In assembling their intelligent and entertaining ad for the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, Canadian poets Doug Beardsley and Al Purdy discarded most of the conventions regarding selection and publication of a writer's oeuvre. Only twelve poems are included in No One Else is Lawrence!
, and most of them represent a single moment in Lawrence's career: 1930's Birds, Beasts and Flowers.
The usual critical apparatus is absent as well. Instead, Beardsley and Purdy offer a series of informal dialogues on the poems, producing a book with a definite goal: the revival of interest in Lawrence's poems, which have been obscured by the notoriety and brilliance of his novels and essays. A poem must be very fine indeed if it can exist alongside works like The Rainbow
, Lady Chatterly's Lover
, and Studies in Classic American Literature.
No One Else is Lawrence! represents a new middle ground for the publication of poetry. The dialogues of Beardsley and Purdy are an alternative to the usual academic scaffolding that surrounds most so-called "reader's editions". There are no pompous, authoritative footnotes. If the editors feel that a technique or an allusion needs to be glossed, they bring it up in their conversation. They are not always in agreement with one another, and the dialogical method absolves them of the need to come to a common conclusion. Nor do they waste time with objectivity: the poems are not treated as though the speaker is some indeterminate "voice" or "poet". The possibility that the speaker is Lawrence himself is taken as a first principle, and it is delightful to watch Beardsley and Purdy empathizing with Lawrence as they deck themselves out in his poetry.
Their personalities become the centre of interpretation, and this works very well with Lawrence's intense, occasionally megalomaniacal, sense of self. Their admiration is not abject heroism, however. If Lawrence oversteps himself, Purdy and Beardsley are quick to admit it. At the end of "Elephant", for example, Lawrence places himself in a royal box in India, receiving tribute from his exotic, heavily orientalized subjects:
I wish they had given the three feathers to me;
That I had been he in the pavilion, as in a pepper-
box aloft and alone
To stand and hold feathers, three feathers above the
And say to them: Dient Ihr! Dient!
Omnes, vos omnes, servite.
Serve me, I am meet to be served.
Bring royal of the gods.
The sentiments, being so extreme, are dismissed. In Purdy's commentary: "It's typical of the genius, it's also typical of his own ego that having been an inconsequential boy and young man he develops quite an ego. I'm not suggesting he didn't have some justification in possessing an ego but to take it quite this far is a little silly." The approach is commendable because it does not ignore the difficulties of Lawrence, nor does it let them supplant his verse as the focus of discussion.
Lawrence's anti-egalitarianism and occasional sexism have become insurmountable problems for many contemporary readers. These issues are left outside of the discussion, so that the intensity of the language and the expansive individualism may be fully appreciated. No One Else is Lawrence! is a celebration of Lawrence's art, not a political critique. Such problems must be faced by a continuous reader of Lawrence, but their absence does not detract from a book that is meant to be an entirely autonomous delight.
Once these issues have been dispensed with, what remains is a sampling of the work of a prolific and talented poet. Lawrence is not one of the great modern poetic innovators; nevertheless, he manages to extend the visual and emotional range of the language. The effect of these poems-which are largely untaught and unanthologized-is surprising and deeply satisfying. At their best, they combine Whitman's long, elegiac line with a true modernist's directed intensity. The selection includes tight visual lyrics like "The Man of Tyre", and long ruminations on religion, sex, and death, such as the rapid, driving "Tortoise Shout". The poems have to be read in full in order to comprehend their real value. A fragment can contain only the wonder of the language:
And the gold-and-green pure lacquer-mucous comes
off in my hand,
And the red-gold mirror-eye stares and dies,
And the water-suave contour dims.
No One Else is Lawrence! is too concentrated a book to serve as a comprehensive introduction to the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. Its value lies rather in its inescapable enthusiasm. Purdy and Beardsley do not attempt to suggest any fixed critical stratagem for the reading of Lawrence: they are out to show the reader what Lawrence can do and why he should be read. The result is a book of poems that reads beautifully. The thematic arrangement of the poems is well thought out; the commentaries are intelligent, accessible, and occasionally hilarious. This book makes a fine case for reading the poetry of Lawrence, and it provides a useful glimpse into the reading minds of Purdy and Beardsley that will appeal to any lover of Canadian poetry. No One Else is Lawrence! is nothing like academic criticism; it is poetry as pleasure.
Jack Illingworth is a writer of poetry, a student of literature, and co-editor of a new literary magazine, Pivot.