The Poems, Volume III: Uncollected Poems and Early Versions, by D.H. Lawrence
Edited by Christopher Pollnitz.
Cambridge University Press, 2018. 695 pages.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
What we have here is the fortieth (and final) volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence. The textual embalmers have been at it for more than forty years, and their work is finally complete. There must be a couple graduate students in a space station somewhere, high-fiving just now. They’ve been waiting since 1979. Now they can write their chapters.
I don’t know why the poems were left for last. They really were, though. All the novels and almost-novels were available by 1994—that’s a long time ago. It’s somewhat as if Cambridge were setting the books before the public in order of importance or value, but if that were the case, I and the other graduate student wouldn’t have had to wait ’til ’92 for Sons and Lovers.
Lawrence’s poems are mainly a pain in the ass. Melodramatic, hideously inefficient, awkward, heavy with sarcasm and arrogance. When Lawrence sneers in a poem (and he sneers quite a bit) there is an obscene relish to it. But!!—and this “but” is famous—BUT he did write one really good book of poetry: Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923). In that one, the arrogance is there, and some of the melodrama, but for the most part it’s like he’s a different poet. He’s still Lawrence, but he’s a different poet. Image and metaphor are suddenly king and queen on the chessboard. Those things are m-a-y-b-e a couple of pawns in Look! We Have Come Through. (And everything from before WWI is just a complete forget-it: torture to read, torture to contemplate.)
He switched theme is what happened. The Agonies of Love were adjourned; he headed to the Farmer’s Market and the Petting Zoo. The Agonies weren’t doing anybody any good; whereas, pretty much any piece of fruit was, to him, like an atom waiting to be split. He could look at a fish and level a city.
Your life a sluice of sensation along your sides,
A flush at the flails of your fins, down the whorl of your tail,
And water wetly on fire in the grates of your gills;
Reading the book recently, I wondered again and again whether perhaps Pablo Neruda had read Birds, Beasts and Flowers before he began his similar (and similarly wonderful) Odas elementales. The principle is the same in both cases: You just grab a hold of some damn thing and run with it. The ancient Chinese has this form too; it’s called a fu. Bunch of Comp Lit dissertations could come out of this.
Which brings me back to the Cambridge Edition. These cats are not playing to the groundlings. They’re all about the space station. Cornelius and Zira and I are willing to read any amount of Lawrence’s awful stuff, on the chance that it might give us insight into his mentality. He, unlike us, fearlessly thought for himself. He, unlike us, wrote many works that are smarter than he himself was. All his great novels are like that. The fact that so many of the poems are just exactly as stupid as he was—is itself interesting. We have to get to the bottom of this.
This is where the notes in the Cambridge version of the poems are essential. They do not—they cannot—redeem the poems in Amores (1916) or whatever, but they provide the real-life details that the poems lack, allowing you (a) to even know what’s going on, and (b) to evaluate the reticence, if that’s what it is, that makes him treat of everything there with such damnable vagueness.
Poems, Volume III: Uncollected Poems and Early Versions contains several thousand billion notes, along with vast boulevards of textual cuneiform, showing each and every change Lawrence made, including punctuation being taken out and put back in. One hundred and ten dollars is a small price to pay, my friend, for the roughly six trillion hours of copy-editing this thing must have required.
One final point. There are two limericks in there. Lawrence’s only known limericks. And they suck.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net