Like Thomas Hardy or James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence is another writer remembered more as a novelist than a poet, though he published multiple books of poetry in a variety of forms in the early 20th Century.
He’s hard to place in the various “schools” of poetry of his time. He was published in Imagist anthologies, but he is also sometimes grouped with the Georgian Poets who eschewed free verse, though he often wrote free verse. He sometimes wrote compressed epigrams like the one I present today. “Self-Pity” looks like a Modernist short poem on the page, but it doesn’t aim to work like most of those poems on the reader or listener.
1923 photo of D. H. Lawrence by Witter Bynner
Oh “Self-Pity” uses all the devices of poetry, save for rhyme. It’s loosely iambic with anapestic moments in meter, though the line lengths are uneven. This is consistent with much free verse, which still wants the beats of the words to be felt, without lock-step marching drills. It has a vivid image (the frozen, falling bird). It has a repetition (“sorry for itself”).
Why then does it seem different from other Modernist poems? Contrast Lawrence’s “Self-Pity” to two other contemporary-to-it very short poems: William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Carl Sandburg’s “Fog”. “The Red Wheelbarrow” puzzles readers to this day about its message, other than it wants the wheelbarrow to be clearly real. I think it’s about the beauty and dignity of work and its tools, but perhaps I’m wrong. You may not draw any meaning at all when you first hear or read “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “Fog” attracts immediately with its metaphor of silent fog and haunches-poised cat. It may seem to you at first a show of how metaphor cleverly works. “Wow, fog and a cat, I never thought of them together. Cool.” It’s only if you hold the poem longer in your mind and heart that you may ask why the fog/cat is at the harbor, that it’s not a pampered pet, but a feral or work animal.
“Self-pity” is more directive. Many who hear or read it will get the point the first time. Yes, that frozen dropping bird is a vivid image, but it doesn’t lead off the poem, it comes after half-way, and it’s meant to work not as something the poet saw, but as an imagined image to illustrate his point.
Which way is the right way to go about it? That’s for you the reader/listener/writer/performer to decide. The Internet tells us some folks find the direct and pointed message of “Self-Pity” helpful to them. I myself could stand to be reminded of it sometimes. Literary poetry of the 20th Century gradually made the decision to go with the non-directive imagery way, not with the more frankly didactic aims of Lawrence’s poem. Current writers and readers will get to re-decide this issue for our maturing, teen-aged, century.
“Self-Pity” was used in a Hollywood depiction of military training. I imagine a Pythonesque skit where John Cleese or Graham Chapman submits other poetry to raw recruits. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked!” “Suppose an opponent comes at you armed with plums. So sweet. So cold. What would you do?” or “You are a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
What do I think? After all, this is the Internet. I must have an opinion!
I’m eclectic. I don’t want poetry, or any art, to always work in the same way, to stop surprising me. If I could send myself back and offer advice to Lawrence on his poem, I’d tell him to spend more time on that bird before he tells us what the bird means. By not giving me the sense that a real human stood cold or bundled up or on the warm side of a window and watched that instant, that small bird, ruffling their feathers to hold what warmth was still there before the perch became its last, the poem loses potential power for me.
Thomas Hardy may have imagined his winter darkling thrush entirely as a useful image, but I feel that encounter with his bird. I’m convinced Rilke actually looked at an amputated and archaic torso of Apollo and wanted to see its present state fully before he delivered his reaction. I think Lawrence wanted to make a point, and that bird was a useful slide in his deck.
But that may be sentimentality on my part, and too much of that can be stifling and predictable. And perhaps the poem would loose some of it’s epigrammatic power. How often we see by opposition.
Musically, I spent a good deal of time on the drums/percussion for this track, trying to pull out the vibe of “Self-Pity’s” meter. With the rest of the music I tried to balance my reaction to Lawrence’s resolution while transmitting the assertion of the epigram itself. To hear it, use the player below.