The Figure of Grammar: Whitman and Lawrence

  • Herbert Read


[…] I have no desire to deny to Whitman his special virtues, but in so far as they are technical, they belong to the art of rhetoric rather than to the art of poetry. This distinction was recognized by Lawrence, though he gave it a different name. In his preface to the American edition of his New Poems (New York, 1920) he distinguishes between the voice of the past and the voice of the future, between the poetry of the beginning and of the end, which is the poetry of perfection; and the poetry of immediacy, of the present moment, which is his notion of free verse. ‘In the immediate present’, he writes, ‘there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon. There is no round consummate moon on the face of the running water, nor on the face of the unfinished tide. There are no gems of the living plasm. The living plasm vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither … Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisation … Give me nothing fixed, set, static. Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal: nothing of infinity, nothing of eternity. Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the Now.’ As a representative of this ‘unrestful, ungrasp-able poetry of the pure present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit’, Lawrence gives Whitman. ‘Whitman looked truly before and after. But he did not sigh for what is not. The clue to all his utterance lies in the sheer appreciation of the instant moment, life surging itself into utterance at its very wellhead … Because Whitman put this into his poetry, we fear him and respect him so profoundly.’


Present Moment Living Plasm Rhetorical Device English Writer Finished Crystallisation 
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© A. Banerjee 1990

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  • Herbert Read

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