Monday, November 10, 2014

Restoring Danger to Classic Verse

Henry Walters, Field Guide A Tempo: Poems

Susan Sontag, in her 1966 article “Against Interpretation,” inveighed against the tendency, common in schoolroom reading and high-minded academic criticism, of using interpretive heuristics to reduce art to comprehensibility, de-fanging the wolf. Art, she said, should be dangerous; interpretation simply buttresses existing power structures. Or, as Billy Collins writes, “Would anyone care to join me/ in flicking a few pebbles in the direction/ of teachers who are fond of asking the question/ ‘What is the poet trying to say?’”

New Hampshire poet Henry Walters writes poems that resist interpretation. Not that engaged readers can’t recognize more literal meaning in his enigmatic lines. However, there isn’t that essayistic timbre beloved by critics. Walters doesn’t write crossword puzzle clues to solve; he writes Zen koans readers must contemplate. His verses occupy that liminal space just outside knowledge, where we know something has happened, but we must think about it. Poems like “Black Swan Pas de Deux” invite us, not to know, but to contemplate:
Both yes & no,
   I play me & you
play you. A little
  dance-duet. Strange:
wherever you move
  the sound is broken
glass—where I follow
  it’s the running
of blood. To someone
  else I’d say, Keep that
heart shut! Don’t lend that
  song a body! No
chance of staging whole-
  ness without a
whole house of gore
  to answer it.
Henry Walters: poet, classicist, falconer
Not that we couldn’t interpret this poem. Like Bob Dylan lyrics and Hans Holbein paintings, given enough time and motivation we could reduce them to positivist statements of one-to-one absolutes. Yet reading them, we don’t want to neuter Walters’ verses this way. Walters uses quirky phrases, sudden reversals, and metaphors so subtle, you almost miss they’ve happened, to guide readers outside themselves. He invites readers on journeys, where positivist poets (and the critics who love them) expound points.

Throughout, Walters arranges poems into triplets. A brief prose poem leads into a sonnet, usually structured somehow unconventionally—long lines, or visually specific line breaks, or the rhyme only oblique. The third may be free verse, a nonce form, or something different. But Walters never lets readers rest comfy on his patterns. He’ll suddenly flip sequences, or replace the sonnet with quatrains, or drop something. Structure, even self-imposed structure, is for Walters a leaping-off point, never a justification.

A trained classicist, naturalist, and schoolteacher, Walters’ poetry spotlights a perpetual outsider’s feel, a spectator observing humanity from outside its highly constructed boundaries. Perhaps that’s why Walters’ language, even when consistent enough to be controlled, never loses its spontaneity. He watches us watching him watching us. Nowhere does this scrutiny come across more plainly than his centerpiece, the protean long-form “Field Guide”, which combines three voices, a sociological observer, an observed struggling with self-awareness, and “the wind”:
Born of a straightedge & a grafted braid,
I come loping, limping, hungry, humble, looking
For origin & answer. My pied tongue licking
Bootsole, shoeblack, long since hybridized.

Dumpster-eyed, one of the half-breed scavenger brood
With fingered wings & no call, flocking
To a dying animal, I on Pelican
Earth arrive to find, expiring, breeze…
Walters utilizes traditional forms like sonnet, quatrain, and blank verse, situating himself within long-established poetic stanzas. His forms aren’t always obvious, and it’s fun, eight or nine lines in, to realize we’re reading a sonnet. Like fellow classicists A.E. Stallings and Aaron Poochigian, Walters knows ancient forms with intimacy which modern MFA workshops cannot convey. Yet like them, because he knows forms closely, he feels free to disregard imposed rules. He doesn’t serve traditional forms, they serve his vision, as in “Lookout”:
You think of those Roman soldiers standing guard
Somewhere at the edge of their language, a sentry-post
With commanding views of the valley north and west
Out past the nearest hills, horizonward.

No longer colonizing with the sword,
A lighter touch now, running the eyes across
Toothed ridges, muffled in the manifold blues of distance,
Named in the tangled tongues of uncivilized hordes.

And then, September, hawks lift off from those hills,
All aimed in one direction, passing through
Without password, without permission, their fanned tails
Flying colors you’ve never paid attention to
Till now, beautiful, barbarian syllables,
A whole sky, unopposed, invading you.
That’s what Walters does, invade your preconceptions. He includes allusions to Shakespear, the blues, Christian saints; but always, he subverts his allusions’ comfy premises, making the familiar dangerous. As good poetry should, and MFA workshops seldom do, Walters’ verses challenge readers. You emerge from reading somehow changed, often in ways not obvious. He’s still working on me.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, I really appreciate your reviews and I especially like this one. Thanks for posting.