When National Poetry Month rolls around each April, its advocates make their annual pitch as to why reading poetry ought to be as central to American life as seeing art, hearing live music, or, for that matter, watching sports on TV.
Poet, teacher, and curator Kevin Young offers an even loftier proposal.
"A book of poetry can change one's life," says Young, the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University and Guggenheim-winning author of five collections of poetry. His collection of blues-based love poems, "Jelly Roll: A Blues," was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award for Poetry and his latest book, "For the Confederate Dead," was published this January by Knopf.
But growing up in Kansas and moving five times before age 10, Young did not see poetry as an obvious career path. His parents, natives of rural Louisiana, had "other interests": his father became a doctor and his mother a chemist. The Harvard- and Brown-educated writer discovered poetry more or less on his own, an experience that convinced him the craft might be accessible to anyone.
"I thought everyone could be a poet," he says. "I didn't think I had to have any special powers."
Wearing black-rimmed glasses, baggy jeans, and a black shirt, his face framed by wide sideburns and a protruding goatee, Young relaxes in a sitting room on the 10th floor of Emory University's Woodruff Library. From here, with a commanding view of the campus and downtown Atlanta, Young curates Emory's 70,000-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, one of the largest privately held archives of 20th-century English language poetry anywhere.
Hired by Emory two years ago, Young divides his time between suburban Boston – home to his wife, 7-month-old son, and stepdaughter – and his academic duties in Atlanta.
Yet despite his time in New England and the Midwest, Young traces his origins to Louisiana, even though he has never actually lived there.
"My parents always referred to Louisiana as 'home' and I took them at their word," Young wrote in an e-mail. "I grew up thinking everyone was from Louisiana."
Young believes the state's almost mythical quality relates to the themes of exile, travel, and imagination in his new book "For the Confederate Dead." The Deep South also looms large. Its title is a play on "For the Union Dead," Robert Lowell's book of historical-personal poems that ponder a black Civil War Army regiment and the Negro children who pioneered school integration.
"The title turns that on its head," says Young. He describes "For the Confederate Dead" as a treatment of "place and history and blackness. The nexus of all three.... Invisible lines.... Issues that aren't solved."
In one poem sequence, "The Ballad of Jim Crow," Young's typically spare stanzas and short lines examine the South's legacy of Jim Crow – discriminatory and segregationist laws – but with a twist.
"What if Jim Crow was a real person, or legendary person, like Paul Bunyan?" asks Young, recalling what inspired the sequence. "It just started haunting me."
Other poems in the book look at Picasso's "Guernica" in light of a Texas lynching; invoke the presence of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and musician Lionel Hampton; and eulogize Philippe Wamba, a writer, editor, and close friend of Young's who died in an accident on the first anniversary of 9/11.
"[Those poems are] trying to get at grief, the mix of public and private grief," says Young of the "African Elegy" series about his friend. Young recited from "Redemption Song":
what's worse, the forgetting
or the thing
you can't forget.
"For the Confederate Dead" is a multitudinous collection, born of a poet who firmly believes that poetry, and the self, are "suffused" with many voices.
"The idea we have one voice is not true," says Young.
It's a principle he teaches his literature and writing students. "I'm trying to get them to liberate all the voices inside them."
In the classroom, Young draws from the Danowski collection, pulling out first editions of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
He invites poets like Galway Kinnell and Rita Dove to read on campus and prints broadsides of their work. His advanced students even curate their own exhibits from the archives.
Above all, whether during National Poetry Month or any month of the year, Young sees his mission as keeping the poetic tradition moving forward. That means helping students to realize poetry is not the province of specialists nor is it dead.
"When I was growing up, I didn't know any living poets," says Young. "My job is to make sure [poetry] is alive and well and not something that's musty in the corner."
• Ethan Gilsdorf is a freelance writer based in Boston.