By Brian Barker and Nicky Beer
Jake Adam York — poet, professor, editor, critic and associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado Denver — died Dec. 16, 2012. While the exact cause is unknown, it’s likely that he suffered a stroke or aneurysm. He was 40.
He held graduate degrees from Cornell University (MA, MFA, and Ph.D.) and a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University. After arriving at CU Denver in 2000, he founded the university’s creative writing program, as well as the university’s national literary journal Copper Nickel. He expressed the generosity of his spirit in many ways, including the great joy and pride he took in his work as a literary editor. He regarded the cultivation, publication and celebration of the work of writers he admired to be a profound responsibility, and many times remarked how much this work defined him as a person. He passed this sense of dedication to the written word along to countless students over the years. Such students could always be found in his office, receiving encouragement, advice, gentle teasing and innumerable reading recommendations from his encyclopedic memory. Once, when a student asked him for the definition of poetry, he responded with one word: “Yes.” It is that spirit of affirmation that encapsulates who York was as a teacher and a writer.
York also was a deeply conscientious citizen of the university. He worked tirelessly on committees at the departmental, college and university level, and served as a valuable mentor to numerous junior faculty. He brought a galvanizing energy to the Department of English, and viewed its commitment to language and literature as a serious ethical obligation to the university community and the world at large.
He was the author of three books of poetry — “Murder Ballads” (2005), “A Murmuration of Starlings” (2008) and “Persons Unknown” (2010) — and a book of criticism, “The Architecture of Address” (2005). His poems appeared in some of the nation’s most prestigious literary journals, including The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, New England Review and Blackbird. His poetry engaged in an ongoing and ambitious project of elegizing the martyrs of the Civil Rights movement. In doing so, his work became a vanguard for 21st century poets interested in combining research and creativity, in balancing documentation and the imagination. He accepted the burden of history in his work and wrote with unflinching passion, courage and moral complexity about life in the South. He was widely regarded as one of the best poets of his generation.
His list of honors and accolades is long. He was the recipient of the 2009 Colorado Book Award and the Third Coast poetry prize. He was Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi in 2009, served as the Thomas Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at Kenyon College in 2011, and was chosen by the Mellon Foundation to participate in the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Study at Emory University during the 2011-2012 academic year. Most recently, in November, he was awarded a prestigious fellowship from National Endowment of the Arts.
He was an aficionado of barbecue and bourbon, as well as jazz, typography, game shows and the history of the book. In the popular Mixed Taste lecture series at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, he spoke on such diverse topics as the sonnet, the sazerac and the birth of the cocktail, Leadbelly, Walt Whitman, and Cajun food. He always wore his erudition lightly and with a smile; he was the best representation of a modern intellectual, embracing knowledge as a means of connection with his fellow human beings.
York is mourned by his wife, parents, brother, extended family, colleagues, friends, fellow writers, and students. May his spirit live on in their hearts and in the body of his words.
The English Department in the CU Denver College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will host a memorial from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 30 at St. Cajetan’s on campus. All who knew Jake are invited to attend.