Poet Henry Taylor came back to something like reality at about 10 a.m. yesterday, when he checked in for his regular office hours at the Department of Literature at American University. He was still wearing Thursday's clothes and feeling a bit grubby but essentially happy. To get into his office, he had to pass through a door festooned with balloons, streamers that screamed "Congratulations!" and a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read:
Henry Taylor, Winner 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Naturally, the phone was ringing.
"I'm having a great time," he told the caller. "It will last about a week."
The winning work is a slender volume, "The Flying Change," whose 36 poems about country and family living and the dark soul of academia conceal intense intricacies under apparently simple surfaces and old-fashioned, formal structures.
Maybe some people become inarticulate when a Pulitzer lands on them. But Taylor is a poet, and his impromptu statement on a prize he sincerely did not expect to win flows into the tape recorder almost as though he were reading a prepared text:
"The Pulitzer has a funny way of changing people's opinions about it. If you haven't won one, you go around saying things like 'Well, it's all political' or 'It's a lottery' and stuff like that. I would like to go on record as saying that although I'm deeply grateful and feel very honored, I still believe that it's a lottery and that nobody deserves it . . .
"I'm really quite serious about believing that I must be some kind of compromise candidate. There were some tremendous books published last year -- Dave Smith and Amy Clampitt, to name two. Dave had a big, fat book last year, and I don't really quite understand how this happened.
"I have never gone so far as to say that the prize is so meaningless that if it ever comes to me I'll turn it down. Why should one turn it down? It's like finding money in the road. If you can't tell whose it is, keep it. And I can't tell whose the prize is, so I'll take it with great gratitude."
How He Got the Good News
Henry Taylor is going abroad next month with his friend Steve to visit the Cannes Film Festival. ("I'm trying desperately to get press accreditation, and this might help," he says.) He had gone with Steve to Rhiannon's restaurant in Springfield on the night the lightning struck, to discuss the travel plans. The news was conveyed first by telephone and then by special courier: Taylor's wife Frannie.
Fragments from one side of another phone conversation with a well-wisher yesterday:
"Steve was called away to the phone; Frannie talked to him, and he came back to the table and we sat and talked for an hour and a half and that poker-faced SOB sat there knowing this. The subject of journalism Pulitzers came up and we talked a little bit about it. . . . No, no . . . I was deeply grateful to him, because Frannie jumped into the car immediately and drove to the restaurant. It took her an hour and a half, and all of a sudden I look up from the table and there's Frannie and I said, 'What the hell are you doing here?' You know, I thought there was some desperate emergency or something. But she looked a little too cheerful for that. And she said: 'Congratulations! You have won the Pulitzer Prize.' And I said, 'You are kidding me.' So Steve and Frannie and I, we didn't quite stay up all night, but we came mighty close -- mighty close.
"I'll never play poker with that guy."
The Poet as a Young Man
"I grew up in Northern Virginia, where I live now. For years, I cared more about horses than anything else; then I grew up. But I still care about horses."
Taylor's father, a farmer who later became a teacher, taught him "how to read poems as though they meant something years before it ever occurred to me that I would ever write any of my own.
"My parents have been remarkably supportive. I mean, what do you say when your kid comes home and tells you he wants to be a poet? You say to yourself, 'Great Scott! What a terrible idea! How will he survive?' But they told me, 'Well . . . it'll be hard, but good luck.' They read what I did with intelligence and sympathy and they have always encouraged me. I don't think that's usual.
"I was an erratic student at the University of Virginia. On the one hand, if I really got into something, I could just burn up the place. I could write term papers that the grad student graders were incapable of judging. But if I didn't like a course or was bored or was lazy, I would cut classes.
"I mean, it's one thing to have professors who don't know you by sight. It's another to have professors that you don't know by sight.
"I had to drop out for a while. In my third year, I realized that if I went through with finals, I was going to flunk out. So I went to the dean, and I said I had made a mature decision that I ought to withdraw for a while. The interview ended with his saying, 'Well, it's good you came in when you did, because five minutes later and you would have been suspended anyway.'
"He took a form he had been working on and shoved it across the desk to me, and it was in fact a suspension form and he had gotten as far as my name . . . That day essentially made it possible for me to finish 'The Horse Show at Midnight' his first book before I graduated. I went off to graduate school knowing I was going to get a book out before I got my MA."
The Pulitzer is not Taylor's first major literary award; two years ago, he won the Witter Bynner prize of $1,500 ($500 more than the Pulitzer Prize) for a "younger poet." Nearing his 44th year, he appreciates the adjective as much as the money: "When I got it, I was old enough to be grateful to be called 'younger.' Turning 40 was a gas. I hated turning 30, but I loved turning 40. At 30, I felt all the cliche' things: I have failed, I have not done what I intended to do and all that, but by the time I was 40 I was saying, 'God, I can still walk without a limp. Isn't life fine?' "
Like a tree, stuck to the ground, I sway
and sigh; my fingers fall like leaves; and still
somehow you catch my drift, and dance around me
From "For Frannie" Frannie Taylor is a CPA, and Taylor says: "I cannot recommend too highly the usefulness to a writer of being married to a CPA. That's the least of the reasons that I love her, but it's there. What she did last night was typical, purely typical. She's is a multifaceted woman. She was an English major and did some writing herself, translated Catullus and was nearly a classics major, nearly a physics major, nearly a theater major -- bounced all around and didn't discover how good she was at things like taxes until after we got married."
He has two sons, Thomas, 15, and Richard, 10 -- "two-thirds of the way to Tom, Dick and Harry," he says, "and as far as we are going. Tom is as tall as I am and wears my clothes. It's terrifying."
One of the many interruptions during an hour-long interview is the arrival of Betty Bennett, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, with a hug and a bottle of champagne. "You have brought us not only joy but honor," she says before leaving.
Taylor has been a teacher since receiving his master's degree, six weeks after "The Horse Show at Midnight" was published in 1966. His second book of poetry, "An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards," was published in 1975.
Taylor says he is happy teaching at AU: "As happy as I would be anywhere. I did kick up a little bit of a fuss this spring. We have an annual merit evaluation -- you know, for raises. And my evaluation was okay, but it wasn't as good as I thought it should be, and I jumped up and down a little bit about it . . . There were many people who had much deeper grounds for complaint than I did. And I was happy for a while to lead the charge into a reevaluation of that process. And of course I'm glad now for this apparent vindication."
He also likes teaching poetry occasionally in elementary schools. "I've gotten old and crotchety," he says, "and I don't do it outside of Loudoun County, but I like going into a room full of third-graders who don't know who I am. That's refreshing. Besides they write amazing stuff.
"One of the cruelest things I do is go into a graduate writing class once in a while, and I give them the same assignment I have just given to some grade school students. I give them about 20 minutes to do it, and then I stop them and I say, 'Okay, let me read you some responses to this assignment that were done by some third-graders. And I read them about a half-dozen and I say, 'Those of you who would like to turn yours in are welcome to do so.' "
Aspirations Beyond the prestige, and the possibility of an increased income, Taylor says he thinks the Pulitzer may help him personally in his development as a poet.
"I have a feeling," he says, "that I can pick up the pace a little bit. One of the things I have always admired and never understood about Bill Stafford Library of Congress poetry consultant in 1970-71 is how he can write more or less constantly. I suppose he sleeps and things, but I have never seen anybody who can turn out so many wonderful poems in such a short time."
Taylor has finished a prose work that is still looking for a publisher: "Writing on Computers: A Real Book for Real Writers."
He also is working on a history of western Loudoun County, where his parents and two married sisters also still live.
"My family has been on that land since about 1780," he says with an air of deep-rooted satisfaction.
"For a while, in my youth, I was pretty obnoxious because I had this book out, and I was getting invited to give readings, and I was insufficiently aware that most of these invitations to read were the result of gently applied pressures from novelist George Garrett and others. I was taking all the credit for stuff I hadn't done all by myself, and I was acting as if I had.
"It's a strange business, writing. It's a solitary business. But even at times when you feel like you're all alone, you depend so heavily on your friends who also write. Then something terrific happens, and the temptation to take all the credit for it is very great. But you can't do it and be accurate . . .
"I have been helped a great deal by many people. My deepest indebtedness, aside from my parents, is to George Garrett -- a wonderful, generous, saintlike man. It's a long story, but I'll make it as brief as I can. But I discovered, about two years after my first book came out, that there was a certain point where the publishers, Louisiana State University, were trying to decide between his book and mine. He got wind of that and withdrew his book. I didn't find that out for about two years.
"That's one that I can never repay directly, but he taught me something. If I ever get a chance, I'll do that for somebody, when they're young and need it."