Poetry News

How to Read Dean Young

By Harriet Staff


The Huffington Post has posted a review of Dean Young's latest, Bender: New and Selected Poems, a survey of 25 years of his poetry presented in alphabetical order. A gutsy move, no doubt, but the purpose reviewer Bobby Elliot argues "is to make every poem as valuable and potentially related as the next, which is at least a refreshing take on a Selected Poems. (Usually a poet's early work is relegated to the bleachers of poetic achievement, included to show just how far the poet's come to be sitting courtside 25 years later.)"

Elliot focuses on the slipperiness of Young's language and the odd, seemingly arbitrary turns his poems take, which "can feel like holding a fish you think you've caught, only to watch it slip out of your hands and back into the ocean." Elliot looks at such slipperiness and sees something fishy in Young's "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish," which appeared in 2011's Fall Higher:

It's one of the shorter poems included in Bender and it's probably one of the "easier" poems as well. Yet something that happens mid-poem is typical of every poem in Bender - there's a break. The first half of the poem is an account of the speaker's reaction to learning of his "falling" heart - it's amusing, sad and charming ("it bobbed / and bloomed like a sea monster and tasted / like feet") - but then, beginning with the line "Sweat itself / is odorless...," the poem takes off, entering into an array of non-sequiturs:

.....Sweat itself
is odorless, composed of water,
sodium chloride, potassium salts,
and lactic acid, it's bacteria growing
on dead skin cells that provides the stink.
The average lifespan of a human taste bud
is 7 to 10 days. Nerve pulses
can travel up to 170 miles per hour.
All information is useless.
The typical lightning bolt
is one inch wide and five miles long.

This might be where you began to ask yourself the same question I asked myself, "Wait a minute, what the hell is going on now?" Why Young made the poem move in this direction is immediately unclear and by the end, it's difficult to know what's come of "The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish." The "useless" information in the second half of the poem has more or less to do with the "lifespan" of things - skin cells, taste buds, lightning - but it threatens to abstract an otherwise intelligible poem. As odd as this may sound, it's exactly what Dean Young is good at and Bender attests to his enduring commitment to risk and mutability throughout his career.

Overall, what Elliot finds compelling in Young's poetry is his ability to be both (dreaded "a" word) accessible while keeping the poems weird and difficult. He writes:

The drive to write readable, "accessible" poetry has often robbed the American poem of its poetry - the flourishing of language, like the brushstrokes of a painter, that gives the poem its very spirit. As we have already witnessed, Young has made it a point to go further, ideally without losing us, but actively trying to stretch our imagination (and his own) as wildly and freely as possible. I don't want to make it sound like it's always a surefire success in Bender, but I also want to propose that it doesn't have to be one either. Sometimes the half of the poem that is lit makes up for the rest of it in darkness.

There's more where that came from. Find it here.

Originally Published: February 15th, 2013