Introduction to a Poet: Rich Follett
Rich Follett loves words. Deeply. If you understand this, then the brilliance
of his poetic career ~ interrupted by a thirty year hiatus ~ makes sense. In those fallow years, as a minstrel of renown in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, a respected actor and a highly recognized English teacher, the word never left him ~ not for a moment. He is indeed a Renaissance Man in every sense of the phrase.
When he began writing again in 2009, the Literary world was immediately put on notice.
While many writers ‘just write,’ this artist is intimately familiar with his relationship
to poetry; his own voice and the voices of many, many others.
“I perceive poetry to be the pulse of our human condition, expressed in words specifically chosen to elicit visceral and intellectual responses rooted in images springing from our imprinted collective memory … [It] is the literary equivalent of DNA – the human genome expressed in lines and spaces. The poems we create are as individual as the fingerprints we leave on everything we touch; the key is that we must touch in order to leave something behind.”
Follett’s voice is distinct in many ways ~ mastery of language and a stunningly unique narrative style are but surface descriptors. Asking Rich about influences brings a flood tide response. In adolescence alone, there was ‘the impress of Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Ogden Nash, Mae Swenson and Emily Dickinson.” Perhaps most telling is his moving description ~ a true prose-poem ~ of his formative experiences:
“The seeds of my poetic identity were sown in the lilt of my Canadian grandmother’s lyrical voice – every syllable she uttered, no matter how mundane of purpose, had a musicality that struck my childhood ears like a silver bell. My mother, an English teacher with a devastating, quiet passion for language, instilled in me a love of words for their own sake – a sublime beauty unexpectedly borne of centuries of utilitarian communication. I will remember always the fiery, faerie trace of her cigarette in the dark as she sat across the living room in magical, coveted moments before bedtime, enumerating for me the virtues of whichever words had caught her fancy in the day’s reading. Her understated, smoldering revelation of the divine mystery of the power of words captivated me then as it does today.”
An excerpt from his poem Epic illustrates not only his inherited love for words, music and inborn story-telling prowess, but also his vast corpus of knowledge and characteristic whimsy:
Three booths down
at the Chinese buffet
eyes, cerulean (flecked with brine);
his essence imposing, burnished, severe and commanding
(even when hunched over crab legs).
An Anglo-Saxon warrior in t-shirt and jeans;
out of place and time,
apparition and archetype all at once –
corporeal String Theory and living Literature
materialized in a single skipped heartbeat.
Not so much sculpted as hewn,
his bulk and heft evinced
snapping sinew and cataclysmic combat –
an image borne not of aerobics and Évian
but by preternatural victories wrenched from the maw of Doom.
His subject matter is the reflection of a true tributary thinker ~ boundlessly creative and far-ranging in scope. It is also brave. One topic he has explored in searing verse is the difficult topic of male childhood sexual abuse. This is the breakthrough focus of his first solo compilation, Silence, Inhabited (Neopoeisis Press). Here, Follett’s power and emotional honesty is devastating. In Pimp of the Perverse, his self-damning conscience brutally confronts his internalized agonized victim.
You hear me,
I know you do.
You liked it, didn’t you?
a petit mal serial melodrama of repugnant submission –
that final furtive flush of excruciating, exquisite surrender
calls to you still.
That’s your big secret, isn’t it, freak?
For years now
you’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen
how you’ve devoted your life to healing and forgiveness
(thank God for expert therapy and good drugs);
you’ve fooled the masses;
dazzled the critics;
bowing nightly to your own tumescent hype –
you dickless, simpering poseur
(oh, save the feigned indignation –
we knew all along).
Examining a single line: ‘that final furtive flush of excruciating, exquisite surrender’, we hear the harmonic composition in conjunction with skillful assonance and alliteration.
Going further, this aspect of his relationship with the muse becomes clearer still: “I strive to write poems that resonate for the hearer. We hear poems intuitively, on many levels – with our ears, with our hearts, with our souls, and always through the lenses and filters of our remembered joys and pains. It is the purity, the integrity of that hearing which ultimately determines the quality of the experience for both poet and reader.”
In the coruscating “in defense of the violin”, there is a symphonic melding of all of these qualities:
poor tormented rebec;
instrument of acoustic crucifixion –
agonistes under horsehair lash,
vainly imploring olympus for absolution.
in chaotic fusillade,
goaded by the maestro’s masseteric baton,
pimpled protégé saws,
drawing prow of bow
across sinews stretched to insanity.
racked and pegged for maximum torque,
fretting and fettered,
cacophony borne of colophony;
stricken strings singing out defiance:
symphonic hieronymous bosch.
When looking at such complex, probing and elegant verse, Follett’s explanation
of what drives his pen, is somewhat amusing in its seeming incredulity:
“Motivation? I have none. As a potential poster child for Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, I write only when an idea grabs hold of me and refuses to let go. I made peace long ago with the realization that I will never be a prolific poet. My internal editor is relentless and manic – so much so, in fact, that I am grateful to be able to write anything at all. No amount of therapy, meditation, medication or prayer has fostered even the slightest hope for improvement. “
As a poet with a declared absence of motivation, perhaps the most amazing fact of all
is the maturity of his art after a three-decade hiatus, As he tells the story, he and his wife ‘attended’ what they believed to be a local poetry reading, but in discovering it was in fact a poetry workshop, he ‘nearly turned tail and ran’. The very first assignment was to write a response to a much loved poem. Follett chose the highly celebrated “Barbed Wire’ by Henry Taylor, a subdued yet exacting description of a horror ~ the fatal impalement of a farm horse ‘one summer afternoon’ on a barbed wire fence:
One summer afternoon when nothing much
was happening, they were standing around
a tractor beside the barn while a horse
in the field poked his head between two strands
of the barbed-wire fence to get at the grass
along the lane, when it happened – something
they passed around the wood stove late at night
for years, but never could explain – someone
may have dropped a wrench into the toolbox
or made a sudden move, or merely thought
what might happen if the horse got scared, and
then he did get scared, jumped sideways and ran
down the fence line, leaving chunks of his throat
skin and hair on every barb for ten feet
before he pulled free and ran a short way
into the field, stopped and planted his hoofs
wide apart like a sawhorse, hung his head
down as if to watch his blood running out,
almost as if he were about to speak
to them, who almost thought he could regret
that he no longer had the strength to stand,
then shuddered to his knees, fell on his side,
and gave up breathing while the dripping wire
hummed like a bowstring in the splintered air.
In his response, Follett took the vantage point of the doomed and ~ through his pen ~
i existed, imprimis, to be a horse -
to define the pastorale for passers by;
my function, to feed and be fleet
to unfetter fancies for the earthbound
as i floated along the fenceline;
my grace god-given, my place primordial
with each of my merest movements,
(masterpieces of sublime fluidity), i
flustered the old men into dim longing,
their shame-bound, tobacco-stained hisses
echoing the remembered hitch in their loins
on summer nights a haggard generation removed from
the stagnant swelter of this, my dying day
it was an unexpected whinny on the wind, perhaps: a neigh; a nicker;
far off, a filly or foal gamboling in the wanton apricot aura of afternoon;
or, possibly, the careless clash of man and machine; some aimless, nameless noise -
i was grazing, gazing at the men with leaf-brown faces
when some glimmer of
gut-wrenching ingrained genetic detritus
spurred me to wild, consanguine flight
my winged hooves against my will,
i was racing, raking along rows of stannic briars;
garroted as green grass ran red -
as the old men’s leathery laughter lashed me on to oblivion
with the hemic buzz of my silvered slaughter
hung in the air like rustling sheaves,
i lowered my head to reproach their gaping faces;
the shriveling, tractor-plowed masks of those drying, dying men –
they who in a lifetime of barren labor had known but a moment’s grace
in the frenzied grip of perfidious procreation
it was then
in that mirrored moment
when at last
It has been argued by many that this poet’s responsorial exceeds its inspiration.
The ‘victim’ here assumes a persona of grandeur that adds multiple layers of dimension
to this tale. Man dies a meaningless death in benumbing existence as this now-winged Pegasus ascends in a triumph of spirit. The story is transformed and we are transformed along with it. This very first poem since adolescence tells us all, in no uncertain terms, that Rich Follett exists, imprimis, to be an exceptional artist.