Ode to Justin Timberlake

Studio 360

It’s the first poem about David Bowie to win the Pulitzer Prize. Tracy K. Smith’s collection “Life on Mars” contains many references to the man she salutes as the “Pope of Pop.”

Inspired by Smith, we asked for your poems about the rock star or pop culture icon who captured your imagination — as a teenager or now.

Tracy K. Smith returned to Studio 360 to pick a winner: Matthew Roth, a 26-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, whose poem “To Justin Timberlake” captures a moment of casual bravado between the singer and his buddy Timbaland.

“There’s a lot of great swagger,” Smith says. “It’s so of this moment.”

Winner: "To Justin Timberlake" (read by Tracy K. Smith)
by Matthew Roth — Raleigh, North Carolina 

JT steps out of the studio backwards
he slides in a borrowed slipshod softshoe
(from MJ) he dizzies his hip shift & doffs his cap
which may or may not be a prop. From the doorway
Timbaland arms-crossed head-nods
bubbling his best Quincy Jones.
They skip down the street for tacos.
Justin shows Timbo his phone
cracking up, he is crying on Punk'd from his palm
or decked all in denim with that damn BS.

Timbaland mumbles a trombone solo
and Hollywood bumps & rings around them
reverberating through school bus & dorm room
heads bobbing over homework
across deserts & cornfields, muddy rivers & sinks
full of soap where husbands two-step

Justin, how could anyone love you more than I
who have been won over from adolescent spite
by the irrefutable humors of your unlikely funk?
How has your dumb stubble charmed me so
past insincere t-shirts to join in the joyous links
of your shimmering cyclical falsetto soul?

Honorable Mention: "Port Arthur Girl" (read by Tracy K. Smith)
by Carol Alexander — New York City, New York

Down around Port Arthur the tumbleweed, that mobile diaspore,
flings its seeds in a race with time, dying in a pool of rain or oil.
And what they have is a lot of sky and oil tanks coddling crude
and girls in much more underwear than they wear way up North.
Mining land is deeply scarred and raw, the gravel pits alien,
like lunar landscapes or the bank where Charon plies his trade.
The young ones necking in their cars, the ugly bars, showed you
the rocking road away from that stripped coastal town.

Somehow you made it, broke and battered, to the pounding stage.
We heard you wailing, every labored breath a paean to the act
of love; girls of thirteen squirming in their jeans, electrified,
right there with you banging some bluesy guy with everything
you got and more—ah, pour it out, Janis, tumbling diaspore.
Flag down that glory train and belt it out with whiskey breath
and the stash of speed that lovers said you didn’t need.

What can you do if there is simply more of you than the girdled town
and the gridded streets allow? They didn’t claim you then or now
in that spectral year when every other page regaled us with the tales
of players dying in their vomit pools, snatching from us just
that small bit more, goading us to play your albums louder so
the bass reverbed and shook the angry neighbor’s floor.
Play on, beauty, ravaged, strands of rough hair in your mouth,
the hot ecstatic winds of Monterey resounding like a dirge,
rafting us across that river, to some bright, abiding shore.

(Originally aired May 11, 2012)

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