Nonagenarian wins $100,000 poetry prize


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The substantial $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize will be awarded to Virginia-based poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, who was born in 1920. Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, cited the strong reserve in Taylor’s poems and praised their ‘sober and clear-eyed serenity’ and authority. Wiman continued:

We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start. Muted, not quiet. You can’t read these poems without feeling the pent-up energy in them, the focused, even frustrated compression, and then the occasional clear lyric fury. And yet you can’t read them without feeling, as well, a bracing sense of spiritual largesse and some great inner liberty.


Taylor’s work has been receiving a lot of attention lately. She was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection ‘Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960-2008.’ Yet many of her books are out of print, and she’s been reluctant to give readings. ‘[W]hat’s been bad for the career,’ Wiman wrote in the May issue of Poetry magazine, ‘has been good for the poems.’

Taylor’s influences, she told Virginia Commonwealth University’s Blackbird magazine in 2002, included two well-known female poets. From the Encyclopedia Virginia’s entry on Taylor:

[O]f course I loved Emily Dickinson and read a lot of Emily Dickinson early ... but the first poet that really made me feel that poetry was contemporary and could relate to me right now, in the way that you know that all those wonderful heroines of poetry and heroes do, was Edna St. Vincent Millay. I read her as a teenager in school and just fell in love with her poems. I think it gave me a feeling of being able to approach current, everyday life.

That shows the scope of experience that goes into Taylor’s work -- Millay died in 1950, before many contemporary poets were born. Taylor will be presented with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in Chicago on May 18.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

[Update April 15, 2010, at 9:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this post spelled ‘Lilly’ as ‘Lily’ and said Blackbird magazine, which is from Virginia Commonwealth University, was from the University of Virginia.]