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Here at Poetry, we’re celebrating the new year along with readers everywhere; but 2012 marks a particularly important year for us. As we write in a note to our January 2012 issue, it has now been a full century since that intrepid and ingenious woman, Harriet Monroe, founded a small but seismic magazine for modern poetry. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Marianne Moore: the story is well-known by this point.
Much has changed in a hundred years, of course, though Monroe’s commitment to eclecticism (“The Open Door,” as she called it), critical rigor, and general decency have been bedrock principles even for the editors who sometimes fell short of them. In the next twelve months we’ll look back at some of the highlights and lowlights of these hundred years, though it won’t be a primary focus. Centenary celebrations can be a lot of bother and blather, as our editor Christian Wiman says, for those outside the institutions having them, so our goal is to mark the occasion in the magazine and here on the website with a few well-chosen features that we think readers will find interesting, and get on with our main business of discovery.
Sadly, we must also mark the changing of the year with news of the passing of 2010 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner and longtime Poetry contributor, Eleanor Ross Taylor, who died on Friday, December 30, 2011. At 91, she was nearly as old as the magazine, hard as it is to believe. We devoted a special feature to her in our May 2010 issue, in which Chris Wiman observed:
You can’t read [Taylor’s] 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 her stunning poem, “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.
A sad evocation, it turns out, of the open door; please visit this link for a tab you can click on to read – and listen to – more of her work. Here’s one of my own favorites, “Against the Kitchen Wall.”
A mothball May.I lean against the kitchen wall.The sacred pear tree on the hill.The skyline, small green wheatwaverunning with the wind.From west to east the green’sspanned out by menon horseback and on foot,men with long staffsslow-motion, searching.The saddles glint.What are they sweeping for?Why coming this direction?Are those staffs guns?If they are after quail, or hares,why is their fanning law-enforcement grim,as for a felon, a missing person, orone too imbecile to find her way?One who laid wastethe safe place by the kitchen wall,bankrupted her May day,malpracticed pear and gifted wheat?I’m waiting, men.