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 1]

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J.M. Spalding: You just got back from Maine, how was your stay?

Henry Taylor:  I had a fine few weeks up there. I’m gradually learning to keep Christmas from being a brutal test of my holiday cheer’s strength and endurance, so I try to keep things low-key. By coincidence, the weather helped: my wife’s work schedule had some free time in it, but often, ice or snow made those periods relatively idle.

A couple of factors—the increased "down time," and my having just put together the book of clerihews—helped me to stay away from regular work on any writing project. I sense that I’m 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.

I’ve 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 assignments—that’s 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 text—John Hollander’s Rhyme's Reason. There’s also a slight expansion on my usual remarks to the effect that I don’t 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 choice.

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. It’s a matter of temperament, usually, though literary politics are sometimes adduced. Anyway, I strongly believe that a poetry class—a workshop, if you will—is 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 grandfather’s 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 interrupted—I forget how—and 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 experience—of farm life, horses, dead animals, tractors, brush pile fires, and so on—that 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 presence—charisma 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?

That’s 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 it’s 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 I’m 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 it’s 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 I’m under way, it’s as deeply fine a feeling as I know.

Now, your question includes the word "best," and I confess that I don’t really know what’s 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 isn’t, I usually don’t look outside the work itself for the causes of its failure.


Do you use the Internet much? If so, what sites appeal to you?

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 can’t say enough highly praiseful things; it is simply stunning what they have managed to do there. If you don’t know it, it’s 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 texts—Gutenberg Project, single authors such as Dickinson, and so on.


You’ve appeared in Shenandoah recently. Could you talk about that journal a little?

That’s 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. It’s one of the journals whose short stories I can count on, by the way. I hasten to add that I can’t take much credit for the magazine’s quality: I’ve 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 Matthews’s 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 wasn’t quite finished. Rod Smith was in the audience, and asked me afterward if he could publish the poem. I said I’d send it when I got it done. I fiddled with it a little, but probably not enough, and he published it this past summer. It’s been many years now—most of my adult life. I’ve 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 sixties.


You have mentioned that you’d 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 teenager—which would have been in the mid-1880’s. In a chemistry class at St. John’s School, I think in London, he wrote one day:

Henry Taylor discusses and reads a Clerihew
Henry's brief lecture on the Clerihew
Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered Sodium.

Between 1905 and 1939, Bentley, who also wrote several detective novels, including Trent’s 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 person’s name—or at least end with a person’s name—and the lines are rhymed in couplets. The meter is supposed to be so absent as to be clunky, but I don’t always hold to that; I just listen for a sound I like. Other writers have done bunches of them; William Jay Smith hasn’t 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 didn’t want much to do with. I could teach it all right, but I didn’t 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 categories—the 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 he’d 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, "I’ll tell you what. Do the twelve disciples, and I’ll 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 don’t lend themselves, at least in my mind, to the kind of dismissive humor that often turns up in clerihews. It’s more about the sound of the verse:

Henry Taylor's Clerihews in realaudio
Henry reads his own Clerihews, and tells how he won George Garrett's wristwatch.
According to Matthew
the wrath you
flee may be your own.
Live not by bread alone.

Hearing from afar a hollow moo,
said to himself, "That’ll
be Nineveh thriving: also much cattle."

If that last line doesn’t ring a bell, read the last few verses of the Book of Jonah.

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 I’m 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 I’m introduced to someone.

>> continued on page 2      


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

Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review