Poet Al Young, who was also a novelist, screenwriter, memoirist, educator, and a former poet laureate of California, died April 17 from the complications of a stroke. He was 81. His passing during both Jazz Appreciation and National Poetry Month celebrations is an appropriate moment to affirm the two most powerful and enduring elements of his literary output.
“I think he ranks among the top 25 American poets. That’s White, Black, and Hispanic,” says Young’s longtime friend and collaborator, novelist, poet, and essayist Ishmael Reed. “Al was a full-time poet, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry.”
“For me, poetry is magical,” Young said during a Talks at Google YouTube video in 2008. “It occupies a space that’s somewhere between rational speak and prose speak, and musicality. I write about music because jazz and the blues and vernacular music have played a large role in shaping me.”
Young published several books of poetry from 1969 to 2008, among them Dancing (Corinth), The Song Turning Back Into Itself (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston), Geography of the Near Past (HRW), The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems: 1990-2000 (Creative Arts Book Co.), and Something About the Blues: An Unlikely Collection of Poetry (Sourcebooks), which includes Young’s elegantly lyrical poem, “Why Love Bach’s Goldberg Variations?” excerpted below:
“In tender surrender, the soft sound of the blues spread out around you fools you good. Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett - play the morning differently. The moment you fall in love, you get it. Everything there is to know about love you grasp, understanding how it can go…”
Young also wrote four memoirs, from 1981 to 1995 - named after records by Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Joe Simon: Bodies and Soul, Kinds of Blue, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs (co-authored by Janet Young), and Drowning in the Sea of Love (all published by Creative Arts Book Co.).
He penned four novels. Snakes (1970, HRW), centers on MC, a Black boy growing up in Detroit who becomes a musician amidst the Black and purple haze of crime, poverty and drugs. Detroit also figures in Who is Angelina? (1975, Univ. of California Press); about a California woman who embarks on an Odyssean journey that includes Gypsy fortune telling, a trip to Mexico, and a Motor City reunion with her father. Sitting Pretty (1976, HRW) features Sidney J. Prettymore, a philosophical middle-aged divorcee, who becomes a radio disk jockey. Ask Me Now (1980, San Francisco Book Co.), named after a Thelonious Monk piece, centers on Durwood Knight, a retired basketball player struggling with his roles as a father and husband. And in Seduction by Light (1988, Delta Fiction), Mamie Franklin is haunted by the ghost of her husband. In all of his novel’s, Young’s Black characters are realistic and complex human beings, and not stereotyped Negro cliches.
At first, some Black writers criticized the lack of Black Nationalism in Young’s works. “I didn't have a political agenda,” Young said during a Pennsound Podcast from 2000. “I would always get these critiques that say [I was] accommodating - which is a polite way of saying Uncle Tom. … That was about the first seven or eight years. But then, things started to change, until they reached the point that the Black intelligentsia was saying, ‘not only is Al Young a Black writer, he’s one of the Blackest [laughs].’”
Mississippi-born and Palo-Alto-based, Young’s roots in Black culture run deep. Born Earnest James Young on May, 31, 1939, he was taught how to read at the age of four by an aunt, and later changed his name to Al. Young and his family later moved to Detroit in 1946. Influenced by the rich folk stories he heard in the South, Young’s early poetry was printed in the Afro-American newspaper, The Detroit Tribune.
He attended the University of Michigan, co-edited the student journal, Generation, moved to Berkeley, Calif. in 1961, and became friends with poet Kenneth Rexroth. He worked in the Bay Area as a folk singer, disk jockey, and a medical photographer, and graduated in 1969 with honors from the University of California, Berkeley, where he also teamed up with Ishmael Reed to launch the literary journals the Yardbird Reader and Quilt.
Young enjoyed a long career as an educator, teaching poetry, fiction and creative writing at several universities including his alma mater, and the University of Washington and Stanford University. Young’s many awards include the American Book Award for Bodies and Soul, and The Sound of Dreams Remembered presented in 1982 and 2002, respectively.
He was selected by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as California’s Poet Laureate and served from 2005 to 2008, traveling throughout the state. “I accepted all invitations …,” Young told the Mercury News in 2009. “One of the things I did was tour with bassist Dan Robbins and we toured 36 places in 12 days: libraries, schools, fishing villages, juvenile centers - it was a wonderful experience.”
For all of his literary Life, Al Young’s, poetry represented the totality of the human experience. “Poetry cuts across time and circumstance and everything,” Young told the Mercury News. “It’s very moving. It is always that way when it is allowed to flourish.”
Correction: The name of The Detroit Tribune was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.