It is the common gripe of many academics and literary aficionados that the art of poetry is dying a slow, extended and very painful death. They’ll complain that, while Londoners used to fill the Globe to see the works of Shakespeare and romantics such as Byron, Keats and Shelley were (and remain) household names, the greatest poets of our generation – people like Billy Collins, Louise Gluck and Kay Ryan – go largely unnoticed and unappreciated; they’re artists with no audience for their art. And yet, to make the leap, as some do, that this lack of appreciation is due to a derivative quality of their poetry – that there is some sort of lack of originality in the modern poetic genre – would be a grave error, one that last Tuesday’s reading by Dean Young helped to address in force.
Indeed, one second at Young’s reading could assure anyone in the audience that they were not in for a typical poetic experience. As Harry C. Payne Professor of Poetry Lawrence Raab said in his introduction for the event, for Dean Young, the world is a mess and a labyrinth. It’s place where, as one of his poems states, you shouldn’t “be fooled by clarity” because “there’s always something behind it.” That lack of clarity leaves the reader, as Raab stated later in his introduction, “lost and then found again,” a voyager into the world of the absurd and the inexplicable, only to return, at least in the best cases, to a place of greater understanding and empathy.
It is, then, perhaps that unique poetic voice that has contributed so much to Young’s success within the literary community. Indeed, not only is Young a chair-holder at the University of Texas at Austin’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, he has received fellowships from organizations as multiple and significant as Stanford University, the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. If modern poets could be grouped together in a single school, Young is certainly one of their most decorated members.
And yet, as soon as Young approached the microphone and started reading, all that objective and external commendation melted away, ceding ground to the lunatic world of his poetry and stories. Presenting 18 individual poems, many of them very short, the reading seemed to focus mainly on two major events that had taken place in Young’s recent past: a serious heart-transplant, and the death of a fellow poet and friend. And yet, rather than telling those stories in the explicit way we would expect of a more traditional poet, Young’s selections were more expressionistic than anything else: We didn’t really understand what the process of his grief looked like, but we could certainly, through his words, feel his pain.
His masterpiece “Could Have Danced All Night,” for example, came alive in Sawyer’s first floor forum last Thursday, telling the story of his “cockiness” after evading death in the strange imagistic syntax of a wolf failing to sufficiently harm its prey. A subsequent poem, “Glorious Particles in the Atmosphere Aflame,” used massive, even cosmic images to talk about the daily battle we all undergo against the common forces of depression, grief and nihilism – the way that we, as individuals and groups, go about the process of ascribing meaning to our lives. But if one common element reigned true it was that, in Young’s reading, meaning was less important than association and truth was less important than feeling. The key was not to try to decode the substance of each phrase or line, but rather to use them as the access point into the fabulous and terrifying world what Young created, a world that, at least some signs last week seemed to indicate, is also the world of the poet’s head.
And so, while modern poetry may be lacking an audience, it would be impossible, after last Thursday’s performance, to say that it is also lacking substance, vigor or originality. Indeed, if nothing else, Young’s poetry allowed us to, in the words of the title of the last piece he presented, “believe in magic.”