Feeling a bit panicky these daysI'm trying to finish a paper on D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein that technically was due last December (yikes) and which I'm supposed to present an abbreviated version of at the Modernist Studies Association conference in Birmingham, England at the end of September (double yikes). So in addition to immersing myself in Lawrentia and Steiniana I'm trying to decide how long a trip I can afford. The conference is from Thursday the 25th to Sunday the 28th; my presentation, naturally, is on the very last day. The question is, do I then stay on for two days, see what's doing near Birmingham (the Rough Guide to Britain insists on calling it a "conurbation") and then head home and try to teach my class the following day? Or do I stay on until Sunday the 5th (missing my birthday on the 2nd, but how often do you get to say you were out of the country on your birthday?) and try and get up to Scotland and/or the Lake District on very very little money? We report, you decide. I'm leaning toward the latter in the spirit of adventure, but how much adventure a person with my debt-load can afford is open to debate.
Here's the abstract for the paper that I sent the MSA people. Naturally the paper in its current incarnation bears much less resemblance to it. In particular, I've come to see that Stein and Lawrence's approaches to the erotic (or to speak more broadly, the life drive) are in fact principally formal, making the form/content distinction I set up there much too crude.
Abstract for "Roses of the World: Erotic Authenticity in Stein and Lawrence"I have a headache.
O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 54
The rose, as a figure for evanescent beauty and the pleasure-in-pain of the erotic, is one of the originary signifiers of lyric poetry, traditionally linked with that poetry’s Petrarchan task of apostrophizing and immortalizing a beloved. But as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54 demonstrates, when poetry takes up the rose of eroticism it can literally kill the thing it loves: "And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth, / When [your beauty] shall vade, by verse distils your truth." Poetry "distils" the "truth" or authentic essence of the young man beyond the bounds of his natural life, but this distillation, this intensification of the experience of the love object’s aura, comes at the cost of that life: "Of [roses] sweet deaths are sweetest odors made." The sonnet reveals the violence intrinsic in poetry’s attempt to describe the essential being of its object—the "im" in "immortalize."
Lyric poetry’s capacity to dialectically destroy the thing it loves in the act of preserving its authentic essence becomes a central problem in the work of Modernist poets already wary of language’s capacities for violence and reification. In this paper I want to take up the figure of the lyric rose as it has been used, problematized, and interrogated in the poetry of two Modernists not often linked together, D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein. On the surface there would seem to be little or nothing in common with the roses that figure prominently in a cluster of early Lawrence poems (the poems "River Roses," "Gloire de Dijon," "Roses on the Breakfast Table," "I Am Like a Rose," and "Rose of All the World" from his 1917 book Look! We Have Come Through!) and Stein’s most famous utterance as it first appeared in the 1913 text "Sacred Emily": "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." Our response to these disparate roses is governed in large part by the formal qualities of the texts in which they appear: Stein’s text exists on some borderline between free verse and the prose poem, whereas Lawrence’s poems tend toward rhyme, with three of them resembling traditional ballads with their rhyming quatrains and roughly iambic pentameter. Blooming out of the insistently paratactic and repetitious motions of "Sacred Emily," Stein’s deconstructive rose would become the model for late twentieth-century L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, while Lawrence’s rose poems seem to look backward to the Victorian models he so emphatically rejected in his novels. These differences are real, but I argue that Lawrence and Stein are mining the same vein of ore: both use the figure of the rose with a full consciousness of its place in the tradition of English poetry and a desire to transform and revivify that figure as a means of instantiating an authentic and bodily eroticism into their writing. Both see roses as rhetorical figures for the erotic, figures that have become as reified and dead as normative eroticism itself, and both want to bring the rose, and the erotic life associated with it, back to life. To put it crudely, Lawrence’s retrieval of the rose from the genre of nature morte takes place on the level of content while Stein’s takes place on the level of form. But both writers, writing as poets, are working to fulfill complementary poetics of "more life" that are as congruent in their ends as they are disparate in their means.