The Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry

The most important 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 to celebrate his younger brother Conrad Aiken's accomplishments as a poet.

Donald Hall Receives 2009 Aiken Taylor Award
in Modern American Poetry

The Sewanee Review is proud to announce that Donald Hall is the recipient of the twenty-third Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Through the generosity of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor, the Sewanee Review established an annual award in 1987 honoring a distinguished American poet for the work of a career. Howard Nemerov was the first poet honored and was followed by Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht. The other recipients of this important prize (which cannot be applied for) include Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Schulman, Wendell Berry, Anne Stevenson in 2007, and John Haines in 2008. 

This year, we honor the poet, memoirist, and children’s-book writer Donald Hall in celebration of his poetic contribution and achievement. Hall’s latest book of poetry, his sixteenth, is White Apples and Taste of Stone (2006), new and selected poems that span sixty years. His elegant prose includes essays on poetics, art, Portugal, baseball, and rural life, several collections of short stories, and two well-received books about his late wife, the celebrated poet Jane Kenyon, and their life at Eagle Pond in Wilmot, New Hampshire. “He is not sentimental and his poetry is not pastoral; it is tinged with the politically alert, ironic restlessness of an urban, sophisticated mind,” writes Edward B. Germain. “The mature voice speaks with compassion and humor. Its tone is typically elegiac . . . and full of the music of American speech.”

In 1944 when he was sixteen years old, Hall entered the world of letters, by publishing his first poem and attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, at which he met Robert Frost. When he was twenty-seven years old, he published his first book of poetry, Exiles and Marriages, for which he won the Lamont Poetry Prize. 

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Hall was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy before entering Harvard College, where he studied under Harry Levin and Archibald MacLeish and relished the company of Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, George Plimpton, and Edward Gorey. After earning a B.Litt. degree from Oxford and serving as an editor of the Paris Review for nine years, Hall accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan. In 1975 he left Michigan and married Kenyon. Hall and his wife moved to his ancestral farm in New Hampshire. It was there that Hall had first been exposed to poetry during his summers working on Eagle Pond Farm, where his grandfather recited hundreds of poems to him.

I felt like a pirate, a happy pirate, making a living by writing.

Donald Hall, on life and work at Eagle Pond

This move from academia to Arcadia also marked a shift in Hall’s poetry. He departed from his earlier formal poetry and broadened his scope—so that it bordered on surrealism and imagism—experimenting with different forms and meters until “gradually, inevitably, like the elaboration of a personal fate, he has grown into the mature character glimpsed only dimly in the early verse,” Vincent Sherry declares in the Sewanee Review (1991). Hall gained much of his popularity and visibility in the general public following the release of Without (1998), The Painted Bed (2002) and The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (2005) in which Hall explores the loss of his wife to leukemia as well as his own battles with cancer. 

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (2008) is the latest in a lifelong series of memoirs; this one traces Hall’s life from his early interest in poetry (“At fourteen I decided to spend my life writing poetry, which is what I have done.”) to the peculiarities of old age. Floyd Skloot, a longtime contributor to the Sewanee Review, writes, “Unpacking the Boxes shows us that though Hall has been doing what he felt called to do for so long, he can still do it with grace and originality.” 

The Aiken Taylor Award for Modern Poetry is the latest of many honors for Donald Hall. He is perhaps best known as the poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007. On making the appointment, James Billington, librarian of Congress, said, “Donald Hall is one of America’s most distinctive and respected literary figures. For more than fifty years, he has written beautiful poetry on a wide variety of subjects that are often distinctly American and conveyed with passion.” Hall was also the poet laureate for New Hampshire from 1984 to 1989. He was the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for The One Day (1988) as well as two Guggenheim fellowships. Hall earned the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver medal, a lifetime-achievement award from the New Hampshire Writers and Publishers Project, the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry, and the Caldecott Medal for his children’s book, The Ox-Cart Man (1980).

I published my first book at 27, but it wasn't a very good book; my reputation sank considerably and I had to live it down later. But I kept going and then when I was pushing 50 I wrote Kicking the Leaves, and that started to turn the tide again.

—Donald Hall

This year the poems came back, when the leaves fell.
Kicking the leaves, I heard the leaves tell stories,
remembering, and therefore looking ahead, and building
the house of dying. I looked up into the maples
and found them, the vowels of bright desire.
I thought they had gone forever
while the bird sang I love you, I love you
and shook its black head
from side to side, and its red eye with no lid,
through years of winter, cold
as the taste of chicken wire, the music of cinder block.

—From "Kicking the Leaves"

Aiken Taylor Award Winners

  • Howard Nemerov (1987)
  • Richard Wilbur (1988)
  • Anthony Hecht (1989)
  • W. S. Merwin (1990)
  • John Frederick Nims (1991)
  • Gwendolyn Brooks (1992)
  • George Starbuck (1993)
  • Wendell Berry (1994)
  • Maxine Kumin (1995)
  • Fred Chappell (1996)
  • Carolyn Kizer (1997)
  • X. J. Kennedy (1998)
  • George Garrett (1999)
  • Eleanor Ross Taylor (2000)
  • Frederick Morgan (2001)
  • Grace Schulman (2002)
  • Daniel Hoffman (2003)
  • Henry Taylor (2004)
  • B. H. Fairchild (2005)
  • Brendan Galvin (2006) click here to listen
  • Anne Stevenson (2007) click here to listen
  • John Haines (2008) click here to listen