Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Each episode, I’ll discuss a different poem and poet. Today I’ll be talking about one of my favorite poets, Donald Justice, and his amazing poem, “Banjo Dog Variations.”
Donald Justice was born on August 12, 1925, in Miami, Florida. He studied music at the University of Miami, but he ended up graduating with an English literature degree. He taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Syracuse University, the University of California at Irvine, Princeton University, and several other colleges. One of my other favorite poets, Mark Strand, was a student of Donald Justice. Justice is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and his first poetry collection, titled “The Summer Anniversaries,” was the winner of the Lamont Poetry Prize, which is given by the Academy of American Poets. Justice died on August 6, 2004, in Iowa City, Iowa.
I’ve been reading a lot of Donald Justice lately, and I think his poems are really beautiful. His use of rhyme is amazing and everything he writes is very interesting! I especially love his poems, “The Poet at Seven,” which has beautiful imagery, and “Ladies by Their Windows,” which has very strong lines (for example, “so ladies by their windows live and die.”) Every line in his poetry is tight (everything is smooth and important — nothing is extra) and contributes to the deeper meaning — he takes ordinary things, people and places he sees, memories, paintings, and turns them into something bigger, using another perspective to look at them. He also does this in “Banjo Dog Variations,” talking about one large topic using many small pictures and stories.
Now I’m going to read “Banjo Dog Variations,” a poem set during the Great Depression.
“Tramps on the road: floating clouds” — Old Chinese poem
Agriculture and Industry
Embraced in public on a wall-
Heroes in shirt-sleeves! Next to them
The average man felt small.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
By Vassar girls surrounded.
They harmonized expertly; oh,
Their little true hearts pounded.
Joe went on smiling.
I thought I saw what Trotsky saw,
A friendly cossack wink;
And then his friends brought down their clubs.
Christ, what would Trotsky think!
Train had just slowed for the crossing when
Out from the bushes jumped a hundred men.
With baseball bats and iron bars
They persuaded us back onto the cars.
And out of dirty fists sometimes
Would bloom the melancholy harp.
Then low-low-low on the gon-doh-lah
We swayed beneath our tarp.
And far lights moving in and out of rain.
What you do with the Sunday news
Oh, citizens of the great riffraff,
Is you put the funny papers in your shoes.
It gives the feet a laugh.
We read our brothers' shirts for lice
And moved around with the fruit,
Went north to Billings for the beets
And had three good days in the jail at Butte.
We chalked our names on red cliffsides,
High up, where only eagles dwelled.
Each time a big truck went by below,
The earth trembled like a woman held.
And we passed fields of smoking stumps
Where goats sometimes or ponies grazed.
Abandoned tractors stood against the sky
Like giant fists upraised.
But if we bent our knees it was
To drink from a creek's rust-colored slime,
And splash our chests with it, and rub our eyes,
And wake into another world and time.
Let us go then, you and me,
While the neon bubbles upward ceaselessly
To lure us down back streets and alleyways,
Where we may wander and be lost for days.
Many days and many hours.
I miss the smell of the ratty furs
And saturday night cologne and beer,
And I miss the juke and the sign that read:
NO POLICE SERVED HERE.
Off Mission, wasn't it? The old
White Angel Breadline, where we met?
You had just come west from Arkansas,
But the rest of it I forget.
A cup of coffee; afterwards a hymn.
Once we stood on a high bluff,
Lights fanning out across the bay.
A little ragged band of Christs we were,
And tempted-but we turned away.
And didn't I see you Saturday night,
After the paycheck from the mill,
Bearing a pot of store-bought lilies home,
One budding still?
Ah, oh, my banjo dog!
This poem is prefaced by a line from an old Chinese poem. It reads, “tramps on the road: floating clouds.” This is fitting, seeing as “Banjo Dog Variations” is about traveling on the road during the Great Depression. Another one of Justice’s poems, “Pantoum of the Great Depression,” is also about — you guessed it — that devastating time period. It’s also a very interesting poem with a cool form!
In “Banjo Dog Variations,” Justice has a very strict stanza form. There are fifteen numbered stanzas, each with four lines and its own story. The only time he breaks this form is when he has an italicized line, like in several of the stanzas. Donald Justice talks about how hard it was for working people during the Great Depression. Joe Hill, who he mentions in the second stanza, was a labor organizer. He also mentions Trotsky, a Russian Revolutionary. In “A History of the Russian Revolution,” Trotsky writes that when the Cossack soldiers were called in to fight the workers, they refused — a worker even saw a soldier wink at him! When Justice says, “I thought I saw what Trotsky saw, a friendly Cossack wink,” he means that he thinks that the police aren’t going to hurt him — they are going to be kind. However, immediately after, the police attack him — “but then their friends brought down their clubs.” In other words, the American police are worse than even the Cossack soldiers — which connects to a line in stanza number twelve, where there is a sign that says, “NO POLICE SERVED HERE.” The poem also mentions breadlines, which showed up a lot during the Great Depression. In stanza fourteen, Justice writes, “a little ragged band of Christs we were.” Christ was a rebel and a martyr — he wanted people to be kind to each other, and the Romans did not agree. So, Justice’s “band of Christs” is a group of regular, if not good, people who are being persecuted simply because they are trying to survive. This entire poem is a protest — Justice is a hobo, and so he is beaten by police, chased out of different towns, has to illegally ride freight trains, goes to jail, and has to help people and himself pick lice off of their shirts from sleeping on the ground. Though each stanza has its own individual image, it’s important to remember that they all tie together into memories of the Great Depression. So, now, as Justice says, playing upon Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," “let us go then, you and me.”
This poem and all of Donald Justice’s work is really amazing, and I love reading him! I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one.