Poet's Pick April 10
D. H. Lawrence: "Piano"
Selected by David Tomas Martinez
National Poetry Month 2015

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David Tomas Martinez's Poetry Month Pick, April 10, 2015

by D. H. Lawrence (1885 - 1930)

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.


* David Tomas Martinez Comments:

Sentiment in writing, while not out of fashion, definitely sports a fanny pack, and while Normcore fashion has ironically adopted mom jeans as a sort of banner to wave, I still wear suits when giving a reading. For me, the suit is clothed armor, an adopted personality I present to the audience. An alter ego. An intellect. A distance tone to match my meditative mode. The tie, a flare of emotion or fashion, is the banner of the suit, quite literally because it originates from The Thirty Years War where Croatian mercenaries wore small, knotted neckerchiefs, which of course aroused the interest of the French. For an interesting French short on the tie click http://www.nfb.ca/film/necktie

Suited and booted is an urban term most would not associate with D. H. Lawrence; it is a phrase I think fits him like a glove. Have you noticed how many phrases in English describe perfection that are also associated with decorum?

“Piano” is a poem of place, bringing the reader into the mind of an adult male listening to a woman sing, which brings him back to the Sunday evening routine of his proper English home. These Norman Rockwell types of poems normally do not excite me because my adolescence was a place of turmoil, and I am often bored with a poet’s remembering of the soft glow of parental love in youth. I have felt the scorch of life, and the burn of sitting too close to the fire leaves a mark. But “Piano” is no Norman Rockwell poem. Lawrence begins with “Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me,” creating a familiar atmosphere, setting an expectation of propriety, and establishing a tone of ease and comfort that continues as the speaker falls into retrospection and memory. Lawrence further steeps the reader in nostalgia by recalling his childhood, sitting at his mother’s feet while she plays the piano, gently pressing her feet as she sings. Lawrence will not wither away from sentiment, quite the opposite; he revels in remembering his mother and the warmth of her love. I applaud the erudite use of sentiment in poetry, particularly here, and I attempt to use it in my own work. Lawrence develops emotion by using the stock phrase, “Softly, in the dusk,” in the same way a fairy tale’s standard beginning signals a suspension of reality, this suspension allowing the reader to slip comfortably into a poem that nuzzles a tender moment in youth. Then Lawrence increases this contextualization by acknowledging the speaker’s descent into memory, “down the vista of years.” There is a primordial bliss that comes with familial bonding. This poem captures this sentiment, but Lawrence knows bliss alone can’t satisfy the intellectual demands of the sophisticated reader, so the second stanza mitigates some of the emotion rendered in the first stanza by recognizing how memory and nostalgia are problematic. “In spite of himself,” the speaker recognizes the “insidious mastery” of the moment and it “betrays” him “back” to childhood, away from adulthood, to “the heart of me weeping.” In a patriarchal society men should epitomize strength and control. By recognizing the speaker’s momentary feminine nature, Lawrence rejects, even temporarily, the ideals of patriarchal England. I find this refreshingly transgressive. The rest of the poem prepares the reader for Lawrence’s ultimate rejection of patriarchy, however transitory the moment may be. The song evoking emotion from the speaker is the complete breakdown of adult masculinity, which culminates in him weeping like a child.

This poem utilizes sentiment effectively by installing intellectual complexities that contextualize and explain the speaker’s nostalgia. Lawrence’s metrical form and rhyme accentuate the affected tone, which the speaker’s dilatancy pushes even further. What develops is not irony but a form of intelligence that can be more closely associated to wit, an understanding of social nuance only the urbane understand. Robert Pinsky equates this type of emotional intelligence in a poem as the ability to tell a good joke at the right time. Timing.

And so in fashion. I don’t mean one should not wear white after Labor Day, or that one should even use the pronoun “one” in a sentence, but fashion, like poetry, is about understanding a space created, understanding the rules of that space. Despite my proclivity to be suited and booted, Normcore has timing because it intentionally breaks set standards. Normcore is ironic, but sentiment should not be. I prefer Lawrence’s wit of nuanced emotion, which, to me, will fit better now and even later, unlike those mom jeans.

About David Tomas Martinez:
David Tomas Martinez has been published in Poetry International, Drunken Boat, Caldera Review, and Forklift, Ohio, and has been a featured poet in Border Voices and NBC Latino. He is a PhD candidate in the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program in Poetry. Martinez is also the Reviews and Interviews Editor for Gulf Coast and a CantoMundo Fellow.

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