Yesterday, in the midst of national mourning over Newtown, CT, America quietly lost one of its brightest young poetry stars. Jake Adam York, author of A Murmuration of Starlings and other great books, passed away after a stroke. The thing that makes this so difficult for me is not that I was close to Jake as some of my friends were, but the fact that he and I share so many similar “markers” in our lives. We’re roughly the same age (he was a little older than I), we both write “Southern” literature, although in very different ways, and we have followed fairly similar professional paths within higher education. His accomplishments far surpass my few little awards and recognitions, but we both shared similar goals and ambitions, as well. His voice was unique and upbeat, and I found myself going to his work frequently as a guide, especially for my regional work.
People who knew him well described him as kind, open, warm, and fun to be around. As I was telling a friend of mine who befriended Jake early on his career, I knew his work and his voice primarily through reading his stellar poetry. But secondarily, I felt like I understood him as a person through his seminars, workshops, and videos of his readings and speaking engagements. Granted, none of these media replace truly knowing a person. However, by gaining a sense of his perspectives, his vision, and his understandings, I felt like I was participating in life alongside him as a fellow poet. Maybe that statement is a little selfish, and certainly it isn’t intended to be.
His legacy should inspire writers and poets everywhere to produce their finest work. None of us knows when our last breath will be, and we should aspire to disseminate work that reflects the very best of ourselves. Jake did. As our country and the literary community continue to heal from tragedy, we owe it to ourselves to reflect on all our gifts and blessings, especially in this season. Pondering the bittersweet combination of loss and generosity should motivate us to use our talents for the betterment of our world at large. Our role models, no matter what field they may be in, always point us toward things higher, greater, and more important than ourselves. We owe it to their memories to preserve the spirit of excellence by doing our utmost.