Saturday, November 05, 2022

How to Read D. H. Lawrence’s “Coming Awake”

(Audio recording) It is very hard to interpret D. H. Lawrence’s “Coming Awake” without a clear understanding of his notions of poetry as expressed in his 1919 essay, “The Poetry of the Present,” and a conceptual framework for Imagist Poetry and the Imagist Movement. 

How to Read D. H. Lawrence's "Coming Awake" 

D. H. Lawrence begins by saying that we need a new kind of poetry because most of the genres of poetry currently used either propel the reader into a projection of the future, or pull them back into the a nostalgic past.  The problem with poetry that focuses on the future or the past is that it has to be perfect.

If you focus on the present, however, there is no idealizing gaze and there is no force-fitting a grandiose “message” or meaning. 

If you focus on the present, you tend to chronicle the concrete images and things that are happening around you. In that case, instead of being grandiose, you’ll be closely observant. 

By being in the moment, you can create a “poetry of the immediate present,” and it will capture a part of the present – like a still pictures from a video of reality. 

In addition, the poetry that captures what is happening in the present is, as Lawrence puts it, “like the wind,” and there is “a sheer appreciation of the instant moment.” He cites Walt Whitman as a wonderful purveyor of the “poetry of the present.” 

In contrast, for Lawrence, poetry that attempts to adhere to or conform to “any externally-applied law” would be “mere shackles and death.”  For this reason, he prefers free verse. 

So, if we apply this concept to “Coming Awake” (1916), it is possible to appreciate it as an example of “poetry of the present” which seeks to imbue the poetic space with a sense of immediacy and of heightened powers of the senses and observation, so that what poetry does for you is to intensify your experience of everyday life. It amplifies, intensifies, and magnifies everything you perceive with your waking and awakening mind.  

In “Coming Awake,” the poet’s observations are of minute, delicate details – ones often overlooked by the person whose mind is in the clouds or in a fog of the past. Lawrence begins by observing the characteristics and qualities of light that often go unnoticed: “lake-lights were quivering” and “sunshine swam in a shoal.” The personification encourages the reader to feel the elements of the poem because the language suggests a human body. 

The poet’s intense attention to tiny details makes the reader perceive it as though looking through a magnifying glass and seeing the “hairy, big bee” with “his body black fur.”  The bee “hung over the primulas” which are later described as “airy primulas.” Primulas are also known as primrose, and they consist of clusters of tiny petals and delicate little stamen. The sense of looking at everything as though it were magnified many times, and frozen in time is what the poet’s language has done for us.  It puts everything in super-sharp focus, freezes it in time, and then magnifies it. 

Thus, the process of awakening can be said to be akin to reading the poetry of the present which functions as a tool to bring everything into extremely sharp focus and to put the reader in the very center of what is being described. The result is an experience so intense that it could also be depicted as shrinking to the size of a bee or a primrose and walking around in the garden and observing a gigantic, hairy, furry bee buzzing loudly, triggering your senses into extreme awareness. 

The careful reader will see an influence of Zen Buddhist thought and the poetic ideas of the haiku and other minimalism. 

Lawrence’s concept of the “poetry of the present” is deeply democratic. It basically proposes that everyone can and should write poetry because it is a tactic for living a happier, fuller, more vibrant life. Anyone can write a poem, Lawrence might suggest. The key is to slow down, write observations, exaggerate the concrete details so they appear larger than life and generate an emotional response of joy, happiness, appreciation of life. 

Works Cited

Lawrence, D. H. “Coming Awake” in New Poems. London: Martin Secker, 1919;, 1999.  .

Lawrence, D. H. “Preface: The Poetry of the Present,” in New Poems, 1919. In The Poetry Foundation.