Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 684
David St. John was born in Fresno, California, in 1949, into a family of accomplished individuals. His early years were strongly influenced by members of his family. His grandfather was an English professor and academic dean, and his father coached basketball and track and was a highly skilled tennis player. An uncle also played professional tennis. St. John was raised to be a tennis player, playing competitively from the age of seven until he was fifteen. He considers this training to have been excellent preparation for a career as a writer because it required him to be solitary and taught him tremendous self-discipline and psychological adroitness. At home, his father would read to St. John from the classics. The boy’s favorite text was the opening of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), but he also loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1882) and other modern fiction.
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Another important aspect of St. John’s early years was his interest in music. From the age of eight, he took piano lessons and began reading the jazz magazine Downbeat. In junior high and high school, his interest in folk music in the 1960’s led to his playing in rock bands. He later admitted that these bands were not very good, but the experience gave him excellent training in combining music with language and performing.
St. John began his higher education at California State University, Fresno, in 1967, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1972. He enrolled at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and received a master of fine arts degree from that institution in 1974. A paternal aunt who was a painter had already introduced the young St. John to the visual arts, but he discovered that his talents lay not in painting but in literature. Nevertheless, he spent much of his time in college among painters and sculptors, who taught him to see the visual arts for their materiality and physicality and made him want to incorporate the density and plasticity of sculpture and painting into the language of poetry. In these formative years, he also became interested in film.
St. John married Bonnie Bedford in 1968 and with her had a son; they were divorced in 1974. From 1975 to 1977, St. John taught as an assistant professor of English at Oberlin College in Ohio, then transferred to The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1977, teaching in writing seminars there for the next ten years. During this period, St. John served as assistant poetry editor for Iowa Review (1974-1975) and associate editor for Field (1975-1977). He served as an editor for Seneca Review from 1977 to 1981 and began as poetry editor-at-large for the Antioch Review in 1981, in which capacity he would serve until 1995.
In 1987, St. John accepted a professorship in English at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, where he also would serve as director of creative writing. In 1990, he married poet Molly Bendall, and three years later, they had a daughter, Vivienne. As the child grew, St. John would read Old English poems and ballads to her, in this way returning to one of his favorite literary genres, which would influence his own poetry later. Molly broadened his musical interest, which by now included classical music and jazz, by introducing him to the music of other nations. He particularly enjoyed the work of Indian musician Jai Uttal. He and his family moved into a house in Venice, California. This area, whose former residents included members of the pop-rock band The Eagles and rock musician Jim Morrison of The Doors, proved to be well suited to St. John’s musical and literary tastes and pursuits. Venice retained much of the culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s and provided a compatible atmosphere in which St. John could both relax and write.
St. John has also been a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. His contributions to literary magazines have been unstinting, and he is popular as the subject of interviews because he is articulate and his knowledge of contemporary poetry and literary history is extensive.