The winner of this year’s Ruth Lilly Prize is Eleanor Ross Taylor. I suspect the name will be unfamiliar to a number of our readers, the work to even more. Until the excellent selected poems, Captive Voices, was published by lsu Press last year, virtually all of Taylor’s work was out of print. Her slow production (six books in fifty years), dislike for poetry readings (“It seems to me that it’s all for the person and not the poetry”), and unfashionable fidelity to narrative and clarity haven’t helped matters. And yet, as is so often the case, what’s been bad for the career has been good for the poems. With their intricately odd designs and careful, off-kilter music, their vital characters and volatile silences, the poems have a hard-won, homemade fatedness to them. You can feel their future, in a sense: that they have one, I mean.
That’s not to say that the subtle idiosyncracies of Taylor’s voice are easy to hear. We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and her voice has been muted from the start. Muted, not quiet. The distinction is crucial, for one of the first things you notice about Taylor’s voice—along with that reserve, that interiority—is its authority. She may be diffident about her poetry (it’s one of her most winning qualities in interviews), but she is confident about its execution. Life may have backed her into a corner, but in art the terms are all hers:
If they are after quail, or hares,
why is their fanning law-enforcement grim,
as for a felon, a missing person, or
one too imbecile to find her way?
One who laid waste
the safe place by the kitchen wall,
bankrupted her May day,
malpracticed pear and gifted wheat?
I’m waiting, men.
It’s almost impossible not to read a passage like this from a feminist perspective, and indeed that’s how much of Taylor’s work has been read: the intelligent young woman whose nascent artistic ambitions were curtailed by family and social expectations (married to the novelist Peter Taylor, she was forever surrounded by powerful literary men); the impulse to write fiction (Taylor set out wanting to be a novelist herself) forced into the more manageable (because less time-consuming) form of poetry. It’s an old story, and a sad story, which makes it all the more striking how thoroughly Taylor rejects it. “I never experienced that,” she says when asked about being discriminated against as a woman artist, and goes on to credit the men in her life—notably Randall Jarrell, who wrote the introduction to her first book—with nurturing the work she was reluctant to give herself over to.
There is an interesting dynamic here, one that goes not only to the heart of Taylor’s work but to the very heart of what it means to be human. You can’t read these poems without feeling the pent-up energy in them, the focused, even frustrated compression, and then the occasional clear lyric fury. And yet you can’t read them without feeling, as well, a bracing sense of spiritual largesse and some great inner liberty. Contemporary Americans have such a fetish for the realization and refining of the self, but in fact, in the ways that most matter, we don’t choose life, life chooses us. Or rather, the life that is ours, the life in which we are truly and fully ourselves, sometimes happens inside of circumstances that seem to be bending, even crushing, what we think of as autonomy and self-determination. “An emigrant from the mother tongue / To say-so in the silent one,” Taylor writes in “Woman as Artist.” And then, wrenchingly, this:
When I first gave the question life,
The howling naked question life,
Did I not have some inkling of the answer,
And the answer answered.
The door that closed across the room
As my door opened?
It’s this tension between self and circumstance that I find most moving in Taylor’s work, this sense of necessity impressing itself upon a sensibility that is determined to register its own deformations, and in so doing making those deformations into something almost opposite, something clear and focused and formed. You can feel this slow molding of character in the textures of the poems themselves. Words seem to spontaneously evolve from the force of experience and observation (“outdure,” “Moonskrit,” “micewise”); rhymes are more like painful pressure points than reassuring chimes (see “Kitchen Fable”); and stories are at once coherent and fractured, as in the stunning title poem too long for us to include here, “Captive Voices.” The effect is of a slow and difficult melding of mind and material. The material is language, of course, but it is also, for this poet, a life.
And life is, finally, where any discussion of Eleanor Ross Taylor should begin and end. By all accounts—including her own—Taylor’s life has been full and capacious and treasured. She has raised children and sustained long friendships. She was happily married for fifty-one years and in that time lived deeply within—and, we can now see, cannily slant to—a high-octane literary milieu. That her work often realizes and gives voice to an essential loneliness that is at the heart of making art is no paradox: that loneliness, even for the liveliest among us, is at the heart of being conscious, and being human. This tension—or balance, really—between life and art is why, however desperate or “captive” her subjects, one never leaves her poems feeling those qualities. Instead, there is a sober and clear-eyed serenity to the poems, which flowers most fully in the later work—like, say, “Te Deum.” Notice, in this poem, how expertly and instinctively Taylor has fused fragments of an African-American spiritual with her own Lorine Niedecker-like feel for the skeletal structure of English. And note—this above all—how simply and clearly and truly this voice, out of much suffering, sings:
Whether born of kiss sublime,
victim’s terror, rapist crime, and
Lord, good . . . sho been