THE CORTLAND REVIEW
Taylor teaches literature and co-directs the MFA program in creative writing at American
University in Washington, DC. His third collection of poetry, The Flying Change,
received the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
||In your own work, what subjects do you try
Its not always easy to be sure whether some subject or other is something
Im trying to avoid, or is merely something which, because of my background and
temperament, Im just not drawn to. The urban experience, for example, is not my
experience except intermittently and vicariously, so when I write about the city,
its always from the point of view of some sort of outsider, and not always a very
But your question, because of the word "try," seems to be getting at whether
I sometimes have a poem occur to me, and decide against pursuing it because its subject
matter seems to me somehow . . . what? Distasteful?
I think it is true that in the past twenty years or so I have been more careful than I
was at the beginning about publishing poems that might trouble other people for personal
reasons. I also tend to be unwilling, as I said earlier, to write poems that seem to
suggest my having had an experience I havent really had.
Ill go on a little about that last point, keeping in mind that you might want to
ask a clarifying follow-up. When I was starting out, I discovered the power of the
soliloquy or dramatic monologue, not through Browning, actually, but through a reading by
Robert Watson, whose poems spoken by fictional characters fell on my ears at exactly the
right time, and opened an important door for me. Once in a while there followed a poem
whose voice and manner did not immediately suggest a speaker other than myself, and it
would tell about some powerful event that I had not actually experienced. I let it go, and
when people asked if that happened to me, I said no, but that I felt all right about using
fiction in the making of poems.
More recently, I have shied away from poems that would seem to claim for me experiences
that I have had only indirectly. Or I have tried to write them so the question whether the
experience was actually mine is somehow answered in the text.
Obviously, the last few years of your life have been
quite eventful in many ways. This being the case, where do you envision your work going in
reasons, I suspect that more of my poems will be tightly, even challengingly, formal for
the next while-of-unpredictable-length. I havent given much consideration to how
that suspicion might arise from my recent rearrangements of my personal life, but it could
probably be argued that difficult formal problems make it more bearable to work with poems
that are difficult emotionally or personally. If I get down into an elaborate stanza, I
can stop having it in the front of my mind that the matter of the poem is in any way
harrowing for me.
Im not just talking about the difficulty of composition, either. I think
its too easy 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. I mentioned
earlier that I expect to be putting in a certain amount of time with Sophocles over the
next several years.
How have teaching and various grants and awards helped
Teaching may be my primary vocation. It feels weird to say that, since one hears how
important it is to put ones art above everything else. There are aspects of the
teaching profession that I fall in and out of love with; this year I have determined that
I may never again be involved in rank and tenure deliberations. I hasten to add that I
have reached this conclusion, not because of some distasteful recent experience with such
deliberations, but because a medical situation freed me from those meetings this fall, and
led me to the accidental discovery that seven weeks of radiation for a cancer in the
jawbone compare very favorably to a fall semester of rank and tenure committee meetings,
and have amounted, in fact, to a positive and rejuvenating experience. Because I make my
living from a profession other than writing, I am free to write what I can, without much
regard for its potential in the marketplace. I find that a liberating circumstance. Among
my resent projects, for example, is a translation of Sophocles Women of Trachis. I
have no idea whether anyone would publish it any time soon, especially in view of the fine
job my friend Brendan Galvin has done with the play in the Penn Greek Drama Series. I did
Electra for the same volume that his WT is in, and got excited about working with
Sophocles, and take a lot of solace from my occasional sessions of something like
collaboration with him. I am of course mostly inventing the sensibility I feel behind his
words, given my very rudimentary grip on his language. But if I had to worry about who
would buy what I write, I couldnt have those hours with Sophocles. Or with my own
poems, maybe, though my poems are in large part responsible for my having the job I have,
and for the extra-curricular income I enjoy from readings and lectures and brief
workshops. Grants provide time, and time leads to a slight increase in the volume of the
output, though probably not in the quality. Awards are validations that, taken with the
rightly small amount of seriousness, help me feel all right about doing what I do. I would
be okay without the awards, I think, but I feel more secure in a risky choice when
respectable strangers support me in it.
What is your reaction to the current direction of poetry?
Its impossible for me to think of current poetry as having only one direction.
There is so much poetry of so many kinds being written and published now, and there are so
many different ways in which its presence is felt, ignored, accounted for, and so on, that
bewilderment would be an appropriate response to anyone trying hard to figure it all
outwhich Im not doing. On those increasingly rare occasions when I am asked to
teach some sort of course in contemporary American poetry, I select three or four poets to
read in depth, and may do a little context-setting in the classroom. The days are gone
when I could with any confidence offer some sort of survey.
The last time I did such a course, it was an M.A.-level seminar, and we did Richard
Wilbur, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Jackson Mac Low. Thats not a spectacularly diverse
threesome, but the superficial differences among them are sufficient to make interesting
those many things they have in common.
I find Mac Low much more interesting than most of the younger poets who are
sometimesnot quite thoughtfully, maybementioned in connection with him; the
people called Language Poets do a lot of work that most of the time doesnt interest
It may be that the so-called New Formalists are at the other end of some straight line
from the Language Poets; in any case, Ive not been entirely able to be quietly
respectful of the claims some of them have made for themselves, though some of the people
who turn up in their anthologies have written some very fine poems.
There seems to me, in all this welter of variety, to be an unfortunate tendency to
guard too zealously against recognizing the Establishment. The last round of nominations
for the National Book Award included some friends of mine, so I regret complaining; but it
looks to me as if this particular jury decided on the face of it to avoid poets with very
large reputations. Notable omissions from this category include William Jay Smith and W.
S. Merwin. There is a school ofwell, I was going to say thought, but I
wontto the effect that some people have had enough prizes now, so lets
go see what we can hand out in the lower grades. William Jay Smiths new
retrospective collection, The World Below the Window, is just terrific, and
Merwins huge Hawaiian poem (The Folding Cliffs), though Ive read only
about a third of it, is amazing so far. I see nothing wrong with saying that someone who
has been widely praised deserves more praise because of some wonderful new work. There
seems to be a notion abroad, though, that these honors need to be more widely distributed.
I dont know whether it arises from some misplaced sense of fairness, or a fear of
the judgment of history, about which we hear so much lately from other quarters.
But to return to my opening theme: it is a fine time, I think, to be alive and reading
poetry in English, or Anglo-American. And I sense that, at some levels, there is a rise in
the readership of poetry. I realize that when I say that, I will offend those who
havent detected a rise in their readership. But theres a lot of pleasure to be
had out there.
Kelly Cherry has been a friend of yours for many years.
Could you talk about your friendship with her?
Kelly Cherry and I met some time in my second year at the University of
Virginiawhich was her first year there as a graduate student in philosophy. The
circumstances were memorable, and have in hindsight the look of one of those Literary
A fourth-year philosophy major, David Barney, had started a magazine the year before,
called Plume and Sword. It was a literary magazine that was trying to be independent of
the Universitys imprimatur, and I was involved in it, first as an enthusiastic
gofer, and a few years later as editor, from a fairly early point in its existence. David
encountered Kelly on some philosophical ground or other, discovered that she was a poet,
and brought her to one of the editorial meetings where we habitually heard a raft of
submissions read aloud, then voted on the next issues contentsan amazing
procedure by todays lights, yet one from which many current magazines could perhaps
That afternoon, then, Kelly Cherry read aloud to us a longish poemmaybe four
single-spaced pagesthat struck us as daring both in conception and in language, and
we instantly accepted it. It turns out not to be a poem that Kelly has since collected,
but that does not diminish for me the sense I had that day that we were in the presence of
a rare and original talent. This was probably in the fall, so 1961, well say. I was
It wasnt long after that that Kelly became involved in the informal poetry
seminar, led by Fred Bornhauser, that David and his brother Stevea classmate of
minehad helped to get started the year before.
A little digression here might not hurt. Its hard to realize, in the current
climate that enables creative writing to thrive in academic settings, that there was no
creative writing course being taught regularly at the University of Virginia in the late
50s and very early 60s. Mr. Faulkner was our Writer in Residence, but he did no formal
teaching and read no student work. Things changed dramatically in the fall of 1963, when
George Garrett first came to the University, but in the late fall of 1960, when the Barney
brothers and I and Richard Dillard and L.W. Powell and a few others sat down to take our
first informal versifying assignment from Fred Bornhauser, there was no pay for him and no
credit for us. Yet that seminar was profoundly important to me, by way of instruction and
Kelly and I didnt really become close friends until the following year, and not
long afterward there was a group of us that hung out together quite a lot. We had as our
center, pretty soon, the creative writing course that George Garrett taught. All of us
were in one way or another involved in the anthology George put together, The Girl in the
Black Raincoat, that started in his class and grew to include quite a number of
established writers, including Leslie Fiedler, Carolyn Kizer, May Sarton, William
Manchester, and others I will soon be sorry not to have mentioned.
What happens now to Henry Taylor?
Of course I dont entirely know. Theres always a brief period of
readjustment at either end of my commuter-marriage road, and Im keenly aware right
now that I have just had a strenuous first week of the second semester, normal startup
stresses having been increased by our having interviewed three job candidates this past
But as I said earlier in the course of our exchanges, I have a vague feeling that I am
heading into a time when I will be confronting new or heightened technical challenges,
that I will somehow be tightening the formal screws on myself just a little. I dont
know exactly what that will mean; it seems unlikely that I would want to do again the
kinds of elaborate stanzas that I started doing in An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards.
And I look forward to going back to Sophocles, and to occasional extended prose
considerations of other poets. Im one of the contributing editors for The Hollins
Critic; the December issue had in it my essay on John Haines, and Ive just
agreed to submit in August an essay on Mary Jo Salter.