Al Young, Former California Poet Laureate, Dies at 81

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Al Young.
Al Young. (Joseph Robinson)

Celebrated poet and former California Poet Laureate Al Young has passed away at the age of 81, according to reports from Stanford University. Young, known for his passion for jazz and his warm and friendly presence, lectured at the college for many years, and in 2005 was appointed the Poet Laureate of California by then-Governor Arnold Schwarznegger.

“Al Young represented the best in literary life. He was enormously talented in both fiction and poetry, though as he got older poetry came to be his natural means of expression,” Dana Gioia, the 2015–2019 California Poet Laureate, told The Book Haven. “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met… Not many writers have a gift for public service. The role came naturally for Al.”

Young was born in Ocean Springs, Miss., and raised in Detroit and throughout the rural South. He attended the University of Michigan before moving to the Bay Area in 1961 and graduating from U.C. Berkeley.

Young later taught poetry, American literature and fiction writing at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Santa Cruz, and U.C. Davis, as well as Foothill College, Bowling Green State University, Rice University, the Colorado College, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, and the University of Arkansas. Young became a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University in 1969, and went on to live and work in Palo Alto for three decades.

In 2012, Young pitched KQED on the idea of airing a monthly poem on The California Report Magazine. For each month of the year, he wrote, recited and recorded a poem, often referencing California towns, figures and history, along with personal reflections.

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"It was such a joy to work with Al on the poetry series for The California Report Magazine. He was just so warm and funny and absolute joy to work with,” said KQED Bay Curious producer Suzie Racho. “He was a poet whose voice was made for radio. Oftentimes he'd do two takes in the studio before heading backing to BART.”

Young received two American Book Awards in 1982 and 2002, as well as Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Wallace Stegner fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and others.