Greenwich Village Is in the World, by Eli Siegel
A 1972 Report, by Ellen Reiss, of a Talk Eli Siegel Gave
on the Village Vanguard and Greenwich Village—
with Max Gordon Present
Max Gordon, proprietor of the Village Vanguard, one of the most famed Greenwich Village night spots, is currently working on a book about the Village and the Vanguard as he remembers them. In the Vanguard’s first years, the mid-1930s, Eli Siegel was the chairman of the poetry events that took place there.
Recently, Mr. Gordon asked Mr. Siegel to assist him in placing some of what occurred during those years. And in response to this request, Mr. Siegel spoke in an Aesthetic Realism class about the meaning of Greenwich Village, and how the philosophy Aesthetic Realism grew out of that meaning. Max Gordon was present as a guest. In that talk, titled “Greenwich Village Is in the World,” Mr. Siegel explained that he was purposely going to mingle the trivial with eternity—as the world itself contains broken combs and planets.
The Light & the Serious
He began with Shakespeare:
Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me
. . . . .
Come hither, come hither, come hither. . . .
This song, Mr. Siegel showed, has one phase of what Greenwich Village is: it is lighthearted. And Greenwich Village is important because it represents the feeling that the purpose of life is not to make money or out-do another, but to see the world fairly and enjoy it with something of a reverential feeling—to enjoy it with great seriousness.
Shakespeare also represents an aspect of Greenwich Village that goes with the lightsome aspect: this is the feeling, very grave, that something is in an individual’s care and he should do with it as beautiful a job as possible. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 tells of how a person, by going after things that don’t truly represent him (here called “rebel powers”), can neglect his very self. Shakespeare, like the Village, does not want to do this: “Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth, / Fool’d by these rebel powers that thee array.”
So, tremendous opposites that Greenwich Village, like art itself, puts together are the serious and the light. These opposites usually fight in people, and can be painfully apart—as in something Mr. Siegel described seeing at the Vanguard:
On the balcony of the Vanguard, with a good many drinks around, once I heard a girl saying to herself, “What’s going to happen to just me?” She had been carrying on, and then she went through the questioning of her soul.
Based on this, Mr. Siegel composed the following triplet, which I think is beautiful:
It Often Happens
It often happens with a floozy,
When she is tired and maybe boozy,
She sees her past, and gets quite woozy.
(There’s irony in how the noun in the first line is used—this young woman is seen as having depth and largeness. And there is that wide, wondering repeated sound oo.)
Individuality & Justice
Another pair of opposites made one by Greenwich Village is, Mr. Siegel said, represented by the late 19th-century poet William Morris. Morris could write of himself so musically as “Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time.” Then, he could write some of the most rousing workers’ songs: “O why and for what are we waiting? while our brothers droop and die, / And on every wind of the heavens a wasted life goes by.” The left feeling in the Village, he said, has had in it: make the universe your ego, and make it pretty. A purpose in the history of Greenwich Village is the art purpose: to express one’s individuality fully and not sloppily, in such a way that the universe is present. Mr. Siegel explained:
The desire of Greenwich Village was somehow to make a one of the beating heart of oneself and the world as far as it might go; to have the expression of the ego graceful. Here Greenwich Village is the same as art. That is how Greenwich Village became Aesthetic Realism: I more and more saw that it [this oneness of opposites] was a staple all people wanted deeply.
Nietzsche, the Village, the Vanguard
The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Mr. Siegel said, shows too what Greenwich Village is. Nietzsche thought the self should be free from that which oppresses it—for example, obligation. But he knew also that becoming an individual is a dangerous process. Mr. Siegel noted that once you begin using yourself to judge all others, you can do anything—for instance, commit the Manson murders, or rob welfare checks. The Village, he said, can have the same false individuality that is present on Wall Street: envy, furtiveness, trickery, and acquisitiveness.
Nietzsche brings up two other pairs of opposites present deeply in the Village: the known and the unknown, and conquering the world and loving it. All four are in play as Nietzsche says:
And is good perhaps evil? And God only an invention and artifice of the devil? Is everything perhaps radically false?
Those sentences, Mr. Siegel commented, have been exemplified at the Village Vanguard, and can make for tears:
I have heard persons talk as if they are beyond any notion of truth and good and evil. Someone would say, “I’m my own God and I don’t want to accept that imitation in Heaven.” It was charming, but I don’t think it covered the subject.
Then, Nietszche, who said, “Live dangerously,” brings up a fifth pair of opposites Greenwich Village puts together: security and risk. These, Mr. Siegel pointed out, are in a much quoted quatrain of Edna St. Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
A Nightclub & Thought about People
I know of nothing more beautiful in the history of individuals than the way Eli Siegel can speak of people who have been unjust to him—the way he can be critical with exactitude, and be so pleased to honor what is to be respected. John Rose Gildea, barely remembered now, was a noted Greenwich Village poet in the thirties. Said Mr. Siegel: “He would throw his arms around me and say, ‘I’ve been mean to you—someday I’m going to be fair to you!’” Gildea did not write much good poetry. But he has one poem which is grand and which, to my knowledge, Eli Siegel is the only critic to say is important poetry:
The roué moon
Wears night as a high hat—
The ribald moon
Carries a graceful, shaft
The unsteady moon
Throws night its opera-cloak,
Giggling with stars—
A person sometimes present at the Vanguard was Joe Gould, and in this class Mr. Siegel spoke about an article on him that Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker in the 1940s. Gould, Mr. Siegel said, was known for his unpublished work, which he was constantly writing, filling composition books: “The Oral History of the World.” He was also known for doing strange things with food and ketchup and for imitating seagulls and Indians. Mr. Siegel commented that the Mitchell article was something symmetrically cheap, even though Gould himself exulted in it. Mitchell didn’t see how much Gould suffered. In his article, the New Yorker writer says about the “Oral History”:
In it are hopelessly incoherent biographies of hundreds of bums, . . . grisly descriptions of hospital and clinic experiences (“Did you ever have a painful operation or disease?” is one of the first questions that Gould . . . asks a person he has just met).
Mr. Siegel commented: Joe Gould couldn’t value anything he couldn’t have contempt for. A good deal of the “Oral History” shows Gould wanted to find the world bad. He felt he couldn’t say anything good because he would be deceived. The desire to praise was frozen in him.
Eli Siegel has seen Greenwich Village the way he has seen people: deeply and truly. In the class, he read his own great poem “Local Stop, Sheridan Square,” from his book Hail, American Development. Here, to conclude, is that poetic honoring of Greenwich Village and people’s hopes:
Local Stop, Sheridan Square
The subways, as usual, take emotions north and south.
When you are in a subway, emotion goes with you.
Emotion for thousands has come to a stop at Christopher Street, which is another name for Sheridan Square—
And the General who rode so greatly
Is waiting for you in a new form.
There is a little park to the left
That has had emotion enough in it to give new life to Greenland.
But when you come south on the subway and emerge
From rumbling and dark and steps and platform,
The first thing you see is space—
Blessed, hopeful space, in a city as large as any.
Streets converge—Barrow, Grove, Seventh Avenue, Christopher,
But there is space
And that means there is possibility: for space, somewhere, as a philosopher might see it, is the same as possibility.
When people got out of the Local Stop at Sheridan Square,
There was possibility in the emotion they had.
It was a world seen anew, maybe, or a girl seen as more friendly.
People have come south, all these years, on the Seventh Avenue subway,
With possibility as another name for themselves;
And possibility is never wholly unfaithful,
For is it not always possibility?
Sheridan Square with its converging streets and space
Is the headquarters of possibility in this land.
It has been that for many persons
Now with homes, resources and thoughts elsewhere than at a local stop in Greenwich Village.
The local stop is remembered in towns, colleges, farms, banks, libraries, churches, synagogues, rooms:
In the United States as just the United States.
Up those steps at a local stop
People went and there was a new pat in their hearts,
A new looking-for-something in their lives,
And, with all the indications saying otherwise,
That looking-for has not been wholly deceived or disappointed.
The space and the streets at this local stop, Sheridan Square, are too much like reality itself to play ignoble tricks.
After all, a subway stop in New York City is as much of things as a wooded place in Saskatchewan,
Or a level hot area in New Mexico.
And the people who have been within this space and on these streets
Could not lessen its factness as immeasurable in possibility.
Once when you got out of the station, the local stop, of this Sheridan Square where streets come together and space says Hello,
There was Hubert’s Cafeteria in front of you, if you were looking just that way.
Those who once of an evening, of late night—of an afternoon, too,
Are now in the life of America, in all its regions, divisions, localities, districts—in all America.
Some of the Hubert’s visitors and lingerers are dead.
(The dead had expectations.)
Hubert’s Cafeteria sounds funny, rather low,
But emotion was there,
And spread out wherever spreading could be—
Some of it is now on a ship half-way across the Atlantic—
Some of it is now on a plane three-quarters across the Atlantic.
Births, marriages, deaths have found Sheridan Square indispensable.
And this afternoon—fairly late—many people coming from the north will get out here.
They live nearby.
They came from the north once, when they did not live nearby.
They now do.
Living nearby in this world, to this world, can be right.
For seeing the world nearby:
Sheridan Square is a mobile, feverish, historical, everlasting, real and real place to begin with.
It is a local stop.