Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers, where he shovels out the slush - But I must confess how I liked him

I’ve been making notes on each book of D. H. Lawrence poetry as I have gone along.  I suppose I enjoy his poetry as much or more than anything he wrote.  It takes a certain approach, though, reading books of poems.  I am looking for the great poems, the great images, maybe just the great lines.  Well, that is how I read everything, so never mind.

Here is Ezra Pound on Lawrence’s first book of poems, Love Poems and Others (1913), from a review in the July 1913 issue of Poetry, pp. 149-51:

The Love Poems are “a sort of pre-raphaelitish slush, disgusting or very nearly so” but the Others, the “low-life narrative[s],” are something else.  “[W]hen Mr. Lawrence ceases to discuss his own disagreeable sensations…  there is no English poet under forty who can get within shot of him.”  Pound singles out “Violets” and “Whether or Not” as “great art.”  Looking at my notes, linked for reference, I thought some of the other dialect poems were just as good, and wish I had a phrase in that post as good as “pre-raphaelitish slush.”

To be clear, Pound thinks Lawrence’s book is the best English poetry book of the year, and should win a big prize, even though much of it is junk.

Well, my survey of Lawrence, book by book, is easy enough to find.  By Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1922) – this is where I am going – he had shoveled out the slush but also dropped the dialect poems and wrote an entire book of purely Lawrentian free verse poems about the title subjects.  In matter, the poems resemble Rilke’s “Thing poems,” in that a poem called “Bat” or “Snake” or “Peach” is about that thing.  Also about Lawrence’s response to the thing – the poems have a lot of personality – but he is really looking around him, like a natural scientist, only a little more obsessed with the sex life of the tortoises he observes than a herpetologist would be.  Lawrence’s tortoises and kangaroos and bats are first going to be tortoises etc. before they become symbols of something else.

I suppose the most famous poem in the book is “Snake,” in which Lawrence encounters and fails to kill, or even want to kill, a poisonous Sicilian snake.

But I must confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink
         at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of the earth?

The last line foreshadows Lawrence’s desire to mythologize the snake, as an underworld god.

A few pages earlier, in my favorite sequence, Lawrence finds his Romantic limit.  Snakes he can handle, but bats, no.

Hanging upside down like rows of disgusting old rags
And grinning in their sleep.
Bats!

Not for me!  (“Bats”)

Thus when, in “Man and Bat,” Lawrence finds a bat in his Florence hotel room, the result is seven pages of repetitive action.

And round and round and round!
Blundering more insane, and leaping, in throbs, to clutch at
      a corner,
At a wire, at a bell-rope:
On and on, watched relentless by me, round and round in
     my room,
Round and round and dithering with tiredness and haste and
      increasing delirium
Flicker-splashing round my room.

“Man versus Bat,” but it works out all right.  The bat wins.  The man has a moment of imaginative sympathy with his enemy.

With a little work, I could have found less prosy examples of Lawrence’s poetry, but his free verse is pretty prosy.  Scrolling through the book, I see that I remember the animal poems fairly well but have forgotten everything about the plant poems.  The book ends with a series of New Mexican poems, Taos poems, which preview the crazier American Lawrence to come, except for the long one about his dog, which is some kind of classic.  “Bibbles.”  Lawrence named his dog Bibbles.

5 comments:

  1. I read this collection back in May! Based on your recommendation of the bat poem; thanks again. I found Birds, etc to be pretty sprawly and unrunning, as if Lawrence often had trouble finding the poem he wanted to write. Once he found the poem, though, he could do great work.

    Bibbles, yes. Maybe a hint at the Lawrence who never grew up, like the little boy in raptures at the fact of turtles and figs and flowers, so different from the Adult Masculine Lawrence, the Freudian judgmental guy who knows how weird the world is but can't make sense of it even though he claims to know some kind of key to the mystery. Good stuff, and surprising.

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  2. I wish that Lawrence had stuck around a little longer.

    One thing I love about the dog poem is that he seems genuinely baffled by ordinary dog behavior.

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  3. I had to go read the dog poem. Bibbles. Wow.

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  4. The dog is like Walt Whitman! Did you see that coming?

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