Donald Justice Essay - Critical Essays


Donald Justice was a consummate craftsperson. His carefully polished work demonstrates the power and beauty of the appropriate form. He dealt with his major themes, change and loss, by fashioning poems that allow him and the reader to contemplate things that cannot stay. He was a literary, some would say academic, poet. If his range is limited, he does not overextend or repeat himself. His voice is quiet, nostalgic but not sentimental, and sometimes ironic. Whether he is writing about artistic activity or more ordinary experiences and people, his personas and other characters are “real,” humanly significant. Instead of saying, “This is the way I feel,” he says that “This is how things go.”

The character of Justice’s work is most clearly seen against the background of major developments in contemporary poetry. Like most American poets of the 1950’s, he worked within the formalist tradition. In the next decade, he became involved in the translation of contemporary French and Mexican poets. Following this immersion in the new Surrealism, he began to use suggestive images and freer forms. He did not, however, react against T. S. Eliot’s ideal of the impersonal poet, nor did he repudiate meter, rhyme, and other traditional artifices; he valued them because they provide aesthetic distance during the composing process and an intelligible, satisfying shape for the completed poem.

Justice observed that “one of the motives for writing is surely to recover and hold what would otherwise be lost totally—memory or experience.” He regarded the poem not as an expression of the writer’s personality but as an artifact that registers a significant perception. In “Meters and Memory,” he argues that it is technical skill that makes a subject “accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album” (The Structure of Verse, 1979, Harvey Gross, editor). Artifice, then, is not incompatible with genuine expression; it is one of the “fixatives” that constitute art—indeed, that make it possible.

The Summer Anniversaries

Justice’s mastery of literary forms and commitment to pattern are evident in The Summer Anniversaries, which includes syllabic and accentual poems, sestinas, and sonnets. More than a third of the poems in this collection are rhymed, and most of the others use repetition, assonance, or consonance in place of end-rhyme. No slave to convention, Justice varies traditional forms as he explores his major themes: childhood, loss, and memory. “Sonnet to My Father” pays respects to the Italian sonnet, but Justice substitutes repetition for rhyme. It is fitting that the second, third, sixth, and seventh lines end with “mine,” for the poem is about the speaker’s participation in his father’s dying. The end-words of lines 9 through 11—“die,” “place,” and “there,”—are mirrored at the ends of the poem’s final lines—“there,” “place,” “die.” This repetition represents the son’s identification with the father, made explicit in the last line: “while I live, you cannot wholly die.” As in most of Justice’s early work, the diction, while not elevated, is elegant. The poem is a carefully controlled expression of emotion.

Justice uses archaic diction in the remarkable “Tales from a Family Album,” a syllabic poem of five nine-line stanzas. The speaker feels constrained to speak of his family’s “doom,” the effect, or cause, of their “acquaintance/ Not casual and not recent with a monster.” Although their ancestral tree might be represented by an ordinary Georgia chinaberry, they have known uncommon tragedy. Even now there lives a cousin with a paw print on his forehead, and the speaker vividly recalls the fate of another “kinsman” who attempted to write the family history: He “perished,/ Calling for water and the holy wafer,/ Who had, ere that, resisted much persuasion.” With characteristic gentle irony, Justice uses old-fashioned vocabulary and syntax to portray an imaginative southerner who longs to be respected as a gentleman.

“In Bertram’s Garden,” a poem concerned with a young woman’s loss of innocence, best illustrates Justice’s use of convention and allusion. As Michael Rewa has shown, the poet examines Jane’s fall ironically but not unsympathetically by alluding to Ben Jonson’s celebration of chastity in “Queen and Huntress, chaste and fair.” (Justice’s poem uses the same rhyme scheme as Jonson’s and, in the third stanza, the same meter.) Jane’s seducer, Bertram, reminiscent of the cynical lover in William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1604), is also associated with corruption and Cupid, the antitheses of chastity. By placing his poem within a tradition, Justice provides a moral basis for assessing the seduction. As is true of many of his works, “In Bertram’s Garden” will be most appreciated by a highly literate audience, but even the reader unaware of its references to Jonson, Shakespeare, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and perhaps Andrew Marvell will understand why Jane is to “lie down with others soon/ Naked to the naked moon.” Toyed with and cast aside, she can no more recover her belief in love than she can retrieve her virginity.

Night Light

During the 1960’s, a number of American poets were making statements on public issues and writing about personal tragedies. Night Light includes a few poems critical of the pragmatism, conformity, and latent authoritarianism he saw in mid-twentieth century America. “Memo from the Desk of X” and “For a Freshman Reader” anticipate a not-too-distant time when poetry will become extinct, to be replaced by a “more precise” statement. The undergraduate is advised not to “bother with odes,” not to risk “singing”: “The day will come when once more/ Lists will be nailed to the door/ And numbers stamped on the chest/ Of anyone who says No” (“For a Freshman Reader”). “To the Hawks,” dated February, 1965, sees the escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia as the beginning of the end of the world. The poet’s vision of dawning horror is held in place by sixteen pairs of five-syllable lines. Only the title and dedication (“McNamara, Rusk, Bundy”) mark the poem as an occasional piece: It might have been written yesterday.

While Robert Lowell, John Berryman (both had been Justice’s teachers), and other confessional poets probed their traumas and anxieties, Justice wrote guardedly and ironically about the self. “A Local Storm” mocks the ego that takes a storm as a personal threat. In “Heart,” Reason speaks to Passion: After urging that “we” should behave maturely, “more becomingly,” the speaker finally admits that self-indulgence is irresistible. “We will take thought for our good name”—after one more revel. “Early Poems” comments on Justice’s work: “How fashionably sad my early poems are!” he exclaims. “The rhymes, the meters, how they paralyze.” Such manicured structures attract “no one” now; it is time for renewal. After a “long silence” comes “the beginning again.” Written at (and about) a time when many poets were avoiding rhyme, meter, and logical structure, “Early Poems” is neatly rhymed and carefully ordered. Although responsive to contemporary developments, Justice is not a trendsetter or camp follower. “Early Poems” is followed by two blank pages and then “The Thin Man,” thirty syllables spoken by a persona who...

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