February 1999

Henry Taylor


Henry Taylor

Mark Bibbins
  Sharon Cumberland
  Philip Dacey
  Daniela Gioseffi
  Brent Goodman
  Mark Halperin
  Ben Howard
  Stellasue Lee
  Linda Lerner
  John McKernan
  DeWayne Rail
  David Rigsbee
  Peter Robinson
  Terry Savoie
  Joseph Stanton
  Mary Winters

David Grayson

Lloyd Schwartz

Rosa Shand
  Daniela Gioseffi

Henry Taylor Henry 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.

Henry Taylor's Signature

[Part 2] ...continued

<< back

In your own work, what subjects do you try to avoid?

It’s not always easy to be sure whether some subject or other is something I’m trying to avoid, or is merely something which, because of my background and temperament, I’m just not drawn to. The urban experience, for example, is not my experience except intermittently and vicariously, so when I write about the city, it’s always from the point of view of some sort of outsider, and not always a very sympathetic one.

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 haven’t really had.

I’ll 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 the future?

Henry TaylorFor various reasons, I suspect that more of my poems will be tightly, even challengingly, formal for the next while-of-unpredictable-length. I haven’t 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.

I’m not just talking about the difficulty of composition, either. I think it’s 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 your writing?

Teaching may be my primary vocation. It feels weird to say that, since one hears how important it is to put one’s 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 couldn’t 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?

It’s 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 out—which I’m 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. That’s 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 sometimes—not quite thoughtfully, maybe—mentioned in connection with him; the people called Language Poets do a lot of work that most of the time doesn’t interest me.

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, I’ve 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 of—well, I was going to say thought, but I won’t—to the effect that some people have had enough prizes now, so let’s go see what we can hand out in the lower grades. William Jay Smith’s new retrospective collection, The World Below the Window, is just terrific, and Merwin’s huge Hawaiian poem (The Folding Cliffs), though I’ve 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 don’t 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 haven’t detected a rise in their readership. But there’s 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 Virginia—which 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 Moments.

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 University’s 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 issue’s contents—an amazing procedure by today’s lights, yet one from which many current magazines could perhaps benefit.

That afternoon, then, Kelly Cherry read aloud to us a longish poem—maybe four single-spaced pages—that 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, we’ll say. I was nineteen.

It wasn’t long after that that Kelly became involved in the informal poetry seminar, led by Fred Bornhauser, that David and his brother Steve—a classmate of mine—had helped to get started the year before.

A little digression here might not hurt. It’s 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 affirmation.

Kelly and I didn’t 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 don’t entirely know. There’s always a brief period of readjustment at either end of my commuter-marriage road, and I’m 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 week.

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 don’t 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. I’m one of the contributing editors for The Hollins Critic; the December issue had in it my essay on John Haines, and I’ve just agreed to submit in August an essay on Mary Jo Salter.


<< back



Henry Taylor: Interview with J.M. Spalding [Part II]

Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review