Henry Taylor

b. 1942
After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his book, The Flying Change: Poems, poet Henry Taylor remarked to Joseph McLellan of the 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," declares George Garrett in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "was from the first a skilled and demanding craftsman"; and his poems have "all the ring and authority of an American Hardy, intensely aware of the darkness that moves around us and in us," writes Richard Dillard in the Hollins Critic.

In addition to this awareness, however, 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 which 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 reflects 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 which dominates many of Taylor's verses. Dillard explains: "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 ageing, 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 calls 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," comments 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, laud 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," says 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 compliment 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,'" observes Shapiro, who quotes the poet. "That is why Taylor can be such a satisfactory poet," the reviewer concludes.

But 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 continues: "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 concludes, "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."

Career

Roanoke College, Salem, Va., instructor in English, 1966-68; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, assistant professor of English, 1968-71; American University, Washington, D.C., associate professor of literature, 1971-76; professor of literature, 1976—; co-director of creative writing program, 1982—, director of American studies program, 1983-85. Director, University of Utah Writers' Conference, 1969-72. Writer in residence, Hollins College, 1978.

Bibliography

  • The Horse Show at Midnight (poems), Louisiana State University Press, 1966, published with An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards,1992.
  • Breakings(poems), Solo Press, 1971.
  • (And editor) Poetry: Points of Departure(textbook), Winthrop Publishing, 1974.
  • An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards(poems), University of Utah Press, 1975.
  • (Editor) The Water of Light: A Miscellany in Honor of Brewster Ghiselin,University of Utah Press, 1976.
  • Desperado(poems), Unicorn, 1979.
  • (Translator with Robert A. Brooks) Euripides, The Children of Herakles,edited by William Arrowsmith, Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • The Flying Change: Poems,Louisiana State University Press, 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, 1992.
  • Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996,Louisiana State University, 1996.
  • (Translator) Leaves From the Dry Tree,Cross-Cultural Communications, 1996.
  • Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews, Louisiana State University, 2000.
Also author of Writing for Computers: A Real Book for Real Writers. 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 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—, editorial consultant, 1971—. Contributing editor, Hollins Critic, 1970-77; poetry editor, New Virginia Review, 1989.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series,Volume 7, Gale, 1988.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Volume 44, Gale, 1987.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale, 1980.
PERIODICALS
  • Hollins Critic,April, 1986.
  • Hudson Review,fall, 1986.
  • New York Times Book Review,May 4, 1986.
  • Poetry,March, 1987.
  • Times Literary Supplement,August 18, 1966, April 30, 1982.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review,summer, 1966.
  • Washington Post,April 19, 1986.
  • Washington Times, March 24, 1986.

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

LIFE SPAN 1942–

Biography

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his book, The Flying Change: Poems, poet Henry Taylor remarked to Joseph McLellan of the 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 . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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