With a lesson about “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” by the Chinese poet Li Po
After many years as a New York City teacher, I say proudly and with urgency: the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method must be known by every teacher and student. It can end the anger now in America’s schools, and have students really learn, because 1) it explains the true purpose of education—to like the world honestly, through knowing it; and 2) it and understands the self—both the deep, even desperate, hope to feel the world makes sense, and also that in a person which stops him or her from being able to learn.
As the students in my 10th grade English class at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan learned about poetry through the Aesthetic Realism method, they saw the world, other people and themselves newly—with more respect and kindness. As a result, their angry way of seeing people, that took the form of prejudice, changed. These students—from Washington Heights; the Lower East Side; Spanish Harlem; East New York; Jamaica—have reason to be angry. To worry about having enough money for food and rent; to fear being caught in crossfire walking home; to feel the future is uncertain at best—these are things no person should have to endure. But Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism explain that a just anger at being seen and treated unfairly can be accompanied by, and turn into, a hurtful anger—the desire to get revenge on the world, mock it, feel separate from it and from other people—which comes from contempt; this stops a person from wanting to take the facts of the world into their minds, and learn.
Aesthetic Realism teaches that we need, for our self-respect, to have emotions we are proud of—and we can learn how through the study of poetry. I am eternally grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that the difference between a true poem and writing that may look like poetry, but which is really insincere and inexact, is the difference between beauty and ugliness—between seeing that is on behalf of life, and seeing that is corrupt. Because, like thousands of students today, I didn’t know this as a high school student, I was impressed by a way of using words that made me more cynical, and deeply less alive. Ellen Reiss, the Chairman of Education, who teaches the thrilling course The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry, writes in her commentary to an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, that in our time
poetry…is presented in the media and schools sloppily, hurtfully….Poetry is not just the putting forth of feeling. Poetry comes from that strict and lovely thing most needed and so lacking in people’s lives: emotion which, while one’s own, is exact about an object and fair to the whole world. The thing that hurts people every minute of their lives is that their feelings are not just to the world itself, and all the meanness…in history come[s] from this situation.
My students were learning that the way of seeing in poetry is a criticism of the anger at difference that makes for prejudice, because poetry is exact about the structure of the world in its tremendous sameness and difference. Eli Siegel, whom I respect enormously as literary critic, taught that poetry shows the world can liked without pretense, because in every true poem, opposites which can be painfully opposed in us and in how we see other people, are together so deeply that beauty results—and we hear this in poetic music. In a 1949 lecture, Mr. Siegel explains:
The purpose of poetry is to show that any aspect of the world—whether it’s cold or warm, far or near, vast or snug, little or big—can be put into a form which can give a proud and profound pleasure, and which can tend to integrate a person….A poem is an ordered, musical presentation of reality, and when a person apprehends reality as a poem, with integration, the organization, the coalition of the strange and the ordinary takes place.
The way of seeing that causes prejudice
Most of the students in this class speak Spanish as their first language. Others are African-American; a few are from the West Indies, and some from the Indian subcontinent. There were also several students who had come to the US from China. I saw close friendships between students of different backgrounds, but there was also anger and prejudice, which showed in insults spoken in another language, mocking comments, dirty looks.
We met during 10th period, and early in the term, so many students came late, and there was so much talking, it was nearly impossible to begin a lesson on time. Manuel* and Stanley hung out in the hall with earphones on until just after the late bell, and would wander in slowly. Tania and Eneida had to fix their hair as soon as they came into the room. Other students had to catch up on the day’s news before they could really settle down. Yet, as they learned that every aspect of English—the history of words, the structure of sentences, the characters in a novel—put together opposites like rest and motion, hardness and softness—the same opposites they were trying to put together in themselves, they began coming on time and getting ready for class right away.
Tanisha James showed more pleasure as we learned about poetry than she had all term. However, she was still in a fight between wanting to learn excitedly, and wanting to mock and act bored. One day she said to some of the Asian students in the class, “No offense, but my mother said that when she hears Chinese people talking to each other, it sounds like they’re arguing.” Some students giggled, but most of the class was uncomfortable, and it was clear they thought this was unjust. I asked, “Why do you think a person might say that?” Tanisha wasn’t sure. I asked if she felt people who spoke other languages were like her or different. She thought, and said “Different,” and after a pause, “—but also the same.”
In prejudice, a person uses the difference of another person to lessen and feel separate from that person, but in poetry, the way different sounds are combined has us see greater meaning. As one sound is close to another, but separate, too; as a harsh sound meets one that is gentle—they work well together, and make for music and deep feeling, as in this line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which they’d liked very much: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.”
We spoke about how sounds are heavy and light, harsh and gentle, separate and joined in the languages spoken by people in the class—Urdu, the native language of Fatima from Pakistan; Spanish, spoken by Billy and Damaris from the Dominican Republic and Eneida from Ecuador; Haitian Creole, Marie’s first language; and two languages of China: Cantonese, spoken by Lo Yat, and Mandarin, spoken by Shu Wa; as well as English.
A poem from China can teach us about how to see people
“People for centuries, in every country, every language, have wanted to give beautiful, musical form to their feelings through poetry,” I said, “and if you were to hear poetry in another language, while you might not understand it, do you think you would be hearing the opposites?” “Yes,” they said. I felt it was crucial for us to study a Chinese poem, in order to see, through the opposites, the way it expressed feelings that are more familiar to us. I brought in a poem I love by Li Po [Li Bai], who lived from 701 to 762—which, in its great English translation by Ezra Pound is titled “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”
The aim of the lesson was: “How can a poem of 8th century China help us answer a question of our lives?” I began by quoting this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In this poem, opposites which affect people in our relations to one another—closeness and distance, being together and being separate, sameness and difference—are beautifully one.
Students gave examples from their lives of how closeness and distance have confused them. “You can want to be close to some people, and distant from others,” said Kelvin. “Can you also be confused by the way someone who seems close, or should be close, is distant?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, with a sigh. Others agreed. “That’s what I feel with my best friend,” said Sandra. “Sometimes, she just won’t open up to me.” Maritza said, “That also happens with your family—like, you don’t understand each other, but you live in the same house.” Many students said they had trouble knowing other people’s feelings. Others nodded in recognition.
I asked, “How close can you get to understanding the feelings of another person?” In this poem an important thing occurs: a man, Li Po, gets close to what a young woman feels, and expresses her feelings through himself, using words that are sincere and musical.
I told the story of the poem: a girl of 16, writing to her husband, describes her feelings about him—for and against: during their childhood when they first knew each other, in the early days of their marriage; her coming to love him; her sorrow at his being away, working on the river; and her longing to see him again. “Is this feeling of over a thousand years ago,” I asked, “in a country as far away as China, at all like what you could feel, or someone else today—sadness and yearning for a person who is far away?” “Yes,” Tania said, “My boyfriend is in the Dominican Republic, and I miss him very much.” The class wanted to hear the poem.
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the lookout?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
A colleague at school, who is from China, gave me a copy of the poem in Chinese, and kindly recorded himself reading it. I felt it sounded beautiful—different from the English translation, but also related in surprising ways. Handing out copies of the Pound translation, I asked whether the class wanted to hear the English or Chinese first. “The Chinese!” they said right away. As I was preparing to play the recording, the students asked if Shu Wa Liang could read it instead. He had been in the United States less than two years, and though his English was remarkably good for having been here such a short time, he was separate, felt different from the other students, and had been quiet all term. When I showed him the poem in Chinese, he was so pleased. He proudly came to the front of the class, and as he read, the rest of the class listened with wonder and respect.
“Do you like hearing this?” I asked. They liked it so much, they asked if they could hear it again, and as Shu Wa read, we looked at the Chinese characters on the page. “What did you hear?” I asked. “The sounds go high and low,” one student said. “There was a space in each line as he read it,” said another. “Chinese writing looks very different from English,” I said, “but do you notice anything in the way the poem is arranged that shows those pauses?” Maritza said, “There’s a comma in the middle of every line.” Though not traditional, in this printing of the Chinese poem, there were indeed commas, showing that each line was composed of two groups of five characters. “What have we learned about in English poetry that also has a groups of two and five?” I asked. “Iambic pentameter!” shouted Luis—“like in the sonnet.” These students were excited to see that a classic poetic form in English—one unaccented and one accented syllable, repeated five times—and a classic form from China, are related. I asked, “Does the fact that two cultures, so far apart in both time and geography, felt that units of five and two helped them express themselves, show something about the closeness among all people?” “Yes!” they said.
We then looked at the English translation—which is great as poetry in itself—and discussed how closeness and distance, sameness and difference are together both in meaning and sound. For instance, about the beautiful line: “At fourteen I married My Lord you,” I asked, “How is the meaning of this line a oneness of closeness and distance?” I asked. “When you get married,” said Yahaira, “you get close to a person.” I asked what they felt about how the phrase “My Lord” was placed in the line. While some students—especially the girls—felt understandably critical of how this seems to make the husband more powerful than the wife, they also saw that the phrase has respect.
We can hear this respect in the way words are separate and joined, through their placement and through pauses, as in the Chinese. I asked, “What would happen if the line were, ‘At fourteen, I married you, My Lord’? It’s the same idea.” “No!” said Tania, “that doesn’t sound as nice.” We saw that the way nearness and distance, separation and junction are one in this line makes it beautiful. I told them Eli Siegel had once said of the deep meaning in this poem, “Hours could be given to the pauses between the syllables.”
As we think about people more deeply, prejudice is opposed
The students saw that the opposites we were speaking about also have to do with a problem that sometimes occurs in relationships. Maritza said, “You can be too possessive.” “Is that a way of getting too close, too fast?” “Yes,” she said. This, we saw, is not honest closeness, because when you feel you own a person, you are really far away from what he feels. I said I learned that when you really care for someone, you can feel close because you want to know him, and you also have a sense that there is a great deal yet to be known—that is still distant from you—and this has respect. The pauses in this line seem to stand for this. There are three definite pauses: “At fourteen // I married // My Lord // you.”
The young woman in the poem is not in a hurry to sum up her husband, own him. Just after saying something so personal: “I married,” there is something big—the impersonal “My Lord,” which stands for something large in the world—and only then, the intimate “you.” “Does this line, in its sound and its meaning, stand for what we want in our relations to people?” They felt it did.
As we discussed many lines closely, my students cared for the poem more. I noticed, too, that the Latino and African-American students were friendlier with the Asian students in the class—including Shu Wa, whom they respected—and he was more at ease with them. I asked the class to write what they felt about the poem. About the sound of the line “Forever and forever and forever,” Maritza said, “It seems eternal, like what the wife feels for the merchant.” Yahaira wrote, “The sounds and pauses that are contained in this poem [are] very meaningful….I feel that the pauses are a symbol of these two people not being able to be there together,…the pause in their life which they are facing.” And Tanisha, who had earlier wanted to mock the sounds of Chinese, liked the poem very much, including in its original language. She wrote:
The sound of this poem gives it a feeling that fits the meaning. If its sound was different, I think that the feeling would have been different also….Once you can understand what the poem is about, you can understand why the sound is important.
I was so moved by how my students changed throughout the term, and especially through our study of poetry. They asked many questions, showing a deep, new respect for words, and for the people who, for centuries in all corners of the world, have wanted to express themselves in poetry.
This is evidence—clear as day—that through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, knowledge makes for pride, and opposes anger and prejudice; my students were both keener and kinder—and this can happen with every student. I hope very much that the kindness, beauty and practicality of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method can meet students and teachers everywhere.