COMMENTARY

Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems

"The scope of NOW AND THEN is epic. It provides its readers with the same amplitude of intelligence, passion and formal achievement as our great American epics -- Melville's MOBY DICK, Whitmans's LEAVES OF GRASS, and Ginsberg's FALL OF AMERICA. It is a book of fierce spiritual and moral witness, energy and power."

– Lawrence Joseph, award-winning poet, critic, and professor of law


“J. Chester Johnson is one of our country’s literary gems. From his work on the Book of Common Prayer with Auden to his chronicling and advocating for civil rights in the American South of his boyhood, Johnson offers rare glimpses into what William Carlos Williams called ‘news that stays news’. Elegant, truthful, heartfelt, spiritual, beautiful. This is a book to savor and admire. Highly recommend this impressive book.”

– Elizabeth Powell, Editor-in-Chief, Green Mountains Review


“In his latest volume, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems, Chester Johnson has pushed beyond the boundaries of his shorter work and yet, happily, none of the qualities that make a Chester Johnson poem so distinctive and memorable—their plain speak and verbal music, their erudition and common sense—have been lost in the transition. Here, we encounter a poet as comfortable with narrative as he is with lyric, a poet working at the height of his powers, a poet challenging himself—and us—with poems that are not afraid to engage with the politics and the issues and the events of our time.”

– Davis McCombs, Director, Program in Creative Writing and Translation, University of Arkansas


Auden, The Psalms, And Me

“J. Chester Johnson has written a wonderfully cautious, sensitive, and even-handed book. He is to be praised for his verbal attentiveness throughout, and not least for his orderly and sculpted expository style. He illuminates aspects of Auden’s faith, confronts the sometimes thorny issues that face a church sensitive to accusations of remoteness from the contemporary, and modestly explains his own origins and assumptions. A delightful book.”

– John Fuller, poet and author of W. H. Auden: A Commentary


“J. Chester Johnson tells a remarkable and illuminating triple story: the story of the English psalms in the past and present, the story of W. H. Auden's profound engagement with the language of the psalter, and the story of his engagement with Auden, the psalms, and the church. I hope this well-told story will be widely read.”

– Edward Mendelson, Professor of English and Comparative Literature


St. Paul's Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems

“My favorites among these poems remind us that ‘flesh is still the thing,’ that, no matter how much the body changes, its frail beauty is eternal. And not just our physical bodies, either, but the world we live in: thus poems as different as For ‘The School on Rue des Rosiers,’ which recalls the Holocaust, and ‘St. Paul’s Chapel,’ written in the wake of 9/11, remind the reader that after cruelty and death come music, dancing, the rebuilding of lives. ‘I’ve now lived long enough/ to hold that both good and bad/have their places in the world,’ writes Johnson, and from the mingled cries of the drowned and the saved he makes a haunting, unforgettable poetry.”

– David Kirby


“J. Chester Johnson’s poems possess an energy and a zest for the made thing, that, as he wittily states, tames, yes, the rage but also the roving, ravishing intellect of the mind’s hunger. I am even more convinced of his sensuous ability to compose lines that delight even as they articulate the well-spring of joy and pain from which all life issues, when I hear such lines on volunteering at Ground Zero, NYC: ’hands as stars, hands as stripes, hands as a flag.’ Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence in our collective ear.”

– Major Jackson


“What an accomplishment it is.”

– Molly Peacock


"These poems, like all authentic ones, bear witness to a truth.”

– Edward Mendelson


"It's a pleasure to read the work of a poet who knows what a poem is. What my memory treasures most after a good reading of this collection are the wise and often playful quatrains plus one of the most penetrating observations in poetry and poetics; early in the book, closing the poem, 'Irony at the Armchair,' we are told that 'irony is fantasy under control.’ Yes."

– Miller Williams


“There is a world of verbal wit and lyric intensity in J. Chester Johnson's St. Paul's Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems. Nothing under the sun is alien to Johnson's sharp eye for the telling detail and ear finely tuned to the necessary music of true poetry. His poem for the church used as a shrine to the victims of the September 11th attacks, ‘St. Paul's Chapel,’ is one of the finest, most poignant, and faith affirming on this terrible subject that I've ever read."

– Robert Cooperman


“Chester Johnson’s stunning book of poems, St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems, is a powerful collection. Johnson writes with such elegance and honesty that his poems are riveting, hard to put down. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.”

– Elizabeth Powell


“Chester Johnson’s verse will be remembered, if for no other reason than the final lines of the poem, ‘The School on Rue des Rosiers’: ...’And the greatest fall always dances near the greatest dancer.’”

– Red Hawk


“Poet Johnson, author of ten chapbooks, has now published a collection of poems – some old, some new, but all riveting – for those who appreciate the poetic rhythm of our language. The poems are about people, places, and ideas. And readers of the poetry of today will find St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems a thoroughly enjoyable read that they can pick up and read again and again.”

– Art Bounds, editor, The Pegasus Review


“These delightful poems are self-contained, succinct and declarative, admirable for their shapeliness and humor, their aptness and originality.”

– John E. Smelcer, poetry editor, Rosebud


"Chester Johnson’s short poems might be rehearsals for the intelligent person’s conversation with God. By turns playful, questioning, earthy, fearful, and often wry, they dwell on the paradox, as he puts it, of ‘why we choose to be beyond what we understand.’”

– Pamela McCorduck


“Reading a poem in J. Chester Johnson’s current collection pauses a sensitive reader at its conclusion to re-read the poem and become involved in the poem’s experience. That is what an excellent poem does.”

– Ray Foreman, editor, Clark Street Review


“The selection of poems was a delight. The verse contains crystalline moments for the reader. Still life or heroic verse, both are equally captivating.”

– Ellen Shull, editor, Palo Alto Review


"Chester Johnson has crafted these poems – over years and miles – with a precision and economy one might not expect in poems that also sing so beautifully. They have a jewel-like spiritual depth: facets and illuminations revealing themselves as one gazes, new ones appearing upon re-reading.”

– Barbara Crafton, Episcopal priest and author


“Gifted. A fine talent for the phrase.”

– Allen Tate


“My reaction to (Johnson’s) work, wholehearted as it was, did not come near to envisioning the scope and quality, the prodigality of (Johnson’s) accelerating career.”

– William Stafford


“The collection will please the many people who enjoy twists of language, clever phrases and rhymes, and wily punch lines. Lively, entertaining; and with courage in its lightness.”

– Constance Hunting, poet, editor, The Puckerbrush Review


“Wherever my gaze fell I read good lines.”

– Isaac B. Singer, Nobel Prize for Literature


“Truly a master of the difficult art of compression.”

– Albert J. Guerard


“When the staff editors and I at Hawai’i Pacific Review decided to publish J. Chester Johnson’s poem, ’Fear of Flying’, we were impressed with his ability to bring nature into the scenario of the 9/11 catastrophe with his reference to birds in the first stanza, which was rather unexpected. We were also impressed with his ability to conjure up images of flight and tie them to the unfortunate victims of 9/11 who chose to jump from the building rather than endure the holocaust inside. And amidst all this, a sudden, fleeting fascination with ‘A swatch of cellophane (swelling) heavenward, higher still,’ followed by the poignant question, ‘How does it happen some things/ Rise air-tucked without ties,/Staves, or other fast catch-mes?’ Then, the final question that we all fear to ask: ‘Flying is good for business, we’re told,/But is it good for us?’ brings together a fascinatingly composed poem, not unlike many of his others. Johnson’s poems demonstrate his very canny ability to turn an unexpected phrase, his wry sense of humor, and his penchant for getting at the heart of problematic situations that we all would do well to ponder.”

– Patrice M. Wilson, editor, Hawai’i Pacific Review


“J. Chester Johnson’s succinct, direct style is a bracing tonic for those whose sensibilities and sensitivities have been battered by the obfuscations of the modern vernacular. His work is full of spirit, heart, and a sly humor based in delight. Seldom does plain sense seem so uncommon. The reader is better and wiser for the experience. One hopes the wide cultural world will discover and embrace this new found land of enchantment.”

– Phil Wagner, ICONOCLAST Magazine


For Conduct And Innocents (a drama in verse)


“It is certainly a most ambitious and significant work”

– X.J. Kennedy


“A labor of love, obviously, tackling an immense subject. But that’s what Bonhoeffer staked his whole life on too. I can see the skill...and the fluency of the verse, making ‘speeches’ sound like real ‘speech.’ Quite an achievement.”

– Eamon Grennan


“I love the Bonhoeffer play...The whole dynamic of moral indignation and spiritual ardor, combining and recombining there in endless variation – a quality the lyrics also possess – made the reading fascinating.”

– Vijay Seshadri


“What an amazing undertaking – so impressive in scope, intent and understanding. This must have taken years of energy...There are many extraordinary moments in this work, but I keep returning to the phrase, ‘was it simply the allure of calm,’ that Bonhoeffer says in Act V. I think of that ‘allure of calm’ and how it functions in the world...Elastic rhyme! That’s a perfect term for...stretching and contracting language.”

– Molly Peacock


“It is dense, it is wise, it is enthralling as it moves towards its tragic denouement. The verse has a lovely plain spoken texture that plays off effectively against the horrific circumstances it is set against.”

– Roger Lathbury


Pater, Magnificus

“...a powerful piece of sculpture around a profound absence. And the lyrics were full of imagination and physical pleasure.”

– Vijay Seshadri


“This is an astounding work...the research, the clear expression of love that informs the work. I read it slowly and wanted to write down many lines and passages to praise – but it’s the whole thing that needs praising.”

– Barry Wallenstein