Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry
The most significant prize administered by the Sewanee Review is the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. It was made possible through the generous bequest of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor, a surgeon who was an excellent amateur poet, to celebrate distinguished American poets, especially his older brother Conrad Aiken.
Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry
Each year the Sewanee Review bestows the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry to a particularly distinguished and important contemporary American poet. It is the most significant prize administered by the SR, and It has been our honor to give this award to poets like Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Marie Ponsot and Louise Glück, who mean so much to the Review and to the literary world at large. But all of this would be impossible without the generous bequest of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor. Dr. Taylor was an accomplished surgeon and an excellent amateur poet. With his bequest he wished to celebrate distinguished American poets, especially his older brother Conrad Aiken, an important figure in the modernist movement. You can read a fuller biography and sample Dr. Taylor's poetry here.
The Thirtieth Aiken Taylor Award
HEAVEN IS PRECISION
The Sewanee Review is proud to announce that poet, translator, editor, and essayist Christian Wiman has been named the thirtieth recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry.
Christian Wiman has published four collections of poetry, beginning with The Long Home (1998) and including Every Riven Thing (2010), named one of the New Yorker’s best poetry collections of the year. His translation of Osip Mandelstam’s, Stolen Air, has been called “a critically important book,” and his most recent collection, Once in the West, was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. He has recently published poems in 32 Poems, the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, the Hopkins Review, and the Sewanee Review and his selected poems Hammer is the Prayer will be out in 2016 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Richard Wilbur writes that Wiman’s poetry has the “singular power to bring about mergings of consciousness with the surround.” His poems have always made use of music and meter, exploring faith and doubt alike with beautiful precision. And though Wiman’s poetry reflects a shifting religious landscape, for him poems have invariably been a spiritual exercise: “I think poetry is how religious feeling survived in me during all those years of unbelief,” he says in an interview for Christianity Today.
After graduating from Washington and Lee University, Wiman traveled the world, reading and writing as much as possible. He taught at Northwestern University, Stanford University, Lynchburg College in Virginia, and the Prague School of Economics. In 2003 Wiman became editor of Poetry magazine, and for the next ten years guided the magazine as it underwent significant growth from a major bequest of philanthropist Ruth Lilly and the subsequent establishment of the Poetry Foundation. During his tenure as editor the magazine was honored with two National Magazine Awards. Wiman now teaches literature and religion at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest,
it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine.”
Wiman has also published the critically praised memoir My Bright Abyss as well as Ambition and Survival—a collection of stunning craft essays with Copper Canyon Press. The statement above, taken from his “Notes on Poetry and Religion,” is at the core of Wiman's poetic and religious philosophy. Anyone who has read Wiman’s poetry can attest to the chiaroscuro of beauty and suffering rendered in his verse. In 2005 Wiman was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer and, shortly thereafter, rediscovered his Christian faith. Aiken Taylor lecturer Adam Kirsch writes in his review of My Bright Abyss, “The experience of physical suffering has given Wiman a particular affinity for the idea of the Passion. . . . What draws him to Christ is not the idea of God as a healer but that of God as a fellow-sufferer.” For Wiman suffering intensifies experience, resulting in a renewal of love. And indeed, there is intensity at the core of everything he creates.
It is endlessly pleasing when a poet of faith refuses to fall into the trappings of easy revelation, of the “mystery” of God. Wiman’s verse is not a hazy retreat from the world, but a dedicated study of it. From My Bright Abyss: “What I crave—and what I have known, in fugitive instants—is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it, some ultimate insight that is still sight. Heaven is precision.” With Wiman, precision, as achieved in the economical language of poetry, is the key to transcendence. This is beautifully rendered in the poem “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind” (here in its entirety) from his collection Every Riven Thing:
As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
only someone lost could find,
which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,
seems both ghost of the life that happened there
and living spirit of this wasted place,
wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
that is open enough to receive it,
shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .
Wiman’s poetry is not all prayer and devotion. Some of his most engaging poems are those born from doubt and even anger, in which the pain of the world is not excluded, but rather fully inhabited through the clarity of verse. For instance, he begins his poem “We Lived” by having some mean-spirited fun with religious clichés—the “drycleaned deacons expunging suffering” and the “always alto and surely anusless angels.” The poem, however, quickly escalates in intensity and anger, leading to a climax of graphic pain:
I remember one Wednesday witness told of a time
His smack-freaked friends lashed him
To the back of a Brahman bull that bucked and shook
Until like great bleeding wings the man’s collarbones
Exploded out of his skin.
The horror of that image, and the beauty. It almost shuts the speaker up. The easy jests of the earlier lines give way to the revelation of suffering: “There is the suffering existence answers: / it carves from cheeks and choices the faces / we in fact are.” This is theology that extends past simple theodicy. By rendering the image with precision, Wiman memorializes the pain of the moment, not as a remonstration against God but as an entrance into the consciousness of the moment.
“I don’t think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable,” Wiman posits at the end of Ambition and Survival. The theology that resounds throughout Wiman’s recent poetry and My Bright Abyss is that of a faith hard-won. “One man’s atheism might get him closer to God than another man’s mild piety,” he says. Mildness in belief leads to a sort of living death for Wiman, what Camus calls “an aesthetically satisfying form of suicide: marriage, and a forty-hour work week.” Wiman employs this Camus quotation with a healthy amount of ironic distance in his essay “Filthy Lucre,” but his own struggle against this “mildness” distinctly informs his work. Poetry and Christianity in accessing suffering become paths to consciousness. Wiman calls these poems of doubt “anti-devotional devotional” poems. Like faith, the failure of faith becomes another type of religious devotion in Wiman’s hands. Reading such poems, one is reminded constantly of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in Genesis until dawn, leaving the encounter both maimed and enlightened.
Wiman states that his poems begin “almost always as sound, some deep weave of cadence and silence that hardly seems a part of me, and is most me, some music not made of words, yet which without words cannot be.” Indeed Wiman’s ear for music is one of his greatest gifts. And though some critics have found the musicality of his verse distracting, it is the counterbalance to the intense philosophical and theological ruminations therein. The beauty of Wiman’s music has the power to redeem the harsher moments of his verse. This is not to say that he employs a lyrical register that sugarcoats the difficult moments of life, but that the music in a poem like “We Lived” allows the pain to reverberate into something like harmony.
Wiman’s poetry has been compared to that of Robert Frost by many critics for its straightforward approach to form. He outlines the subject with striking lucidity in “An Idea of Order,” an essay on Frost, Heaney, and Hardy, among others: “Even for those poets . . . who in their better moments believe in the value of poetry and in its capacity to formalize some fragment of living reality, the prospect of spending a life trying to articulate sweet sounds together ought to be fraught with . . . some unshakable sense that . . . poetry may be irrelevant. It is this tension that keeps talent alive. It is also this tension that keeps forms alive.” His own verse exhibits this same empty-handed longing for coherence, the “momentary stay in confusion” that can never quite forget the confusion. And though his more recent work has developed away from the Frostian style that characterized his first book, The Long Home, Wiman has not given up on the paradoxical ordering of formal poetry. His rhyme and meter seem always to grasp at some impossible music that bubbles underneath the surface of everything.
And so, though he practices Christianity, Wiman is a writer for all kinds of belief, even (and perhaps especially) unbelief. In his verse and his prose he seeks to shift our understanding of the world, to crystallize both the joy and the pain of existence.
Christian Wiman will receive the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry and give a reading on Thursday, February 18, at 4:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall. On the afternoon before, Wednesday, February 17, Adam Kirsch will deliver the Aiken Taylor lecture, "The Rareness of Poetry: On Christian Wiman," at 4:30 p.m. in the McGriff Alumni Hall. Books will be available for purchase at both events, which will be followed by a reception. Don’t miss new poems from Christian Wiman’s forthcoming collection in our winter 2016 issue.
Previous Aiken Taylor Award Winners
1987 • Howard Nemerov (1920–1991)
1988 • Richard Wilbur (b. 1921)
1989 • Anthony Hecht (1923–2004)
1990 • W. S. Merwin (b.1927)
1991 • John Frederick Nims (1913–1993)
1992 • Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000)
1993 • George Starbuck (1931–1996)
1994 • Wendell Berry (b.1934)
1995 • Maxine Kumin (1925–2014)
1996 • Fred Chappell (b.1936)
1997 • Carolyn Kizer (b.1925)
1998 • X. J. Kennedy (b.1929)
1999 • George Garrett (1929–2008)
2000 • Eleanor Ross Taylor (1920–2011)
2001 • Frederick Morgan (1922–2004)
2002 • Grace Schulman (b.1935)
2003 • Daniel Hoffman (1923-2013)
2004 • Henry Taylor (b.1942)
2005 • B. H. Fairchild (b.1942)
2006 • Brendan Galvin (b.1938)
2007 • Anne Stevenson (b.1933)
2008 • John Haines (1924-2011)
2009 • Donald Hall (b.1928)
2010 • Louise Glück (b.1943)
2011 • Billy Collins (b. 1941)
2012 • Debora Greger (b.1949) click here to listen
2013 • William Logan (b. 1950) click here to listen
2014 • Dana Gioia (b. 1950)
2015 • Marie Ponsot (b. 1921) click here to listen