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Poems about Martin Luther King
and America

By Alice Bernstein

As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King and his courageous opposition to racism and economic injustice, I feel people should know of two poems by Eli Siegel, the great American poet and founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, from his second volume of poetry, Hail, American Development (Definition Press, NY). 

      With enormous respect for Martin Luther King, Mr. Siegel expresses what America and every person in our troubled world is hoping for. 

1. Something Else Should Die: A Poem with Rhymes 
     By Eli Siegel 

     In April 1865 
     Abraham Lincoln died. 
     In April 1968 
     Martin Luther King died. 
     Their purpose was to have us say, some day: 
     Injustice died. 

The stark facts with their power and meaning, stated so simply and carefully, make for large emotion. Two men of different races, living in different centuries, are shown to be akin, united in opposition to injustice. And the music of this poem has us feel both men are alive, warm, near.

        Abraham Lincoln, as Dr. King himself recognized, wanted the murderous injustice of slavery to end. He considered the Emancipation Proclamation, written in his own handwriting, "the central act of my administration and the great event of the 19th century." 

      Martin Luther King is loved for his bravery, sincerity and enormous energy in fighting for the social and economic rights of people of all races. He spoke out early and steadily against America's vicious, unjust war in Vietnam, saying: 

      "This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows,...cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." 

      He led the Poor People's Campaign to end poverty, and was killed in Memphis while speaking in behalf of the livelihood and dignity of striking sanitation workers.  In 1968, just hours after Martin Luther King's assassination became known, Mr. Siegel, in an Aesthetic Realism class, read "Something Else Should Die." I had the immense privilege of being in that class, and I will always remember Mr. Siegel's emotion as he read it and spoke of King's large meaning. 

      Eli Siegel's love for justice and his passion against injustice is the most beautiful thing I know in this world. He explained that contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else" is the source of all injustice: from slavery, based on using the lives of many people for the personal gain of a few. 

      What would it mean for injustice to die? I think it would mean every person — world leaders and private citizens — honestly answering this question Mr. Siegel asked, "What does a person deserve by being a person?" Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and John Brown — who is in the next poem — answered it in a way history sees as true, beautiful, immortal. 

      John Brown felt slavery was inhuman and had to end; he was executed for forming an army to liberate every slave. Aesthetic Realism teaches that when we see the feelings of others as real as our own, we won't want to be unjust to them; in fact, we'll see justice to them as taking care of ourselves. 

      In the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Ellen Reiss, the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, explains what poetry, and every art, does:  "In all real poetry, justice to the outside world is the same as the writer's being himself or herself — richly, freely, thoroughly. That is what humanity needs desperately to see, because people don't feel they'll be themselves, care for themselves, by being just to something else." 

      Eli Siegel had this justice in his life and his poetry, which William Carlos Williams described as causing "great pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the breath, a feeling of cleanliness which is the sign of the truly new" (Something to Say, New Directions). 

2. They Look at Us 
     By Eli Siegel

     Martin Luther King 
     Is with John Brown. 
     Look up: you'll see them both 
     Looking down-- 
     Deep and so wide 
     At us. 

This is deep, musical justice to men whom American history should always cherish, because they felt others deserved fairness from the world and from them. I love the way heaven and earth, high and low, depth and width, then and now, near and far are lovingly, effortlessly made one in this poem. 

      "Injustice will die," Mr. Siegel wrote, "only when an individual no longer can feel that individuality is more served by injustice than by justice; by ugliness rather than non-ugliness." 

      Eli Siegel gave humanity the means of seeing justice as real in every aspect of life. It is urgent that people study Aesthetic Realism so that the justice that King, Lincoln, Brown and others died for is a reality at last! 

     To learn more, you may contact the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene St., NYC 10012, (212) 777-4490;

    © 2005-2015 by Alice Bernstein. For permission to reprint please contact me by
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