Monday, January 27, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
This week PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMS of Victoria University of Wellington has genberously agreed to share his views on a collection of poetry he admires.
“LAST POEMS” by D.H.Lawrence (first published posthumously in 1932) REVIEWED by PROFESSOR MARK WILLIAMS
Recently I attended a lecture on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover delivered to a second-year English class at Victoria University. The class was clearly engaged by the book and its controversies, eagerly responding to the lecturer, Timothy Jones’s carefully balanced judgments on its literary value, the historical contexts of its reception, and those endearing and infuriating habits of its author of butting into the narrative with his grand thoughts about sexuality, love and gender.
I was pleased that the fierce polemics surrounding such issues in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate encountering Lawrence at university had abated. At last one could discuss Lawrence as a writer rather than being consumed by arguments about his canonical status, his politics or his thought. But I wondered how these seemingly post-political students would respond to the Lawrence of the 1970s. Their Lawrence is an odd figure from the early twentieth century who made it possible to talk directly about sexuality in fiction rather than the revolutionary practitioner of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life’.
Something had been lost. As a schoolboy in the 1960s I recall the thrill of reading a forbidden author (as well as the disappointing lack of pornographic frisson afforded by Sons and Lovers or even Women in Love borrowed from the local library). A few years later he was the subject of exhilarating ‘close readings’ by, I think, Peter Dane in an undergraduate English course I took at Auckland University. By this time, though, Lawrence was already caught up in the ferocious ideological arguments about ‘sexual politics’ that would inflame the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Lawrence would become increasingly marginal and contested in English departments.
Perhaps as an antidote to those Lawrentian qualities, I’ve always preferred him on a small rather than an epic scale. I would rather reread the stories in The Prussian Officer collection than the big novels in response to the Great War, for all their splendid parts. I love the poems on animals, flowers, fruits and places. And I return every so often to the last poems he wrote, dying while vividly defending those fundamental values that shape his work—poems in which the divine is not separate from the world but present in the flesh, as the highest expression of our consciousness of life. Here I find him still full of live controversy, more so than his great modernist explorations of love and the condition of civilization.
How do we approach Lawrence after a century in which his writing has helped to liberate old repressions? The trouble is that the battle is over and, like all old revolutionaries, he sounds dated, even corny when he uses ecstatic language to describe sexual relations between men and women. His daring confrontations with sexual emotion, awkwardness, beauty and transport have been taken over and debased in the language of popular romance (and, more recently, mummy porn). Moreover, contemporary readers of Lawrence are inevitably made uncomfortable by his palpable excitement about sexuality. We find his unashamed celebration of the phallus embarrassing (there’s even a whale’s phallus ‘linking the wonder of whales’ in the odd ‘Whales Weep Not’ in Last Poems).
The problem is that, like all religious writers, Lawrence is continually gesturing beyond the capacity of language to convey the kinds of intense experience he is interested in. Linda Williams asks why Lawrence in describing the sexual act and the moment of orgasm employs prose which seems to strain beyond the limits of language to convey thought: ‘What then is Lawrence striving to “go beyond” in all this overwhelming passing away, fainting, flooding, darkness and deepness’. Certainly, one feels that Lawrence is so determined to express the life of the body, not the mind thinking about the body, that he tries to carry his reader beyond normal speech, social codes and conventions. It all sounds a bit strained.
Last Poems are full of death rather than sexuality or nature. And they are full of God being hammered into a human form. When Hamm in Samuel Backett’s Endgame exclaims, ‘God, the bastard, he doesn’t exist’ he both denies the existence of God and affirms it by cursing that absence. His blasphemy paying a kind of respect to the deity in that it implies a power in the weighty presence of His lingering in imagination and in desire. Lawrence’s late poems address the question of God’s absence, turning it into a positive by finding new channels for the sense of exultation that religion focused on the transcendent.
The religious instinct, according to Lawrence throughout his writing life, must inform life, not draw the self away towards the transcendent. He wants to take all the old fervour and reverence of religion and direct it not at God as an abstraction but at the human situation encountering the wonder of things as they are. His own mortality makes these late poems especially powerful, even when they seem to have some of that familiar Lawrentian habit of preaching at us. Consider the group of poems, ‘The Body of God’, ‘The Demiurge’, ‘Red Geraniums and Godly Mignonette’ where Lawrence attacks Plato’s ‘great lie of ideals’
In ‘Demiurge’ Lawrence considers the Platonic notion that ‘reality exists only in the spirit’, crying out indignantly: ‘as if any mind could have imagined a lobster/dozing in the under-deeps’. God can only imagine those things which have come into being, he says. Jesus was only himself when he had become a man ‘with a body and with needs, and a lovely spirit’. God, then, is not prior to the world, an idea of which things are symbols or echoes. God is the world of sentient things, evolving, changing, grasped in moments of intense recognition, what Lawrence calls ‘acts of attention’.
One could summarise the list of positions struck in Last Poems: the denial of the Platonic belief that ideas come before things; the refusal of the metaphysical bias in Western thought and the longing for permanence; and so on. Yet reading these poems one does not—leaving aside such tired polemic as that against contemporary civilisation in ‘In the Cities’—experience the ideas as abstractions or preachiness. Lawrence curbs his urge to teach. In ‘Red Geraniums and Godly Mignonette’, for example, he uses humour rather than railing at us: ‘You can’t imagine the Holy Ghost sniffing at cherry pie heliotrope/Or the Most High, during the coal age, cudgelling his mighty brains’ to think into being things as precise as flowers or lizards.
The matter-of-fact colloquial language in which Christianity and spirituality are addressed here is almost like that of Jacques Prévert’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—‘Our father who art in heaven. Stay there’—still accessible and effective as satire. Indeed, in the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ Lawrence also turns a cheeky irreverence at the Deity. At the same time, the language of the poems ripples with Biblical echoes. Lawrence was raised with the language of the Bible, steeped in the Apocalypse and resurrection. As a young man Lawrence rejected Christianity violently because of its stress on weakness and the blood-soaked language of salvation. But he retains and puts to his own purposes the Biblical language of wonder, symbol, and the willingness to address ultimate questions of meaning.
The luminous ‘Bavarian Gentians’ with its flowers, colours, myths, darkness and the sense of moving towards imminent death reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ poems, especially ‘Tulips’. But Lawrence, accepting death, is not agonisingly in love with it. He seeks to heighten and intensify the moments in which consciousness apprehends being even as his hold on being lapses. In ‘The Ship of Death’ he advises us both to ‘live in peace on the face and earth’ and to prepare for death:
When the day comes, that will come.
Oh think of it in the twilight peacefully!
The last day, and the setting forth
On the longest journey, over the hidden sea
To the last wonder of oblivion.
Lawrence has come back in critical interest over the last decade or so, including among feminist critics like Linda Williams, who responds to the contradictions his works contain that ‘undermine their apparently definitive polemic’. In other words, the fiction itself is much less dogmatic than the man. This is why Lawrence, for all his blustering and preaching, remains important. He tackles fundamental problems of being, meaning and the self, and he does so in such an uncompromising fashion that he continually generates complexities and contradictions. It is these that make us return to him, not for the explicit message about Life or instinct or nerve-brain consciousness but for the sense of an individual attending closely to matters that will never be resolved but which must be continually confronted with fierceness, delicacy and utter openness.