It has been 10 years since American University’s Henry Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for his third collection of poetry, The Flying Change, but the professor of literature is only now releasing his next book, Understanding Fiction: Poems, 1986-1996. And it’s only 64 pages long.
“I can’t explain that very well,” Taylor says of his less than prodigious output. “I don’t seem to get more than a half-dozen poems a year even when I feel like I’m really humming along. Right now most of my versifying energy is going into a version of Sophocles’ Electra, so there’s been even less poetry this year than last year.”
Even so, each poem in Understanding Fiction is finely wrought. Taylor’s economical, snapshot style illuminates the smaller aspects of everyday life, revealing their nuances; the poet cites James Dickey as inspiration for his style. After Dickey, Taylor says, “the poems that have mattered to me enough to influence me in a way that I could detect myself have been poets for whom clarity of some kind is an obvious value.”
Taylor says that it was through E.A. Robinson that he learned “a voice that is plausibly conversational, maybe elevated to some extent, was the voice that felt most natural or convincing to me.”
That’s not to say all his poems are rigorously autobiographical, which is part of the reason he titled the book as he did.
“The book does go back and forth between poems that are really quite autobiographical, but maybe not completely revelatory of the background. Then there are stories about things that are completely made up.”
Understanding Fiction is largely concerned with whether we can ever truly discern reality from make-believe. The title poem is a meditation on a simple event: whether or not a particular football player actually played in four different games on one Sunday afternoon long ago or if the various announcers constructed an elaborate put-on.
“I suddenly thought of this story and the curious difficulty that I have in remembering how much of it is true, and thinking about how we change the stories we tell for various reasons. Sometimes just for the sake of the story.”
Taylor reads from Understanding Fiction Sunday, Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at Borders, 18th & L Sts. NW.