It's National Poetry Month, time again to strenuously ignore the fact that most people in America loathe poetry, or at least nurture an active indifference toward it. Why such bad juju? One complaint often leveled at contemporary poetry: It is self-consciously obtuse, fat with artifice and random flash, too removed from our reality-based lives. The poetry of Dean Young, especially that found in his fifth and latest book, Skid, makes a mountain-size target for this complaint.
Consider, though, that the smooth stories and finely crafted logic we expect from conventional prose may be little like our actual lives--that most minds are a mishmash of sharp turns and discarded options, sensations colliding with thoughts colliding with memories. In this light, understanding and appreciating a D.Y. poem may require no more special skill than hearing it as the mind in motion. Take these lines from a poem called "Troy, Indiana": "A monkey said the flute was full of fire./Fetal robots trolled the river./I shot the sheriff but I did not shoot the deputy." It's a freaky, funny passage, surreal snapshots spilling, without apparent connection, into Bob Marley's ghost. But there's a tonal clarity, a rhythmic sureness, and not a stitch of excess rhetoric. Inserted back into the poem's vocal flow, the lines become a direct and honest telling of one of the brain's wild and frequent little treks.
For Young, the trek is like the yellow brick road set in the American present. Along the way we find SUVs, Wile E. Coyote, candy bars, Republicans. Add to this mix the history of ideas (from Cotton Mather to Karl Marx) and art (from Charlotte Brontë to Thelonious Monk), and we still haven't come close to describing the expansive and inclusive landscape of the poet's imagination.
This isn't just pomo fun and games, though. Along this busy and bizarre yellow brick road, the mind of the D.Y. poem searches, often with sincere intentions and frightening intimacy, for some kind of shape, order, beauty, revelation--maybe even a way home. But what the poems in Skid seem to have learned from Dorothy is that Oz matters less than how you get there; Oz is the getting there, the slipperiness of language and the brain's wayward ways. As the book's final lines put it, in a poem slyly titled "How I Get My Ideas":
You cannot control your laughter. You cannot control your love. You know not to hit the brakes on ice but do anyway. You bend the nail but keep hammering because hammering makes the world.
The imperfections and skids and losses of control--these make the fabric of our real days, D.Y. seems to say. And that's something to celebrate.