Dean Young is one of America’s most celebrated poets, the author of ten poetry collections, recipient of numerous national awards, and a fixture of campus bookstores. His poems are tremendously fun to read, and often very funny; for me, his work is distinct in the way it channels the spirit of a stand-up comic. He nests his liberal politics inside a vortex of anxiety; disguises insights as farce; and codes earnest messages in irreverence and transgression. In his latest collection, Bender: New and Selected Poems, this spirit is even more pronounced: His new poems explore the same general territory with a darker, subtler confidence. Young gives the impression that the blank page inspires him the way an unpredictable audience inspires a comic:
The San Francisco Renaissance, that loose federation of poets and novelists who gathered in the Bay Area after World War II, is most famous for having organized the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (and thus given birth to the Beat Generation), but its influence was more far-reaching than that. It was also more varied. As with any renaissance, this one was cliquish, even factional: while Ginsberg cultivated his image as a twentieth-century Whitman and Kerouac descended from madcap literary celebrity to middle-aged alcoholism, a lesser-known group of near-surrealists gathered at the State College of San Francisco for a workshop called “Poetry and Magic.” Taught by Jack Spicer, the workshop combined a modernist aesthetic with elements of ‘theosophy,’ a strain of mysticism that, earlier in the century, had captured the imagination of William Butler Yeats. “Poetry and Magic” occasioned a kind of sub-renaissance (sometimes called ‘the Berkeley renaissance’), and it had a notable influence on a number of successful American poets, including the young Jack Gilbert, who died in mid-November at the age of eighty-seven. His Collected Poemswere published in March, 2012, not long before his death.
Elizabeth Bishop, in her tender, funny, and deeply restrained memoir of her relationship with Marianne Moore, begins by explaining the title, “Efforts of Affection”: “In the first edition of Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems of 1951 there is a poem originally called ‘Efforts and Affection.’ In my copy of this book, Marianne crossed out the ‘and’ and wrote ‘of’ above it.” It is a strange revision, either obsessive, the act of a fastidious editor, or, possibly, a cryptic admission of something unspeakable or unspoken. The conjunction offers a more open, if inscrutable, connection while the preposition builds tension, hierarchies, acknowledges the possibility of intimacy, loss, indiscretion (and Daniel Varsky’s desk). In the end, either Moore or Bishop or both have let slip a glimpse of something whose larger existence lies hidden away.