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Eleanor Ross Taylor, Gaining Poetic Acclaim at 90

Her Southern voice and observations about women draw a $100,000 prize

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Eleanor Ross Taylor today. — David Peterson

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Taylor didn't promote her own work by giving readings, teaching or becoming a prominent figure in literary circles, her son says. Her first volume, Wilderness of Ladies, was published in 1960 when she was 40.

Dave Smith, director of writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Taylor's editor, describes her as "sort of a secret" and an individual who never did anything to help the public find her.

"She does write about herself, once you learn how to read her," Smith says. "Her poems are often about very common things, going to the hairdresser, about her children."

Eric Gudas, a poet and scholar who is writing a book about Taylor's life and poetry, says Taylor comes from a generation of women writers who have "two lives — lives as writers, lives as mothers and wives. Those two lives didn't always come together.

"She writes about women in the rural South. There's a lot in her work about the incredible struggle it takes to maintain your identity," Gudas says.

Jean Valentine, a friend who is the state poet of New York, describes Taylor as a true feminist.

"She writes about women and a point of view we didn't hear very much," says Valentine, adding that Taylor doesn't like the feminist label very much.

In a 1997 interview with Valentine in the literary journal Southern Review, however, Taylor acknowledged that many of her poems are written for women. "I feel that consciously, that they are the ones who could understand the poems," she said.

In 2002, Taylor told another interviewer that every poet is "reaching for understanding ... whether they know it or not."

There is a treasure trove of her work and recorded readings of her poetry. Taylor's son has at least 30 of his mother's unpublished poems that he hopes to publish. Several will be published for the first time this fall in Five Points, a poetry journal, and others soon in Poetry Magazine.

A verse from "Late Leisure," her poem published in 1999 about embroidery, can hardly sum up the full body of her work, but it provides a glimmer of the beauty and modesty of her poetry.

I, past my expiration date,

fold the cloth twice for center,

my needle threaded for the first

small stitch, myself

capriciously ongoing.

Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.

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