Eleanor Ross Taylor, poet of women’s lives in the South, dies at 91

January 10, 2012

Eleanor Ross Taylor, a poet who found acclaim later in life for her free-form verses, which often reflected the struggles of ordinary women in the South, died Dec. 30 at the Avalon House assisted living facility in Falls Church. She was 91.

She had dementia, her son, Ross Taylor, said.

Mrs. Taylor, who lived in Charlottesville for many years, published the first of her six books of poetry in 1960. Her work appeared in the New Yorker and the Paris Review, but she was often in the literary shadow of her husband, Peter Taylor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, short-story writer and longtime University of Virginia professor.

Since early in her career, Mrs. Taylor had garnered critical praise from distinguished poets and critics such as Randall Jarrell, one of her early mentors. In 2010, she won the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her body of work.

Mrs. Taylor grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and echoes of country speech and rural folkways often found their way into her poetry. Although she didn’t consider herself an overtly feminist writer, she often depicted the weariness of women’s lives, as in “Disappearing Act,” published in 2009 in her final book, “Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008”:

 

No, the soul doesn’t leave the body.

My body is leaving my soul.

Tired of turning fried chicken and

coffee to muscle and excrement,

tired of secreting tears, wiping them,

tired of opening eyes on another day,

tired especially of that fleshy heart,

pumping, pumping.

 

Reviewing Mrs. Taylor’s 1972 collection “Welcome Eumenides” in the New York Times, poet Adrienne Rich wrote that her poems “speak of the underground life of women . . . coping, hoarding, preserving, observing, keeping up appearances, seeing through the myths and hypocrisies, nursing the sick, conspiring with sister-women, possessed of a will to survive and to see others survive.”

Mrs. Taylor often wrote in a deliberately fragmented style, balanced between free verse and more formal poetic techniques. She occasionally invented words — “bemiracled,” “scissorly-wise,” “disfestooned” — for her flinty, dry-eyed poems.

“I just make up words,” she said in a 1997 interview with the Southern Review. “Sometimes it’s just for the cadence, the real word wouldn’t fit; sometimes it seems I just need a word.”

Eleanor Lilly Ross was born June 30, 1920, near Norwood, N.C. She published her first poems in a local newspaper when she was a girl.

Her two brothers became published novelists, and her sister, Jean Ross, who now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, is a short-story writer and the widow of poet Donald Justice.

Mrs. Taylor was a 1940 graduate of the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). She taught English in high schools before doing graduate study at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

When she met Peter Taylor in 1943, she was engaged to another man. She broke off the engagement and married Taylor within six weeks.

The couple was part of a high-powered circle of writers that included Jarrell, Bishop, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford. Mrs. Taylor followed her husband to academic jobs in North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts and, finally, to Virginia in 1967.

A 1978 Washington Post story described Peter Taylor as “a sociable, man, well-known among his friends for the pleasure he receives from hosting parties.” The Taylors owned no fewer than 23 houses during their 51-year marriage and lived in at least a dozen others.

“The greatest luck of Peter Taylor’s life seems to have been his marriage to the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor,” novelist Robb Forman Dew wrote in the Times in 2001, reviewing a biography of Taylor. “Taylor found in Eleanor a lovely and reserved woman, a teetotaler and someone who enjoyed and needed her privacy — the counterpoint to his own sometimes heavy drinking and his insatiable need for company.”

In addition to managing their households, Mrs. Taylor found time to write her poetry, working upstairs in their Charlottesville home. Her husband had an office in the basement.

“Over the years, many times I would say to poems, ‘Go away, I don’t have time now,’ ” Mrs. Taylor said in 1997. “But that was part laziness. If you really want to write, you can. I did keep the house scrubbed and waxed and that sort of thing.”

Peter Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his novel “A Summons to Memphis” and died in 1994 at age 77. A daughter, Katherine Baird Taylor, died in 2001.

In addition to her sister, Mrs. Taylor’s survivors include her son, Ross Taylor of Falls Church; and a granddaughter.

Mrs. Taylor often turned to themes of age and death in her later years. In “Ancestral,” the final poem of 2009’s “Captive Voices,” she wrote:

 

Of course, we’ll follow.

Did you say horse? Or hearse? No matter.

They’re far ahead. They started early,

Shoe buckles, stovepipe hats . . .

What’s triter than hooves’ clatter?

Is dead silence worse?

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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