Poetry Hovers around Bunker Hill and the Past as Reality
Report of a lecture given by Eli Siegel
by Miriam Weiss
Eli Siegel began his lecture of October 7, 1970, "Poetry Hovers around Bunker Hill and the Past as Reality," by saying:
[I]mplicit in this talk is a constant inquiry as to what poetry is, how it comes from reality and is the same as reality and also different from it. As soon as you say "the past" one is already [doing] something poetic because everyone mentioning it is living in the present. The past is a way of being present in the present different from the way the present is in the present. ...[It] is redolent of something that is like poetry and looked at strictly can be seen as poetry itself. Bunker Hill, from one point of view is very far away. America has gone forward, [but] whatever is true about Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 is still true.
"Poetry", Eli Siegel has written, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual. And in this class he said, "A novel which has descriptions of the fighting at Bunker Hill and has things in it that are valuable to the study of poetry", is a little known work of James Fenimore Cooper, titled Lionel Lincoln, written in 1825. Giving the background of the battle, Mr. Siegel described how British ships in Boston Harbor faced the town of Charlestown and two nearby hills held by the colonists, Bunker Hill, and Breed's Hill. He said:
It's already poetic to think of there being water and 2 hills and soldiers emerging from the ships, going to the shore thinking that it might be their last time going up a hill.
To the surprise of the British, the Americans held their ground. Firing only when the British soldiers got close enough, they inflicted heavy losses on them and caused them twice to retreat in disorganization. "The phrase 'Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes', "said Mr. Siegel, "seems to be authentic". By the third attack the colonists' ammunition ran out and it became a hand to hand battle. He continued:
There was death and life, shore and hill, advance and retreat. One may not like the idea of a battle, but the fact that a person who was marching is now lying face down on earth is poetic. The fact that changes go on so suddenly is terrible but it is in the field of poetry. Catastrophe is also continuity. Death is a poetic subject and the change from life to death is fearful and poetic.
Through poetry, which Aesthetic Realism teaches shows reality is a oneness of opposites, even what is painful and hard to bear can be used to see meaning in the world and honestly like it. In the end the British won at Bunker Hill but they sustained heavy losses--1054 men killed and wounded to 449 Americans. " Bunker Hill", Mr. Siegel explained, "gave a certain confidence to the Americans."
He is the critic who has shown the tremendous importance of the work of James Fenimore Cooper, saying here what he said as early as 1931 in a book review in Scribners--that Cooper is one of the great writers of the world. Two novels of Cooper that I love are The Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans and in this class I came to know how Cooper described the Battle of Bunker Hill. "It happens, said Mr. Siegel, "there is no good American poem on Bunker Hill. The best poetry [can be found in the prose of] Cooper." This is a description he read from Lionel Lincoln of the British going up the hill:
The fatal instant now seemed approaching. A general movement was now seen among the battalions of the British, who began to spread along the shore under cover of the brow of the hill--the lingering boats having arrived with the rear of their detachments--and officers hurried from regiment to regiment with the final mandates of their chief.
Pointing to the words "seen", "spread" "lingering", "arrived", "hurried" he commented: "If you like reality you show it in how you use verbs. There's a good deal of careful scurrying in that sentence." This next sentence about the coming of the British has, he said, a "description of the motion and color of one aspect of war:
Their standards fluttered proudly above them; and there were moments when the wild music of their bands were heard rising on the air, and tempering the ruder sounds of the artillery.
Mr. Siegel explained that many of Cooper's sentences have a good mingling of seeing and hearing, opposites central in poetry. "That Cooper is interested in music, he observed, "can be seen in his use of the word "temper" And about the following sentence:
The smoky veil, which clung around the brow of the eminence, was lifted by the air, and sailed heavily away to the southwest, leaving the scene of the bloody struggle again open to the view.
Mr. Siegel commented, "Since Cooper is a man of the sea he is interested in details about the smoky wind, having it sail 'heavily away to the southwest'. Another writer wouldn't have written about the southwest, he might have just let the smoke sail away."
I was moved by the opposites of high and low, triumph and defeat in this next sentence which Mr. Siegel pointed to, saying it was beautiful:
The troops commenced fortifying the outward eminence, on which they rested, in order to maintain their barren conquest; and nothing further remained for the achievement of the royal lieutenants but to go and mourn over their victory.
This lecture was originally given during the Vietnam War, a war Eli Siegel showed right from its beginning, had one unjust purpose: to stop the Vietnamese people from owning their land, and it was something that was shamefully against the principles Americans fought for in our revolution. The day he gave this lecture, October 7, 1970, Mr. Siegel said, was an important day in American history because a proposal was made by the American government for a cease-fire in Vietnam. Faced with growing anti-war protest across America, and the valiant determination of the Vietnamese people despite the over 10 million tons of bombs our government had already dropped on their nation, President Nixon was being forced to make some overtures for peace. About this Mr. Siegel said:
This has to do with the ethics of America and the might of America and good willas force and strength. It will cause a good deal of discussion. The ethics of America can be seen in Bunker Hill. It is a true ethics and a lovely ethics all in all. The Americans were right in the American Revolution. They had ethics on their side. They used tea for a poetic and lovely purpose, also stamps and declarations in a manner that God in a colloquial message could say was "okay".
And commenting on our then current government officials he said, "They can stop themselves from telling the truth, but they can't stop history."