The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Flying Change” is a short poem; in its two distinct parts the speaker establishes a metaphor comparing a maneuver that is taught to a cantering horse to a stance the speaker has adopted for his own life. The poem’s two parts are numbered, as if to underscore their distinctive characters, and they look quite different on the page and exhibit very different voices.

Part 1 is a prose poem, set out on the page like a standard paragraph. It sounds rather like a textbook on horsemanship in its explanation of the flying change maneuver. It describes the nature of a horse’s canter, a gait in which the animal’s “leading foreleg is the last to touch the ground before the moment of suspension” as the horse moves forward. The horse can canter by leading with either the right or the left foreleg, but as it rounds a curve, it usually leads with the inside foreleg. If the horse must change leads to put the inside foreleg first (the “flying change”), it can do so easily when it is running free. If the horse is being ridden, however, the rider’s added weight makes the shift more difficult, and the rider must teach the horse to compensate in order to carry out the change. Part 1 of the poem explains these matters in a matter-of-fact, third-person voice and without editorial comment except for the last sentence: “The aim of teaching a horse to move beneath you is to remind him how he moved when he was free.”

In part 2 Taylor changes...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The division of this short poem into two parts strongly suggests its two voices, the “textbook” voice, which explains the riding maneuver, and the personal voice of one who finds himself also making a “flying change” and cherishing the brief moment of suspension above the earth. In the second part, Taylor uses five-line stanzas in iambic pentameter for the development of his speaker’s understanding of how the flying change applies to him. In each stanza, the first and fourth lines demonstrate slant rhyme, as do the second and fifth. The slant rhyme mutes the poem’s rhyme to such a degree that the reader may not notice the rhyme at first reading, but the nd sound of “wind” in the first line of part 2 echoes the nd of “ground” at the end of the fourth line, while “day” and “away” in lines 2 and 5 create true rhyme. Similar effects apply to the rhyme in the other stanzas.

The poem’s lines are also heavily enjambed so that their sense runs on from one line to the next. That effect is particularly noticeable between the three stanzas of part 2. In each case, Taylor withholds an important element of a sentence’s grammar until the first line of the following stanza. The effect is to make the reader see two layers of meaning in the lines. At the end of the first stanza, the speaker suggests that he taught himself to “drift away”; only in the first line of the following stanza does the reader understand that he...

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The Flying Change

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Henry Taylor’s poems in The Flying Change are mostly about how common occurrences often reveal unexpected meanings. These meanings have to do with death, the ineffable, and perception. The second major subject of the poems in this volume is poetry itself, which Taylor considers under several aspects: revelation, difficulty, and process.

In the first poem in the collection, “Landscape with Tractor,” Taylor shows how death presents itself in the commonplace. The “you” of the poem is mowing a field when he comes upon the corpse of a young black woman, neatly dressed, bearing no sign of the cause of death. Yet the woman is dead, and this irreducible fact seems out of place in the comfortable boredom of the day. The authorities must be called in, and when the body is turned over, bullet wounds are revealed in its chest. What started out as a familiar routine ends in a horrifying memory that cannot be put aside. Similarly, an act as unremarkable as asking for directions leads in “Somewhere Along the Way” to an intense premonition of death when a farmer casually brings up the subject of dying. Danger that could easily be fatal comes as a surprise in “The House in the Road.” The house is on a part of the road that sharply curves, so it is hard for a motorist to see it until he is on top of it. Although the narrator knows that the house is there, it is easy for him to forget it (and so the danger it poses), as it is for the people who live in the house, who have done so long enough for the danger to become commonplace, nothing to think about.

Akin to the surprise of death and danger is the surprise of wounding. In “One Morning Shoeing Horses,” Taylor remembers watching a blacksmith who, while shoeing horses, suddenly loses a finger because the horse makes an unpredictable movement. “Sick in Soul and Body Both” shows the narrator watching a bull in its pen, then suddenly realizing that the bull wants to kill him and that he wants to kill the bull. The feeling here, as in the other poems, is that living things tend to unexpected destruction. The horse in “Barbed Wire” sticks its head between strands of barbed wire on a fence to get at grass and then, when suddenly spooked, tears its throat on the wire and dies. The same kind of thing happens in “Taking to the Woods,” when a railroad worker is accidentally pinned between boxcars and crushed to death. In the same poem, while the narrator is cutting wood, he suddenly remembers an old logger telling him about the danger of falling trees. There seems to be no escape from such lessons; “Projectile Point, Circa 2500 b.c.e.” expands their meaning when the narrator stumbles on a Stone Age spear point in a field and reflects that nature outlasts him and the man who made the weapon.

The commonplace is often the setting for the sudden occurrence of the ineffable. In “The Way It Sometimes Is,” someone whom the narrator sees by chance reminds him of someone he once knew but cannot quite remember. “Evening at Wolf Trap” also comes upon the ineffable in an ordinary form. While having a picnic, the narrator watches people playing Frisbee and speaking in a language he does not know, but he is made unexpectedly happy by the sight and cannot quite place the essence of his happiness. He is idling in “The Muse Once More,” watching a man moving a metal detector over the ground. He dreams that there is something hidden nearby that will change his life and that this ineffable change will permit him to act decisively and memorably. A similar mood inhabits “Not Working,” where Taylor wishes that what he once wished for and forgot would come...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CX, December, 1985, p. 114.

The New York Times. CXXXIII, February 25, 1984, p. 10.

The New York Times. CXXXIII, April 15, 1984, p. 50.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, May 4, 1986, p. 22.

Washingtonian. XIX, August, 1984, p. 90.