Over two books, both published by The Waywiser Press, Eric McHenry has built up a world of poetry that’s at once lighthearted and serious, cantankerous and comical. It’s populated with lullabies and villanelles and references that defy easy category—ranging from, for instance, Kansas history to early hip-hop to baseball to Sam Cooke lyrics to true crime stumpers to economic theory—the list goes on. His formal rigor keeps the work from sprawling, and sometimes he fits syntax to stanza, and speech to meter, in that sturdy inevitable-seeming, and plainspoken register we haven’t heard much since Auden, Larkin, Brooks, or Hayden. His first book, Potscrubber Lullabies, begins with a poem on coming home, a little bit to the speaker’s surprise; a few lines on time’s passing, a song of wondering elegy in subtly rhyming stanzas:
After Beloit I went back to the paper
and wrote arts features for eight dollars an hour,
and lived in the Gem Building, on the block between
Topeka High with its Gothic tower
and the disheveled Statehouse with its green
dome of oxidizing copper.
I was sorry that I had no view
of old First National. Something obscured it
from my inset balcony. I heard it
imploding, though, like Kansas Avenue
clearing its throat, and saw the gaudy brown
dust-edifice that went up when it came down.
McHenry, I should say, grew up in Topeka, Kansas, that cauldron of poets, and the capital of a red state whose abolitionist roots belie its current-day politics, and then he left for college in Wisconsin, then to study poetry with Robert Pinsky at Boston University, then New Hampshire and Seattle before landing a faculty job in Washburn University’s English Department, which put him, to his bewilderment, just a few blocks from where he grew up.
His second book, out in 2016, ten years after the first, is called Odd Evening. The title’s semi-hidden pun reflects the mixture of broad range—in subject and turn of mind—that McHenry binds to relatively strict prosody and craft. This is a poet who heard a particular noise—Frost, Bishop, Muldoon, Cooke—and has never stopped trying to find out his version of that, which is to say a rhyming, metered way of speaking—of talk, really—that sounds contemporary without betraying the sound he’s after. Here’s one brilliant example from Odd Evening, a poem about grief—not about the causes of grief, but about grieving itself, about trying to let the crying out. What could be more contemporary, and timeless? Grieving as a way of being. It’s called “Crying with Glasses On,” and it starts like this:
It’s such a grownup thing to do.
Like renting tap shoes to perform
for no one in an electrical storm.
What’s wrong with you?
Remove your spectacles and cry,
already. If there’s rain
on your side of the windowpane
you’re probably the sky.
And it ends, a few stanzas later, like this …
If you’ll just give it half an hour,
grief will discover
you drawing steam-roses in the shower,
and join you, like a lover.
JESSE NATHAN: How would you describe the kind of poetry you like to write? What kinds of things seem to spark poems for you—or, put another way, what are the values out of which your poems seem to spring, aesthetic or otherwise?
ERIC MCHENRY: I think the main reason I write is that I can’t sing. So I guess it’s not surprising that the poems I most like to reread and memorize and imitate are songlike. I’m a rhymer and a measurer. I like it that there are units of composition peculiar to poetry—the line and the metrical foot—that can work with or against the sentence, the clause, the phrase, to create harmonies and dissonances, strengthen and subdue rhythms, syncopate. (I hope I’m using these terms responsibly; I may have mentioned that I’m not a musician. The phenomena I’m describing are real whether I’m naming them correctly or not.)
And I like flow. It’s a word that poets are supposed to avoid using; I’ve heard the cliché “it really flows” dismissed as a workshop bonbon, a substitute for saying something. But just because undergraduates aren’t equipped with a more sophisticated critical vocabulary doesn’t mean they aren’t onto something. “Flow” entails most of the other qualities I’m after in my poetry: fluency (its etymological cousin), dynamism, suppleness, naturalness, inevitability in the best sense. Nobody dismisses rhythm in conversations about poetry, but “rhythm” derives from “reie-,” which means “to flow.” Rappers love “flow” as both a verb and a noun, and I think they’re onto something too.
Actually, it’s not entirely true that I can’t sing, although for a long time I thought it was. The thing is that when I sing with others—in a school choir or sitting around a campfire or whatever—I can’t hear myself. I lose my voice in all the other voices, and I wander off pitch. Whereas when I’m singing by myself and unselfconsciously, I’m fairly pitch-accurate. I don’t have a great voice, but I hit notes. I realized this years ago when singing a lullaby to my son. I used to look out a window next to his bed and sing a song from Sesame Street called “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon,” and I noticed that when I sang the word “live” in the last refrain, the glass would vibrate. And this would happen every time I sang the note, which I took as objective confirmation that I was hitting it. Because of that experience, resonant frequency became a kind of figure in my mind for personal aesthetics. There are certain artists, and certain works of art, that just find your resonant frequency and set you to vibrating. I don’t know if you’re literally born liking the sounds or structures that you like, but I don’t think you choose them, any more than the windowpane chooses the note that shakes it. So I guess I do believe that you’re at least figuratively born with the elements of your poetics already in place.
I mean, that’s reductive: taste is incredibly complex, and it matures and deepens and doubles back on itself all the time. I’ve certainly come to admire and even love poems that I didn’t care for the first time I read them; we aren’t always ready. And I should probably speak only for myself. But there’s something so involuntary about my responses to Melle Mel’s flow in “Superrappin’” and Herrick’s in “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” and Auden’s in “The Fall of Rome” and Bishop’s in “The Moose.” I don’t think I’ve so much constructed a poetics as inferred it from that primal reaction I have to certain sounds making certain kinds of sense.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.