Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. He has more than 20 years experience teaching poetry, including at conferences like Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference.
His poetry collection Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond was published in 2008. His fiction includes a suspense novel, The Lazarus File, and a light-hearted mystery, Rhapsody in Red. He has published essays on writing, literary criticism, ethical issues and U. S. foreign policy.
He and his wife live near Houston, Texas, where he writes fiction, poetry and articles on current topics.
Thank you, Donn, for joining us and taking time to answer our questions. Well-Written Days is honored to share one of your poems with readers. Drop by anytime with more!
Give us some background about your poetry writing – how long you’ve been writing poems, what style you write and where your poems have been published.
Although I wrote song lyrics as early as age 14, I only began writing serious poetry as a junior in college—not much of it, but some worth reading. Then there was a long hiatus during military service, graduate school, and college teaching. Only after retiring from teaching have I had time to write. My main effort has been fiction, but I also had to prove to myself that I could write good poetry. In style, I’m a rebel against most of the poetry being written in today’s graduate schools. Though I do write some free verse, most of my poetry uses traditional meter and often uses traditional forms. Meter gives an extra dimension of meaning that free verse doesn’t.
My poems have been published in Christianity and Literature, The Lamp-Post (journal of the California C.S. Lewis Society), Discoveries (published by South-Central Renaissance Conference) and similar journals, as well as general-audience publications like The Presbyterian Record (Canadian). Most recently, they’ve been collected in a book titled Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond. They are previewed on my Web site, http://www.donntaylor.com/, with links to buy through Amazon.
Who are your favorite poets?
Do you have enough space for me to answer? Virgil, Dante, Ariosto, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Milton, Andrew Marvell (lyrics only), Tennyson, some of Arnold and Clough, E.A. Robinson, Frost, some of Archibald MacLeish, W.H. Auden.
Which is your favorite poem you’ve written?
As close to a single favorite that I have would be “Cosmos in Wartime.” Why? It is a tribute to the wives of military men in combat, including of course my own wife. For the wives are the keepers of the values their husbands are defending. I also think it has the soft sounds appropriate to the subject. Like all poems, it should be read aloud.
COSMOS IN WARTIME (© 1996, Donn Taylor)
There at the center of the universe,
An ocean and a continent away
From where I labor, calm at end of day
Descends, drawn down by likeness, to immerse
Her house in tender truths till she rehearse
For children deep assurances that say,
“This spirit-night, no strife nor storm shall sway
These quiet cradles, nor the world amerce
Souls of these innocents for ancient wrong
As price for human essence wrenched awry.”
She speaks in trust that only grace allows,
Modestly unaware her softness, strong–
Stronger than stone or steel–holds up this house
In love, to let the house hold up the sky.
Which is your favorite poem by another poet?
Among other favorites, I keep coming back to George Herbert’s “Sin’s Round.” It treats a vital subject, the nature of sin, concentrated into 18 poetic lines. Beyond that, it’s a perfect example of poetic form becoming a part of the message. For that reason, I use it as the climactic example in my class on “Broader Horizons in Poetic Technique.”
What makes a good poem?
In most cases, an important subject presented in beautiful language. In certain cases—satire, for example—the language might need to be appropriately harsh-sounding. In comic poetry, surprise multi-syllable rhymes like Byron’s rhyming intellectual with hen pecked you all.
What suggestions do you have for someone who is at the beginning of his or her desire to write poetry?
Above all, read a lot of different kinds of poetry. Study books like Lawrence Perrine’s Sound and Sense, which explain and illustrate the fundamentals of how poetry works, and William Baer’s Writing Metrical Poetry, which contains practical exercises. Join a group of poets who’re willing to study and learn. And write, write, write. Any skill, whether it’s basketball, piano playing or writing, is learned through practice.
One other thought: Don’t try to write poetry in a hurry. If it doesn’t come out exactly right, set it aside and come back to it later. It’s not unusual for one of my poems to take months before I think it’s ready. A few have taken years. As the commercial says, “Sell no wine before its time.”
What’s the difference in poetry and let’s say, a company buying “poems” to put on greeting cards and bookmarks? Do you see this writing as similar or a far stretch?
Different kinds of poems have different purposes and audiences—everything from greeting cards to high school cheers to Paradise Lost. I don’t have a problem with this as long as the poem doesn’t pretend to be more than it is.
When writers want to sell their poetry, what suggestions do you have for them?
Selling is more difficult than writing, and each person has to blaze his own trail. It’s also labor-intensive. You use a reference like Writer’s Digest’s annual Poet’s Market or the poetry section of Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guide to find publications you think might be compatible with what you’re writing. Then you buy sample copies to verify. Then you submit to a selection of those publications and keep a record of what you sent where. This is a tedious process that takes about a year to complete.
In your life, what does a well-written day look like?
If I’m writing poetry, I block out an entire morning to work—with no interruptions, I hope. (It helps to have an understanding wife who loves poetry.) The usual product is a number of fragments—a few good lines, some thoughts I’d like to work in if I can find words that fit, some good sounds I’d like to use. If I do this for several days, I usually have enough to scrape out a poem, though it may be weeks before it’s ready to bring out of the office. After such a morning, there’s no use trying to write, so I usually do light reading in the afternoon or work on honey-do’s around the house.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“Parkinson’s Law,” formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson: “Work tends to expand so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
On the side: For more, check out Donn Taylor’s website.