(Published in the Woodstock Times, August 14, 2003)
If the reward we are looking for when we read the work of living poets is—beyond appreciation or even revelation—the discovery of a kindred spirit, this shock of recognition won’t strike often. For most readers, especially poets, there will be only a few contemporaries whose body of work is like opening a door inside oneself. For me, one of these rare discoveries has been the work of poet, novelist and essayist Howard McCord.
“To write a poem is to cry out; to cry out is to dream of a listener,” McCord has written. But where are his listeners? Why is he not better known? The subject of neglect in poetry is an old standard, but perhaps worth touching on briefly in McCord’s case, because in addition to the usual reasons for poetry obscurity is his political incorrectnesses. He’s an old white male who sings the warrior virtues. Worse, he actually has something to say about the world he has passed through, and he is able to say it with formal elegance and dyspeptic wit. He looks at our culture with the same cool, critical regard Juvenal and Martial turned on Rome. These sins may damn him now, but will ensure he is read in the future by the proverbial happy few—if style and intelligence still count.
The publication of McCord’s Complete Poems (Bloody Twin Press) now affords new listeners the opportunity to discover an extraordinary maverick voice in American letters, one I first encountered a few years ago in his novella The Man Who Walked to the Moon, and in The Wisdom of Silenus & Other Essays.
His Complete Poems is a massive, beautifully produced volume of 419 pages filled with unabashed sensuality, impressive scholarship, tender lyricism, and a winning recklessness. The mountains and deserts of the American West, where he has hiked and climbed all his life, as well as foreign landscapes from Iceland to Southeast Asia, provide the background and often the subject matter for his work. Like Gary Snyder, he reveals a landscape.
(Given this adventurous range, it came as something of a surprise to me that McCord, like most American poets, has earned his bread in academia, capping that career with a lengthy stint as Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.)
Each volume collected in the Complete Poems seems to reflect a chapter in McCord’s life. In the poems he creates a persona in which the parts—Westerner, outdoorsman, husband and father, teacher—make up a mythology of self, the autobiography of a poet.
The effect on the reader is cumulative. You grow fonder of the poet as you encounter him in each of his guises. He is a master of the stunning metaphor; as in the opening lines of Listening to Maps:
The sound of old maps
is like doll’s laughter,
brittle as china twigs
or a bird’s thinking.
He is particularly good at an underrated rhetorical form, the rant:
I squat over the law
what I have received.
He is tender in a series of poems about this wife Jennifer:
A cold night moves
me close against your back
and the sum of our warmth
flows through the coverlet
as an infrared fog…
(In another Jennifer poem he writes approvingly about her learning to shoot a pistol after receiving a death threat.)
He is clear-eyed about mortality in Litany.
Bless wife and children,
bless whitening hair
and blurring sight,
bless heart’s malaise,
bless snow-blocked trails,
bless no escape…
McCord has been a life-long rock climber. (The frontispiece of Complete Poems shows him dangling from a rock face.) His book is a mountainous, granitic thing, striated with wit and surprise. Its rugged slopes and craggy outlooks require of the reader a diligent attention to detail, and a taste for risk; but the ascent is worth the effort, and the view from the top is wide.
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