyone. He is the extension of the state of mind told of in "The Tan Suit Person." He is that in the self which says, I'm not related to other people—that rabble; I get pleasure looking down on them and feeling regal, superior. But the result is, he's lonely. Our conceit makes us lonely. The poem happens to be an exceedingly important statement about mind, put in eight swift lines. The way we feel ourselves to be powerful and confident, and then drooping and weak, is here. And it's told about in music that asserts and swaggers, then becomes poignant too. The poem's humor is inseparable from its depth.
One of the finest poems in Quintillions is "Big Black Hearse." It is about a subject so frequent in the poetry of the world and so much in the thought and feelings of people: death. "Big Black Hearse" puts together grandeur and emptiness in a way different from that of "Great King Gus," though the rhythm of the poems is similar. We have a funeral of great splendor—but the person it's about is dead: Clairmont uses this idea with all its (perhaps) irony to have us feel that life and death are somehow one; Grand Presence and absence are somehow one; Resounding Something and nothing are somehow one. Take these lines from the midst of the poem:
The insistent trochaic beat, which predominates in the poem, is used to tell both about splendor and about death. That strong beat joins the two; in its intensity it almost pounds them into oneness. The poem has terror, and wonder. And it has that consolation which is the sense of rightness to be found in beauty.
What is the poem "Buzzed Around" about? Apparently, it is about three flies that the writer kills, yet the buzzing of which he remembers. It begins:
Clairmont is not Mallarmé, but this poem has a symbol. Thoughts we don't like and can't make sense of are like insects, persisting, circling and buzzing around in our minds. We'd like to get rid of them, just swat them into nonexistence. Clairmont, I believe, is saying: There were thoughts I had that annoyed me very much; they were asking things of me that I didn't want to look at, didn't want to give. I seemed to succeed in eliminating them; but I feel bad about it, and can't really forget them.
The message of the poem is: There's a better way to deal with uncomfortable self-questioning than by trying to kill it. There is toughness in the poem, and wistful regret. And there is fine free verse music.
"Sweet Sweet Awful Dear" is about a question as philosophic yet pressing as any: how much can we feel that the world—the impersonal world—is for us? The poem begins:
In the final lines, using an Elizabethan term of endearment, Clairmont says to the star:
This poem, from one point of view, is the opposite of Pascal's statement about the heavens: "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie" (The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me). But both men were saying, in different ways: The impersonal world cannot be only impersonal—I can't bear it if it is. In this feeling, they stand for humanity. We want the personal and vast impersonal to be one. The idea that warmth can come only from what's close to us, what we're familiar with, and that the wideness of things has to be cold, is horrible—even though it is what people can go through their whole lives feeling.
So Clairmont makes love to a star, in those infinite spaces. He makes the star oh, so personal, even diminutive. And as he does, another huge problem of people is dealt with: can we see something as little, as frail in a fashion, and still respect it? Most often when people go for smallness and pet names, there is contempt—the contempt Hamlet was against when he objected to "nicknam[ing] God's creatures." But in this poem, respect and the feeling of dearness, treasured smallness, are one. It is a poem of love for the world, as represented by a star.
Robert Clairmont, then, as Eli Siegel said, belongs to American poetry. I am glad that through this new edition of Quintillions, people can know that.
From Quintillions (NY: American Sunbeam Publisher, 2005)