Dear twelve undergraduates assigned to read this text and in search of a digestible synopsis—
Dear two lit-crit geeks up late at night who found this by googling John Barth—
Dear three writers of well-written poems who care very much about your craft (Apologies, but I think the only craft we’ll be talking about here is a ship)—
Dear Matt Hart—
Dear Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. I can see that, though fictional you be, you’d be very interested in Mr. Young, Dean—
Dear Alexis Orgera—
Dear people who ♥ consistency. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with pockthread, do—
Dear, anxious-looking taller woman whose t-shirt says “Insouciance by any other means…”: I wish you would turn around in your seat to let me see the punchline—
Once upon a time, Walt Whitman yawped his semen into a conch shell…
One of the Demoiselles d’Avignon later happened along, picked up that shell, and used it as a vibrator. Coming, she cried out, Ceci n’est pas une pipe! Some months after, while in a boat, she went into labor. It was a little boat, harbored within a rocky cave, the very one that Wordsworth rowed in “The Prelude.” There was just time enough, before she stepped back into her painting, for her to kiss the baby and name Gertrude Stein his godmother.
This is the story of Dean Young’s birth. And our time on earth, mythological characters or not, is short. So go read his work.
But if you already have and are curious about this new book—
Or if you haven’t but want some convincing—
Or if you just love to read anything by and about D. Young—
I will try to give you a review of The Art of Recklessness, a book of prose about poetry. I will try but here is why I am and am not qualified:
Once, I was teaching a poetry class. I began the semester by declaring that no one could teach poetry. I mumbled mysterious and recipeless and sweated a lot. That instilled just about zero confidence in the students.
Maybe one or two persons were mildly appreciative of my total lack of direction.
I had an attendance policy. But then I felt compelled to tell them a story about Gertrude Stein. About how she was taking a philosophy class at Harvard from William James. William James! And she was excelling, of course. And then it was time for the final exam, and it was a beautiful spring day, and she’d just been to the opera or something the night before—and it was spring! Which in Boston is really something. So she sat down and looked at the exam and wrote, “I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today” and left. And William James later sent her a postcard saying I completely understand and here’s your A.
But back to my intellectual laziness:
When people say critical framework, I get shudders… something feels like it’s about to be a lot of work.
I confuse John Barth with Roland Barthes.
But in terms of being qualified to give The Art of Recklessness at least an unbiased reading… Well, I could no more view this poet objectively than I could my own children.
Still, in my lifetime, I have dated not one but two men with haircuts à la Robert Lowell.
There is an excellent series on craft and literary criticism published by Graywolf. Other books in the series include The Art of the Poetic Line and The Art of Syntax, both sharp investigations of poetic technique. I have used the latter when teaching and very much recommend it.
However, Dean Young’s is not a Lemon-Pledged text on craft. He explains: “The emphasis on craft, on a series of procedures and techniques, is too much like the creation of perfectly safe nuclear reactors without acknowledging the necessity of radioactive matter for the core.”
Rather than studying it, you’d do better to tear out its pages, eat them, and let Dean Young’s excited ink stimulate your spleen into writing poems…
Don’t worry though. If you read this book, your poems won’t turn into Dean Young poems afterwards. Unfortunately for you, that’s not a germ you can catch.
The Art of Recklessness is more about joy and empathy and imagination—about why we write in the first place. It doesn’t champion a style of poetry as much as a spirit. It is an invitation—issued via DADA, André Breton, Wordsworth, Hamlet, second graders, and Whitman—to invention, exuberance, and risk-taking.
Donald Barthelme once wrote, “I’d rather have a wreck than a ship that fails.”
The oceans are rising! The streets will soon become canals. And before us we see a nice cruise ship,
and the first raft a human ever built,
and a dinghy,
and my daughter’s imaginary red boat,
and a banana peel,
Who’s to say which is the best craft?
And who among us Peter Pan fans wouldn’t select a captain who is silly and contradictory and easily tear-drowned and tremendously accident prone, and who gives great hugs to barrier reefs, and who sets sail every day though he has no compass, and though he is landlocked, and though he, upon hearing someone call him Captain, readily jumps overboard?
Exuberance is Beauty! There’s not a better Blakean proverb.
That one proverb alone might suffice for Dean Young. But for anyone desperate to sink & drown soon, here, plucked from the fabulous wreckage of The Art of Recklessness, are 27 more:
Originality is not the denial of origins.
Some things must be opaque to be seen.
We are making birds not birdcages.
“Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Breton said that and know when to shut up, I’m saying that.
What I know about form could fill a thimble. What form knows about me will be my end.
Poets are excellent students of blizzards and salt and broken statuary, but they are always somewhere else for the test.
Purposelessness is not meaninglessness.
Your genius is your error.
Mistakes aren’t contaminants any more than conception is an infection.
Let us get better at not knowing what we’re doing.
Let us laugh so hard we disrupt the tragedy!
Self-consuming is Self-generation.
Just open your thieving, feral heart to the mortal stars.
The proper use of a hammer is to stand fifteen feet away and throw it at a nail.
If you’re the hammer in the beginning, you’ve got to be the nail by the end.
The song is always instruction in how to sing.
The way in is to go out.
After a while even train wrecks become tedious.
The Liberty Bell is more convincing with the crack!
I know my poems are autobiographical, I just don’t know who they are about!
Just because a thing can’t be done doesn’t mean it can’t be did.
Our error is our Eros.
Poetry can’t be harmed by people trying to write it!
Some impurities can make water clearer.
The blood may be fake but the bleeding must be real.
The primitive breaks through logic like a foxglove through asphalt.
I am wrong, what a relief.