By Catherine Clifton
The most significant prize administered by the Sewanee Review is the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. Established as an annual award in 1987, 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 Taylor’s older brother Conrad Aiken. The award is given to honor a poet for the work of his or her career.
The Sewanee Review is proud to announce that for the first time the Aiken Taylor Award is being given to two worthy poets in the same year. The 26th and 27th recipients of the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry are Debora Greger and William Logan. This year’s Aiken Taylor events will take place Mar. 19–21 and will include readings by both poets and lectures on their work given by David Yezzi and Emily Grosholz.
Debora Greger is a poet and visual artist who finds inspiration for each of her genres in the other. With a B.A. from the University of Washington and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has worked at various universities from George Mason University to Ohio University before landing at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Greger is the author of eight books of poetry, beginning with Movable Islands in 1980 and continuing most recently with By Herself in 2012. Her award-winning collection entitled Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, published in 1996, draws its themes from a singular childhood—her father worked at the Hanford Site, a plutonium production facility constructed as part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, whose plutonium was used in both the first nuclear bomb ever tested and the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. Hers was a childhood lived where “even the dust, though we didn’t know it then, was radioactive.” The Nation characterizes her style as exhibiting “deadpan wit, intelligence, and marvelous insight.” Her collection Western Art (2004) earned a great deal of praise as well: one publisher exclaimed “The elegies threaded through this mature, startling book recognize life moving toward the shadows—these are poems of old responsibilities and new virtues, looking back as a way of looking forward.” Greger’s poetry has been published in numerous periodicals and reprinted in six volumes of The Best American Poetry. She has exhibited her collage artwork at several galleries and museums across the country and has designed several book covers, including William Logan’s collection Desperate Measures (2002).
Greger is known for her intersections of myth, fact, history, and everyday life—both in her poetry and her visual art. She encourages her writing students to find these connections as well, especially by looking for inspiration in the visual arts. Greger herself tried to submit a quilt in place of an essay when she was a student at Iowa (the effort was, unfortunately, unsuccessful). Her love for the visual is one of the main sources of her skill with the textual, allowing her to turn pictures easily into words; a reviewer for Publishers Weekly once remarked that Greger “rarely rejoices, though she can surely console; her pruned-back, autumnal sensibility and her balanced lines suit the scenes she portrays.”
Perhaps it is also this connection to art that governs the subtlety for which she is known—“Debora Greger’s poems love the accident of discovery; she is a poet whose intimacies are expressed in whispers, whose secrets come in sidelong glances.”
William Logan is a poet and literary critic known for formality and structure both in his own writing and his sometimes scathing but always penetrating reviews. Since 1975 he has published a vast amount of work—both criticism and poetry—in such major publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and the New Criterion. He is the author of nine books of poetry, beginning with Sad-Faced Men (1982) and continuing on to Madame X (2012). Along with essays and reviews, Logan has also written and edited six books of criticism, the most recent of which is Our Savage Art, published in 2009. Having received a B.A. from Yale and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, William Logan has served as a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Florida in Gainesville since 1983, and until 2000 he was the director of the creative writing program there.
Richard Tillinghast has described Logan as an “accomplished and original poet . . . [who] writes with vigor, almost classical restraint and a fine sense of musicality.” One reviewer of Logan’s first book of poetry described his style as a “tough-minded, authentically adventurous formalism.” Owing to Logan’s use of formal style in his own poetry, he tends to save his positive reviews for such well-known—and often deceased—formalist poets as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. He has, however, also praised some free-verse poets like Louise Glück. Logan reviews for the New York Times Book Review, and some of his more controversial statements have led Slate magazine to call him “the most hated man in American poetry . . . [and] its guiltiest pleasure.” However Poetry’s editor, Christian Wiman, seems to give the best analysis of the power of Logan’s criticism, saying, “William Logan is the best practical critic around. I sometimes disagree with his judgments fiercely, but that I so fiercely disagree, that his prose provokes such a response, is what makes him the best. Most criticism is like most poetry: it simply leaves you indifferent. I’ve seen Logan’s name bring bile to the lips of the gentlest spirits . . . For breadth of intelligence, an incisive style, and pure passion, I don’t think he can be matched.”