The opening of the field of American poetry in the twentieth century has led to a richness of invention and a variety of possibility arguably the equal of any other era in the history of the English language. It has also resulted in an energized and frequently fractious debate about the nature of poetry itself, a continuing dispute among poets and theoreticians in which positions have been determined as much by a desire to protect and justify a style of expression as by an interest in the “sullen art” and the craft of its composition. This has generated an often useful confusion that tends to prevent the establishment of restrictive orthodoxies and to promote the publication of a genuinely diverse range of voices across a poetic continuum. There also has been a tendency toward criticism devoted to disparaging and condemning what the authors regard as unpoetic and misguided rather than concentrating on the merits of preferred poems. Henry Taylor’s Compulsory Figures is an impressive addition to the work of other critic/poets such as Charles Molesworth (The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry, 1979) and Donald Hall (The Weather for Poetry: Essays, Reviews, and Notes on Poetry, 1977-81, 1982) who have been able to combine their carefully considered convictions about poetry with an enthusiasm for the accomplishments of poets whose approaches are singular and various. As Hall has observed, a love for the poetry of Robert Frost does not require a resistance to the poetry of Charles Olson, and while Taylor is quite definite about why he likes a certain poet’s work, the criteria upon which his judgments and choices are based are not exclu- sionary.
Taylor, whose The Flying Change (1985) won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, published these essays in their original form during the 1970’s and 1980’s. They are linked by an evolving critical aesthetic that includes a close scrutiny of a poet’s development that he calls “the record of a triumphant progress.” His concern for a “lifelong process” is connected to his choices for inclusion, as he explains that these are people who have written poetry he has returned to “countless times over the past twenty-five years.” His method is to discuss individual poems in enlightening detail within the context of the poet’s goals and means of reaching them. A major source of strength in his consideration of a particular poem is his sensitivity to the nuances of a word. The title of the book is both a register of this responsiveness and an indication of the direction of his most fundamental critical thinking. The multifold meaning conveys his claim that his subjects command attention as important figures necessary for an understanding of American literature, that their best work is driven by a compulsion to achieve artistic excellence, and that the formal requirements of the poetry he admires calls for a discipline akin to that of a champion skater perfecting the movements of a previously determined form so that the “continued flow…arouses suspense” while “its graceful conclusion gives pleasure.” Taylor is careful to point out that he is not a proponent of “rigid allegiances to open or closed form,” but he is quite clear about the importance of form. The initial essay, on J. V. Cunningham, whose “work and advice” he cites as a debt beyond measure, sets out a kind of poetic credo that will be applied throughout the volume.
The placement of the Cunningham essay at the onset of the volume and one about James Wright at the conclusion create a frame for the entire endeavor. Taylor pointedly acknowledges his gratitude to Cunningham for showing him that he could write “free verse” by choice when appropriate, not “by the ignorance of metrics that many young poets have considered sufficient equipment.” The emphasis on metrics is at the heart of his conception of poetic form. Aside from a glancing reference to Charles Olson, a hugely influential figure for many poets who have an entirely different conception of form, Taylor generally avoids any argument with opposing views and chooses instead to explain why he believes that metrical regularity is essential to provide a basis for variation or “irregularity,” using Cunningham’s work to show how “metrical patterns perform subtle modulations.” The idea of order recurs in essay after essay, often supported by quotes from poems such as William Jay Smith’s “A Sculptor, Welding,” which talks of the artist bringing “out of life’s formlessness, now form.” This venerable position, Taylor understands, has been less than congenial for postmodern poetics, but he is never deterred by unfashionable convictions. He develops his case by its application to poet after poet, noting in the essay on William Meredith that “form is a method, not a barrier,” and asserting in the essay on James Wright that there is an infinite number of ways of doing things within the “mastery of traditional...
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