Faculty profile / Gary Young: Why poetry matters

Editor's note: In January, humanities lecturer Gary Young was named the first-ever poet laureate of Santa Cruz County.

The job of the poet laureate is to advance and enliven the art of poetry in the county. Young will act as an advocate for poetry, literature, and the arts, and contribute to Santa Cruz's cultural legacy through public readings and participation in civic events.

Here, he offers his thoughts on why poetry, seemingly becoming a lost art in this digital day and age, is in fact integral to expressing the human condition-in sorrow and in joy, in anguish and in love, in abandonment and in faith.

At a time when it seems that the only thing we hear about books is the fact that they will soon be obsolete, and that readers are becoming an endangered species, it's a rare and glorious thing for a community to come together to recognize the value of poetry and to encourage participation in its many joyful manifestations.

By naming a poet laureate, the community made an unequivocal declaration that poetry is a vital artistic pursuit that should be encouraged and applauded.

Poetry's primary function is to speak about things for which there are no words. Poetry offers us a chance to articulate pain that ordinary speech cannot express; joy that surpasses our capacity to explain; or love that resists reduction to mere words. This paradox is one of the things that keeps poetry alive in every age and in every culture. In an increasingly secular age, poetry is also a place where things of the spirit may be freely investigated or extolled without the constraints of one or another orthodoxy.

For the poet, poetry offers a life of inexhaustible possibility. It's a humbling art, because we wrestle most often with our failures--every poet knows that his or her best poems could be even better. Poetry is hard work, but it is labor touched by grace. Human beings were made to sing--in praise and in sorrow, to each other, to the earth, and to the gods. It is one of our most precious birthrights. In an age when electronic media dominate so much of our conversation, poetry offers a little island where words are still holy. William Carlos Williams said it best in "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower":

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

It's much more important that our community determined that we should have a poet laureate than the fact that any individual was honored with the position. This is really about recognizing poetry and the art of the word. I'm flattered to have been chosen for the post, of course, but I'm nothing more than a stand-in for all the many wonderful poets who live here.

I came to Santa Cruz 40 years ago with the explicit intention of becoming a poet. I studied at UCSC with William Everson, Stephen Kessler, and many other marvelous writers and teachers, and I was blessed with the friendship of Morton Marcus, Joe Stroud, Jim Houston, and an army of brilliant and generous poets and writers. This place has made me what I am. It has nourished me as an artist and as a person, and it's a privilege to now have a chance to give something back to the community that has given me so much.

--Gary Young, humanities lecturer

Poetry by Gary Young

Last night I dreamed about a bobcat, and this morning I found one sleeping beneath the persimmon tree. I was almost close enough to touch him when he woke, fixed me with his eyes and disappeared into a thicket. The air was damp with last night's rain. The matted leaves cushioned my steps, and persimmons blazed in the branches of the tree like a hundred suns. I don't know if the cat appeared because I dreamed of him, or if I dreamed of him because he was so near.

(From Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions)