Meet the 2011 Faculty: David St. John

Posted by on May 27th, 2011

David St. John Poet David St. John is a California native who has roved in the course of his literary career from Fresno to Iowa to Ohio to Baltimore before returning to the West Coast, where [he teaches at the University of Southern California]( In his nine volumes of poetry, a similarly roving, restless sensibility emerges — one never content to settle or stake out permanent territory.

In his debut collection, _Hush_, in 1976, St. John exhibited [what the _New York Times_ described]( as a painterly mode, “with stark juxtapositions and vague menace that recall the canvases of de Chirico and Magritte”; while his second volume, _The Shore_, centered around dramatic situations and settings. In 1985’s _No Heaven_, St. John combined the two modes to create what he hoped would be the feel of “a book-length poem.” In an interview in the _American Poetry Review_ in 1994, which was [reprinted in his volume of essays, _Where the Angels Come Toward Us_](, St. John says,

> I wanted a real sense of progression through the poems, from the fairly desperate state marked by the lingustic wreckage of the book’s opening two poems to a more spiritually hopeful (if still ambivalent) sense of closure with the book’s final two poems.

_Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems_, in 1994, collected verse from St. John’s early volumes together with new work. A National Book Award finalist, _Study for the World’s Body_ gave St. John’s poems the opportunity, as he put it, to “talk back to one another and stand as a body, so to speak, of work.” In its review, [the _New York Times_ noted]( St. John’s ties to the French Symbolists, saying that St. John

> is one of a number of American poets who seem to be courting a deliberately foreign quality in their writing. In this way he avoids the easy intimacy of the Whitman and Dickinson schools, which can become familiar and cloying. The Europeanized approach offers less direct treatment of American life than the others, but that is hardly its point — which is to dramatize the poet as inquirer in exile, trying to organize and to some extent comprehend the complexity of life everywhere.

In a [1999 interview in _The Cortland Review_](, St. John described how those stylistic influences combined with contemporary subject matter to create further complexity:

> I really have tried to meld together a sense of something that sometimes seems out of this time with something, some detail that’s contemporary so that there’s this kind of double vision. That’s something that I like a lot. I like echoing especially 19th century symbolist poetry and, to some extent, expressionist painting. I love 20th century French surrealism … . I like all that rich, luxuriant, out-of-fashion stuff, and I like trying to make it up-to-date and make it … well, try to bring (what I see as the risk of bringing) those writers and artists into a 20th century context and bring it into a confrontation with 20th century landscape and experience.

In volumes such as _In the Pines: Lost Poems 1972—1997_ and _The Red Leaves of Night_, that rich complexity encompasses themes of desire, love, loss and “the ache left in us by the natural world,” [wrote Lisa Beskin in _The Boston Review_]( And in his latest work, _The Face: A Novella in Verse_, St. John again takes new risks, combining his sensual, rich aesthetic with a distinctly pop-culture storyline: a man disintegrating in middle age who will be the subject of a biopic film. [In the Harvard Review, Maureen McLane writes]( that _The Face_ “presents a mini-_Commedia_ for the thoughtful, sensual, mortal American man.” She continues,

> _The Face_ offers an almost Whitmanian argument for the elasticity of what American poetry can contain: Gibson guitars, Peckinpah movies, Parisian streets, detective novels, cel phones, oyster roasts, Novalis. Yet far from acceding to the grab-bag effect of much contemporary discursive poetry, St. John has developed a syntactically sinuous technique and a complex structure wholly adequate to this inclusive mandate.

In the Winter 2005-06 _Ploughshares_, which he co-edited, [St. John described a handful of new projects]( – including a volume of new poems and a historical novel – that will again afford him the opportunity to discover new horizons. Stylistically, he said, he lets his work evolve as he writes: “I always try to respond to what I feel is the internal pressure of poem—internal, that is, within me and within the poem itself.”

As as teacher, St. John said he attempts to help attune his students to their own internal pressures:

> I just try to help and guide poets, to make useful suggestions both for reading and in terms of craft, and then generally I try to stay out of their way. Teaching is a delicate art. Helping a student to find his/her ‘voice’ is a spiritual and mystical poetic search. Craft is the vehicle, passion the fuel, desire the path to the apparitional destination.

[Apply to the conference today]( to join St. John on this quest. And meantime, here’s still more to read about him:

– [David St. John’s Introduction to _Ploughshares_ Winter 2005-06](
– [Profile in _USC Dornsife Magazine_](
– [David St. John’s Poetry Foundation page](, with links to poems [Dolls](, [Elegy (“Who Keeps the Owl’s Breath?”)](, and [From a Daybook](

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