Cooper Foundation brings Poet Kevin Young to Swarthmore

Young at Swarthmore on Tuesday. Photo by Jiuxing June Xie.

When poet Kevin Young arrived in the Scheuer Room last Tuesday for a Cooper Event, Professor of English Anthony Foy called him the “The Poet Laureate of the Post-Civil Rights Era.” The poet read from work from Dear Darkness (2008) and other volumes, as well as elegies by other poets from an anthology called The Art of Losing, which he recently edited.

When asked why he included other poets’ work in his reading, Young said, “I want to represent what’s being done in elegy writing nowadays: a sense of how people are writing about grief now.” He shared poems by W.H. Auden and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others.

Young’s own work is influenced by the death of his father, something he grapples with in Dear Darkness, a book of odes to the comforts of southern food and home and family. He read “Ode to Chicken” and “Ode to Okra” as well as many others, and showed, through his riffs on the meanings of each of the foods, how a favorite dish can do more than fill an empty stomach.

“Poetry is about the everyday and the transcendent,” said Young, in an interview. “Food is like that too. It’s a way to reflect on its position in our lives.”

“His work makes me salivate,” said Professor of English Peter Schmidt, “even the grief poems, because they’re so rich and so filling, when grief is usually so empty.”

Former Professor of Russian Literature and Language Thompson Bradley agreed, “Catching the feeling of the food, the life of the food comes alive. It’s melancholy and very moving. It’s not that [Young] is sentimental, it’s that through these poems he realizes what loss means.”

The blues also infuses Young’s work in subtle and substantial ways. “I appreciated how the feeling of the blues surfaced in poems that weren’t obviously bluesy, like the odes,” said Daisy Schmitt ’12.

Young cites his family’s love of music and his grandfather, a musician, as influences on his work. “It’s my way of talking about a poem like a song. It’s a true American and African American tradition that informs my work.” He also defined the blues as “a poor man’s heart disease, or, a good man feeling bad, or, a bad woman feeling good.”

“There’s a kind of kind of longing, a suffering that the blues has. [Young’s] poems make that suffering personal,” said Professor of English Natalie Anderson, “and yet, he’s participating in a heritage.” Young continues to build on this heritage, having published 6 volumes of poetry since 1995 and edited 5 anthologies to date.

Young’s poetry has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares; he has received many accolades for his work, including receiving a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Young’s 2003 volume Jellyroll was a finalist for the National Book Award. Young is currently the Atticus Haygood professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University and the curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library.


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