It might sound odd for me to say that the quality of Geoffrey Young’s poetry — its wit, profundity, and infectious nervous energy — is not the only reason he’s one of my favorite poets. It might sound as if there were something backhanded coming.
Trust me, there’s not. My admiration for Young’s poetry is unreserved. But I am also deeply impressed by his way of putting it into the world, though some might say it just barely sticks its head out there. It’s not in any bookstore (if you can find a bookstore) and good luck ordering it on amazon.com. He doesn’t even seem to have much use for magazines, digital or print. As far as I can tell, the only way to put your hands on Young’s work is for him to shoot you a chapbook in the mail every once in a while. If you get on his list, as I’m lucky enough to be, then every once in a while an envelope will arrive. Inside you’ll find a simple, stapled booklet of poetry interspersed with attractive artwork — lately, usually the poet’s own colored pencil abstractions — always under the name of a different press, but also always, you’ll notice from the last-page colophon, printed at Kwik Print in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in an edition of 200.
Well, almost always. In 2017 the long-running Canadian operation, above/ground press, issued a Young chapbook titled 33 — the first time in a long time I’ve seen his work published by anyone but himself. I can’t believe that would be for lack of outside interest. Young has long been a familiar figure in that literary terrain where Language writing, the New York School, and other free spirits and outliers of American and sometimes British poetry cross paths. From 1975 to 2005, first in Berkeley and then in Great Barrington, he ran The Figures, one of the era’s outstanding small presses; its sterling list of publications includes books by Clark Coolidge, Elain Equi, John Godfrey, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Padgett, J.H. Prynne, and Stephen Rodefer — and of course, by Geoffrey Young.
He got behind Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry before the term was even invented, published Musa McKim when few knew her as anyone other than the widow of Philip Guston, and released collections of art criticism by Peter Schjeldahl and Jerry Saltz. All of which is to say, he has loads of cred out there and a name the cognoscenti recognize. He could find another publisher in a snap if he cared to.
Which apparently he doesn’t. He’s one of those poets, it seems, who prefers to do it all himself, how and when he feels like it, and with enough self-confidence not to feel the need for anyone else’s imprimatur. I admire that just as much as I admire the poetry that justifies his self-confidence. Young’s most recent entry in my mailbox was called Sauce, and attributed to an imprint called World Wide Suicide. Like almost all the poems he’s been sending out lately, the ones in this collection are all of 14 lines — three stanzas of four followed by one stanza of two, all centered on the page rather than loyal to the left margin. It’s impossible not to think of them as resembling Shakespearian sonnets, but they’re not sonnets, and not only because they lack regular meter or more than occasional rhyme; more importantly, they are not discursive in a sonnet-like manner. With their mostly short lines, they tend toward songlike more than argumentative in feeling. Maybe I should call them sonnetesque lyrics. That could be sonics for short.
At his best, Young is fast-moving, jazzy, and unpredictable. But unpredictable notes of poignancy-going-on-doominess — whose verso can be a momentary touch of ecstasy — anchor the poem in unmistakable sincerity despite the accent on wit and sleight-of-hand. The opening poem of Sauce, for instance, is programmatic, but inevitably practices what it preaches. It’s called, simply enough, “Preface”:
What you’re about to hear
In your citizen’s ear
Is one scribe’s telling
One dyer’s hand tinting
So it’s a one-to-one message he’s promising us — not merely personal in import, but something of public import conveyed from a scribe to a citizen. Whatever it is, a quatrain is insufficient to contain it, and, as the dyer’s hand in Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXI is “subdued / To what it works in,” Young’s is submitted across the stanza break, coloring what comes next, in line 5:
This fabric called HERE.
The first quatrain, whose lack of punctuation keeps the connections from line to line loose, seems at first to correspond to a syntactically self-contained phrase, but now reveals itself, as the second one begins, as the opening of a single unfolding thought — a proper sentence in fact (only missing the implicit comma at the end of line 3) — that through rhyme, typographical emphasis, and above all punctuation grabs your attention as the crux of the poem.
But then line 6, which goes on to restate and, so to speak, more deeply color the text-as-textile metaphor, retroactively reveals that the full stop ending line 5 was a false one; more properly, it should have been a comma, for the fabric called HERE is further revealed, metaleptically, as:
Rien qu’une voix dans l’aire
With its stains, blushes, and slim-
Jim diction. A stir-fried
Rhythm-a-ning slide trombone’s
Splattered syntax with a pinch
Of below-the-belt misprision
Thrown in for laughs.
The allusion to Thelonious Monk in line 9 is not misplaced; Young keeps things skittishly off-kilter in his idiosyncratic way of playing his phrases across the bar of the line break. And what is that slim-Jim diction? The kind of phrasing that tastes like a bit of beef jerky, or that unlocks a car without a key?
Either way, there’s no mistaking the seriousness of intent underlying Young’s agile scat singing, and not just because of his fortissimo capitalization of the here, an idea of immediacy equated with the ghostly, disembodied presence of the poetic voice. I’ll forebear to quote the poem’s last two-and-a-half lines; they’ll reward those resourceful enough to track down the elusive chapbook itself, but here’s a spoiler alert: the voice in the air does find its “listening love,” and that listening could also be yours, reader, as the acrobatically tumbling syntax come to a satisfied rest.
In any case, having broached merely the first page of Young’s most recent collection, I feel like I’ve already done my job, namely to suggest the agile brilliance of his poetry. The dancing syllables of that “Preface” are unlike anyone else’s, and while they may not exactly say what they mean, they certainly mean what they say. They are in that sense absolute, and all the more so for their air or aire of light-footed casualness and whimsy.
True, Young does not quite attain and sustain that slim-Jim diction on an everyday basis, but who could? Even when the writing is plainer spoken, there’s plenty of shrewd observation and formal variety to keep things lively. And, really, wouldn’t there be something kind of ostentatious about hitting the heights too often? He does it enough for me. And makes it seem effortless, as with his claim (in “A Row of Optimism,” from his previous chapbook, Sight Unseen, issued last spring from a press called Giant Squid):
But changing course
In a poem is as easy as
“Here’s a shed with garden tools
Can be handled by anyone
In another poem from that booklet, “The Menu” — ostensibly a tribute to the objectivist poets George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Louis Zukofsky — he finally seems to abjure the poem’s claim to rise about the snares of maya, the world of illusion:
Time’s job is to pass without existing.
Leave your poem here, dear reader,
Lean as a palm, round as a super moon.
The objective is to focus on this & that,
Mind wearing its favorite old hat.
The three chapbooks I’ve mentioned here contain 80-odd poems among them. At least 20 have a place in my ideal anthology of great American poetry of the Age, just before it perishes of heat and high water. And over the years there’s been a lot more where this came from. As much as I love Young’s regime of self-publication and gift-economy distribution, I also think it’s about time to supplement that with a proper Selected Poems that could even find its way into libraries and whatever’s left resembling a bookstore.
Sauce by Geoffrey Young is published by World Wide Suicide (2018).
Sight Unseen by Geoffrey Young is published by Giant Squid (2018).
Thirty-Three by Geoffrey Young is published by above/ground press (2017).