In a recent interview, Dean Young said something to the effect that the only way to get past irony is to go through it. This quip certainly highlights Young’s ironic sense and the emotional distance he often creates by his use of contemporary American slang, the pleasure he takes in the artifacts of popular culture, and his exuberant unwillingness to stick to any particular subject. But the comment also suggests that he might want to get past irony to a quieter place, even though he may distrust that place.
Young, who reads at the U-M on Thursday, September 17, is one of a handful of poets now in middle age who have exercised a significant influence on poets younger than they. The ironic distance that paints the surface of many of Young’s poems and the wild jumps between images or incidents–jumps that often happen in the middle of lines or sentences–are the elements that have become most recognizable as a kind of “Dean Young presence” in the landscape of American poetry.
But I am much more interested in the plaintive note that often plays below the surface of the poems. For instance, here’s the beginning of “Lives of the Mortals,” a poem from his collection Elegy on Toy Piano, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago:
Sad humans. You start out grasping
at something you can’t see
and stay that way. It doesn’t matter
if you’re made of cardboard and glitter
or celestial exhale, you’ve been out in the rain
too long. You try to protect your sister
and she shacks up with Queequeg. You try
to protect your son and he takes up hang-
gliding but he’s not butterfly,
he plummets, he does not hover.
Young’s pleasure in putting a reference to Moby Dick right next to an image of hang gliding is flashy and memorable, but it doesn’t hide the sense of sadness beneath these lines, the unironic, tragic notion that we can’t really influence the facts of our own lives.
In “Evening Primrose,” an earlier poem in the same collection, Young writes quite seriously about the nature of Beauty (using the nineteenth-century-style capital letter), while disguising his seriousness by jumping through examples from our cultural moment in a manner that might confuse readers not used to this technique. Still, in the middle of the poem, he gets to this place:
Can Beauty come back when it hath gone?
Yep. After adolescence. Look at this tree
that was beautiful when its blossoms
twittered in the leftward breeze but
then went through a bark-scab, leaf-
splotched phase but now is beautiful again
albeit kinda spooky.
There is the joking reference to the old use of our language, contrasted with the colloquial “Yep” and “kinda.” And that could give a feel that the whole thing is a joke. But I don’t think it is.