Taylor, Henry 1942–
Taylor, Henry 1942–
(Henry Splawn Taylor)
Born June 21, 1942, in Loudoun County, VA; son of Thomas Edward (a farmer and teacher) and Mary (an economist and teacher) Taylor; married third wife, Mooshe, May 23, 2002. Education: University of Virginia, B.A., 1965; Hollins College, M.A., 1966. Religion: Society of Friends.
Home—Pierce County, VA.
Roanoke College, Salem, VA, instructor in English, 1966-68; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, assistant professor of English, 1968-71; American University, Washington, DC, associate professor of literature, 1971-76; professor of literature, 1976-2003; codirector of creative writing program, 1982-2003, director of American studies program, 1983-85. Director, University of Utah Writers' Conference, 1969-72. Writer in residence, Hollins College, 1978.
Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Academy of American Poets prize, University of Virginia, 1962, 1964; Utah State Institute of Fine Arts poetry prize, 1969, 1971; creative writing fellowships, National Endowment of the Arts, 1978-87; research grant, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1980-81; Witter Bynner Prize for poetry, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1984; Pulitzer Prize in poetry, 1986, for The Flying Change: Poems; Michael Braude Prize, American Academy of Art and Letters, 2002; Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, 2004.
The Horse Show at Midnight (poems), Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1966, published with An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards, 1992.
Breakings (poems), Solo Press (San Luis Obispo, CA), 1971.
(And editor) Poetry: Points of Departure (textbook), Winthrop Publishing (Cambridge, MA), 1974.
An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (poems), University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1975.
(Editor) The Water of Light: A Miscellany in Honor of Brewster Ghiselin, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1976.
Desperado (poems), Unicorn, 1979.
The Flying Change: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1985.
Landscape with Tractor (cassette recording), Watershed Foundation, 1985.
(Contributor) The Writing Life (video recording), Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, 1989.
Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1992.
Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1996.
(Translator) Vladimir Levchev, Leaves from the Dry Tree, Cross-Cultural Communications (Merrick, NY), 1996.
(Translator) Vladimir Levchev, Black Book of the Endangered Species, Word Works (Washington, DC), 1999.
Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2000.
Crooked Run: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2006.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1966; Introduction to Poetry, edited by X.J. Kennedy, Little, Brown, 1971; Contemporary Southern Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Guy Owen and Mary C. Williams, Louisiana State University Press, 1979; The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, Illinois University Press, 1982; The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms, Morrow, 1985; The Norton Book of Light Verse, edited by Russell Baker, Norton, 1986; and other anthologies. Contributor to periodicals, including Plume and Sword, Shenandoah, Encounter, Ploughshares and Poetry, Nation, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Hollins Critic, and others. Magill's (Masterplots) Literary Annual, Salem Press, contributor, 1967-86, editorial consultant, 1971-86. Contributing editor, Hollins Critic, 1970—; poetry editor, New Virginia Review, 1989.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his book The Flying Change: Poems, poet Henry Taylor remarked to Joseph McLellan, writing for Washington Post: "The Pulitzer has a funny way of changing people's opinions about it. If you haven't won one, you go around saying things like ‘Well, it's all political’ or ‘It's a lottery’ and stuff like that. I would like to go on record as saying that although I'm deeply grateful and feel very honored, I still believe that it's a lottery and that nobody deserves it." Despite his disbelief that he could earn such a prestigious award, the Pulitzer is not the first major prize Taylor has won. He was also given the Witter Bynner Prize for poetry in 1984. Critics, too, have recognized Taylor's technical skill, which is traditional in its form, and his aptitude for poetic insight. "Taylor," declared George Garrett in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "was from the first a skilled and demanding craftsman,"; His poems have "all the ring and authority of an American Hardy, intensely aware of the darkness that moves around us and in us," wrote Richard Dillard in the Hollins Critic.
In addition to this awareness, Taylor also has a sense for the comic. Indeed, the poet has remarked that he was first recognized as the author of several verse parodies that he submitted to the magazine Sixties. "I was mildly nettled to find that they were better known, at least among poets, than anything else I had done," Taylor reflected in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. These parodies, along with other poems, appear in the author's first poetry collection, The Horse Show at Midnight. This book also contains poems concerned with the unavoidable changes people must go through in life, a theme that dominates many of Taylor's verses. Dillard explained: "Henry Taylor has for all his poetic career been drawn inexorably to questions of time and mutability, of inevitable and painful change in even the most fixed and stable of circumstances." The conflict between a desire for life to remain constant and predictable and the realization of the necessity for change in the form of aging, personal growth, and death creates a tension in Taylor's poems that is also present in his other collections, including An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards. Dillard called this third collection, which contains all the poems previously published in Breakings, Taylor's "best work" up to that time, "clearly marking growth and progress to match his own changes in the years since The Horse Show at Midnight."
A lover of horses since his childhood in rural Virginia, Taylor uses an equestrian term for the title of his fifth book of poems, The Flying Change. The name refers to the mid-air change of leg, or lead, a horse may sometimes make while cantering. Several of the poems contained in the collection describe similarly unexpected changes that occur in the course of otherwise predictable lives spent in relaxed, countryside settings. "Thus in the best poems here," commented New York Times Book Review contributor Peter Stitt, "we find something altogether different from the joys of preppy picnicking. Mr. Taylor seeks for his poetry [a] kind of unsettling change, [a] sort of rent in the veil of ordinary life." Some examples of this in The Flying Change are the poems "Landscape with Tractor," in which the narrator discovers a corpse in a field, and "At the Swings," in which the poet reflects on his cancer-stricken mother-in-law while pushing his sons on a swing set. Other poems in the book explore the effects of such incidents as a small herd of deer suddenly interrupting the peace of a lazy day in which the narrator has been reflecting on his old age, or the surprise of seeing a horse rip its neck on a barbed wire fence.
A number of critics, like Washington Times reviewer Reed Whittemore, lauded Taylor's calm thoughtfulness in these and other poems, comparing it to the tone of other current poets. "Much contemporary verse is now so flighty," wrote Whittemore, "so persistently thoughtless, that in contrast the steadiness of [The Flying Change], its persistence in exploring the mental dimensions of a worthwhile moment, is particularly striking, a calmness in the unsettled poetic weather." Other critics, like Poetry contributor David Shapiro, also complimented the writer on his sensitivity to the atmosphere of the countryside. "Taylor is a poet of white clapboard houses that have existed ‘longer / than anyone now alive,’" observed Shapiro, quoting the poet. "That is why Taylor can be such a satisfactory poet," the reviewer concluded.
Taylor followed The Flying Change with Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, a collection that Booklist contributor Ray Olson compared favorably to the narrative poetry of Whittier and Frost. Taylor is able to find "precisely the words and rhythms that compel accepting the incident described as epiphanic, unforgettable," commented Olson. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, considered many of the poems in this collection mediocre or almost banal. But the critic found the book's best poems distinguished by "graceful clarity and perception."
Even though he has written award-winning verses, Taylor remains relatively unnoticed among his peers. According to Garrett and others, this lack of popularity is due to Taylor's nonconformist approach. The critic continued: "In forms and content, style and substance, he is not so much out of fashion as deliberately, determinedly unfashionable. His love of form is (for the present) unfashionable. His sense of humor, which does not spare himself, is unfashionable. His preference for country life, in the face of the fact that the best known of his contemporaries are bunched up in several urban areas, cannot have made them, the others, feel easy about him, or themselves for that matter. They have every good reason to try to ignore him." Whittemore compares Taylor's technically well-ordered style and leisurely reflections of life to the poetry of Robert Frost and Howard Nemerov. "Among 20th-century poets," Whittemore concluded, "Mr. Taylor is … trying to carry on with this old and honorable, but now unfavored, mission of the art. He enjoys such reflections, reaching (but modestly) for what, remember, we even used to call wisdom."
Taylor's Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews demonstrates his enduring interest in unusual poetic forms. The book includes 101 four-line light verse pieces known as clerihews. The form is named for its originator, E.C(lerihew) Bentley, who allegedly wrote the first one during a high school chemistry class in London in the 1880s. As quoted by Taylor in an interview with Cortland Review Web site contributor J.M. Spalding, this poem reads: "Sir Humphrey Davy / Abominated gravy. / He lived in the odium / Of having discovered sodium." Consisting of two rhymed couplets, the clerihew features a first line that ends with a person's name. Because this word is likely to be difficult to rhyme with, the remainder of the poem—which must follow the couplet rhyme pattern—presents opportunities for unusual and often comic linguistic juxtapositions. Ray Olson, reviewing Brief Candles in Booklist, commended the book as a work of great fun.
As Taylor explained to Spalding, formal considerations provide the poet with opportunities as well as challenges. The difficulty of working out a complexly structured stanza, he said, can be a relief from the emotional weight of the poem. "I think it's too easy," he commented, "to write, every now and then, a poem too dependent on the intrinsic power of its topic, and not dependent enough on the resources of poetry, which lift the composition out of the realm of mere saying into the realm of doing and being."
In Crooked Run: Poems Taylor presents poems about the people who settled near Crooked Run Creek, his ancestral home. Antioch Review contributor Benjamin S. Grossberg enjoyed the way in which repeated references create a sense of history in the book, and also the way in which Taylor examines the subject of recovering the past. The book's meditative power, wrote Grossberg, sets Crooked Run apart as an "impressive" work. Booklist writer Ray Olson also gave the book high praise, noting Taylor's skill in creating fully realized characters "through imagery and carefully chosen incident."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 7, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 44, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Antioch Review, fall, 2006, Benjamin S. Grossberg, review of Crooked Run: Poems, p. 828.
Booklist, September 1, 1996, Ray Olson, review of Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996, p. 57; February 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews, p. 1074; March 1, 2006, Ray Olson, review of Crooked Run, p. 56.
Hollins Critic, April, 1986, Richard Dillard, review of The Flying Change: Poems.
New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1986, Peter Stitt, review of The Flying Change.
Poetry, March, 1987, David Shapiro, review of The Flying Change.
Publishers Weekly, August 26, 1996, review of Understanding Fiction, p. 93.
Washington Post, April 19, 1986; Joseph McLellan, review of The Flying Change.
Washington Times, March 24, 1986, Reed Whittemore, review of The Flying Change.
World Literature Today, January 1, 2000, review of Black Book of the Endangered Species, p. 191.
Cortland Review,http://www.cortlandreview.com/ (June 10, 2008), J.M. Spalding, interview with Taylor.