Texas English professor discusses his bond with poetry


Thomas Allison

English professor and renowned American poet Dean Young was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2005, and was named the William Livingston Chair of Poetry in 2008. Young’s poems, which draw from surrealist tradition, have been featured in numerous anthologies.

Henry Clayton Wickham

Editor’s note: This is part of a bi-weekly series showcasing the many fascinating members of UT’s faculty.

Dean Young is an influential, nationally recognized poet and the William Livingston Chair of poetry at Michener Center for Writers here at UT. He is also a professor in the English department.

If Young’s poems were animals, they would be the most improbable crossbreeds you can imagine. Exotic yet familiar, wide but narrow, friendly, terrifying and beyond taxonomy, his poems are like house mice bred with dinosaurs. Whichever way you approach them, you can expect to be surprised. Young crafts collages of illogic and seeming contradictions that transcend the sum of their parts and challenge how we classify our world. “Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself/ ‘I’ve got these words that mean completely/ different things inside myself and it’s tearing me apart?’” he asks in one poem.

Young is the author of 10 books of poetry, including “Elegy on a Toy Piano,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, he received a life-saving heart transplant after living for over a decade with a degenerative heart condition. His most recent book of poetry, “Fall Higher,” was written before the transplant and was published last April.

Daily Texan: Why do you write poetry?
Dean Young: Because I started writing it when I first learned how to write and didn’t stop. It doesn’t seem to be a question that poses itself to me. The question would be “why not?” At this point in my life, I’ve been doing it for so long that I write poetry the same way I exercise or do other things in my life that I’d feel incomplete without doing.

DT: What appeals to you about poetry?
The self-contained quality to it. I like ends a lot and poetry ends all time. It’s defining characteristic is that it occurs in lines, and the defining characteristics of a line is that it ends.

DT: Why does it appeal to you that poetry has so many ends?
This sounds overblown, but it is about confronting our mortality and the realization that all pleasures have duration and all agonies too. Most poetry is preoccupied with the limited nature of our current existence. Poetry is concise, and its brevity suggests that we don’t have time to waste. It’s not bad or good, but it does take some confronting because we live in a culture where death is primarily relegated to the periphery, unless it’s made into a kind of
cartoonish entertainment.

DT: You had a heart transplant a year ago, and your heart condition was something you were aware of for a long time before the transplant. Has that influenced your fascination with limits?
Absolutely. My father died when he was young from a bad heart and I was always aware of it as a possibility. Then, when I got diagnosed, it was irrefutable. I lived for about 13 years with a pretty clear idea of how I was going to die. I thought, ‘Okay, my heart’s going to give out and I’m going to die,’ and I went through the transplant, but it turns out I didn’t die that way. And it’s weird because I sort of had it checked off. Now, I’m sort of clueless. The one vague certainty that I had is gone. That’s not going to kill me.

DT: Your poems deal with themes of randomness and chaos. These themes don’t necessarily seem positive, but in your poetry they are comforting in a way. Is that intentional?
I can see how this sense that everything is going every which way could cause panic. But, to some extent, I feel like ‘suck it up,’ because that’s the way reality is. If you haven’t had something come along in your life to completely upset all your systems of filing, then it’s going to, and when it does, it will completely destroy you unless you say ‘okay this is part of reality.’ Once you say that, it’s kind of a party. Random particle motion is what got us here, and it’s what’s going to do us in, but it also brings sudden beauty into life. You run into somebody you’ve never met, fall in love and your life is never going to be the same.

DT: What do you learn from teaching poetry?
Teaching brings me in contact with the poetry of the future. It’s taught me to be perpetually open-minded and shown me again and again that I’ll never get to the bottom of everything poetry can do, which makes me happy.

DT: Among people my age, poetry isn’t culturally mainstream. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. We can whine and moan about the lack of attention paid to poetry, but there is still an enormous amount of people out there writing poetry, and there are an enormous amount of poetry books being published. I think poetry’s in an incredibly good position right now in our culture.

Printed on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 as: UT professor discusses influences on his poetry