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A Poem by Donald Justice


   
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Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
September 20, 1998

Many readers wrote to express their interest in and ask questions about the poetic form called the villanelle, after I printed a couple of examples last month. So the haunted and magic quality of that kind of formal repetition in poems must have struck a chord. One reader suggested that I print a pantoum. The pantoum has a curious history. It's a Malay song form and it was adapted by French poets in the 19th century (one of the more obscure fruits of the Age of Imperialism) and came into English from poets who imitated the French. The pantoum has a four-line stanza; the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza.

Here's one by Donald Justice, who grew up in Florida and taught for many years at the Iowa Writers Workshop. The poems in his New and Selected Poems about Florida, the Miami of another era, and about growing up in the Depression years are especially memorable. Justice is widely admired and imitated by other poets; he's a brilliant craftsman who has experimented with a lot of forms, including the pantoum. Here's an American poet using a Malay-French-English form to get the feel of America in the 1930s.:

Pantoum of the Great Depression

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don't remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don't remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

(Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Inc.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

 
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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