John Taggart, Take Three
Paul Naylor

For those who have followed his career, which now stretches over thirty years, "The Grey Scale," published in this issue of Golden Handcuffs Review, and the poems in his most recent book, Pastorelles, mark a new mode of poetry for John Taggart-a third mode, if you will, that gathers together the discoveries and insights of two earlier modes of poetry. The first mode, found in The Pyramid is a Pure Crystal (1974) and Dodeka (1979), employs the musical form of cantus firmus as a means to excavate language's elemental and etymological particles and then-through recombination, reversal, and repetition-to construct a new poem bearing the weight and intensity of that excavation. In the second mode-beginning with Peace on Earth (1981), continuing in Dehiscence (1983), Loop (1991), Standing Wave (1993) and When the Saints (1999)-Taggart's characteristically short line begins to lengthen, and the use of repetition extends from single words to entire phrases looping back on themselves in subtle permutations that find their musical analogue in the contemporary compositions of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

    "The Grey Scale" is very much of a piece with the poems in Pastorelles, published in 2004 by Flood Editions. Formally, these new poems aren't nearly as compacted as the poems in Taggart's first mode, which doesn't mean the new poems are somehow lax in their construction, just that they're more reader friendly: they do more of the necessary work of expansion than those earlier poems do. The new poems are also less enamored with repetition than the poems in Taggart's second mode. In his new work, the echoes repetition creates occur more often between poems rather than within them. In terms of form, then, one could argue that there is a general widening or expansion of the loop of repetition as Taggart's poetry develops. 

    In terms of subject matter, Taggart's recent poetry also moves into new territory. The poems in Pastorelles strike a much more personal note than most of his previous work. The new poems are grounded, literally and figuratively, in the rural Pennsylvania landscape in which the poet lives. There's an ecological sensibility in these new poems, a sensibility that is certainly present in his earlier work but is given more room to expand and develop in Pastorelles. Yet these poems don't indulge in hackneyed pastoral reverie; more often than not, we find the poet reflecting on death-his own and that of the natural world that surrounds him. In "Pastorelle 1," the poet takes us down an old road that has had horse, coach, and car travel on it, a road "where my ashes are to be scattered." Other poems-"As with the Chrysanthemum, "Not Egypt," "Call," and "Rhythm and Blues Singer," for instance-continue a meditation on death that could easily turn bathetic were it not for the astringent voice conducting us through the spare lines and stanzas of these taut poems. These are the poems of a man taking stock of his life and of his home in this life-not only his home in Pennsylvania but his home in the poetry and poetics of American modernism, something best seen in "The Grey Scale."

    At the exact middle point of "The Grey Scale," the opening line of its sixth section, Taggart declares "the great photographs are black and white and middle grey." The section then mentions the photographs of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Yet two other photographs dominate the poem as a whole: Richard Avedon's photograph of Ezra Pound, mentioned in section five, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard's photograph of Louis Zukofsky, mentioned in sections eight through ten. Although the poem's main focus is on Zukofsky, Pound looms large in the poem, as does another modernist giant, William Carlos Williams, though no photograph composed of "black and white and middle grey" of Williams plays a part in the poem.

    As the poem's title suggests, it's really the latter, the tones of "middle grey," Taggart's interested in. The "visualization of white of whiteness / is impossible," we learn in the poem's first section, and Taggart calls on Williams to help make this point in the penultimate line of the that section: "Williams said no whiteness is so white as the memory of whiteness." Pure white is off the scale of sight, so to speak, and becomes a memory rather than a perception.  The other end of the spectrum, black, gets pushed to its extreme in the poem's second section with the image of "black wings at rest on jewelweed blackness without spots or dots," leaving that which is between pure white or pure black as equally unimaginable. It's important to note that, while Williams is paired with whiteness in the opening section, Pound is paired with darkness is the poem's fifth section, which suggests Zukofsky may represent the "middle grey" between Williams and Pound. Although the poem's final section declares it's "beyond the question of who's the fairest of them all," Zukofsky's photograph, we are told twice, is the "only photograph / on my wall." Taggart isn't setting up an order of rank among his modernist precursors here; rather, since Zukofsky is the most recent of the three, it's his work that establishes the point of departure for Taggart-a point at which, as the poem's final lines have it, he must decide what to do "after a or the or / neither."

    For Zukofsky, "The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection." Over the last thirty years, John Taggart's poetry has consistently realized those pleasures of eye, ear, and mind, and his new work proves no exception. In fact, if Pastorelles and "The Grey Scale" are an accurate measure, one of our finest poets is currently working at the height of his powers.