Taylor, Henry (Splawn)
TAYLOR, Henry (Splawn)
Nationality: American. Born: Loudoun County, Virginia, 21 June 1942. Education: University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1960–65,B.A. in English 1965; Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia, 1965–66,M.A. in English and Creative Writing 1966. Family: Married 1) Sarah Spencer Bean in 1965 (divorced 1967); 2) Frances Carney in 1968 (divorced 1995), two sons; 3) Sarah Spencer in 1995. Career: Instructor, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, 1966–68; assistant professor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1968–71; associate professor, 1971–75, and since 1975 professor, The American University, Washington, D.C. Writer-in-residence, Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia, spring 1978; distinguished poet-in-residence, Wichita State University, Kansas, spring 1994, and Randolph-Macon Woman's College, 1997. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978, 1986; Witter Bynner Poetry award, 1984; Pulitzer prize, 1986, for The Flying Change.Member: Academy of American Poets, Fellowship of Southern Writers. Address: P.O. Box 23, Lincoln, Virginia 20161–0023, U.S.A.
The Horse Show at Midnight: Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1966.
Breakings. San Luis Obispo, California, The Solo Press, 1971.
The Flying Change. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986–1996. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Editor, with Frank N. Magill, Magill's (Masterplots) Literary Annual 1972, 1973, 1974. Englewood Cliffs, Salem Press, 1972, 1974, 1975.
Editor, The Water of Light: A Miscellany in Honor of Brewster Ghiselin. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1976.
Translator, The Weevil [Plautus], in Complete Roman Drama. Balti-more, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Translator, Leaves from the Dry Tree, by Vladimir Levchev. Merrick, New York, Cross-Cultural Communications, 1997.
Translator, Electra, by Sophocles. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Translator, Black Book of the Endangered Species, by Vladimir Levchev. Washington, D.C., Word Works, 1999.*
Bibliography: Henry Taylor: A Bibliographic Chronicle, 1961–87 by Stuart Wright, in Bulletin of Bibliography 45(2), June 1988.
Henry Taylor comments:
The landscape of rural northern Virginia, and the equestrian sports that thrive there, have both been central to my life and my writing. Though it has been years since I rode competitively, the images and sensations of those days, and the recollection that I have communicated deeply with other creatures without using any words, have given me my own sense of the place of language in human experience. Possibly under the additional influence of my Quaker faith and upbringing, I try to encourage the poem's tendency to drift from speech toward a more nearly silent existence. But my belief in what I am doing always meets a severe test in any statement of mine about what I have done or am doing.
However, there can be no doubt of the importance to my work of various writers and mentors, including but certainly not limited to Fred Bornhauser, R.H.W. Dillard, Fred Chappell, Kelly Cherry, George Garrett, May Sarton, David Slavitt, Carolyn Kizer, William Jay Smith, Robert Watson, Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch, Maxine Kumin, and others whose work, example, and friendship have helped me toward better work and better commitment to it.* * *
Over the years the poetry of Henry Taylor has revealed itself to be very much of a piece. Although he first became known for witty parodies of other poets, which Robert Bly published in The Sixties, and has continued to write poems which arise from an essentially classical sense of satire and humor, his is a poetry that draws its real strength not so much from his formal skills, his intelligence, and his wit, all of which are considerable, but rather from an inescapable moral and metaphysical tension that informs it line by line. The characters and speakers of Taylor's poems are always pulling away from something and being drawn back to it, seeking something lost or never found while accepting a life without it, or being perpetually wounded by the inexorable movement of time but forcing themselves to examine and reexamine its wearing away of their lives.
The title poem of his Pulitzer prizewinning third book, The Flying Change (1985), brings this tension sharply into focus as it describes a riding maneuver in which a horse can change leads during a moment of suspension in the air, a maneuver made more difficult by the weight of the rider. "The aim of teaching a horse to move beneath you is to remind him how he moved when he was free," the poems says, but it goes on to extend that perception into a meditation about time and loss and freedom:
A single leaf turns sideways in the wind
in time to save a remnant of the day;
I am lifted like a whipcrack to the moves
I studied on that barbered stretch of ground,
before I schooled myself to drift away
from skills I still possess, but must outlive.
Sometimes when I cup water in my hands
and watch it slip away and disappear,
I see that age will make my hands a sieve;
but for a moment the shifting world suspends
its flight and leans toward the sun once more,
as if to interrupt its mindless plunge
through works and days that will not come again.
I hold myself immobile in bright air,
sustained in time astride the flying change.
Even in the poems of his precocious first collection, The Horse Show at Midnight (1966), which was published before his twenty-fourth birthday, Taylor wrote of characters (often much older than himself) who are striding the flying change, learning their limitations, understanding what they can do and charting the boundaries of what they cannot, living, as he puts it in "A Blind Man Locking His House," in "the weather of despair" without giving in to despair. In his second book, An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (1975), he continued his exploration of the tension between freedom and restraint in a more directly personal vein. Early in the collection, for example, he writes in "Goodbye to the Old Friends" of his turning away from the traditions and Quaker beliefs of his family, but later in the book, in "Return to the Old Friends," he finds himself back among the Friends, trying to recall "the force I was opposing/in my father's calm eyes as I fled rejoicing," even as he takes up again the burden of the past and the healing fact of his belief.
Time and again in his poems Taylor returns to the image of home as the place where one's wild freedom is painfully broken but also as the place toward which one blindly makes one's way through the dangerous dark. No wonder that so many of the central metaphors of his most personal work are drawn from the schooling of horses, the art of restraining wildness without losing its beauty and power. It also is not surprising that his is a poetry which, even though it is often violent and nakedly realistic, is usually written in traditional forms. Not since Edwin Arlington Robinson has an American poet consistently written narratives of such unrestrained emotional force in such disciplined and formal verse.
Taylor's later poems of lost and recovered love, which have appeared in journals, make it clear that he is continuing to explore and develop the central themes of his work. "Understanding Fiction," the tentative title of his next collection, shows that he has lost none of his sense of humor and daring. Together, these books should make clear what the Pulitzer revealed to many readers who were unfamiliar with his work—that Henry Taylor is a poet whose deeply felt, superbly crafted poems form a body of work which cannot be ignored in any serious assessment of contemporary American poetry.