The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

“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.

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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 form and voice to create a short (three five-line stanzas) series of statements in which a first-person speaker indirectly compares himself to the horse that must learn to do what once it did naturally. The images of this part recall the diagonal motion of the flying change made by the horse; they also suggest the idea of suspended motion (the moment of the change) and the idea of the tensions between one’s innate abilities and what one learns to do. Thus the first image is of a leaf turned “sideways in the wind,” which somehow moves the speaker “like a whipcrack” into a past where, rather like a horse in training, he once studied moves on a “barbered stretch of ground.” Later, he says, he taught himself to move away from those past skills, skills which he still possesses but “must outlive,” as if they are no longer useful to him. The act of cupping water in his hands reminds him of how age must affect him, making his hands “a sieve” instead of a cup. Time can never stand still, but—like the horse shifting its leading hoof and thus suspended for a moment in air—the speaker briefly feels “sustained in time.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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 drifted away not from the world in general but from something specific—skills which he still has.

The poem’s central metaphor lies in the description of the flying change itself, and in part 1 Taylor concentrates specifically two elements of that change. One is the moment of suspension as the horse shifts its lead foot; the other is the commentary included in the last sentence of that part. The whole point of teaching a horse to carry a rider is to teach it to maintain some of its natural movement under the “unnatural” burden of its rider, “to remind him how he moved when he was free.” In the second part, that metaphor is expanded to apply to the speaker, who also finds himself executing a flying change.

The poem’s form can now be seen to echo its content in that the second part, with its careful stanza organization, its rhyme and iambic pentameter, seems to suggest the schooling of both horses and humans to make artful things seem natural, things such as running while carrying a rider or writing a line of iambics. Indeed, the suspension of a line to balance its meaning between two stanzas seems to suggest the horse’s task of balancing the rider while shifting its weight in the canter.

In the thirteenth line of part 2, Taylor refers to “works and days,” an allusion to the Greek poet Hesiod (eighth century b.c.e.), who wrote a poem called “Works and Days” about the proper conduct of agricultural life—another instance of Taylor’s submerging elements of art in a poem which is partly about art and nature. In fact, much of the Flying Change collection deals with agricultural life.

The Flying Change

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

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 to him by surprise.

In the volume’s title poem, “The Flying Change,” an awareness of the ineffable comes in the sudden realization that process, despite the fading and loss it shows, is where beauty is—in what passes too quickly to be pinned down. The ineffable in “At the Swings” is the tone of joy that permeates the moment as the speaker pushes his sons on swings before he goes to a wedding. Lulled by what he is doing into a nonspecific memory, he finds that the tone comes from that and that he is able to attach it to life’s touching ceremonies, which allow it to return by surprise in memory later on in time.

Lessons about perception, too, come to Taylor from commonplace sources. He sees an old high school teacher of his and remembers how unjust she once was to him in a geometry class. He was right at the time—at least in his own way—and she criticized him for it. Taylor seems to be saying here, in “Shapes, Vanishings,” that one’s sense of truth is imbued with how one feels about the occasion which triggers it. In “Starting Over on an Old Ax,” an ax head flies off its handle suddenly, offering lessons in ways of seeing: for example, the various ways the former users of the ax fixed the head to the handle. The wineberries in the poem of that title become an emblem, suddenly explicit when harvesting grain turns them up, of life’s difficulties (the sour berries) and its pleasures (the sweet berries). The perception here is the lesson which the berries offer through analogy. In “Not Yet,” the speaker, sitting around and doing nothing, is surprised by the sudden appearance of deer passing; in a moment of insight, he sees that grace, the marvelous, belongs to the present, not to the past, where he had been seeking it.

Poetry itself is a major form of revelation for Taylor. Suggesting a link between the welder and the poet in “Cutting Torch,” he sees that art, though pursuing it can be painful, gives a fresh purpose to things that have lost their purpose and does this by bringing them out of the gloom of disuse and joining them. Common things take on a luminous quality when inspiration strikes the poet in “Bathing in Lightning.” “More Than One Way” (referring to skinning a cat) is at pains to suggest that poetry requires laborious craft to reveal the interior of things, though when it is forced, barren of inspiration, it is no good, the remedy for which is for the poet to return to common subjects and take no shortcuts in his craft. “Green Springs the Tree” shows the poet coming to the insight that poetry reveals how graceful life is in spite of its dangers.

Part of the difficulty of poetry is waiting for it to happen. To spur this process, and in the grip of yearning for inspiration, the poet ransacks nature, especially its examples of death, for meaning, and ends up realizing how blind he is (“Heartburn”). His yearning takes another form in “The Aging Professor Considers His Rectitude.” The protagonist in this poem lusts after his pretty students and considers what words he can use to convince himself to do something about it. The difficulty is that his words do not work, except (and this refers to poetry by analogy) to express the problem of trying to make them work. This kind of ironic wish for change—for meaningful poetry, really—suffuses “The Muse Once More” and is one of Taylor’s apparent motives for exploring the nature of poetry. He sees that poetry attests the poet’s need to write it, to the extent that he will fix on the oddest things for subjects; seeing this, he realizes that poetry, unlike real life (which is violent and unpremeditated), is a matter of study and diffident testing—in short, artful and fragile (“Artichoke”). In the end, because he must write it yet finds it so difficult to accomplish or elevate, Taylor defines poetry as a process, by which he means that it is the experience of the act of writing it that matters, rather than any truth or meaning outside itself that it might embody.

To a degree, Taylor’s poetry resembles Robert Frost’s. It discusses rural occasions in rhyme and meter, and its diction is simple, its phrasing conversational—almost folksy. Taylor adds to this tone a cultivated (if unimposing) irony, made the more acceptable by his willingness to expose his laziness and his common habits. Also engaging is his amusing alertness to what is going on around him; he never sets himself above his subjects, nor does he belabor them. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Taylor makes it easy for his readers to see in him their own failures and wishes and to accept them as basic and normal, the critical pivots of ordinary human lives. By making verse out of these common occasions, he preserves the usefulness of the art in a time that has generally forgotten poetry’s utility.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

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.

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