Henry Taylor

Henry Taylor (1942– )

Henry Taylor is an accomplished poet whose work, while often set in the South and concerned with nostalgia, does not succumb to the melancholy sentimentality of the Lost Cause clichés. He has worked extensively as a translator of both ancient and modern European texts, and has published a volume of literary criticism. Taylor's career as a poet was firmly established when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his poetry collection The Flying Change. He received the Golden Crane Award of the Washington Chapter of the American Literary Translators Association in 1989, was awarded the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984, and was inducted into the distinguished Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2001. His work has been praised for its technical skill and traditional forms. MORE...



Henry Splawn Taylor was born June 21, 1942, in rural Loudoun County, to Thomas Edward Taylor, a dairy farmer and later an English teacher, and Mary Splawn Taylor, an economist and teacher. A product of the area's strong Quaker heritage, Taylor has lived much of his life in Loudoun County. After a brief first marriage to Sarah Bean, Taylor married Frances Feguson Carney and had two sons, Thomas and Richard. He later divorced Carney and remarried Sarah Bean. Taylor graduated from the University of Virginia in 1965. He earned his MA in creative writing from Hollins College (now Hollins University) in 1966, was an instructor at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia until 1968, and was an assistant professor at the University of Utah until 1971. Currently Taylor is professor emeritus of literature at American University in Washington, D.C., where he taught from 1971 until 2003. Taylor divides his time between Maine—where he lives with his wife—and northern Virginia.


Taylor has translated literary texts from a variety of modern languages (Bulgarian, French, Hebrew, Italian, and Russian), as well as from classical Greek and Roman sources, such as his 1998 translation of Sophocles's Electra. He has produced a work of literary criticism, Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets (1992), and seven volumes of original poetry: The Horse Show at Midnight (1966), Breakings (1971), An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (1975), The Flying Change (1985), Understanding Fiction: Poems 1986–1996 (1996), Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews (2000), and Crooked Run (2006).

Taylor's verse fits snugly into the larger tradition of southern poetry. Despite occasional forays into free verse, he is, on the whole, an avowed and expert formalist. He writes narrative poems and invokes a folksy, conversational, and identifiably southern voice. His experience as an avid horseman enters his poetry as a recurring motif. His poems are connected to place, particularly rural landscapes, he often focuses on community and family ties, and he is concerned with nostalgia.

Taylor is a poet of thematic and formal restraint. He does not give himself over to moonlight-and-magnolias platitudes, but offers a clear-sighted view of his personal and regional past. Taylor's volumes The Horse Show at Midnight and An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards reveal some of the trademarks of his mature style, including his formal virtuosity, his often detached (though not unfeeling) tone, and his creation of realistic characters. His works often exhibit a sharp sense of humor: witness the comic twists of "In Memory of Brother Dave Gardner," Taylor's wry elegy for a southern comedian popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet his verse is also marked by a grim honesty, as pastoral images are balanced by stark figures that illustrate the harshness of rural life, seen perhaps most vividly in recurrent descriptions of farm death. For example, "Barbed Wire" describes the gruesome end of a horse that has caught its neck between the strands of a barbed wire fence and subsequently bleeds to death.

Although the Pulitzer Prize is often given to well-established poets as a career-topping award, Taylor received one as a relatively new poet for only his fourth volume of poetry, The Flying Change. The collection—arguably his most important work—reflects a shift in poetic treatment of southern history. "Landscape with Tractor," for instance, speaks poignantly to the ways in which the confluence of racial, industrial, and agricultural challenges—while they still haunt the South—have changed. Using second person perspective, the poem places the reader in the driver's seat as a "farmer" who spots something while ritually mowing the three acres of land that no longer produce anything except for grass: "maybe three swaths in / from where you are now, you glimpse it. People / will toss all kinds of crap from their cars." The tenor of the poem changes, however, when the trash—what the farmer believes to be a "clothing-store dummy"—turns out to be the body of a bullet-riddled black woman. In the last lines of the poem, Taylor invokes the power of personal and cultural memory and conscience: And I ask you
again, how would it be? To go on with your life,
putting gas in the tractor, keeping down thistles,

and seeing, each time you pass that spot,
the form in the grass, the bright yellow skirt,
black shoes, the thing not quite like a face
whose gaze blasted past you at nothing

when the doctors heaved her over? To wonder,
from now on, what dope deal, betrayal,
or innocent refusal, brought her here,
and to know she will stay in that field till you die?

Understanding Fiction: Poems 1986–1996 treats of slightly different subject matter, delving more deeply into questions of love and friendship. In Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews, Taylor merges command of form with biting wit. He masterfully manipulates the clerihew—a light verse aabb quatrain that pokes fun at its subject—to skewer a spectrum of cultural hypocrisies, providing sage and satirical views of politics, art, and religion, among other things.

Crooked Run revisits the actual and conceptual terrain of Taylor's Loudoun County, taking its title from the name of a creek that flows through the region. While many of the poems in Crooked Run present an account of this area through the lens of family history, including his Quaker forebears, Taylor brilliantly manages to avoid plowing in a rut, once more unearthing poetically fertile ground by returning to his Virginia home-place. His verse shows a consummate awareness of the double-bind of nostalgic reminiscence: even as he respectfully recovers the value of his family's and his region's past, he never yields to maudlin mewling over days gone by. Crooked Run was honored with the L. E. Phillabaum Poetry Award from the Louisiana State University Press.

Major Works

  • The Horse Show at Midnight: Poems (1966)
  • Breakings (1971)
  • An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards (1975)
  • The Flying Change: Poems (1985)
  • Understanding Fiction: Poems 1986–1996 (1996)
  • Brief Candles: 101 Clerihews (2000)
  • Crooked Run (2006)

Time Line

  • June 21, 1942 - Henry Taylor is born in Loudoun County, Virginia.
  • 1965 - Henry Taylor graduates from the University of Virginia.
  • 1966 - The Horse Show, Henry Taylor's first volume of poetry, is published.
  • 1966 - Henry Taylor graduates from Hollins College (now Hollins University) with a MA in creative writing.
  • 1966 to 1968 - Henry Taylor is an instructor at Roanoke College.
  • 1968 to 1971 - Henry Taylor is an assistant professor at the University of Utah.
  • 1971 to 2003 - Henry Taylor is an associate professor and then full professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
  • 1984 - Henry Taylor is awarded the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize.
  • 1986 - Henry Taylor, accomplished translator and poet, is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry, The Flying Change.
  • 1989 - Henry Taylor receives the Golden Crane Award of the Washington Chapter of the American Literary Translators Association.
  • 2001 - Henry Taylor, translator and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, is inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Further Reading
Garrett, George. "Henry Taylor." In American Poets Since World War II. Edited by Donald J. Greiner, 322–327. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980.
Sharp, Nicholas A. "One Morning, Shoeing Horses." by Henry Taylor The Explicator 57:1 (Fall 1998): 62–64.
Taylor, Henry. "An Interview with Henry Taylor." By Mathias Svalina. Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts, 1:1 (Spring 2002).
Tham, Hilary. "Poetic Justice: On Translation." Potomac Review 7:2 (Spring 2000): 47–52.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Turner, D. C. Henry Taylor (1942– ). (2014, May 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Taylor_Henry_1942-.

MLA Citation:
Turner, D. C. "Henry Taylor (1942– )." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 22, 2009 | Last modified: May 27, 2014

Contributed by Daniel Cross Turner, an assistant professor of English at Siena College, Loudonville, New York.


  • Henry Taylor introduces the Clerihew (audio recording)