Dean Young, former member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, leaves a legacy of enigmatic poetry and inspiration


Dean Young’s work was humorous, heartbreaking, and deeply influential in contemporary poetry, and he continues to inspire people even after his death.

Young was an award-winning poet, mentor and close friend to many people whom he inspired through his decades of written work. A former faculty member of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his connection to the University of Iowa and the surrounding literary community is immeasurable. On August 23, Young died at the age of 67 due to complications from COVID-19.

Born in 1955 in Columbia, Pennsylvania, Young received his MFA from Indiana University. He taught for many years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the William Livingston Chair of Poetry. He was also chosen as Texas Poet Laureate in 2014.

Dan Rosenberg is an associate professor and chair of the English department at Wells College, and a Young’s alumnus. Rosenberg was a poetry student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied directly under Young from 2005 to 2007. He remained a friend and mentee of Young for years thereafter. Rosenberg still uses Young’s work in the curriculum he teaches.

“What strikes me is the wild permissions he gave us all — a Dean Young workshop was a generative space,” Rosenberg said. “He was a person engaged in a joyful relationship to writing, teaching and studying writing. I think all of this is the most powerful legacy he left me. »

Rosenberg has said that one of his favorite pieces from Young remains the poem he wrote for Rosenberg’s class graduation instead of a formal speech: “Graduation Speech.” He said it sums up the sense of wonder shown in much of Young’s work, alongside a “frenzied fun” that Young “ridden beautifully”.

In 2010, Young contributed to a critical book series, “The Art Of”, with his addition titled “The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction”. Rosenberg said Young’s overall celebration of recklessness as an aesthetic force is a big part of his legacy in the literary world, noting how Young was a poet who opened doors for him.

“When you first encounter a poem by Dean, your reaction is often just shock that someone could get away with it. ‘Why is he allowed to do these things in his poems?’ And if you are a poet yourself, you say to yourself, “Can I do these things? Am I allowed to do this? “Said Rosenberg. “Dean gave us all permission to bring more of our own humanity into our work.”

Over Young’s decades of career, he has accumulated several awards and accolades through his numerous poetry anthologies. According to his profile on the Poetry Foundation website, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among others. He was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 and a finalist for the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2008.

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Young impacted not only the literary community, but also the personal lives of those he met.

Matt Hart is an associate professor and head of creative writing at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Hart met Young when he was a student, and Young was a teacher in Warren Wilson College’s MFA program for writers. At the time of Young’s death, they had been friends for more than two decades.

In an email to The Iowan Daily, Hart recounted a plethora of memories of Young. He noted how in the last nine months before the poet’s death, he would visit Young’s apartment and be greeted with the open door and an enthusiastic “My man” from Young.

“Dean was intense in everything he did, whether it was something simple or something incredibly complicated,” Hart wrote. “He was whole, his face pressed against the immensity, beckoning to the unspeakable, making light out of the darkness.”

Hart attested that “The Art of Recklessness” was the best book he had ever read on poetry “as a force of resistance and a site of imaginative possibility”.

He described Young’s poetry as an ultimate demonstration of the “savage, wild nature and surreal confusion of being alive”, noting how Young never shunned the human condition.

“I know people say this every time an artist dies, but there really never was someone like Dean, and there never will be again,” Hart wrote.

Another Young student, James Shea, is an associate professor and director of creative and professional writing programs at Hong Kong Baptist University. He studied under Young as an undergraduate at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1990s and kept in touch, exchanging letters and meeting occasionally.

In an email to Jhe ID, Shea recalled several instances of Young’s humor and some of his quirks that stood out to Shea, including how Young always composed poems on a manual typewriter. He also noted the last exchange he had with Young the month before his death.

“Once during a class break, while eating M&Ms from a vending machine, he mentioned that some people decide to get a master’s degree in poetry. He didn’t necessarily recommend it,” Shea wrote. once said that all we can do in life is comfort each other, and I’m just grateful to have that last conversation with him before he passes away.”

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Christopher Merrill, the director of UI’s international writing program, first knew Young through his poetry and eventually collaborated with him on a book. In 2011, he helped Young raise money for his heart transplant and the subsequent cost of his post-surgery medications.

He noted that there were still manuscripts of Young’s poems that had yet to be published, and said it was a bit of a compensation to know that there was still more of Young’s work to read. .

“He amazed me from the first lines I read of him,” Merrill said. “I miss him. He died too young.”

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