Introspection as Social Commentary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Al Young’s distinctive and finely wrought poetry documents the personal odyssey of a clear-sighted and sensitive man in a period of social and political turmoil. Young’s poetry seldom takes the form of an overt political manifesto or social commentary. He is a practitioner of a time-honored tradition of lyric poetry that comments on the larger issues of society by a close introspection of everyday life and private emotions.

Young’s writing has earned him numerous awards, including a Wallace E. Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two American Book Awards, the PEN-USA Award for Nonfiction, and a Fulbright Fellowship that enabled him to travel and work in Eastern Europe. He has taught at several institutions, including Rice University, Stanford University, Davidson College, and the University of California’s campuses at Santa Cruz and at Berkeley. In 2005, he was appointed California’s poet laureate. Three years later, he received the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement in literature. In addition to poetry, Young is also the author of several highly acclaimed novels, a trilogy of innovative “musical memoirs,” and screenplays for such Hollywood films as Sparkle (1976) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). It was poetry, however, that first brought him to attention as an important voice in contemporary American letters.

The son of Albert and Mary Campbell Young, poet Albert James Young was born in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on May 31, 1939. His father, a professional jazz musician during the 1930’s, became an autoworker when he moved the family to Detroit, Michigan, in 1946. During his youth, Young spent summers in rural Mississippi but attended public schools in Detroit, graduating from Central High School. Young attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California at Berkeley while also pursuing a professional career as a jazz flutist, singer, and guitarist in the folk-music style popular on college campuses in the early 1960’s. He received a B.A. from the University of California in 1969 and published his first collection of poems, Dancing, that same year.

A Poet’s Coming of Age

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“The coming of age of America’s black artists continues to be a subject that’s rarely touched upon,” Young has written. In his own case, he was from his early years a voracious reader and avid listener to all types of music, and his early poetry shows the influence of these wide-ranging interests. Jazz music made a lasting impact. In the late 1950’s, he attended concerts at Detroit’s New Music Society that featured local musicians such as Yusef Lateef, Charles McPherson, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, and others who would later achieve international reputations. Young was impressed both by the respect these musicians enjoyed in the community and by the seriousness with which they approached their art. Jazz at that period was not viewed merely as entertainment. In Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1981), Young recalled thatany jazz worthy of the name was expected to be about something. The main idea was still to venture out there and play what you had to say meaningfully, with as much feeling and personal inventiveness as you needed to get your story across to those with whom you were communing. It was a two-way avenue of expression along which player and hearer drove and refueled one another and yet, at heart, were one.

As he made the transition in the late 1960’s from playing music professionally to writing poetry, Young adapted the ideal of jazz performance to literary composition. The interest in jazz from his teenage years was blended with experiences of Negro spirituals and tales learned from his grandmother Lillian Campbell in the small hamlet of Pachuta, Mississippi....

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Searching for the Human Spirit

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Young’s unexpectedly logical metaphor of “melting” in sunlight in “Myself When I Am Real” is taken literally in a spiritual sense and followed by the even more unexpected metaphor of “fading” into the bright sunlight that becomes surrealistically synonymous with a door that serves as an entrance to the infinity of the universe. Although Young’s later poems do not reveal their literary influences as immediately as does “Myself When I Am Real,” all of his work is grounded in a thorough knowledge and recall of a wide spectrum of classical and contemporary literature, philosophy, and folklore. Young’s use of such sources, however, is not academic or pedantic. “As a kid,” he has written, “I got the idea that still persists with me, that when we look at any painting or piece of writing or listen to any piece of music, what we are actually doing is searching for the human spirit.”

Each of Young’s collections of poems demonstrates his firm commitment to such a humanistic aesthetic. Dancing contains twenty-seven poems, most of which deal explicitly with the theme or metaphor of the dance. The opening poem of the sequence, “A Dance for Militant Dilettantes,” positions Young in opposition to the so-called revolutionary black poets who achieved popularity during the 1960’s. Using satire, Young presents a poem intended to offer “advice to young poets”:

You got to learn to put in aboutstone black fistscoming up against white jaws& red blood splashingdown those fabled wine & urine-soaked hallways

Such a poetry of unsavory detail, a parody of Amiri Baraka’s well-known poem “Black Art,” will bring its author popularity because readers of black poetry “don’t want no bourgeois woogie/ they want them a militant nigger/ in a...

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A Continuing Struggle for Identity

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Song Turning Back into Itself (1971) includes further reminiscences of Mississippi and the poet’s struggle to realize his own identity. The play on words in the book’s title prefigures the ambiguities of race and class that are the subject of several poems. “The Problem of Identity,” a prose poem, presents early male role models including the persona’s father, the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (a native of Alabama who also migrated to Detroit), and a family friend named Otis who had a talent for drawing but “went up to Chicago, sadness, madness, wed, bled, dope, hopelessness, catapulted into the 20th century.” Many of the poems that follow recount a personal struggle to avoid the fate that befalls Otis. “Sunday Illumination” celebrates the joy of small pleasures such as hiking in the Berkeley, California, hills. The physical exertion and the beauty of both the natural landscape and the suburban skyline in the distance bring the poet a restorative vision that he feels is similar to the Buddhist concept of satori, or enlightenment. Appropriately, the poem is written in the verse paragraph form used by William Blake and Walt Whitman, both of whom recorded similar messages about the human being’s relationship to both the natural and the constructed environment.

Young, however, is not a poet much attracted to landscapes; his primary concern is with other people. In “I Arrive in Madrid,” he notes that “the wretched of the earth/ are my brothers.” He is immediately aware that this perception is not much more than a facile political slogan that rings as hollow as the travel agent’s or the government’s “publicity” that gives Madrid, and other...

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A Broadening of Form

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In contrast to the spare simplicity of The Blues Don’t Change, Young’s work in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century includes a broad range of poetic forms, from representations of jazz riffs to the Shakespearean sonnet. In The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems, 1990-2000 (2001) and Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry (2007), Young’s free, flexible use of strict form bears out his comment to a reporter that “I’ve got the chops now to do whatever I wish.”

Many recent poems further develop subjects familiar from Young’s earlier work. For example, in “I Can’t Get Started” (titled after Ira Gershwin’s popular song), Young returns to the theme of unfulfilled longing despite the trappings of success. His paraphrase of Gershwin’s lyrics exemplifies what African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” or “warring ideals” that divide personal identity into two or more facets. The speaker of the poem concludes with these lines:

In my bourgeois house, by my brand new pool,my late-life Ph.D thesis about to be a book,my savvy stock portfolio healthy and trimlike this new body to which you getmy initial public offering, and Oprahjust left me some choice voicemail.Tell me, sweet thing, please—how comeI find myself blessed with everythingthis system provides, and still I can’t get you?

Thus, personal testimony can bring an ironic twist to the lyrics that inspire a poem. The lines suggest that, like some members of white society, some African Americans may have everything materially, but not what they truly long for—perhaps a particular beloved person, or perhaps the speaker’s own soul. As always, Young makes his point gently, without bombast.

A Wider Audience

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The appointment of Young—a longtime educator as well as a poet—as California’s poet laureate in 2005 further empowered him to call public attention to the importance of culture and the arts, which he calls essential to democracy. His poem “Sundays in Democracies” takes three points of view—Democrat, Republican, and Citizen—and finds the first two unsatisfactory. The “Citizen” declares, “More parties, please . . .” and predicts the disaster that would follow from relinquishing “frequencies”—the right of free expression:

If you think oil is over-priced,consider what we’re going to pay

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Broughton, Irv, ed. The Writer’s Mind: Interviews with American Authors. Vol. 3. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990. Contains an overview of Young’s literary career.

Davis, Francis. “O. O. Gabugah Interviews Himself.” The New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1988, p. 10. Davis, a writer on jazz, discusses the role of music as a source of poetic inspiration for Young.

Johnson, Charles. “The Men.” In Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Commentary on Young by a celebrated novelist, who notes that Young “is distinguished by the emphasis in his large body of work on a gentle vision of black American life that is, at bottom, harmonious and spiritual.”

O’Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. Includes a concise but important interview focusing on Young’s early poems and the novel Snakes.

Young, Al. “A Conversation With Al Young.” Interview by Bruce Allen Dick. Cold Mountain Review, Fall, 2003. Young shares his ideas on poetic composition and his belief in “another aspect of you that’s beyond the body, beyond what you think of as yourself.”

Young, Al. Interview by Heidi Benson. San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2008, p. M-4. Excellent exposition of Young’s view that language is instrumental in shaping human consciousness and that clear language is an antidote to the political chicanery he abhors.

Young, Al. “Interview with Al Young.” Interview by Nathaniel Mackey. MELUS 5 (Winter, 1978): 32-51. Detailed and useful interview covering Young’s work as poet, novelist, and Hollywood screenwriter.