AN INTERVIEW WITH ELEANOR ROSS TAYLOR
Susan Settlemyre Williams: This is Susan Williams. I'm in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. And I'm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It's Thursday, March 14, 2002, and I am interviewing Eleanor Ross Taylor.
My first question was that I do think of you as being part of one of the most brilliant and influential literary circles in the twentieth century, with writers and critics like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, your own husband, Peter Taylor. And I wonder if you would just talk a little bit about what that was like? How it affected your life and how it affected your writing to be in a group like that?
Eleanor Ross Taylor: Well, it made all the difference in the world, and it began with my being a student of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon [Tate] in Greensboro at the Women's College of the University of North Carolina [now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro]that wonderful President Jackson there, who decided that we couldn't compete with Chapel Hill except in the arts, and so he got the Tates. And they were so encouraging to me from the very beginning, and really that was the beginning. I guess then I got a scholarship to Vanderbilt to study with Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate of course got me that, and he did all sorts of things for me.
And then later on, after Peter and I were married, Peter had a job at Kenyon College, and we got to know the Ransoms very well, and that was a wonderful period for us, though I don't that think there was a literary influence in any way. But Peter had known Allen Tate as a student at Southwestern. After he had dropped out of Vanderbilt and had his little stint in real estate, he took some classes at Southwestern, and one in writing and he met them there. So Peter and I met in Monteagle [TN] when we both visited Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon; and the Tates had taken a cottage that winter with Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford; and they were all writing books, you know. And so we were up there for the weekend, and that's when Peter and I met. And then later on, after we were married, I had long admired Randall Jarrell, not only for his poetry, but for his brilliant reviews in the magazines; and I knew that Peter had been at Vanderbilt at the same time he was, and so I made Peter look Randall up. And I wanted to be introduced to Randall Jarrell and admire him, and then Peter got Randall a job at Greensboro, where we were at that time, my alma mater.
SSW: To my everlasting gratitude, in fact. Were any of the other . . .
ERT: Robert Penn Warren . . . he came to an arts forum in Greensboro when the Tates were there, and that was my first meeting with him. But then we did see them off and on over the years, and he was just such a wonderfully gregarious man, you know. In fact, he was instrumental in helping my brothers have their novels published by Houghton Mifflin, with Houghton Mifflin fellowships.
SSW: What were your brothers' books?
ERT: My brother James' book is called They Don't Dance Much, and it's supposed to be a little classic noir fiction and Higgins is always mentioning it when he writes reviews. But I introduced him to the Tates because he was writing this novel. The girl he was in love with had just jilted him, so the only thing he could do was write a novel. And they liked it, and they liked his writing, and they helped him get printed in the Partisan Review and got his novel published.
SSW: That's wonderful. So they were very supportive?
ERT: They were wonderful to students, and Caroline particularly always said, "You owe it to young writers to help them." And she did. And, of course, they helped Robert Lowell.
SSW: Oh, yes. That's wonderful when there are people who will do that, and not everybody does. Were any of the others particularly close?
ERT: The Jarrells were; Peter and CalLowellroomed together at Kenyon, so they were close, very close over the years, and we had lots of visits back and forth with the Lowells and with Cal by himself, with both his wives. And then our friendship with the Jarrells was very close too. Mackie Jarrellwe shared a duplex with Randall's first wife Mackie and with him when our daughter was just a baby in Greensboro and just saw them constantly. Nothing could be nicer than to have close contact with one of the really poetic geniuses, as I think Randall was. Don't you?
SSW: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. He was the reason I went to UNC-G.
ERT: Did you have a class with him?
SSW: He died before I was eligible for his first class.
ERT: Those were very unhappy years for him. Mackie was an interesting person. They had met in Texas, but she was not a writer; she was a scholar.
SSW: He was married to Mary Jarrell when I was there, and I didn't know her. I mean, I saw her around campus. Since you've mentioned Jarrell, and I do always think of Taylors and Jarrells sort of inseparably, I wonder if you'll talk a little bit about your relationship with Jarrell? I know he admired your work enormously. Did look at each other's work?
ERT: Well, we were living in that duplex together. Of course, I had written poems for a long time, and I began writing poems again; and Peter said, "You ought to show these to Randall." And I was reluctant, and so he took me over across the hall to the Jarrell duplex and said, "I've taken the little girl by the hand and brought her here to show you her poems." And Randall read them, and he was very nice about them, and he actually got my poems printed. He sent some of them to various magazines. Accent was the first magazine I think I ever printed in, because Randall sent them there. And then he wrote an introduction, as you may know, to my first book.
SSW: Yes, and he was not necessarily the kindest of critics sometimes.
ERT: Oh no, he wasn't. But I remember once when he took me to his office to seriously go over a whole batch of poems with me and how marvelous he was at understanding exactly what you meant when you were writing a poem. He really had so much insight into the meaning of a poem. And he had wonderful little suggestionslike he'd say, "In this line, I think you might repeat that word, just to make an echo in that line." And it was always a wonderful suggestion. It slowed it down and emphasized it.
SSW: So you learned a lot from him?
ERT: So I learned a lot from him, really. But he was not didactic in any way.
SSW: Was it more in the matter of technique or in the approach to poetry in general?
ERT: I'm not sure. I don't think it was technique. I think it was just putting me on the right track and saying, "I don't think this poem works," and the others that did.
SSW: That's a wonderful gift to have.
ERT: It is.
SSW: The adjectives that I see most often and that come to my mind most often about your work are words like "unique" and "original." Sometimes I see you mentioned in the same sentence with Emily Dickinson or Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, but not usually with the suggestion that you were influenced by them, just more that you were all exemplars of originality. But I wondered if there were poets that you considered to be an influence on your work?
ERT: Well, the firstof course I loved Emily Dickinson and read a lot of Emily Dickinson earlybut the first poet that really made me feel that poetry was contemporary and could relate to me right now, in the way that you know that all those wonderful heroines of poetry and heroes do, was Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read her as a teenager in school and just fell in love with her poems. I think it gave me a feeling of being able to approach current, everyday life.
As for being original, I think that every poet in a way is original because I think that a work of art really reflects the psyche of the artist. And sometimes it's a problem, and sometimes it'sdon't you think?a sort of joy or something like that. And oftentimes the artist doesn't really know what it is they're getting rid of or expressing in a poem. They're reaching for understanding, I think, lots of times, whether they know it or not. And this is what makes themdon't you think?original.
SSW: I've heard people say too, and I find this myself, that I don't know where a poem is going when I start on it; I just know I'm engaged by it.
ERT: It's almost as though there's a voice leading you in these things, and there really isit sounds ridiculous but . . .
SSW: I always have to be a little careful using the word "channeling," but that does come to mind sometimes. So how old were you when you started writing poetry?
ERT: I think the first poem I ever wrote was when I was nine years old and The Norwood News offered a prize to the student who wrote a poem they would print in the paper, and so I won.
SSW: Well, congratulations.
ERT: And then later on The Charlotte Observer, did you see The Charlotte Observer?
SSW: We used to get The Charlotte Observer.
ERT: But you don't date back to the Sunshine Page, which was a kind of children's supplement in which young people, children really, could print stories and poems. And they paidlet's see, they paid two dollars for the prize one and one dollar for the second prize or something like that; and let me tell you, that meant a lot to a child on the farm in the Depression.
SSW: Oh, yeah, that was good money then.
ERT: So I sent in a lot of things to that.
SSW: I wondered, because it seems to me that so many people who write poetry in particular start very young.
ERT: Well, I did.
SSW: And I'm wondering, because you had mentioned Millay and Dickinson particularly, it seems to me that the climate for women poets has changed enormously for the better in the past thirty years. And I just wondered what it was like being a woman poet back in the 'fifties, say, when things were very conservative? Was it harder to get published?
ERT: I didn't think so. I never felt any discrimination at all. I never suffered from that in any way that I know of. Of course I didn't send poems out. I really did not. Because my productive [period], when I began printing, was after I was married and after I had a baby; and my husband's career really came first. And I didn't press my career at all, so it was not something that I worried about or thought about, whether I was being discriminated against or whether I was having a hard time.
SSW: So Wilderness of Ladies didn't come out until, what, 1960?
ERT: I think it was '60.
SSW: I had wondered because I had something of a sense sometimes in college that there were poets and then there were women poets. And there was a difference.
ERT: I must say I do feel that Edna St Vincent Millay was discriminated against by some of the New Criticsdon't you think so?in some of those essays, and really unfairly just because it was a kind of inherited prejudice against women.
SSW: That's what I've wondered because we were sometimes given the impression that we didn't study women poets, I think Emily Dickinson was the only woman poet that was taught when I was at UNC-G.
ERT: But I never felt it. I didn't.
SSW: I was just curious about that because clearly some people like Bishop managed to transcend it without feeling the effect.
ERT: And I think by the time she came along
too, there was . . . And you know Randall was one of the most
enthusiastic people about women poets, he really was. And he loved Elizabeth
Bishop's poems. He was always praising them, you know,
privately and publicly.
SSW: This is Susan Williams. I'm in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. And I'm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It's Thursday, March 14, 2002, and I am interviewing Eleanor Ross Taylor.
One thing that I have enjoyed about your poemsthis actually reminds me a little bit of Bishop toois the way you are able to work in some really down-home expressions and events, episodes and characters, into work that isn't really folksy at all. I think that's a difficult trick to pull off.
ERT: I'm flattered that you say that. I do think that some of those early poems that had so many characters in them, that did have the expressions that you refer to, were sort of frustrated short stories, because I had also written stories when I was in college and fiction. And after I was married there, just was not time; fiction takes so much more time. So I do think that some of that was channeled into the poems in a way.
SSW: But they come across as poems, not poetic short stories.
ERT: That's true.
SSW: I've always been intrigued by how you can compress narrative and suggest it without having to spell it out. That's not an easy thing to do either.
ERT: I wasn't really conscious of how I was doing it.
SSW: It did seem to me that, in those sort of narrative or quasi-narrative poems, you were honoring your heritage.
ERT: I've come to feel now that those poems are much too long. And, of course, as one progresses, one does write different kinds of things over a lifetime. But, well, Donald Justice said a few years ago, poems should be one page, no more than one page. And I've come to feel that too. I feel that a long poem is not a successoftentimes. And when I pick up a magazine and see a great many poems that run two or three pages, it seems to me that they ought to be one page. You don't have this feeling?
SSW: My poems tend to be a little longer than they should be. But you see it as a paring down as you've grown with your poetry?
ERT: I think in a way, and, as I said, the whole business of being a frustrated fiction writer has sort of disappeared.
SSW: I did come across a short story that you'd written in an early issue of Shenandoah.
ERT: I've printed five or six stories, I guessmaybe enough for a book, I'm not sure, some before I was married and then just shortly after I was married. I had one in Best American Short Stories one year.
SSW: Did you feel that there was a conflict and that writing short stories took awayyou lost a poem in the process of writing of a short story?
ERT: I didn't actually feel that. I think in a way that you write fiction, the best fiction, because you have something to say, and you know what it is, and you're saying it. You may be saying it obliquely, but you're on the track of something, a message almost. And it seems to me that, in a poem, it's much more unconscious, but this may be my individual weakness. You're searching in the poem. Now, my husband, whose stories are better than mine, said that he wrote stories to find out what he thought. And that's, in a way, I guess, is what I write poems for. So it may be that it's just whatever you do.
SSW: So with a story you really know from the start how you want it to go?
ERT: I think so.
SSW: And the poem is something of an adventure?
ERT: It's a search. I think it is, but this is just my feeling about it.
SSW: I think that rings true, certainly to me. And then another quality of your poetrythis is my last question that I have on the list, but we'll see what happensand another quality that invites comparison with Elizabeth Bishop is that sort of self-effacement, with the poet almost disappearing behind the poem. And, since Confessionalism, that approach has been pretty rare; and I'm just curious if you'd comment about some of the aesthetic choicesthe writerly choices, not the personal choicesbehind your use of personae and an "I" which is more a pair of eyes than an actor in the poems?
ERT: Well, I don't think that I'm very conscious of that, but this makes me think of something that I am conscious of a lot, and that is that I think a poet like Sylvia Plath, for all her genius, is somebody that I don't really like to go back to because I feel that there is so much bitterness and anger in the poems. And I feel that, when you have that, that comes between you and do you understand?
SSW: Personally I do.
ERT: And I think of other poets too, and I feel that there is hatred in the poems and resentment and warfare, as it were; and I feel that they may be brilliant, and the poet writing them may have [a] terrific gift, but they're not pleasant to go back to. And I find that I don't.
SSW: You find that the anger is sort of unresolved and unworked-through?
ERT: I do.
SSW: I know from myself that,
when I am dealing with an emotional subject, I often find myself using
more of a formal technique, using rhyme to give me some control.
ETR: That's a good idea, that's
right. It seems to me that Tate and Ransom and Warren really, though
he changed a little bit, and Edna St Vincent Millaythe poets up
until Frost really began to make his influence felt, I thinkwere
formalists; and then Frost was just so wonderful. And I think Randall
had a moment when he turned away from Tate and those people and adoptedhe
decided the idiom he wanted to communicate, that everyday idiom and
conversational tone was important; and that was what he was going for.
And it makes his poems wonderful, I think, because there is so much
brilliance in them that, if they were also formal, they would almost
be inaccessible, I think.
SSW: Some of his persona poems
are very believable because you can hear the characters.
ERT: Yes, they are. And I think
it was deliberate on his part.
SSW: I know I've read that it
was a struggle with Lowell to get past
ERT: to break away
SSW: Yeah, to change his style
as well as what he was talking about.
ERT: Well, you know, LowellI
know that he is a great poet in that there are people who are better
critics than I am who probably do go back to him, but he is not somebody
that I go back to at all in the way that I do, for example, to just
little quotations from Jarrell's poems that come to me from time to
time. I don't mean to denigrate him, but I do think that he was a
made poet, that he was determined to be a poet; and I do think that
drive has a lot to do . . . and sometimes there are born poets who throw
their talent away. Don't you think so?
SSW: Oh, yes.
ERT: And then I think there
are people who have just the most modest gifts who are absolutely determined
to be writers; and they write novels, and they write poems, and they
work at it so hard that sometimes they almost invent talent and become
SSW: And you would consider
Lowell one of those?
ERT: I really do, but that's
just my personal opinion. And you have to hand it to him, anybody who
devotes his life to doing that. And oh, he was well-read too and wonderful.
SSW: I remember reading some
of his early poems in a biography and thinking they were terrible.
ERT: They are, absolutely. I
SSW: It was encouraging to think
that you could overcome that. Are there poets writing now that you particularly
ERT: I'm ashamed to say that
I just read very little poetry now. I do subscribe to a good many of
the little magazines, and I flip through them, and now and then I take
a whole issue and read the whole thing just to kind of see, but names
don't come to me. I think that somebody I've liked a lot is Jeredith
Merrin. Do you know her poems at all?
SSW: I don't.
ERT: And I have much likedhe
just diedHerbert Morris, but he's somebody that . . . he absolutelyI
don't know whybut he stayed absolutely out of the whole network
of editors and reviewers and other poets and writing conferences. He
was just a solitary figure up there in Philadelphia writing his poems,
and they're long meditations, and I am just mad about them, and
I think someday they will be appreciated. Tony Hecht appreciated him,
and I think James Merrill did too. And when I asked Richard Wilbur once
in Key West just who Herbert Morris was, he said, "Oh, he's somebody
about our age who's just never cared to enter into the literary world."
And he agreed that he was a good poet.
SSW: More power to him.
ERT: But you know we have good
poets here, some good young poets here at [the University of] Virginia,
I think Deborah Nystrom is good, and Steve Cushman is good, and, of
course, Gregory Orr. These are the ones that I feel some kinship with,
and there are other poets that I feel kinship with that might not be
flattered at my feeling kinship with them. Because, well, for one thing,
a lot of them are women, and they have a Southern background that they
look at with ambivalent feelings, I think. People like Ellen [Bryant]
Voigt and Betty Adcock and Elizabeth [Seydel] Morgan.
SSW: All people that I admire
ERT: And I think Jane Cooper is one of those too. I think she really is.