The Rhythms: They Are There—Part 2

Continuing a report by Miriam Mondlin of the lecture Eli Siegel gave July 22, 1970, titled “The Rhythms: They Are There,” which has in it a new approach to the subject of rhythm.

—Part 2—

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.

“Lavendar and Old Lace” by C. Burchfield

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.”

And Mr. Siegel continued:

Moonflower by Burchfield
Moonflower by C. Burchfield


“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 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 explained 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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