Former Iowa Writers’ Workshop member Dean Young leaves legacy of enigmatic poetry, inspiration

Through his lifetime as an award-winning poet and faculty member with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dean Young changed the field of contemporary poetry.


Contributed photo from Matt Hart

Parker Jones, Arts Editor

Dean Young’s work was humorous, heartbreaking, and deeply influential in the field of contemporary poetry, and it continues to inspire people even after his death. 

Young was an award-winning poet, mentor, and close friend to many who he inspired with his decades of written work. A former Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member, his connection to the University of Iowa and surrounding literary community is unmeasurable. On Aug. 23, Young died at the age of 67 due to complications from COVID-19. 

Born in 1955 in Columbia, Pennsylvania, Young earned his Master’s of Fine Arts from Indiana University. He taught for many years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the William Livingston Chair of Poetry. He was also chosen as Texas Poet Laureate in 2014.  

Dan Rosenberg is an associate professor and the English department chair at Wells College, and a former student of Young’s. Rosenberg was a poetry student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied directly under Young from 2005-07. He remained a friend and Young’s mentee for years afterward. Rosenberg still uses Young’s work in the curriculum he teaches. 

“The thing that stands out to me is the wild permissions he gave all of us — a Dean Young workshop was a generative space,” Rosenberg said. “He was a person who was committed to a joyful relationship to writing, and to the teaching and studying of writing. All of that I think is the most impactful legacy for me that he’s left behind.”  

Rosenberg said one of his favorite pieces of Young’s remains the poem he wrote for Rosenberg’s class graduation in lieu of an official speech: “Commencement address.” He said it encapsulates the sense of wonder shown in much of Young’s work, alongside a “frantic pleasure” that Young “straddled beautifully.”

In 2010, Young contributed to a series of critical books, “The Art Of,” with his addition titled “The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction.” Rosenberg said Young’s general celebration of recklessness as an aesthetic force is a big part of his legacy in the literary world, noting how Young was a poet who opened doors for him. 

“When you first encounter a poem by Dean, your reaction is often just shocked that someone could get away with this. ‘Why is he allowed to do these things in his poems?’ And if you are a poet yourself, you think, ‘can I do these things? Am I allowed to?’” Rosenberg said. “Dean gave permission to all of us to bring more of our own humanity into our work.”

Over Young’s decades-long career, he accumulated several awards and honors through his numerous poetry anthologies. According to his profile on the Poetry Foundation website, He was awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among many others. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and a finalist for the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2008.  

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Young made an impact not only on the literary community but also on the personal lives of those he met. 

Matt Hart is an associate professor and the head of creative writing at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Hart met Young when he was a student and Young was a teacher in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. At the time of Young’s death, they had been friends for more than two decades. 

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Hart recounted a plethora of memories of Young. He noted how over the last nine months before the poet’s death, he would visit Young’s apartment and be greeted with the door flinging open, and an enthusiastic “My man” from Young.  

“Dean was intense in everything he did, whether it was something simple or something impossibly complicated,” Hart wrote. “He was all in with face pressed up against the vast, motioning at the unsayable, making light out of darkness.”     

Hart attested “The Art of Recklessness” was the best book he has ever read about poetry “as a force of resistance and site for imaginative possibilities.” 

He described Young’s poetry as an ultimate demonstration of the “wildness, wilderness, and surrealistic bewilderment of being alive,” noting how Young never avoided the human condition. 

“I know people say this whenever an artist passes away, but there really has never been anyone like Dean, and there never will be again,” Hart wrote.  

Another student of Young’s, James Shea, is an associate professor and director of the creative and professional writing programs at Hong Kong Baptist University. He studied under Young as an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1990s, and remained in touch, exchanging letters and meeting occasionally. 

In an email to The DI, Shea recalled several instances of Young’s humor, and some of his quirks that stood out to Shea, including how Young always composed poems on a manual typewriter. He also noted the last exchange he had with Young the month before he died. 

“Once during a class break, eating M&Ms from a vending machine, he mentioned that some people decide to get an MFA in poetry. He didn’t necessarily recommend it,” Shea wrote. “He once said that all we can do in life is console each other, and I’m just grateful to have that last exchange with him before he passed away.”  

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Christopher Merrill, the director of the UI’s International Writing Program, first knew Young through his poetry, and eventually collaborated with him on a book. In 2011, he helped Young raise money for his heart transplant, and the subsequent cost of his post-op medication. 

He noted there are still manuscripts of Young’s poems have yet to be published, and said it is a bit of compensation to know there is still more of Young’s work out there to read.  

“He amazed me from the very first lines I read of his,” Merrill said. “I miss him. He died too young.”