D. H. Lawrence possessed

I t is so manifestly an excellent thing to have Lawrence’s many poems brought together, edited by so punctilious and expert a scholar – and to have them presented in handsome volumes that do such credit to their publisher – that it feels the keener ingratitude to admit that the experience of reading them all through is, well, a bit of a slog. Mildly reassuring, then, to learn that D. J. Enright felt a similar mixture of gratitude and weariness when he reviewed the edition of Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (1964) which these volumes now triumphantly supplant. “It must be granted”, Enright wrote on that occasion, “that this Complete Poems – however grateful many of us will be to have it – makes for oppressive, confusing and blunted reading.” Enright hoped that “a critical selection”, judiciously done, might make of Lawrence-as-poet something more acceptable. It is a sensible enough suggestion, and it is a shame Enright did not take on the job himself, as he was an anthologist of great genius; but, in his stead, Keith Sagar and, more recently, James Fenton each made an excellent Selected Poems for Penguin, and both books can certainly be recommended.

Then again, perhaps there is something about concentrating on Lawrence at his best that does him an odd sort of injustice. It may well be that taking the poet all in all plays an important part in our coming to see the very odd sort of writer of verse that he was: the extraordinary unevenness, the repeated lapses of judgement, the readiness to bang on, the uncontained profuseness, all these come to seem not incidental deficiencies, but, rather, key elements in the full Lawrence effect. These poems do not come across as particular undertakings that have been finished off well or not so well, as poems by Thomas Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins do, but more as parts of a potentially unending series of provisional reports back from what it was to be Lawrence. T. S. Eliot’s view was that “he never succeeded in making a work of art”; but many of his most sympathetic readers have also intuited something like this. He wrote “poetry rather than poems”, is how Graham Hough puts it in The Dark Sun (1956), still one of the best accounts: “a body of work poetically felt and conceived whose individual units rarely reach perfection or self-subsistence”. And in his remarkable D. H. Lawrence and “Difference” (2003), the novelist Amit Chaudhuri is thinking along the same lines, though in a more up-to-date idiom, when he describes a Lawrence poem as “part of a specific Lawrentian poetic discourse”, something to be read “both as itself and as an instance of that discourse” – rather as Chesterton once said we should appreciate the novels of Dickens, not as individual works but as “lengths cut from the flowing and mixed substance called Dickens” (any length of which, as Chesterton went on to remark, “will be certain to contain a given proportion of brilliant and of bad stuff”).

Hough and Chaudhuri are both responding to Lawrence’s own view of the matter. In the preface to the American edition of New Poems (1920), he contrasted the “measured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats” with the sort of verse he preferred, “the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present”, a poetry of “living plasm” with “no plasmic finality, nothing crystal, permanent”, “the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present”. “The Wild Common”, the poem that Lawrence placed first in his Collected Poems (1928), announces the master-theme of his poetic career: it is a description of a tussocky landscape, depicted in a breathless, brilliantly confusing present-tense of jubilation.
“But how splendid it is to be substance, here! My shadow is neither here nor there; but I, I am royally here! I am here! I am here! screams the pee-wit; the may-blobs burst out in a laugh as they hear!”
The language looks as though it is drawing on some religious reasons for excitement; but if this reminds us a little of Hopkins, it is a Hopkins without the theodicy (which is to say, it is nothing much like Hopkins). In fact, it is difficult to say quite what is being celebrated, other than something wonderful but conceptually elusive such as a thereness which won’t stand still. Analogously, a Lawrence poem appears to make itself up as it goes along, claiming for itself the unanswerable quality of merely being possessed by the life-forms that it repeatedly celebrates: “It does not want to get anywhere”, Lawrence said of the verse he wanted to write; “It just takes place”. It is a poetry, in Sandra Gilbert’s well-chosen word, of “planlessness”, which nominates at once a purposeful artistic decision and the lack of something, as though the poet were required to place his trust in some invisible hand that will makes things come right. “And therein lies the charm”, as Lawrence wrote in the preface to a volume of Harry Crosby’s poems, with barely disguised self-reference: “It is a glimpse of chaos not reduced to order”. That is, intently, a bracingly counter-cultural kind of “charm” – a good example of the “nicely bloody-minded” quality that Richard Hoggart admired in him. Poets, thought Coleridge, were “gods of love that tame the chaos”, a lovely way of putting something with which most thinkers about poetics from Jonathan Swift to Wallace Stevens would, in their different ways, thoroughly concur. Lawrence runs a whole tradition of poetics in reverse, celebrating not the triumphs of form, but rather what he calls the “multiform”: “what are you, oh multiform?”, he enquires, rapt, in an early poem, “Transformations”.

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