At the end of a long career, Eleanor Ross Taylor is just now gaining recognition. The 90-year-old poet offers a distinctive Southern voice and vivid insights into the "underground life" of women.
In April, Taylor was awarded the 2010 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement for her sixth book, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008. The prestigious award, which carries a $100,000 prize, is bringing attention to Taylor, whose work is largely unknown outside a small circle of friends and other poets. Most of her poetry has been out of print for years.
Her son, Ross Taylor, a poet and fiction writer from Falls Church, Va., says his mother's work reflects her world of rural Norwood, N.C., where she grew up on a farm. Her poems also speak to her life as a wife and mother of two (her daughter, Katherine, is now deceased). A local newspaper published her first poem when she was 9, and she wrote poetry well into her 80s.
"She writes about specific life, and her specific life is having a background in the rural South," Ross Taylor says. "One of her trademarks is the odd use of language, making up her own words, some of them coming from dialect or regional speech."
Many years ago, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote that Taylor's work speaks of "the underground life of women, the Southern white Protestant woman in particular, the woman-writer, the woman in the family, 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."
Taylor no longer gives interviews. Her memory and energy are fading, her son says, and she is no longer writing. She recently moved to Falls Church, a mile from her son and his family.
A 1942 graduate of the Woman's College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Taylor lived for many years in Charlottesville, Va., where her husband, the late Peter Taylor, taught writing and was part of a loosely knit group of Southern writers. She was always reclusive, her son says, and lived in the shadow of her more famous and gregarious husband, who wrote about the urban South and won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987 (A Summons to Memphis).
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
Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.