Friday, April 26, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 26: “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice

Read “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

I developed a crush on Donald Justice in my 30s, when I had stopped writing. I hadn’t really stopped writing on purpose; I just hadn’t yet realized that having my work rejected so much in my 20s had taken its toll, and I had gradually quit the whole business, unbeknownst even to myself, just to avoid the pain of sending my work out. Instead, during that decade I immersed myself in reading poetry*—which, in retrospect, was a really good thing. One poet I read a lot back then was Donald Justice.

OK, let’s just look at one thing about this poem: It’s short. Really short. And really good. Every time I read this poem (and I do often, because how can you not? “... joining hands / In games whose very names we have forgotten...”), it reminds me that it is possible to just ring that bell even with a very short poem. Every year, I participate in a couple of month-long writing marathons, and I have to read this poem periodically to remind myself that I don’t have to write a whole page to get a good poem. And of course that’s just so much whistling in the dark, because writing short is easy—but writing short and good is one of the hardest things to do with poetry. Ask any haiku expert about that.

I lost only one friend in childhood, a kid in my class in 5th grade who had an asthma attack while playing little league baseball. And yes, there’s no other way for me to picture Ross; it’s strange to think that he’ll never be old in anyone’s mind, that he’ll always be 10 years old, a little on the short side and black-haired. Justice has that exactly right.

* One great advantage I had during that non-writing decade was a musician boyfriend who played regular gigs at a Borders bookstore, where he got paid in store credit. So we’d drive up to San Rafael, he’d play a jazz set or two, and then we’d go shopping for CDs (him) and poetry books (me). His generosity stocked my poetry bookshelves. Thank you, Ernie.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

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