Soon after the publication of these Collected Poems in 2004, Donald Justice died at the age of seventy-eight in Iowa City. A long life of producing exemplary poetry was thus punctuated with a summary volume of his career. A poet who takes the T. S. Eliot dictum that art should be impersonal to formal extremes, Justice led what appeared to be a self-effacingly modest academic life. Born in 1925 and raised in Miami, Florida, as an only son during the Great Depression, he graduated from the University of Miami with a B.A. in English. He then earned his master's degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (where he met the woman who would become his wife and fellow writer, Jean Ross), and eventually pursued a doctorate at the University of Iowa's Writers’ Workshop.
Soon after graduation, Justice began teaching in the Iowa program and published his first collection of poems, The Summer Anniversaries, which was the Lamont Poetry selection for 1959. After that start in Iowa, Justice taught at various universities. His third poetry collection, Departures, won the National Book Award in 1973, and then in 1979 his Selected Poemswon the Pulitzer Prize. While other poets gain reputations for Dionysian living, Justice continued teaching, writing, and attending conferences. He published two books of essays: Platonic Scripts (1984), A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1992), and Oblivion: On Writers and Writing (1998). Justice eventually moved back to Florida to teach at the University of Florida, Gainesville before he retired to Iowa City in 1992.
Justice has been called a poet's poet because his mastery of many poetic forms serves as an excellent example for the poets who admire his work. Overall, his poetry is impersonal, concise, and elegant with a latter-day high modernist sheen; he did not mind alluding frequently to the work of his poetic influences such as Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Baudelaire. While other, more verbose poets trade on their personal indiscretions, Justice chose to say more with less, claiming in the poem “From a Notebook” that when it comes to parts of speech, “the Conjunction, being Impersonal, is the more Beautiful, and especially when suppressed.”
Perhaps his poem “The Thin Man” from his 1967 collection Night Lightbest showcases this rigorous tendency to exclude all but the essential:
I indulge myself
In rich refusals.
I hone myself to
This edge. Asleep, I
Am a horizon.
The poem reads as a kind of manifesto of exclusion. In a culture given toward verbal excess, Justice posits a frugal aesthetic that is all the richer for what it leaves out, forming a sense of austere distance in the process. Justice's selectivity and restraint is reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, in which every word matters. As he writes in a poem dedicated to his students, “Sonatinia in Green”: “One/ Has composed a beginning, say,/ A phrase or two. No more!/ There has been traffic enough/ In the boudoir of the muse.”
The impersonality and exclusiveness of his poetry sometimes makes it difficult to describe. Sometimes his poems seem to want to evaporate off the page, as if their expression is a kind of violation of a more profound and pristine silence. The oracular distance of the persona thus becomes part of the point of his work. “Poem” makes this overt by beginning with the line “This poem is not addressed to you” as the rest of the poem meditates on the tenuous relationship between the reader and the work of art. For example, the sixth stanza reads:
Close your eyes, yawn. It will be over soon.
You will forget the poem, but not before
It has forgotten you. And it does not matter.
It has been most beautiful in its erasures.
In the hands of a less skillful poet, this kind of impersonality could become precious and ultimately sterile, but here the persona draws the reader in with a kind of Kafkaesque refusal to commit itself.
Justice's theme of alienation extends beyond the way art can exclude its audience. In poems such as “The Missing Person” and “The Man Closing Up,” Justice explores the unknowability of identity, where the impersonality of officialdom matches one man's inability to cohere into a self: “He has come to report himself/ A missing person.” The erasures of “Poem” now smoothly transfer to “these spaces in his life” that “Stare up at him blankly.” In fact, Justice seems to revel in the various ways a self can be negated or falsified. In his poem “For the Suicides of 1962,”...
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