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Henry Taylor’s Persuasive Praise

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993
Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets. By Henry Taylor. Louisiana. $29.95.

In the “Preface” to Compulsory Figures, Henry Taylor states: “It is commonplace that writers do not usually read in quite the same way we would like to be read; we are said to keep a sharp eye peeled for what we can learn for use in our own work.” Throughout the critical essays collected here, Taylor often displays his “sharp eye” (and ear), but he also proves himself to be the kind of sensitive and discriminating reader that any writer would be pleased to have. Rather than using another’s work to justify his own aesthetic preferences or condemning a writer because he or she does not conform to these standards, Taylor explores each writer’s individual motives, themes, and techniques. In the course of these explorations, he also attempts to reveal why these particular writers fascinate him and have made him feel “compelled to return to [their work] countless times over the past twenty-five years or more.” Ultimately, Taylor champions each of these writers’ poems in the hope that readers who are unfamiliar with them, or who might dismiss them because they are written in a currently unfashionable style, will seek them out, read them, and come to appreciate them also.

Indeed, these essays, which were written for a variety of magazines and collections over the past 2% years, function best as introductions. Taylor is sympathetic and insightful. He doesn’t assume that one is familiar with the writer under discussion, even one as well known as Gwendolyn Brooks, but he is also never patronizing. His general approach involves establishing an overview of the writer’s career by examining two or three representative poems before focusing more closely on one specific aspect of the work, whether it is showing how a new collection fits into the poet’s existing body of work or whether it is making a case for the vitality of the writer’s vision. Taylor is strongest when he gives close readings of individual poems, for it is there that he can illustrate the themes that define his critical aesthetic, which centers on two basic themes: the way the poet uses specific linguist and stylistic effects, and the way he or she works with or against traditional meters and forms.

Both of these themes are evident in Taylor’s analysis of two poems by J, V. Cunningham, who, Taylor notes, wrote “chiefly a poetry of statement, rather than of image and suggestion.” The first poem, “Epitaph,” reads:

When I shall be without regret And shall mortality forget, When I shall die who lived for this, I shall not miss the things I miss.

And you who notice where I lie Ask not my name. It is not I.

The second poem, Epigram 28, reads:

Dark thoughts are my companions. I have wined With lewdness and with crudeness, and I find Love is my enemy, dispassionate hate Is my redemption though it come too late, Though I come to it with a broken head In the cat-house of the disheveled dead.

After noting that Cunningham’s preference for strict metrics did not inhibit his “letting metrical patterns perform subtle modulations of his statements,” Taylor makes this character-istically cogent assessment:

It is not the additional twelve syllables alone that make this poem seem more complicated than “Epitaph.” The former poem contains no images, no run-on lines, and only one significant caesura, and that exactly in the middle of the last line. By contrast, this poem seems fraught with imagery; the first three lines are run on; and the distribution of pauses and stresses is noticeably at variance with the iambic norm, though in no pattern that could not be illustrated by examples from the sixteenth century. Toward the end of this poem, line-ends coincide more neatly with phases of the statement. At its most assured, then, this voice says that the redemption of dispassionate hate comes only with death. Love, be it enemy or not, and passionate hate, are inescapable in life. The metrical tentativeness of the first three and a half lines foreshadows the conclusion.

Clearly, Taylor’s wide reading and attention to both theme and technique make him an ideal reader of these poems. In fact, this ability to focus his attention on the way each writer succeeds (or fails) to reach his individual goals makes Taylor an excellent reader of any style of poetry.

His appreciation of a very different style of poem is shown in his discussion of a passage from John Woods’ “The Unemployed Blacksmith,” which reads:

When I went to the army, he kissed my face. He died when I was studying the machine gun. Mail Pouch signs flake from the barns, in a world of show horses, horseshoe-playing firemen, and grandchildren, standing far back from the great, twitching flanks of Percherons.

Taylor makes the case that this poem succeeds because Woods achieves an “unobtrusive yet absolute mastery of sound joined with evocative images.” To illustrate, he shows how “the primary effect is achieved through [vowel] progressions like army, barns, horses, firemen, grandchildren, Percheron, and through close sequences of stressed monosyllables-—’ Mail Pouch signs flake from the barns. ‘” In a related passage, Taylor deftly highlights the way Woods uses internal rhyme in the terms freight cars and great yards and between tart fogs and yard office. He also notes how Woods’ control of repeated vowel sounds subtly tightens, and therefore strengthens, his poetic line.

Taylor’s focus on each poem’s sound and rhythm does at times cause him to lose his patience with the slack lines many poets settle for. Discussing David Slavitt’s poetry, for instance, he writes: “Part of his success lies in his ability to deal with formal restrictions that are too much for most poets.” This impatience is not present, however, when Taylor discusses the free verse of writers such as William Stafford or May Sarton. Generally, he employs a definition of technique that is broad enough to encompass all types of writing, from metrical to experimental. Surprisingly, Taylor even finds common ground between two poets who are generally considered to be opposites in their approach to technique:

If we think of technique not as some rigid belief in proper frameworks and rules, but as a partial and growing understanding of an enormous array of verbal effects and opportunities, some of them traditional and some of them more nearly unprecedented, then it becomes harder to entertain the idea that [William] Stafford cares much less about it than Richard Wilbur does.

Sensible comments such as this one, along with the care he devotes to conveying the pleasures of Louis Simpson’s longer free verse poems—as well as his explanation of why Jackson Mac Low’s poems based on chance deserve one’s attention—reveal Taylor to be a rigorous reader who can appreciate many styles of writing, though his preference for mastery of rhythm leads him to write primarily about poets who work in traditional measures.

All told, the essays in Compulsory Figures are persuasive in their praise because they are expert, thorough, and passionate. They provide a pleasure similar to that of a reading a good travel poem which, Taylor says, should “not simply provide information about unfamiliar places. The encounter between the unfamiliar sensibility and that of the poet should produce poems that remind us of things we might have forgotten.” It is to Taylor’s credit that he has managed to remind us of things too easily forgotten and to point out writings we might have overlooked or underappreciated if not for his avid intervention.


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