Each year, the Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award highlights an established talent in modern American poetry. Vievee Francis, currently a professor at Dartmouth, is the latest addition to a line of honorees that includes such notables as Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy Collins, and W.S. Merwin. On October 13, she read her work to a rapt audience that included students, faculty, Sewanee Review staff, and administrators, and filled up all the seats available in Convocation Hall. Another distinguished poet, Philip B. Williams, had given a lecture on Francis’s poetry the previous afternoon.
In his introduction of Francis, Sewanee Review Editor- in- Chief Adam Ross called her “that rare poet who combines a great-hearted capaciousness with an astonishing, realistic precision.” He went on to say that “any argument [Francis] makes in her poetry is imbued with a combination of determination and love, or a determination to love.” Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety also spoke briefly on the poems’ insight into the beauty and pain of American life, and said a few words about the Award’s history and purpose.
The Aiken Taylor Award was founded by K.P.A. Taylor, himself a poet as well as a physician. His highly literary family included writers such as Joan Aiken and Conrad Aiken, his older brother, in whose honor the award was created. Before the award was presented to Vievee Francis, Taylor’s poem “Prayer” was read aloud. The Review‘s Poetry Editor, Eric Smith, commented that the award “is one of many opportunities we have to bring attention to a poet of singular talent, one whose gifts have changed how we, as editors, read and think about what a poem can do.” He added that the intention of this public recognition is, in large part, to encourage others to seek the gift of “hopeful, fruitful conversation” with Francis and her body of work, which “has been great company in a trying year, at once a challenge and a balm.”
On, then, to the poems that provoked this “awe” and “gratitude”: Francis opened with “Taking It”, from her recent collection The Forest Primeval. “Is this too dramatic?” she read. “Find another story. Find a lie.” She continued into a series of works both published and (it seems for certain poems) unavailable in print, knitting varied and beautiful images into stories of loss, family, and landscape. The careful, unflinching gaze of her writing, which sees the sweetness in Hamtramck blood soup and never misses what is harsh or hurting for what is pretty, or vice versa, was deepened by the rhythm and timbre of her reading voice. Francis’s poems are often intensely personal, as in intimate, as in character-driven, whether the work arose directly from Francis’s own life or that of Zachary Taylor, or Marvin Gaye. This last, which concerned the relationship between Gaye and the father who fatally shot him, was heartbreaking when Francis read it; the poem finished in a subtle and surprising turn that once again reached out to the reader, as if it had always been a conversation, and always possible to focus the vision into something as strong-stomached and tender as Francis’s.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Sewanee Review editorial assistant Luke Gair (C’21) states, “that [Francis] has earned a totemic status in the circuit of contemporary American letters.” Indeed, and the Award’s focus on poets “in the maturity of their career[s]” means that this recognition of Francis’s work, as well as the accompanying reading and lecture, are an invitation into what is already a corpus of great richness and wonder. Her acceptance of this honor will, for many of us, mark the beginning or continuation of an enduring relationship with her writing.