By Max Saltman
Admirers, educators, new fans, and other assorted enthusiasts of verse traveled through the fog and into Convocation Hall to see poet and translator Heather McHugh accept The Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.
The award, which was established in 1987 by Dr. K.P.A. Taylor in honor of his brother Conrad, is given annually and includes a cash prize of $10,000. The award ceremony was followed by a reading by McHugh and a small reception.
McHugh, a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, is famous for her witty, personal readings. Simon Boes (C’18), a self-described “enthusiastic English-major,” said he came to see the award ceremony in part “because of how present, and how good, her readings are.”
Adam Ross, editor of The Sewanee Review, began the ceremony with a short poem by Taylor entitled “Prayer.” He was followed by University Provost Nancy Berner, who read McHugh’s poem “To Have To,” and praised the poet’s work for its attention to the “nature and function of language.”
McHugh thanked The Sewanee Review for the award and remarked that it was Charles Dickens’s 206th birthday that day, February 7. Referring to him endearingly as “Chaz,” McHugh noted how, at a mere 69 years old, she pales in comparison to the deceased Dickens in terms of age. “My age sounds like a paltry failure at a Kama Sutra position,” she said, bringing laughter from the audience.
She followed her speech by reading 12 of her own poems, including the amusing “Song for the Men of the Pennsylvania Hills” and the contemplative “Size of Spokane.” She ended, fittingly, with “Coming,” a poem which is about exactly what it sounds like. “Thank you all for coming,” Ross ribbed after McHugh had left the lectern.
McHugh spent the early moments of the reception speaking with congratulatory fans and colleagues. Dan Chiasson, poetry critic for The New Yorker, signed books alongside McHugh afterward.
When McHugh was asked, mostly in jest, by The Purple if a low attention span had anything to do with poetry’s popularity in the Internet age, she laughed and nodded in agreement. “Absolutely,” McHugh said. “A short attention span is the reason I got into poetry. It’s the text messaging of literary genres.”
Among the poet’s fans at the reception was Katie Sutton (C’18). “I accidentally made eye contact with my professor during the ‘Coming’ poem,” Sutton remarked. “So, all in all, a great reading.”
With both students and professors listening and learning, poetry lives on at Sewanee.