||J.M. Spalding: You just got back
from Maine, how was your stay?
Henry Taylor: I had a fine few weeks up there. Im gradually
learning to keep Christmas from being a brutal test of my holiday cheers strength
and endurance, so I try to keep things low-key. By coincidence, the weather helped: my
wifes work schedule had some free time in it, but often, ice or snow made those
periods relatively idle.
A couple of factorsthe increased "down time," and my having just put
together the book of clerihewshelped me to stay away from regular work on any
writing project. I sense that Im gearing up, in my inward way, for a new period of
concentration on poems, but while I was finding ways to spin my wheels a little bit, I
bore down on my spring course syllabi in ways that I never have before.
Ive been a somewhat old-style teacher in many ways, having been at it now for
thirty-three years. So my course syllabi have been, if not minimal, at least not
enormously detailed. Basic course objectives, text list, grading standards, calendar of
assignmentsthats been pretty much that. This semester my Advanced Poetry
Workshop syllabus is considerably expanded, and includes a miniature anthology of metrical
examples, supplementary to those in the textJohn Hollanders Rhyme's Reason.
Theres also a slight expansion on my usual remarks to the effect that I dont
believe metrical writing is inherently superior to non-metrical writing; I just believe
that a serious poet should be equipped to make a choice between them, and that sufficient
ignorance or ineptitude in either mode will rob that poet of the chance for genuine
My own experience is that the choice presents itself at some point in the birth of
every poem I write, but I understand and sympathize with writers who have made the choice
in a general way, and have declared a more nearly unswerving loyalty to one mode or the
other. Its a matter of temperament, usually, though literary politics are sometimes
adduced. Anyway, I strongly believe that a poetry classa workshop, if you
willis one place where the teacher/facilitator/group convenor has a responsibility
to maintain hospitality to both modes. That includes deep knowledge not only of the
rewards of working either way, but also of the ways in which each mode can lead to waste
motion, phony rhetoric, automatic moves of one kind or another.
Thinking about these issues as I reworked my syllabus was one way of renewing my
commitment to teaching; I think breaks in the teaching schedule ought to be used that way
some of the time.
How much of what you write is autobiographical?
By some reckoning, all of it, I suppose. But I take you to wonder
whether there are narratives in some of my poems that are based on things that never
happened to me. There are. At some stage in my life, maybe in the early 1980s, I began to
feel some scruples about writing poems in which a speaker not readily distinguishable from
myself reported adventures that I had not had. Before that, I had no trouble with it. I
have written elsewhere about the origins of "Burning a Horse," which is based on
my grandfathers having said to me once, when I was a teenager, "I undertook to
burn up a horse one time. Gosh, that was a project." He was interruptedI forget
howand never told me any more about it, but when I was in my mid-to-late twenties I
wrote the poem, supplying the details simply by asking myself what I would have done at
this stage or that one. There, of course, I relied on experienceof farm life,
horses, dead animals, tractors, brush pile fires, and so onthat I had actually had.
At some point I began to drift away from the purely New Critical stance on which I had
been raised. It is one thing to doubt that readers can always remember to distinguish
between poet and speaker; even in doubt, one may insist on writing as if the distinction
were always going to be made. But some part of me began to resist claiming for myself
experiences that I had heard about or imagined. So in The Flying Change, poems
based on experience other than mine will usually have some quirk of voice to signal that I
am not claiming the experience. "Landscape with Tractor," for instance, is
mostly in the second person, though near the end, somebody says, "And I ask you again
. . ." The fact remains that the majority of my poems arise from moments whose
intensity I have felt deeply, whether vicariously or not.
You write about your father in some of your poems. Could
you talk about him?
It gratifies me to report that my father is still living. Of course that means that you
will be spared such revelations as I might not want him to know I made. He is a man of
remarkable intelligence and presencecharisma might not be too strong a word. He was
a very promising actor in his college days, highly praised by Paul Green, who saw him in
some college production or other. For most of his life he farmed, but he spent several
years in the 1960s and 1970s teaching high school English. He encouraged me very
profoundly and enduringly in my horsemanship, and in my love of literature. For years
before I ever thought of writing any, I knew from his example that poetry was something
interesting and absorbing. The poem called "To Hear My Head Roar" contains, I
believe, not a single invented detail.
From An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards,
your poem "Divorce" is a two-liner: "He travels fastest who travels
alone,/And he kills two birds with one rolling stone." Could you talk about
the poem's significance?
Thats a fairly early poem, again from some time in my mid-twenties. I wrote three
or four epigrams based on twists of old saws, or proverbs, or whatever you want to call
them, and J.V. Cunningham told me that this one was the only one worth keeping around. I
guess its not hard to see what it means. I exited quickly from my early first
marriage, and had a long second one. About five years ago, though, my first wife and I saw
each other after a break of twenty-seven years, and soon decided that the divorce had not
succeeded. We were remarried three years ago.
Under what circumstances do you do your best writing?
The main requirement is to feel okay about neglecting whatever it is Im not doing
instead of writing. At some level, I think, this is about thinking of excuses not to
write, since writing, exhilarating though it may be, is also scary in some ways, and
its usually easier to grade a few papers or pay a few bills or write a few letters
of recommendation, than it is to sit down and start a poem.
It is very easy for me to feel guilty about some not-yet-done task, so getting free of
that is a matter of some small emotional and mental gymnastics. Once Im under way,
its as deeply fine a feeling as I know.
Now, your question includes the word "best," and I confess that I dont
really know whats different in the circumstances around my good writing and those in
which I may write badly. It takes a little while to decide whether something is pretty
good or not; when it isnt, I usually dont look outside the work itself for the
causes of its failure.
Do you use the Internet much? If so, what sites appeal to
At the moment, I have Internet access only at my office at the university, but I use it
heavily there. I check in regularly with Poetry Daily, The Onion,
the Portland (Maine) Newspapers [my wife lives in Maine all the time, and I live there
when I can], two or three of the out-of-print book search sites, and the Perseus
Project. About this last site I cant say enough highly praiseful
things; it is simply stunning what they have managed to do there. If you dont know
it, its a site managed at Tufts under the editorship of Gregory Crane, and it makes
available vast amounts of classical literature, in the original Greek and Latin and in
translation. The original texts are hyperlinked almost word by word, so you can quickly
check the morphology of any single word, and get to a lexical display. It makes those
works miraculously more accessible. They are moving cautiously into the realm of
Renaissance literature as well. Long may they thrive.
There are about 100 sites in my bookmark file right now; many of them are for online
textsGutenberg Project, single authors such as Dickinson, and so on.
Youve appeared in Shenandoah recently. Could
you talk about that journal a little?
Thats one of the journals to which I actually subscribe. It strikes me that even
through the changes in editorship over the years, it has maintained a level of
intellectual and artistic excellence that is quite admirable. Its one of the
journals whose short stories I can count on, by the way. I hasten to add that I cant
take much credit for the magazines quality: Ive been published there four or
five times in the past thirty-four years.
My first encounter with it was in 1964, when I was still an undergraduate; Jim
Boatwright was the editor then, and a teacher of mine, Fred Bornhauser, told him I had
some work Jim ought to see. The eventual result was that "The Horse Show at
Midnight," which turned out later to be the title poem of my first book, appeared
there in the summer 64 issue. In the next couple of years Jim published two more
poems of mine, but then we had a minor falling-out over a review I wrote for him that he
decided not to print, so after 1966 it was a long time before I sent anything there. Then
in the early nineties Dabney Stuart took an essay, a kind of extended review, of Bill
Matthewss work, occasioned by his New and Selected volume. Two years ago, I
gave a reading in Charlottesville, and read a version of "The Hayfork" that
wasnt quite finished. Rod Smith was in the audience, and asked me afterward if he
could publish the poem. I said Id send it when I got it done. I fiddled with it a
little, but probably not enough, and he published it this past summer. Its been many
years nowmost of my adult life. Ive enjoyed reading it, and have kept up with
it more than with any of the other journals I was seeing and submitting to in the early
You have mentioned that youd been writing
Clerihews. Could you talk about that form of verse for the readers?
Nobody is quite sure when the term began to be applied to this odd little verse form,
which was invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley when he was a teenagerwhich would have
been in the mid-1880s. In a chemistry class at St. Johns School, I think in
London, he wrote one day:
Between 1905 and 1939, Bentley, who also wrote several detective novels,
including Trents Last Case, published three books of these four-line,
raggedly-metered miniature biographies. [In which he changed "Abominated" to
"Detested," by the way.] The first line has to be a persons nameor
at least end with a persons nameand the lines are rhymed in couplets. The
meter is supposed to be so absent as to be clunky, but I dont always hold to that; I
just listen for a sound I like. Other writers have done bunches of them; William Jay Smith
hasnt devoted a whole volume to his, but they turn up in his light verse selections;
Auden and Paul Horgan have each done books of them, and Roy Blount, Jr. did a series on
old-time baseball players.
I had a little adventure with a plasma cytoma in my jawbone between April and November
of 1998; I seem to have come through it successfully, but it was quite preoccupying for
several months, and during that time serious poetry seemed to be something I didnt
want much to do with. I could teach it all right, but I didnt feel like writing
anything that had any ordinary seriousness or ambition. Instead, I got on a weird,
sometimes manic roll with these clerihews. It started with an odd one or two, and then
burst into a sequence of a dozen and a half about book reviewers, that I did over two or
three days in June. That led me to think of doing others in categoriesthe British
Poets Laureate, the present nine Justices of the Supreme Court. One of my best friends is
David Slavitt, the poet, novelist, translator, editor, and all-around insanely productive
writer. I was on the phone to him about these things, and every now and then hed
fling me a challenge. The best of those was around the middle of August; I was up in
Maine, and we were on the phone again, and he said, "Ill tell you what. Do the
twelve disciples, and Ill give you that wristwatch George Garrett gave me a few
years go, with a picture of Jesus in the middle and the names of the disciples around the
face." I did them, including Matthias but omitting Thaddeus, in about six or seven
hours. My wife is quite fond of one-volume reference books of all kinds, and has a good
collection, so I was able to compensate for my somewhat sketchy education in this area.
David, by the way, not only delivered the watch, but had the chutzpah to take it out
somewhere to have a new battery put in it. I wear it sometimes on Sundays. The thing about
the disciples is that they dont lend themselves, at least in my mind, to the kind of
dismissive humor that often turns up in clerihews. Its more about the sound of the
If that last line doesnt ring a bell, read the last few verses of the Book
There came a time during this spate when I saw that it truly could become an unhealthy
kind of seizure, so I decided to declare a limit: I would stop working on them on or
before the day of my last radiation treatment, which ended up being in November. By that
time I had about a hundred of the things, and had placed a piece about them in the New
York Times Book Review [Bookend, December 27], and a handful in the Maine Times
[Dec.10]. So I pondered an arrangement, put a book together, and am sending it around. I
blush to admit that Im proud of the title: Brief Candles. Nowadays, I seem to
be pretty much free of the urge; I no longer start thinking of rhymes the moment Im
introduced to someone.
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