Two aspects of Henry Taylor’s background significantly influence his poetry—his upbringing as a rural farmer and his Quaker faith. Born into a largely Quaker community that had already flourished in Loudoun County for nearly two centuries, Taylor has infused his poetry with its strong reverence for tradition, charity, and sense of place. From his childhood as a southern farmer, Taylor has retained a keen sense of the subtle and delicate workings of the natural world. In addition, his work with horses as a young boy has brought his poetry again and again to that animal, which is a totemic image in his work. Equine imagery permeates Taylor’s first major books of poetry, An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards and Desperado. A horse motif even emblazons the cover of The Flying Change, which employs the animal as its central metaphor and has proven to be Taylor’s most widely embraced collection, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1986.
Although Taylor’s poetry primarily chooses rural settings and themes for its subject matter, it cannot accurately be described as “pastoral.” As critic Sharon Hall has observed, Taylor’s poems instead expose “the horror and violence of country life as well as its beauty, describing rural life with humor and unflinching realism.” This makes them a unique study in contrasts; while they embrace the redemptive qualities of rural living, they remind the reader at every turn that destruction, fatality, and absurdity are also common in country life, as they are in urban environments. In this way, Taylor seeks to point out that darkness, mystery, and irony inhabit all corners of the human experience, even its most isolated and bucolic.
His later poetry examines how urban development transforms rural places, rendering once familiar landscapes into unrecognizable tracts filled by identical structures and displacing indigenous life: plants, animals, and humans. Modern usages erase evidence of past memories, as highways alter landscapes, humans divert waterways, and buildings are razed for what some people consider progress. The land is a steadfast character that observes changes as each generation of humans appropriates, utilizes, improves, or damages places and resources for specific needs and agendas according to its situations, often affected by historical factors such as war. Taylor notes the irony that this intrusive development is usually equated with progress.
“Riding a One-Eyed Horse”
From Taylor’s earliest mature collection, An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards, “Riding a One-Eyed Horse” epitomizes two of the poet’s seminal traits: equestrian themes and formal structural regularity. Taylor has observed of his own writing, particularly the poems in An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards, “I think in terms of analogies to equitation when I’m writing. Nerve and touch, and timing.” In “Riding a One-Eyed Horse,” the reader comes to know just what he means. A poem of four four-line stanzas, the poem reflects structurally the cadenced rhythm of a well-trained horse’s gait, suggesting parallels to Taylor’s own belief in the importance of regularity and discipline in poetry.
Thematically, the poem explores an idea common in Taylor’s work—the need to impose a sense of order on even the most chaotic situation. A sort of “how to” tutorial on the seemingly absurd act of training a visually impaired animal to function as a fully sighted one would, the poem suggests metaphorically that meaning may be extracted from, if not imposed on, even the most absurd of circumstances. The speaker initially remarks of the horse, “One side of his world is always missing,” but through an act of determined faith in human will, he is able to summon from the animal an extraordinary effort:
Do not forgetto turn his head and let what comes come seen:he will jump the fences he has to if you swingtoward them from the side that he can see
This “side” the animal “can see” represents that part of humans that continually beckons them to reconsider what they may have overlooked, to revisit what they have deemed lost. “Riding a One-Eyed Horse” expresses Taylor’s optimism, albeit tinged with an almost rigid sobriety, in the desire to embrace all the possibilities people are routinely encouraged to dismiss.
“Bernard and Sarah”
In “Bernard and Sarah,” also from An Afternoon of Pocket Billiards, Taylor seeks to come to grips with an ancestral heritage that seems both vague and tangible at the same time. Even those people who have countless photos and artifacts that link them with their ancestors often have problems connecting with their humanness, with bridging the gap between their world and the past. The speaker of “Bernard and Sarah” is no exception. When presented with a photograph of his “great-great-great-grandparents,” taken in an era “when photography was young, and they were not,” the speaker and his father are at a loss with what to do with it. The father decides to stow the portrait in a closet, taking it out “only on such...
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