Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The city corrodes out of sight - D. H. Lawrence wonders what it is like to be a seed

Prolific poets circa 1920 will I believe be my subject for the next few days.  Today: D. H. Lawrence’s New Poems (1918), his fourth book of poems.  The last two, in 1916 and 1917, covered, respectively, his engagement and his honeymoon, often written, the latter book especially, in an especially free free verse that was not afraid to sound absurd as part of sounding like Lawrence.

In New Poems, Lawrence is back in England, or perhaps he is back in the past a bit and has not yet left, and the poems are all in formal clothes – rhymes and so on.  Thus, in a magnificently Lawrentian gesture, the American edition of the book (1920) begins with an almost unreadable preface defending free verse.

This is the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit.  (v)

But in free verse we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.  (viii)

And so on, ending with the admission that “[a]ll this should have come as a preface to ‘Look We have Come Through!,’” the previous book.  Hilarious.  When I turn to the poems, they look like this:

from Flat Suburbs, S.W., in the Morning

The new red houses spring like plants
        In level rows
Of reddish herbage that bristles and slants
       Its square shadows.

Bare stems of street-lamps stiffly stand
        At random, desolate twigs,
To testify to a blight on the land
       That has stripped their sprigs.

Rhyme, rhythm, and an imagistic conceit that both has insight into how things actually look and is developed into a worldview, as if Lawrence is a Metaphysical Poet.

Lawrence tours the suburbs, London, and elsewhere.  Some of the poems form a rough sequence.  The mood is alienated:

from Parliament Hill in the Evening

The hopeless, wintry twilight fades,
    The city corrodes out of sight
As the body corrodes when death invades
    That citadel of delight.

The spread of the city lights is described as “verdigris smoulderings,” in case I had forgotten who I was reading.

Browsing the book, it is grimmer than I remember:

from Palimpsest of Twilight

The night-stock oozes scent,
    And a moon-blue moth goes flittering by:
All that the worldly day has meant
    Wastes like a lie.

Geez, David, the sun goes down every day, you know.

The red houses in the suburbs make an oblique return in “School on the Outskirts”:

How different, in the middle of snows the great school rises red!
    A red rock silent and shadowless, clung round with clusters of shouting lads…

This red building is a refuge in a wasteland, “this weary land the winter burns and makes blind,” to the few real students, “obstinate dark monads,” who cling to it, as Lawrence once did.

The season of the poems shifts, near the end of the book, from winter to – no, not spring, too cheery – to autumn, which is just as sad.  “Débâcle” is about, no kidding, the biological struggle of seeds – “all the myriad houseless seeds… \ Moan softly with autumnal parturition.”  They fall “bitterly,” and “Bitterly into corrosion bitterly travel.”  The word “corrosion” is repeated several times, as the angry seeds rot away, their little spark of life wasted, “committed to hold and wait… \ only forbidden to expire.”

Then, of course, some of them sprout, but that is outside of this poem.  For me, this kind of thing is Lawrence at his best, when he works through a conceit that seems crazy but in fact is based on a serious and complex understanding of the world around him.  The poem is full of Lawrence, but it is also really about seeds.  The secret, imagined life of seeds.

I am pretty sure that “Piano” is the best-known poem in New Poems (“I weep like a child for the past”), but I am always happier when Lawrence gets outside of himself a little.

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