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About this poet

David St. John was born in Fresno, California, on July 24, 1949. He received his BA in 1974 from California State University, Fresno, and an MFA from the University of Iowa.

His many books of poetry include The Last Troubadour (Ecco, 2017); The Window (Arctos Press, 2014); The Auroras (HarperCollins, 2012); The Face: A Novella in Verse (HarperPerennial, 2005); Prism (2002); The Red Leaves of Night (HarperCollins, 1999); and Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems (1994), which was nominated for the National Book Award.

He is also the author of the volume of essays and interviews Where the Angels Come Toward Us (White Pine Press, 1995) and coeditor, with Cole Swenson, of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (W. W. Norton, 2009). He is also the author of two libretti: one for Donald Crockett’s opera The Face, which is based on St. John’s book of the same name, and one for Frank Ticheli’s choral symphony The Shore.

The poet Robert Hass says of St. John’s writing:

“It’s not just gorgeous, it is go-for-broke gorgeous. It is made out of sentences, sweeping through and across the meticulous verse stanzas, that could have been written, for their velvet and intricate suavity, by Henry James.”

St. John is the recipient of many honors and awards, including both the Award in Literature and the Prix de Rome Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Discovery/The Nation Prize, the George Drury Smith Award from the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Foundation, and the O. B. Hardison Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He has also received several National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2016 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2017.

St. John currently teaches in the PhD Program in Creative Writing and Literature and is the Chair of English at the University of Southern California. He lives in Venice Beach, California.


The Last Troubadour (Ecco, 2017)
The Window (Arctos Press, 2014)
The Auroras (HarperCollins, 2012)
The Face: A Novella in Verse (HarperPerennial, 2005)
Prism (Arctos Press, 2002)
The Red Leaves of Night (HarperCollins, 1999)
In the Pines: Lost Poems 1972-1997 (White Pine Press, 1998)
Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems(Perennial, 1994)
Terraces of Rain: An Italian Sketchbook (Recursos De Santa Fe, 1991)
No Heaven (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
The Shore (1980)
Hush (Houghton Mifflin, 1976)

Los Angeles, 1954

              It was in the old days,
When she used to hang out at a place
                        Called Club Zombie,
A black cabaret that the police liked
         To raid now and then. As she
              Stepped through the door, the light
         Would hit her platinum hair,
And believe me, heads would turn. Maestro
         Loved it; he'd have her by
The arm as he led us through the packed crowd
                        To a private corner
Where her secluded oak table always waited.
         She'd say, Jordan... 
                        And I'd order her usual,
A champagne cocktail with a tall shot of bourbon
              On the side. She'd let her eyes
         Trail the length of the sleek neck
                       Of the old stand-up bass, as
The bass player knocked out the bottom line,
              His forehead glowing, glossy
                             With sweat in the blue lights;
Her own face, smooth and shining, as
              The liquor slowly blanketed the pills
                             She'd slipped beneath her tongue.
Maestro'd kick the shit out of anybody
              Who tried to sneak up for an autograph;
He'd say, Jordan, just let me know if
                         Somebody gets too close....
         Then he'd turn to her and whisper, Here's
 Where you get to be Miss Nobody...
                             And she'd smile as she let him
         Kiss her hand. For a while, there was a singer
              At the club, a guy named Louis--
But Maestro'd change his name to "Michael Champion";
                             Well, when this guy leaned forward,
Cradling the microphone in his huge hands,
              All the legs went weak 
                                  Underneath the ladies.
He'd look over at her, letting his eyelids
              Droop real low, singing, Oh Baby I...
                    Oh Baby I Love...    I Love You...
And she'd be gone, those little mermaid tears
              Running down her cheeks. Maestro
         Was always cool. He'd let them use his room upstairs,
Sometimes, because they couldn't go out--
         Black and white couldn't mix like that then.
                                  I mean, think about it--
This kid star and a cool beauty who made King Cole
              Sound raw? No, they had to keep it
                                  To the club; though sometimes,
Near the end, he'd come out to her place
         At the beach, always taking the iced whisky
I brought to him with a sly, sweet smile.
                   Once, sweeping his arm out in a slow
         Half-circle, the way at the club he'd
              Show the audience how far his endless love
                                  Had grown, he marked
The circumference of the glare whitening the patio
              Where her friends all sat, sunglasses
         Masking their eyes...
                   And he said to me, Jordan, why do
 White people love the sun so?--
                                God's spotlight, my man?
         Leaning back, he looked over to where she
                        Stood at one end of the patio, watching
The breakers flatten along the beach below,
                             Her body reflected and mirrored
Perfectly in the bedroom's sliding black glass
                                  Door. He stared at her
                   Reflection for a while, then looked up at me
And said, Jordan, I think that I must be
          Like a pool of water in a cave that sometimes
                                   She steps into...
Later, as I drove him back into the city,
                   He hummed a Bessie Smith tune he'd sing
         For her, but he didn't say a word until
We stopped at last back at the club. He stepped
                        slowly out of the back
                   Of the Cadillac, and reaching to shake my hand
Through the open driver's window, said,
                             My man, Jordan... Goodbye.

From Study for the World's Body, published by HarperCollins, 1994. Copyright © 1991 by David St. John. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

From Study for the World's Body, published by HarperCollins, 1994. Copyright © 1991 by David St. John. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

David St. John

David St. John

David St. John is the author of over ten collections of poetry, including Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems (Perennial, 1994), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He currently serves on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet


Trust me I’m really trying to pay attention
     but it’s harder every day

& so I begin to trust only in appearances not
     “authenticity”—that half truth—

Growing so precisely redacted it’s even less
     now than what it once seemed

So I can’t help it & maybe I’m doing

I have always loved the word guitar.

I have no memories of my father on the patio
At dusk, strumming a Spanish tune,
Or my mother draped in that fawn wicker chair
Polishing her flute;
I have no memories of your song, distant Sister
Heart, of those steel strings sliding
All night through the speaker of

One snowy night I was smiled upon by Russian gods
          & found myself at dinner opposite

The Moscow scholars a married couple—he only
          the world’s authority on Pasternak

& she the final word on her beloved Alexandr Blok
          & as we talked