Monday, September 19, 2005

Poem of the Week 9/19/2005: Elemental


Why don't people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more firey, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they'd be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

D.H. Lawrence 1929

Hello Friends and Family! I know that this is kind of bitter poem number two, but Mondays this year are feeling nice and cliché for me this school year (i.e. bad). I am not complaining, just explaining why the PotW is bitter on these particular days. But we proceed nevertheless!

This poem is perhaps a little more straightforward than your typical Poem of the Week; we don't often read a poem simply asking why people aren't a certain way. Well, the poems may ask that implicitly I suppose. A change is nice once in a while. I have found that this very frank style of poetry is beginning to appear more and more. Many people are familiar perhaps with Billy Collins? He uses this form all of the time, and (just off the top of my head) Eavan Boland and Paul Muldoon do to a lesser extend. It is a simple and more approachable form that still allows for most of the nuances of poetry. After all, within this poem we have imagery, word play, a subtle form, and some kind of question or proposition.

I think a good way to begin with this poem is by looking at the form. Its irregularity lends it a sort of casual nature that I think can be a little unusual in a poem. This relaxedness, in turn, adds to the poem's everyman tone. Each stanza break is important to notice as well, because each emphasizes certain lines. The first stanza break explains the title, stating, "and be a bit elemental instead?" Though we have an introduction to the title, what might this mean? Well, the narrator goes on to answer, right now, people are too full of these airy dreams. Everywhere they are pining for love when they should be a bit more, if you'll excuse the pun, grounded. We need to listen to the Beatles and get back to where we once belonged.

My favorite part of the poem sits at the next stanza break: the line "man is lop-sided on the side of angels." We are too much in love, to much wanting to love, and too much crafting ourselves hoping to be loved. This line is surprising, too. Angels usually take a more beneficient part in poems (see Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, Denise Levertov's "Cademon," or Brad Leithauser's "Old Bachelor Brother," to mention very few), so to think of this as negative is a paradigm shift.

And then the poem asks us just to be true and to be ourselves. Written like that, it sounds corny, because I think Lawrence is posing a bigger challenge than that. His use of the four elements (which are, incidentally, the four elements of which Aristotle believed man is made) and diction therein hints that this is a deeper truth. This is the root of being, the way of things. Fire, rain, air, and "live loam" all have a kind of energy in the poem; the sounds of the words beat within the text, adding a pulse to otherwise flat words. The vitality bursting through phrases like "steam and stream and ice" and "lop-sided on the side" and "live loam" concentrates the emotion. Actually, now that I think about it, controlling this energy is what Lawrence is asking us to do; go through the stages of life without losing ourselves. He achieves this feat in his rhetoric, for he addresses very emotional and powerful ideas in this piece without sinking into a sentimental quagmire.

I also want to point out how flat the word "lovable" seems after reading "Elementals." I mean, after talking about the elements, the bones and muscles of being, "lovable" comes out so pressed. It isn't as meaty or interesting as the fire, water, and earth that appears in the poem. Elementals is the right word for the title, I think.

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