Justice, Donald (Vol. 102)
Donald Justice 1925–
(Full name Donald Rodney Justice) American poet, short story writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Justice's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 19.
Justice is considered one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. He has won numerous writing awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Selected Poems. Considered a poet's poet, Justice is known for his attention to form and language, his use of rhyme and meter, and his ability to master many poetic forms. Initially not widely read, Justice's recent awards have brought him greater national attention.
Justice was born in Miami, Florida, on August 12, 1925, to Vasco Justice, a carpenter, and Mary Ethel Cook Justice. He grew up in Miami, never leaving the South until adulthood. He received a B.A. from the University of Miami in 1945, an M.A. in English from University of North Carolina in 1947, and a Ph.D. from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1954. From 1948 to 1949 he studied under Yvor Winters at Stanford University. In 1947 he married Jean Ross with whom he had one son. Throughout his career Justice has been both student and teacher. At Iowa he worked under John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Karl Shapiro and he taught Mark Strand, Charles Wright, and Jorie Graham. Justice taught at the University of Iowa, Syracuse, University of California, and other universities before settling at the University of Florida. He has been retired since 1992 but continues to write and publish. His numerous awards include the Lamont Poetry Selection, a nomination for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize and awards from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Justice has not been a prolific writer; he has published only a handful of books, mostly slim volumes of short poems. His first volume, The Summer Anniversaries (1960), which won the Lamont Poetry Selection, centered on his childhood experiences in Miami. Justice's distinct voice first emerged in these poems. He is nostalgic without becoming sentimen-tal or maudlin; he experiments with form, employing difficult structures such as sestina and villanelle; and he writes in a distant, third person, not focusing attention on himself but on others. In Night Light (1967) Justice continued to work in this tradition but his viewpoint shifted from childhood to adulthood. The influence of William Carlos Williams can be seen in these poems, both in style and subject. In Departures (1973) Justice experimented even more, creating poems by placing words on cards and then shuffling them to create a poem by chance. The Sunset Maker (1987) consists of poems, stories, and a memoir. Selected Poems (1979) and A Donald Justice Reader (1991) reflect Justice's propensity for revision as well as his use of varying poetic structures. Dana Gioia writes about Selected Poems, "There are sestinas, villanelles and ballads rubbing shoulders with aleatory poems, surreal odes, and … free verse." New and Selected Poems (1995), containing fifteen new poems as well as work spanning three decades, reflects the characteristics of Justice's writing style which have made him such a noted poet. He deals with themes of sorrow, loss, and vulnerability in a quiet, understated tone, paying careful attention to word choice and meter, and experimenting widely with structure.
Throughout his career Justice has not conformed to the tenets of modern poetry, which is typically known for its intensely emotional, energetic tone and free, unstructured form. This has resulted in two critical reactions to his poetry. Critics have claimed that, compared with the vibrant work of his contemporaries, Justice's work is passive and lacks vitality. Calvin Bedient, writing in the Sewanee Review, found Justice "an uncertain talent that has not been turned to much account." In the New Statesman, Allan Hollinghurst wrote that Justice's poems were hampered "by a weary passivity, a lack of vitality that is unsupported by fastidious formal elegance." Other critics, finding fault with modern poetry, have delighted in Justice's attention to detail, understated voice, and lack of sentimentality. In their introduction in Verse, Gioia and William Logan wrote, "Literary culture, for all its whims and sudden moods, loves nothing more than a settled judgement, and is slow to appreciate a poet whose gains and attractions are cumulative, and whose work has never suffered, or contrived, a radical breach."
The Summer Anniversaries (poetry) 1960; revised edition, 1981
A Local Storm (poetry) 1963
Night Light (poetry) 1967; revised edition, 1981
Four Poets [with Tom McAfee, Donald Drummond, and R. P. Dickey] (poetry) 1968
Sixteen Poems (poetry) 1970
From a Notebook (poetry) 1971
Departures (poetry) 1973
L'Homme qui se ferme/The Man Closing Up [translator] (poetry) 1973
Selected Poems (poetry) 1979
Platonic Scripts (essays) 1984
Tremayne (poetry) 1984
The Sunset Maker: Poems/Stories/A Memoir (poetry, short stories, memoir) 1987
The Death of Lincoln (libretto) 1988
A Donald Justice Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (poetry) 1991
New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1995
(The entire section is 84 words.)
SOURCE: "Meters and Memory," in The Structure of Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, edited by Harvey Gross, Ecco Press, 1979, pp. 269-76.
[In the following essay, which is prefaced by commentary from Harvey Gross, Justice discusses the function of meter in poetry.]
Donald Justice describes himself as "a rationalist defender of the meters." He is primarily concerned with the traditional metrical ordering of English verse and does not touch upon the larger question of rhythm and its significances. He is an eloquent spokesman for the mnemonic function of meter; however, his concept of memory is really a theory of the imagination. Meter serves as stimulus to the processes of creation: the meters "will have called back the thing itself—the subject—that became the poem." But the meters do not only stimulate imagination by helping to recollect the original experience; they also serve to transform and hence fix the "terror or beauty or plain ordinariness of the original event…." Meters are artificial in the Renaissance sense; providing aesthetic distance, their very artifice reminds us "that we are at that remove from life which traditionally we have called art."
Skeptical of the supposed mimetic function of meter, he points out, as does Dr. Johnson, that we often "ascribe to the numbers the effects of the sense." Meters accompany the sense "like a kind of...
(The entire section is 3187 words.)
SOURCE: "An Interview with Donald Justice," in The Iowa Review, Vol. 11, Nos. 2-3, Sprint-Summer, 1980, pp. 1-21.
[In the following interview, Justice discusses various aspects of his work, including his literary influences and the importance of memory, meter, and music in his poetry.]
[The Iowa Review:] Let's begin by asking about Selected Poems because that, after all, is the occasion for this interview. We'd like you to tell us something of how it came together out of your other collections. In the notes at the back you describe its arrangement as a "fair chronological order." That's a curious qualification.
[Donald Justice:] I didn't realize that would be ambiguous. I meant "approximately." After so long it's difficult to know exactly when you wrote something. I didn't want to say the poems were arranged in chronological order because I couldn't be quite sure of that. But as well as I could reconstruct the history of it these are in order. In some cases I'm positive of the sequence because it meant something to me at the time.
Do you keep notebooks and dated papers?
I do now but I didn't in the past. I've become more compulsive instead of less. In quite a few cases I can remember where or when I wrote a certain poem. One poem I remember writing on Memorial Day, 1954. We were supposed to go to a couple of parties and I kept...
(The entire section is 10504 words.)
SOURCE: "Three Poets in Mid Career," in Southern Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1981, pp. 667-74.
[In the following excerpt, Gioai considers Selected Poems, citing Justice's mastery of diverse forms and keen editorial sense as the skills which have helped produce a nearly perfect collection of poetry.]
From his first book, Summer Anniversaries, which won the Lamont Prize in 1959, to his third volume, Departures, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1974, the work of Donald Justice has been consistently well received, and a few of his early poems have already become standard anthology pieces. Yet outside of his many students from the University of Iowa writing program, and a few outspoken critics who have been trying to tell us for years that he is an important poet, Justice has not been a writer who has been widely read.
Justice's work presents a uniquely difficult job in seeing as a whole because the poet has self-consciously tried to write in as many new and different ways as possible. There is not a poet in America who has mastered as many styles as Justice. At times, his most recent book, Selected Poems, reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry. There are sestinas, villanelles, and ballads rubbing pages with aleatory poems, surreal odes, and Williamsesque free verse. Yvor Winters once observed that Wallace Stevens...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
SOURCE: "'Musical Possibilities': Music, Memory, and Composition in the Poetry of Donald Justice," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 18, Nos. 1-2, 1985, pp. 57-66.
[In the essay below, De Jong discusses the significance of music to Justice's poetry, noting his use of rhyme, assonance, consonance, and repetition and the way in which music has served as subject or allegory in his poems.]
For centuries authors, composers, and critics have been exploring the parallels between the "sister arts" of music and literature. As Calvin S. Brown dryly observes, the study of musico-literary correspondences holds "a fatal attraction for the dilettante, the faddist and the crackpot." To suggest, then, that Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Donald Justice has been influenced by music is to incur a certain risk. Being called a faddist or a dilettante would fracture no bones, only pride, and an academic becomes accustomed to being thought a crackpot, by students if not by colleagues and social acquaintances. Still, one would prefer other epithets. Moreover, influence cannot be proved, not even (or especially not?) by a writer's own statements about his or her art. In the case of Justice, it is unlikely that absolute "proof" of musical influence would help us to interpret his poems. But an awareness of his use of "musical possibilities" does afford insights into the composing process; it does enhance the reader's experience of Justice's...
(The entire section is 2370 words.)
SOURCE: "Ashbery and Justice," in Poetries of America: Essays on the Relations of Character to Style, edited by Daniel Albright, University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 207-14.
[In the following excerpt, Ehrenpreis focuses on theme in Justice's collection Departures.]
Donald Justice has some kinship with Ashbery. The master to whom both seem deeply related is Wallace Stevens. But there is some difference between the author of "Peter Quince at the Clavier" and the one whom Jarrell named "G.E. Moore at the spinet." Justice recalls the music, elegance, and passion of Stevens, not his devotion to aesthetics. In Justice's latest book [Departures], certainly his best, the poet keeps his old attachment to the community of vulnerable creatures—lovers, children, the old, the weak. And he bestows on them the richness of sound and cadence, the depth of feeling and subtlety of language that he displayed in his earlier collections.
What draws him to such people is not their dependence but their openness to affection and fantasy, to strong emotions and wild thoughts. For Justice, the receptivity of the artist feeds both his creative imagination and his human sympathy, two aspects of one impulse. Conversely, what seems to matter most to him, in the labors of art, is the chance the imagination offers us to keep in touch with those who share our world but not our neighborhood; the dead, the...
(The entire section is 876 words.)
SOURCE: "Of Donald Justice's Ear," in Verse, Vols. 8-9, Nos. 3 and 1, Winter-Spring, 1992, pp. 37-8.
[In the following essay, Mezey praises the power of Justice's imagery and the seeming effortlessness with which it is evoked.]
In an essay published about ten years ago, Donald Justice wrote: "Words sometimes, through likeness of sound, become bound to one another by ties remotely like those of human kinship. This is not to propose that any meaning attaches to the sounds independent of the words. But the interlocking sounds do seem to reinforce and in some curious way to authenticate the meanings of the words, perhaps indirectly to deepen and enlarge them. A part of the very nature of poetry lies in this fact."
For at least one reader, perhaps the essential part. (One can think of poets who have written beautifully without metaphor, without sensuous or concrete diction, without subject or drama, even without intelligence, but none who has done so without an ear.) And I would go further: I would say that the poet who has the requisite power not only discloses the very nature of poetry but seems to penetrate to the very nature of experience. I am not speaking now of onomatopoeia or the various kinds of mimicry, crude and sophisticated, that ingenious poets are capable of. Any poet of sufficient skill can slow down his tempo and articulation "When Ajax strives, some rocks' vast...
(The entire section is 1252 words.)
SOURCE: "'Avec une Élégance Grave et Lente': The Poetry of Donald Justice," in Verse, Vols. 8-9, Nos. 3 and 1, Winter-Spring, 1992, pp. 44-9.
[In the following essay, Bawer defends Justice's work against hostile critics, stating that the negative criticism stems from Justice's reluctance to conform to the styles of his peers.]
On the American poetry scene these days, the only thing rarer than a fine poem is a negative review. Yet reviewers of Donald Justice—who has written some of the finest poems of our time—have often been not only negative but surprisingly hostile. Calvin Bedient, assessing Justice's 1979 Selected Poems in the Sewanee Review, described him as "an uncertain talent that has not been turned to much account." Wrote Gerald Burns: "Selected Poems reads like a very thin Tennessee Williams—little poems about obscure Florida people and architecture…. As a career his, though honest, does not quite make the ascent to poet from racket." And Alan Hollinghurst, appraising the same volume for The New Statesman, complained that Justice's poems lacked "vitality … urgency … colour and surprise," that they suffered from "lassitude," "a weary passivity," and "a habit of elegance which cushions meaning," and that the poems, "formal but fatigués … create the impression of getting great job-satisfaction without actually doing much work."...
(The entire section is 3485 words.)
SOURCE: "Tradition and an Individual Talent," in Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture, Graywolf Press, 1992, pp. 221-36.
[In the essay below, Gioia argues that Justice creates an intertextual dialogue in his poetry through his conscious borrowing from and response to other writers.]
Anyone who reads Donald Justice's poetry at length will eventually note how often his poems seem to originate out of other literary texts. While most poems conduct a conversation with the past—if only by employing a form or genre their audience will recognize—authors, especially Americans, often exert immense effort and ingenuity to disguise their literary antecedents. If poetry grows out of the dialectic between innovation and emulation, our literature has always prized originality over continuity. Originality is, after all, America's one strict tradition.
Donald Justice, however, appears unconcerned about revealing the extent to which his poems rely on the literary tradition. Departures, Selected Poems, The Sunset Maker, and A Donald Justice Reader all end with "Notes" in which the author identifies the sources of particular poems, including some borrowings that even a sophisticated reader would not have detected. Other poems begin with clearly labeled epigraphs that contain images or phrases used later in the text. Even Justice's titles openly advertise their...
(The entire section is 5012 words.)
SOURCE: "Intimations of Inadequacy," in Poetry, Vol. CLXII, No. 3, June, 1993, pp. 160-66.
[Below, Richman argues that in Justice's poetry form takes precedence over subject matter.]
Donald Justice is one of our most reticent poets. He may very well be the most reticent poet of his generation—the generation of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, Adrienne Rich, and the late Howard Nemerov. For Justice is even more sparing in output than the notoriously slow-working and slow-to-publish Hecht. "I'm not all that much for increasing the world's population of poems," Justice once said in an interview. Of his four books of all original material—The Summer Anniversaries (1960), Night Light (1967), Departures (1973), and The Sunset Maker (1987)—two were fifty-two pages or less. (A 137-page Selected Poems, containing seventeen new poems, came out in 1979.) No wonder Justice's 171-page Reader, which has seven previously uncollected poems, is as slender as it is.
Justice has been equally restrained with his prose. This too sets him apart from the poets of his generation, who are, for the most part, a critically garrulous bunch. Justice's lone prose volume, Platonic Scripts (1984), contains six essays, seven interviews, and ten pages of extracts from a notebook. The Reader doesn't exactly ameliorate the situation. The book's...
(The entire section is 2413 words.)
Gioia, Dana, and William Logan, editors. Certain Solitudes: Essays on the Poetry of Donald Justice. University of Arkansas Press, 1997: 288 p.
Laudatory overview of the author's career as a poet and educator.
Hirsch, Edward. "Heroes and Villanelles." New York Times Book Review (23 August 1987): 20.
Reviews The Sunset Maker and describes Justice as an "elegiac poet" and a "scrupulous tactician of melancholy and loss."
Kirby, Donald. "Refined Craftsman." American Book Review 15, No. 1 (April-May 1993): 26.
Reviews A Donald Justice Reader, focusing on theme and Justice's place in contemporary American poetry.
Leithauser, Brad. "Getting Things Right," New York Review of Books XLIII, No. 14, (19 September 1996): 49-50, 52.
A review of New and Selected Poems in which Leithauser claims that the collection reflects the solid work and skill of Justice's career and that the new poems continue to impress.
Nemerov, Howard. A review of The Summer Anniversaries, by Donald Justice. American Scholar 29, No. 4 (Autumn 1960): 578.
Describes the principal...
(The entire section is 346 words.)