by Kevin Young
Poetry has long existed on the periphery of American life, but even the outermost settlements have centers that are more hospitable just a few miles closer to civilization. Kevin Young has long held a position in this desirable neighborhood. Young, aged 50, has won or been a finalist for a parade of major awards; He has been guest editor for the annual “Best American Poetry” series (when he was only 40 years old); And he is one of 15 chancellors at the Academy of American Poets. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the American Academy of Arts and Letters (probably a theme here). On top of that, Young is currently the poetry editor of The New Yorker, arguably the most important position an American poet can hold; Soon he’ll likely be named a Poet Laureate, at which point he’ll go “Bingo!” can shout.
There are many reasons for this star-spangled resume, and most of them reflect well on Young. He is a prudent editor (his version of John Berryman’s “Selected Poems” is terrific), a nimble essayist (see Introduction to the same section) and a responsible custodian of poetry’s limited public resources. Above all, he is often an excellent poet.
And he is excellent in a special way. American poetry is currently a jumble of genres, but Young writes in an almost harmonic register. His work may be quirky and mind-boggling, but it never falls apart (he has a poem that’s literally all about sweet potato pie). He is attentive to sound and wordplay, yet largely sticks to the accepted free verse model that has dominated American writing for 60 years. His writing is warm, often elegant and confidently spartan. There is a lot to like and, perhaps more important, very little to dislike immediately. If you go to, say, the Academy of American Academic Artists in America, you’re going to think – and this is no criticism of Young – that where poetry is concerned, that’s exactly what you had in mind.
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Young’s new collection, “Stones”, is about family, about death and how families absorb and rebalance loss; The stones here have names and life spans. The book is divided into seven sections, each of which sticks loosely to a single theme, and most of its one- to two-page lyrics take on common situations and relationships—birthdays of older relatives, thunderstorms, etc. Waiting with, catching a firefly, watching your child play in the cemetery. The voice is casual (“When we’re low / We roll / In the corner, near-empty / In our hands”), though you’ll never suspect you’re reading poetry (the vocabulary sometimes refers to words like “bezoars”). turns into”; the poem “Joy” is a hat tip to Randall Jarrell’s “Next Day”). In a departure for Young, the poems here are composed in Terset, sometimes rhyming and slanting. Sporting an attractive array of features such as:
Start from here. with dolor
it’s early september
bring new weather
the sky is a cold color
Coming, my son
one year old.
Young is a detailed, almost relaxed writer; Bombshell intensity is not his signature. But he can add salt to the pot if needed. Here he is writing how, as water enters a house, how does this happen?
out of their frame
And hardly say sorry-
In a word
You can do this
it is called Family.
The slanted rhymes of “sorry” and “family” are knife turns. At its best, Young reminds us that the middle voice of the poem remains a resonator.