As a person who loves literature and taught it for many years in the NYC public schools, I love this talk by poet Sheldon Kranz: “Turning Over a New Leaf; or, What Is Literature?” In a fairly short space, he describes richly, and with diverse instances, what he learned from Aesthetic Realism and its founder, Eli Siegel, about what makes these works of literature beautiful. He says, for instance:
I learned two things in my studies with Eli Siegel that I had learned nowhere else: (1) It is the opposites in all their flexibility and subtlety that explain the beauty of such diverse works as Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s Othello, Rimbaud’s “O Seasons, O Castles,” Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Mark Twain’s story about the jumping frog. Mr. Siegel found the element all great works have in common. It is the opposites that join the centuries of prose and poetry, and give coherence to man’s emotions and perceptions. (2) A major contribution of his to literature is that the answer to every person’s deepest question, How can I make sense out of the warring contradictions inside me? can be found in the technique of a successful poem, or story, or novel. To see literature this way is to see it as it is, and to answer a person’s deepest hope as it did mine.
Take, for example, freedom and order In “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict” [in Self and World], Mr. Siegel writes:
The question confronting everyone is: Is it possible for a human being to do truly as he pleases…to show his instincts, his impulses, his drives—and at the same time satisfy his sense of order, of precision, of stability?…Aesthetic Realism says, yes….
He then proceeds to show how a novel puts these opposites together:
In a good novel you see a certain precision, “has-to-be-ness” or inevitability—that is, there is order in a good novel. And in a novel, too, you feel the characters act freely, the writer is not constrained, there is growth and there is strangeness in the novel…, the novel has freedom….Freedom and order in a good novel, have their hands in friendly fashion on each other’s shoulders.
I heard Sheldon Kranz give this talk, and it encouraged my care for literature in a big way. I respect his writing very much—both his prose and his poetry. You can find poems of his here.