Quick with a word or two

The Pratt celebrates a New York poet whose roots are in Baltimore

April 25, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Eli - Who?

Who was Eli Siegel? And why, 100 years after his birth, is the Enoch Pratt Free Library celebrating his poetry?

With apologies to Baltimore, Eli Siegel was a New Yorker - a sage of Greenwich Village, who wrote profound, often lightning-quick (and funny) poetry. True, Siegel did get his first library card in 1911 at the Enoch Pratt Library, graduated from Baltimore City College and used his Baltimore childhood as backdrop to some of his poems. But Siegel, dead now 24 years, lived most of his years in a book depository that doubled as his one-bedroom apartment in New York.

He spent 60 years writing poems, including what's considered the shortest poem in the English language. "Meant most seriously," Siegel's poem "One Question" was written in 1924:

I - Why?

"The first time I read it, I thought, `How, in two words, did he get the depth of the deepest question?'" says Devorah Tarrow, a consultant at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a New York-based group inspired by the school of thought founded by the poet. Tarrow and others from the foundation will read from Siegel's work at 2 p.m. Sunday at Enoch Pratt Free Library's Wheeler Auditorium.

Aesthetic realism is easier said than explained. In notes about his work and in his lectures, Siegel ruminated on the "having-to-do-withness" inherent in aesthetic realism: "A person is a tremendous and concentrated drama of sameness and differences, isness and elseness." He also believed that aesthetically real poetry, "in its music and unpredictability can be the prose and logic and precision of lives today."

To his admirers - such as Tarrow, who studied with Siegel for 20 years - the idiosyncratic poet taught a new way of seeing and appreciating the world. "He had the desire to be completely fair to all things and people and to be exact about who people are and what things are," Tarrow says. Siegel was exact about cats. His self-titled "pussycat poems" collection included "Poem to a Cat":

If I am not

Where Sweetie is,

I cannot wait

Until I am

Where Sweetie is.

"How it has seemed cats have to do with so much!" Siegel wrote in his 1957 collection, Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. The title poem showcased Siegel's unspoiled and expansive sense of America and the human landscape. Moved by youthful afternoons spent in Druid Hill Park, Siegel in 1922 wrote the Bartlett's-enshrined "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" having never stepped foot in Montana. His 99-line, free verse poem beat out 4,000 other entries to win a prestigious national poetry award in 1925.

Montana, thou art, and I say thou art, as once monks said of God,

And thought, too: Thou art ...

Clearly, Eli Siegel was an afternoon man:... Afternoons have to do with the whole world;

And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!

The world of girls' beautiful faces, bodies and clothes, quiet

afternoons, graceful birds, great words, tearful music,

mind-joying poetry, beautiful things, loved things, known things ...

The late poet William Carlos Williams was introduced in the early 1950s to Siegel's then-obscure work. In a letter reprinted in the Hot Afternoons collection, Williams expressed astonishment that Siegel had not been published yet. Williams offered to push Siegel's work. "He belongs in the very first rank of our living artists," Williams wrote in 1951. Six years later and 34 years after the poem was written, Hot Afternoons: Poems was finally published. Siegel celebrated with a champagne toast.

A Sun reporter visited Siegel in the early 1950s. Enclosed by wall-to-wall books, the erudite Siegel ran a Wednesday poetry group in his New York home. He charged 50 cents and lectured on poetry, art, history, science, economics. "The Sage of Greenwich Village" was a free-lance teacher, a Russian by birth who "was conveyed to Baltimore at age 3," the paper said, before offering this description: "He is a slightly corpulent man, with a shiny, swarthy face."

Also in The Sun that year, Siegel made headlines when he stated Mother Goose's nursery rhymes were better poetry than anything written by T. S. Eliot, his more famous contemporary. Siegel had written his first draft of "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" on the jacket of his copy of Eliot's The Wasteland. Siegel, a critic by nature as well, was no fan of Freud, either.

Siegel's poetry certainly owes Baltimore a beer. In 1925, he wrote "Quiet, Tears, Babies" after walking in the 800 block of North Charles Street years before and hearing a baby cry "beyond heavy doors of an old house. It was 7 p.m. or so, and hot."

Quiet in the street,

In the street with houses having babies,

Lately born, lately born.

These babies now are growing ...(Those babies are now 77!)

In an unpublished poem written in 1970, Siegel recalls the Baltimore of his youth. It was October, warm, and the World Series was under way, and the 12-year-old Siegel was having a fine time selling newspapers on Charles Street:

So the afternoon is in free verse, the rather late

afternoon, autumn 1914, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Trolley cars were noticeable, absent or present ...

How much has this to do with the baseball victory of Manager

Stallings in 1914, and the victory of the Braves?

-The victory of the Braves: it still sounds all right.

In the autumn of 1978, Siegel died reportedly from complications after prostate surgery. His 25,000 books still survive the sage of Greenwich of Village.

Eli Siegel's poems are online at www.elisiegelcollection.net. "The Poetry of Eli Siegel: A Centennial Celebration" will be held Sunday, 2 p.m., Wheeler Auditorium, the Enoch Pratt Free Library. 410-396-5494.

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