Tuesday, April 2, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 2: “Negative” by Kevin Young

Read “Negative” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

The first time I heard this poem was at a reading by a fairly famous poet (not Kevin Young, but somebody else) a few years ago. I had driven out to a small, rural town to see this reading; the famous poet happened to be passing through the region and had been paired up to read with a girl from a local high school. This seemed too sweet and cute to miss, this famous guy and the petite, unassuming 14-year-old talking in front of an audience packed into a local auditorium.

The famous guy did his reading first, which took an hour or so, and then he did a lengthy Q&A with the audience. Several times, people asked him about poets who influenced him, and what poets he liked to read, and what poets they should seek out to improve their poetry education. And I was surprised and disappointed that although he mentioned a lot of poets, all of them were dead and white; I don’t think he mentioned anyone who died later than about 1900.

And then it was the high school girl’s turn to read, and she announced she was just going to read one poem, written by somebody else, a poem she loved and had read during a recent Poets Out Loud competition, which she won. I was expecting some Shel Silverstein or something, and then she ripped into an impassioned, powerhouse reading of this Kevin Young poem. The poem was great, and her reading of it absolutely blew my mind. I sat there, looking at the famous poet and looking at her—and at this point I have to mention that both of them were white—and I was so glad she was there to bring this show into the 21st century. The discussion of poetry had felt so inadequate, so utterly incomplete, without any mention of living, breathing writers, and particularly writers of color. Her reading this poem made me glad to be alive now, reading and hearing poetry of this century and seeing young people reading it and loving it so much that they want to stand up in front of a crowd in some small town in the mountains and read it. It reminded me that poets never know who they’ll reach with their work, and what good it will do.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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