Poet Al Young is dead at 81: “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.”

Dana Gioia with Al Young at the Sierra Poetry Festival a few years ago.

Poet Al Young, who suffered a massive stroke in February 2019 and never fully recovered, has died at 81. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia recalled, “Al Young was a treasure of the Bay Area cultural scene. I first knew him as a jazz lover who wrote movingly about the music—and I would run into him frequently at clubs and concerts. But he was probably even better known in the literary world, and Young would eventually serve as poet laureate for California. But he was also a teacher, a screenwriter, a novelist, an editor, and a mentor to many. In fact, you couldn’t find a better role model. Every encounter I had with him was an inspiring one.” Young was named California poet laureate in 2005.

Dana Gioia, a recent state laureate himself, had known Young since 1972, when Dana was at Stanford, where Young spent much of his career. Young had been a Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department when both Gioias were undergraduates. (Young was a Jones lecturer from 1969 to 1979.) “Al Young represented the best in literary life. He was enormously talented in both fiction and poetry, though as he got older poetry came to be his natural means of expression. He was a powerful and persuasive reader with a beautiful bass voice which sometimes broke out in song,” said Dana.

“He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met. People were drawn to his warmth and humor. He inspired people. Eliza Tudor told me that once Al had accepted the invitation to speak at her new Sierra Poetry Conference, she knew the gathering would be successful.”

“I particularly admired Al in his term as California State Poet Laureate. Not many writers have a gift for public service. The role came naturally for Al. He liked to meet people – all kinds of people. He listened to them and laughed with them. He travelled to rural areas of the state that previous laureates had overlooked. He spoke in urban schools where he was a powerful role model of the African American artist. He became my role model for the state laureate. I loved being (and basking) in his company. I’ll miss him.”

Young has received the American Book Award twice, for Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1982) and The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000 (2002). He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Whittier College in 2009. He is a recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Wallace Stegner fellowships, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two American Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and two New York Times Notable Book of the year citations.

I don’t ask to be forgiven
nor do I wish to be given up,
not entirely, not yet, not while
pain is shooting clean through
the only world I know: this one.

Postscript on 4/23Berkeleyside published a terrific retrospective on April 21. “Remembering Al Young, a California poet laureate, musician, teacher,” by Frances Dinkenspiel, is here.

An excerpt: “…Young was not as famous as he deserved to be, said Ishmael Reed, a longtime friend, collaborator and fellow writer. Some of that had to do with the fact he lived on the West Coast, far from the star-anointing powers of East Coast critics. ‘He’s probably one of the most underrated writers in the country,’ said Reed, who published The Yardbird Reader, a literary magazine that highlighted contemporary Black writers, with Young in the 1970s. ‘He lived on the West Coast. The people who receive a lot of publicity live in the New York-Washington, D.C. shuttle area. It’s difficult for a writer like Al to achieve prominence with critics who see Northern California as a stepchild of Manhattan.'”

Here’s another: “In 2007, during his term as poet laureate, Young traveled around California, reading his work in 40 rural communities in the Central Valley and mountain areas in 11 days, often accompanied by a musician. For Young, poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues, were intertwined. He frequently wrote while listening to music (he knew so much about music he was almost a music ethnologist, one friend said) and incorporated jazz rhythms into his poems. ‘He wedded poetry and music together,’ said Sharon Coleman, a poet and instructor at Berkeley City College ‘He brought music to poetry in a very integral way.'”

Read the whole thing here.

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5 Responses to “Poet Al Young is dead at 81: “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.””

  1. Lasana Says:

    I was saddened by the news of Al’s stroke in 2019 and more so by his recent transition. Having said that I can say that my life was made richer by knowing him.He was humorous, extremely knowledgeable and a five star storyteller. I had known him for roughly, four decades and because he was a nomad educator, he would send my wife and I cards from his treks around the globe. The following words were written by the master poet,Bob Kaufman, but can be said about Al…..’When I die,I won’t stay dead.’ AMEN

  2. Persis Karim Says:

    Al Young was my teacher, then my mentor, and ultimately, a close friend. As we both grew older the gap between us closed, and I was privileged to have matured enough to understand the presence he held in the world…but also among so many fellow writers. He was gracious and full of love. When I was a student at UC Santa Cruz writing my thesis after having done a field study in a black community newspaper in Berkeley (I’m white), he told me, “Don’t give me your theories of racism, tell me your stories – what you saw, heard, felt.” Al was the first person to tell me I had a poet’s heart, and like thousands of others he taught, he talked about the power of poetry to connect us. He believed, like Roque Dalton, that poetry was like bread and for everyone. Al Young’s life is found in his beautiful musical poetry, his novels, and memoirs, but in the heartbeat of so many of us who were privileged to be his students. He was gracious and kind, and among the most loving people I have ever met. We’re hoping to organize a reading in his honor in Berkeley the first weekend in June. Please contact me, Mr. Gioia, and we’d love to have you read. persiskarim@sfsu.edu. Al YOUNG PRESENTE~

  3. Lakiba Pittman Says:

    I love that quote above — “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.” I so agree. I met Al when I was working at Printers Inc. in Palo Alto while a college student, many moons ago. He became my friend and mentor — always encouraging me as a writer and also as a singer. A gentle soul – funny, written words like a jazz improvisation. Hold so much love for him as he saw me and that always inspired me to be me and to share me with the world. Much love to Michael and his family. Eternal love.

  4. Bernie Krause Says:

    Oh my! Dear and loving Al will be missed. We are deeply saddened by this news.

  5. Colleen McElroy Says:

    My dear dear friend I write to you in sadness. Before virtual, your telephone calls were a highlight of my life. We even “attended” a tennis match with Serena and Venus by phone. There are so many memories. My friend, I will always be singing this song for you

    (for Al Young)

    between high rise shadows and

    the moods of night time streets

    and that voice the thrum of a bass fiddle

    mellow as mocha on a spoon

    velvet smooth as a lingering

    kiss a Coltrane riff

    a love supreme

    a love supreme

    and the blues bears witness