Essay on Poetic Theory

The Poetry of the Present (1919)

by D. H. Lawrence

Introduction

A prolific novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and painter, D.H. (David Herbert) Lawrence was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in 1885. Lawrence’s childhood was spent in poverty; his father was a coal miner, and his mother a former school teacher. Lawrence attended the University of Nottingham and earned a teaching certificate. His first novel, White Peacocks, was published when he was 25. In 1912 Lawrence met Frieda von Richtofen; the couple married in 1914 after she divorced her first husband. Following World War I, the Lawrences traveled and lived abroad—in Italy, Australia, Sri Lanka, and on a ranch near Taos, New Mexico. Lawrence died of tuberculosis in France in 1930; Frieda Lawrence returned to Taos, where Lawrence’s ashes remain.

Lawrence started publishing poetry in 1909; among his published collections are Amores (1916), Tortoises (1921), Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923), Pansies (1929), Nettles (1930), and Fire and Other Poems (1940). Lawrence’s poetry is immediate and raw; he sometimes employs a long, Whitman-esque line. His poems often portray the natural world and animals, though they do not shy away from human emotions and experiences. “The Poetry of the Present” was published as a preface to an edition of Lawrence’s New Poems (1920).

In “The Poetry of the Present” Lawrence energetically champions a type of poetry that is living and changing: “the seething poetry of the incarnate Now is supreme.” Though he appreciates poetry that captures the past and future, like the “gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats,” that is not what engages him the most. He writes: “Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds. Give me nothing fixed, set, static.” The form that best conveys this sense of the present is free verse, and Walt Whitman is the practitioner he mentions. Lawrence writes that in a poetry “the law must come new each time from within.” Poems must be organic, immediate, and tap into that essential “creative quick.”

It seems when we hear a skylark singing as if sound were running forward into the future, running so fast and utterly without consideration, straight on into futurity. And when we hear a nightingale, we hear the pause and the rich, piercing rhythm of recollection, the perfect past. The lark may sound sad, but with the lovely lapsing sadness that is almost a swoon of hope. The nightingale’s triumph is a pæan, but a death-pæan.

So it is with poetry. Poetry is, as a rule, either the voice of the far future, exquisite and ethereal, or it is the voice of the past, rich, magnificent. When the Greeks heard the Iliad and the Odyssey, they heard their own past calling in their hearts, as men far inland sometimes hear the sea and fall weak with powerful, wonderful regret, nostalgia; or else their own future rippled its time-beats through their blood, as they followed the painful, glamorous progress of the Ithacan. This was Homer to the Greeks: their Past, splendid with battles won and death achieved, and their Future, the magic wandering of Ulysses through the unknown. 

With us it is the same. Our birds sing on the horizons. They sing out of the blue, beyond us, or out of the quenched night. They sing at dawn and sunset. Only the poor, shrill, tame canaries whistle while we talk. The wild birds begin before we are awake, or as we drop into dimness, out of waking. Our poets sit by the gateways, some by the east, some by the west. As we arrive and as we go out our hearts surge with response. But whilst we are in the midst of life, we do not hear them. 

The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end must have that exquisite finality, perfection which belongs to all that is far off. It is in the realm of all that is perfect. It is of the nature of all that is complete and consummate.  The completeness, this consummateness, the finality and the perfection are conveyed in exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which returns upon itself like a dance where the hands link and loosen and link for the supreme moment of the end. Perfected bygone moments, perfected moments in the glimmering futurity, these are the treasured gem-like lyrics of Shelley and Keats.

But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon. There is no round, consummate moon on the face of running water, nor on the face of the unfinished tide. There are no gems of the living plasm. The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither.  There is no plasmic finality, nothing crystal, permanent.  If we try to fix the living tissue, as the biologists fix it with formation, we have only a hardened bit of the past, the bygone life under our observation.

Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisation. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation. We look at the very white quick of nascent creation. A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks round, gleams, and is gone. We have seen the incarnation, the quick of the ever-swirling flood. We have seen the invisible. We have seen, we have touched, we have partaken of the very substance of creative change, creative mutation. If you tell me about the lotus, tell me of nothing changeless or eternal. Tell me of the incarnate disclosure of the flux, mutation in blossom, laughter and decay perfectly open in their transit, nude in their movement before us. 

Let me feel the mud and the heavens in my lotus. Let me feel the heavy, silting, sucking mud, the spinning of sky winds. Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance. Give me nothing fixed, set, static. Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal: nothing of infinity, nothing of eternity. Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the Now. The immediate moment is not a drop of water running downstream. It is the source and issue, the bubbling up of the stream. Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing on to the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick. 

There is poetry of this immediate present, instant poetry, as well as poetry of the infinite past and infinite future. The seething poetry of the incarnate Now is supreme, beyond even the everlasting gems of the before and after. In its quivering momentaneity it surpasses the crystalline, pearl-hard jewels, the poems of the eternities. Do not ask for the qualities of the unfading timeless gems. Ask for the whiteness which is the seethe of mud, ask for that incipient putrescence which is the skies falling, ask for the never-pausing, never-ceasing life itself. There must be mutation, swifter than iridescence, haste, not rest, come-and-go, not fixity, inconclusiveness, immediacy, the quality of life itself, without dénouement or close. There must be the rapid momentaneous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation: everything left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 D. H. Lawrence

Biography

English writer D.H. Lawrence’s prolific and diverse output included novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays, travel books, paintings, translations, and literary criticism. His collected works represent an extended reflection upon the dehumanizing effects of modernity and industrialization. In them, Lawrence confronts issues relating to emotional health and vitality, spontaneity, human sexuality and instinct. After a brief . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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