Tuesday, January 20, 2009


KEVIN YOUNG (1970 - )

Kevin Young, born in Nebraska, spent middle and high school in Topeka before attending Harvard University. He is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and he is a renowned poet and editor. He has won Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner Fellowships. Young was once a student of mine in a summer creative writing workshop for middle school students at Washburn University. When he was still a teenager, Thomas Fox Averill of Washburn sponsored Young to edit a book of poetry by Kansas poet Edgar Wolfe. These early opportunities make a difference for youngsters, as his career shows. I hope this example encourages teachers and community arts program leaders.

Young’s poetry shows influences of Langston Hughes and the blues, with lean lines and sharp images, but he definitely has his own voice. This poem appears to be set in the Kaw River valley, where ash trees grow. The meditation on childhood begins with a “welcome” from the woods. He describes chicken-of-the-woods fungi on fallen trees, which seem to be listening ears. Beyond sight woodpeckers can be heard—which references John Keats’ nightingale. The pivot in the poem comes before the halfway mark, with the question: “Where is nature human?” The narrator looks down from canopy heights to the ground, and the mood darkens. With the poem’s nightfall, aging begins, and also a process of confusion. Young uses vivid comparisons to explain this mystery: strips of bark on the ground are a coded text. Darkness is like dangerous depths of water. In the last two lines is another shift, as mosquitoes bite: “Wish /them well. Wave.” The poem tells us to embrace the dark.


Autumn & the leaves turn
to people—yellow, brown,
red—then die. Only ash
trees stay white, standing—

the woods welcome you, trail
like a tongue, half-hidden.
Ears cover fallen trees:
pale mushrooms, listening.

Stop & you can hear
the peckerwoods high up.
Where is nature
human? On the ground

bark thin & pale
as paper, coded Morse.
You are lost, path
unmarked. It grows

dark, you older, night
around you like a lake
you’ve swum out too far
into—tread moonlight

while the bugs begin
taking your blood
for their children. Wish
them well. Wave.

Education: Kevin Young graduated from Topeka West High School. He has an A.B. in English and American Literature (Harvard University 1992) and MFA in Creative Writing (Brown University 1996).
Career: Kevin Young's books are Most Way Home (William Morrow, 1995), National Poetry Series; To Repel Ghosts (Zoland Books 2001), finalist for Academy of American Poets prize; Jelly Roll: A Blues (Alfred A. Knopf 2003), finalist for 2003 National Book Award in Poetry; Black Maria (Alfred A. Knopf 2005); and Dear Darkness (Alfred A. Knopf 2008). Young edits anthologies from Harper Perennial and Everyman. Young's poetry and essays have appeared widely in print & electronic media.
____________________________________________________________________________________________© 2009 Denise Low, AAPP 29 © 2008 “Childhood,” Kevin Young, from Dear Darkness: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf), reprinted with permission of the author © 2007 Denise Low, photograph