Aiken Taylor Award celebrates married poets

by Ross Scarborough

Certainly the pinnacle of Sewanee’s literary culture is the Sewanee Review. The hard work of past editors such as Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, and John E. Palmer, as well as an unfaltering devotion to quality criticism have situated the Review and the University in a place of reverence among writers in the South and beyond. Institutionally, the Review is a cornerstone of Sewanee’s identity. Culturally, it belongs to the South and the entire world of modern literature. Editor George Core has led the Review with a steady hand for nearly four decades, carrying the 111-year-old quarterly into the 21st century with great security for the future.

The relationship between the University and the Review is more than just one of mutual cooperation: it is practically symbiotic. The Review is, after its graduates, the University’s greatest contribution to the world beyond the domain—or, at least, its most notable. Likewise, the University provides the Review with a ready source of contributors eager to add their own work to this distinguished institution. There is nothing more pleasing for a student than opening a copy of the Review and seeing their English or classics professor’s writings alongside those of a celebrated poet. Such a realization reveals intellectual depth of those professors with whom students have the pleasure of learning from every day.

The Review is a rallying point for the University. There is a great sense of community pride associated with the Review, which draws students, faculty, and staff together to appreciate poetry. The annual Aiken Taylor Award is one such opportunity for the community to gather. The Aiken Taylor Award began in 1985 by Dr. K.P.A. Taylor in honor of his brother Conrad Aiken. Past recipients include Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, X.J. Kennedy, and Billy Collins.

This year, poets Deborah Greger and William Logan were initiated into this noble order as the 26th and 27th recipients of the award. The couple was in Sewanee Mar. 19—21 for a series of lectures, poetry readings, receptions, and book signings.

Gregor and Logan are married and live in Gainesville, Florida, where they are both professors of English at the University of Florida. Both poets studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and have published multiple books of poetry. Logan began publishing in 1975, and his works have been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, Poetry, and the New Criterion. Logan reviews for the New York Times Book Review, and has been called the “best practical critic around” by Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine. Whether it is prose or poetry, Logan’s writing style is both highly intelligent and formal. His latest book, Madame X, was published last year. Greger’s first book of poetry, Movable Islands, was published in 1980. Her most recent collection, By Herself, was published in 2012. Greger’s poems are “poems of old responsibilities and new virtues, looking back as a way of looking forward.”

It is fitting that this year’s Aiken Taylor recipients reflect the general ethos of Sewanee in the sense that they are well-rounded and practice more than just one art. Greger is a celebrated visual artist, and her work has been showcased in museums and galleries across the nation. Logan is not only one of the most highly celebrated poets writing today, but also a thought-provoking literary critic. The influences of these creative avenues are apparent in each writers’ poetry. When advising students on the connection between poetry and the visual arts, Greger encourages them to search for the place where myth, fact, history, and everyday life intersect. Logan’s highly formalized style of verse writing betrays the fact that he is one of the most important literary critics writing today, controversial in his analysis of other works yet revered as having a highly articulate and intelligent perspective on the art of poetry.

The celebration of the Aiken Taylor award brought not only two celebrated poets to our campus, but also two of the most important critics in literature today to comment on the works of Logan and Greger. David Yezzi’s lecture “The Perfect Moods of William Logan” was the first official Aiken Taylor event on Mar. 19. Yezzi’s lecture praised Logan as the most important poet-critic writing today and emphasized the importance of an intelligent approach to poetry. On Mar. 21, Emily Grosholz spoke on “The Landscapes of Debora Greger.” As a professor of Philsophy, African-American Studies, and English at Penn State University, Grosholz offered an interesting perspective on Greger’s works.

This reporter was fortunate enough to meet both Logan and Greger during their brief stay on the mountain. They both seemed like down-to-earth individuals, which is exactly what one would hope an Aiken Taylor recipient would be. Logan and Greger offer the kind of poetic skill that Sewanee is proud to associate itself with, and assures this ink-stained wretch that we will be enjoying quality poetry from the Review for years to come.