Al Young, Poet With a Musical Bent, Is Dead at 81

“There is only so much you can say about yourself that will be interesting,” he told Appalachian Today, the online publication of Appalachian State University, in 2017 in advance of an appearance there.

He would urge students and other audiences to write poems that explored the world around them. His own work included personal poems, but one of his favorites to recite involved incarceration and was called “Conjugal Visits.” Another, “The Slots,” published in Willow Springs magazine in 1984, was about the lure of those one-armed bandits and began this way:

The sane you watches
the insane you finally
recover the money you
prayed to get back
to get even & get out
at last. The you who
knows everything registers
this & stands or hovers
helplessly by the you buying
into your own dark dumbness.

Writing a poem, Mr. Young believed, was only part of the process. Reading it live — something he did with a compelling, resonant voice — was the other.

“It’s not complete,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, “until someone processes it.”

Albert James Young was born on May 31, 1939, in Ocean Springs, Miss., near Biloxi. His mother, Mary Campbell, was the daughter of sharecroppers. He wrote about her in a poem from his first collection, “The Birthday”:

She carried me around nine months
inside her fifteen year old self
before here I sit numbering it all
How I got from then to now
is the mystery that could fill a whole library
much less an arbitrary stanza
But of course you already know about that
from your own random suffering
& sudden inexplicable bliss

Michael Young said his father always considered the man his mother married when he was a baby, also named Albert James Young, to be his father. Glimpses of Mr. Young’s childhood turned up in his poetry and nonfiction books. In his introduction to “Something About the Blues,” a 2008 poetry collection that included a CD of Mr. Young’s poetry readings, he wrote of an influential early teacher.

“As early as 1947 — in a second-grade classroom at the Kingston Elementary School for Colored in Laurel, Mississippi — Miz Chapman, my tireless and inspired all-day second-grade teacher, was smuggling down to me the majesty and magic of poetry and the blues,” he wrote. “An unrepentant and dogmatic Afro-Christian, who regarded the blues as devilish, Miz Chapman nevertheless forced us to memorize poems, especially works by colored writers.”

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