Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

So many poets out there. Sometimes that means it takes a long time getting around to someone I should have delved into before. Kevin Young’s been on my to-read list for a good while, but the recent publication of his Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015 kind of scared me: what, 600 pages encompassing just part of only 20 years’ work? Yikers. I once said that my ambition was to have one day a Collected Poems on the scale of Basil Bunting’s (173 pages) rather than Ted Hughes’s (1,376 pages) — this was when I was living in the UK — but clearly Young is a poet of Hughesian (Ashberian, Coolidgean, whatever) appetites. Fair enough, but was I really ready to scale the heights of that gargantuan corpus? Not yet, but this would be a good reason to crack the early collection, his third, that’s been on my shelves for a while. Well, I lapped it up like a cat with a plate of milk. Not everything in this substantial collection (190 pages) is equally compelling — there’s inevitably a good bit of vamping until ready — but all of it embodies what I love best in poetry: pure lyricism. More than anything else, the swift, nervy dislocations of his style remind me of the early Creeley of “For Love,” albeit deliciously inflected with generous helpings from multiple African-American literary and musical traditions — Young’s mix of wit and plaintiveness put me in mind of Billy Strayhorn in particular. The book is divided into three parts, the first dominated by the proximity of the beloved, the second by her absence, and the third by a more philosophical attempt to come to terms with solitude. Young gives us words in a state of excitation — full of “sudden fried” puns, sly unexpected rhymes in half-hidden places, crosswise assonances, and a kind of sublime nonsense that brings the physicality of language to the fore, “The half- / notes risen in / my throat! She flute / me, fa, fast, quick- / silvered—.” Darn, it’s bad news for me: I am going to have to crack that 600-page monster, because what if there’s more of that flavor? I don’t want to miss it.

Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll [A Blues] (2003) is published by Alfred A. Knopf and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...

One reply on “Reader’s Diary: Kevin Young’s ‘Jelly Roll’”

Comments are closed.