The Sewanee Review is proud to announce the recipient of the 25th Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. This year the Review honors Billy Collins, called by the New York Times “the most popular poet in America,” with the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. Collins is the 25th recipient of this prize and follows such important writers as Donald Hall, Wendell Berry, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maxine Kumin.
Bruce Weber of the New York Times crowned Collins “the most popular poet in America” in 1999, and since then the poet’s readership and reputation have continued to grow. The poet whom Collins has been most compared to is Robert Frost—perhaps the highest praise an American poet can receive. Like Frost, Collins’s poetry is decidedly unpretentious, witty without lapsing into vulgarity, and capable of profound, if subtle, observations about life’s ordinary incidents. The late John Updike, himself a good writer of light verse, admiringly said of him, “Billy Collins writes lovely poems . . . limpid, gently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.”
A lecture on Collins's career in poetry will be given at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28, in the McGriff Alumni House. Vice-Chancellor John McCardell will present the award to Collins at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, in Convocation Hall. A reading by Collins and a reception will follow.
Born in New York City in 1941 (where he now teaches at Lehman College in the Bronx), Collins earned his B.A. at Holy Cross before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside. His career as a published poet did not begin until he was 40, however; teaching was always his first ambition, and he admits to entertaining “this idea of [himself] as a scholar/gypsy, teaching at a Caribbean college and the University of South Hawaii.”
Collins’s poetry is distinctly his own. At times it can be funny, like Collins himself. He approaches writing poetry with a refreshingly relaxed and playful attitude, intent on highlighting the search for life’s mysteries. “In a poem,” he says, “the pen is more like a flashlight, a Geiger counter, or one of those metal detectors that people walk around beaches with. You’re trying to discover something that you don’t know exists, maybe something of value.”
Collins was appointed this country’s poet laureate from 2001 through 2003. As a poet of the people like Frost before him, Collins’s poems are always communicating the universal out of the quotidian, always maintaining a sense of curiosity and enchantment, and, most important, always worth reading.
Through the generosity of Dr. K. P. A. Taylor (brother of poet Conrad Aiken), the Sewanee Review established the annual Aiken Taylor Award in 1987 to honor a distinguished American poet for the work of a career. Howard Nemerov was the first poet so honored.
(Photo by Steven Kovich.)