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They Pass in Silence

August 26, 2004

Donald Justice was known as the "ultimate poet's poet," winner of the Pulitzer Prize, almost the country's poet laureate. Yet when he died this month, the flags flew as high as ever, right at the top of the flagpoles.

Contrast that with Krakow last week, where the flags were lowered to half-staff in tribute to Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet who called the Polish city home. Milosz, who died eight days after Justice, taught at UC Berkeley for many of his years in exile, yet the flags on campus were not lowered.

U.S. poets haven't had too famous a time of it lately. Yes, if you look hard enough you might be able to scare up someone in San Pedro to point out a bar or two favored by Charles Bukowski, and Joyce Kilmer does have a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named for him. But think of France, where Charles Baudelaire's tomb in Paris' Montparnasse Cemetery is a spot on the tourist trail, as is Arthur Rimbaud's grave in Charleville-Mezieres Cemetery in Ardennes.

Milosz is deservedly famous for more than his poems, written mostly in Polish and translated into English, often under his supervision; after decades in exile, he returned to Poland in 1981 and became a hero of the Solidarity movement.

Justice, who turned down an offer to become the U.S. poet laureate last year because of poor health, was an accomplished teacher as well as poet, with a string of Pulitzer winners among his students. If no flags were lowered upon his passing, well, his words live on, including, from "Poem": "You will forget the poem, but not before it has forgotten you."

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