Justice, Donald 1925–
Justice, an American poet, short story writer, and editor, writes in simple and straightforward language. His poems reflect loss, particularly loss of the past. Commenting on the source of his poetry, Justice says that "one of the motives for writing is surely to recover and hold what would otherwise be lost totally—memory or experience. Put very simply, so that one might not wholly die." (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
There are a few obvious misfires in [The Summer Anniversaries] (the only disastrous one being the final poem, which is really too close to Auden to be taken seriously), but otherwise it is a most accomplished collection. There is a great deal to be thankful for in such [a poet as] Donald Justice. [His very modesty is part of his virtue. He is] humble before the tangible world, attempting to understand it at the same time as [he reproduces] it. It is a brave humility, too, much braver than the desire to do away with the rules of common sense and perception so that the idiosyncrasies of one's personality may rule the page, much braver than the arrogant cultivation of an individual voice at the expense of everything else….
Mr. Justice is a gentle poet, and in his best poems the gentleness has its own firm clear strength, but sometimes there is a possibility that the gentleness may deteriorate to a mere wistfulness. (p. 597)
Thom Gunn, "Voices of Their Own," in The Yale Review (© 1960 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIX, No. 4, June, 1960, pp. 589-98.∗
Mr. Justice writes a spare line, and he writes by the line, painstakingly. His determination to get the perfect word in the perfect place is absolute, and if he doesn't succeed every time, he does so often enough to make [Night Light] a remarkable book.
His early poems were lyric and nostalgic. In a review of his first book [The Summer Anniversaries] I said, "The diction … is deceptively simple and spare, but rich in allusiveness." That remains true of the present collection but the lyricism has been absorbed by a new mode—syllabics—so that the songlike quality of these poems emerges in terms of image rather than form….
What is left, in these new poems, is a sense of compassion. What is gained is a voice with a hard, clean edge and a vision to match. (p. 31)
Lewis Turco, "Of Laureates and Lovers," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 41, October 14, 1967, pp. 31-3, 99.∗
I doubt if there are six poems in [Donald Justice's Selected Poems] which could be claimed for the public sensibility. But Justice has written a dozen lyrics I'd call virtually incomparable—of a kind rivaled only by W. S. Merwin or the early Merrill. And it's my sad duty to acknowledge that most were written fifteen or twenty years ago. Justice has lacked the gift for renewing himself poetically; however, the initial gift remains sufficiently impressive to inhibit critical reproaches. (p. 234)
"Ladies by Their Windows" [from The Summer Anniversaries is] … among the loveliest musical and purely evocative things I know in contemporary verse: it never descends to the explicit and is one of the last poems I should ever want to overhear an "explanation" of in a Creative Writing Class…. Sustained at the same level of elegiac fancy, the beautiful cadences move on, in measured stanzaic waves, to their radiant and funereal climax. (pp. 234-35)
After ["Ladies by Their Windows"], anything further is shadowed by anticlimax. There is not, for me, another poem by Justice that equals this one, although "Tales From a Family Album" is as deftly modulated … and as fraught with skilled echoes. Both in this volume and in Night Light of 1967 there are several poems that bear remarking for their pristine melancholy elegantly controlled, sometimes in sonnet or sestina form (the sestinas do not have conventional...
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Donald Justice is a conservative poet. He works within the established boundaries of modern poetry and makes no attempt to extend those boundaries. He is also a very literary, academic poet: you do not need to be familiar with The Tempest to understand or take pleasure from Justice's poem, "Last Days of Prospero," but such a familiarity will deepen your understanding and increase your pleasure; a reading of the poem may even strengthen your appreciation of Shakespeare's play. Selected Poems contains many literary references, but previous knowledge of the works to which Justice refers is more of a bonus than a necessity, when it comes to understanding and enjoying his poems. At no point in this book will you be confounded by your inability to interpret a Chinese ideogram or to translate from the original Greek. Donald Justice is even an old-fashioned poet, equally as willing to give a new twist to an old form (the sonnet, the sestina, the sonatina), as he is to find a new form to fit the materials at hand.
This latter aspect is the key to an appreciation of his value. Justice's concern with form is really a concern with experience being committed to an appropriate arrangement of words. Some of the forms he finds are very direct and simple. Take, for example, "The Stray Dog by the Summerhouse," and compare it with Richard Eberhart's well known poem, "The Groundhog." The two poems are thematically similar: in both cases the...
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What some might see as proper formality might strike others as unnecessary stiffness. This difficulty is compounded in the case of Donald Justice, for his poetic sensibility can be seen as centered either in virtuous modesty or inescapable limitation. How you see Mr. Justice at this formal turning of his career depends a great deal on how urgently you feel about scale and subject in poetry.
Mr. Justice's first book, "The Summer Anniversaries" (1960), deals mostly with a poetry of small scale dooms and dim light…. His second book, "Night Light" (1967), continues the exploration of a dim or twilight perspective verging on total darkness….
But with this second book Mr. Justice begins to deal more openly with what becomes a central, perhaps the dominant, theme in his work: The lack of an ennobling subject brings about a poetry that deals with the reasons for not writing. In a startlingly self-conscious poem from "Night Light" called "Early Poems," we hear the poet say "How fashionably sad these early poems are!" But this poem concludes: "—Now the long silence. Now the beginning again." Here those who appreciate Mr. Justice will hear the tone of beleaguered honesty, an indomitable trust that is earned both through and with a clear-eyed humility. Others will hear a doomed, almost Pavlovian tenacity that is less to be applauded than simply endured….
In his third volume, and in the...
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From the beginning of his poetic career, Donald Justice has focused obsessively on a central theme: loss….
But it is not Justice's themes that first strike the reader on coming to the Selected Poems. It is the language itself, the particular idiom and pattern of the poems. While some poetry aims directly at arousing the feelings, Justice's poetry appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. Form is present in an emphatic way—we notice the poem's structure, the elegant musical language. (p. 44)
There is no attempt at realism in Justice's poetry; the action and language are structured, contrived. Justice has always been interested in working out a form...
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Donald Justice has not improved since I reviewed Night Light a dozen years ago. [Selected Poems] reads like a very thin Tennessee Williams—little poems about obscure Florida people and architecture. And yet the words he chooses are the words he chooses; he really does want them, so the poems have that solidity. Each line is a sort of family portrait. That the poems as wholes haven't much energy doesn't matter much because his subjects are People Remembered (muffled by distance), and landscapes dying on the vine. The late ones are eclectic. "Thinking about the Past" is a Stafford poem. His early ones are Audenesque. "The Telephone Number of the Muse" is frightening. "Homage to the Memory of...
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[Many of the poems appearing in Selected Poems taken from Summer Anniversaries] have the feel of apprentice pieces, a formalistic and workshop atmosphere pervading…. The somewhat awkwardly worked frames of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, odes, and other formal poems do not entirely constrict a naturally lyrical talent. The first poem in the book ["Ladies by Their Windows"], though with echoes of late Eliot, has gentle rhapsodic bursts to ruffle the generally detached posture….
By the time of Night Light …, Justice has moved an appreciable distance from academic and provincial formalism…. The influence of William Carlos Williams is evident in poems of the American...
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[Selected Poems] is Justice at his best, as plain and poignant as he is fragmentary and narrow…. Consisting of shadows cast by the world just before dusk, his poetry is not the "bright shadow" that experience itself casts on the world. Justice does not aspire to be our Confessor; he confesses (touchingly, at his best) for himself….
[The] collection as a whole reflects an uncertain talent that has not been turned to much account. For one thing influence has been a problem. The early poems unwittingly feature Auden and, divergent but starting from the same place in dismay, like the second hand of a clock, John Crowe Ransom…. [Both] poets serve his mock-spry sense of form. Yet we want from...
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Donald Justice's [Selected Poems] persistently haunt and are haunted by the past, to the extent that their present is characterised by a weary passivity, a lack of vitality that is supported by fastidious formal elegance. They do not need to say that what happens now is pointless as there seems no likelihood of anything happening anyway…. The poems lack urgency from early on—typically motiveless sestinas, for example—with a habit of elegance which cushions meaning, and a lack of colour and surprise. He will over-explain his material, flattening a striking comparison of a childhood memory with a [D.W.] Griffith film by including: 'But already the silent world is lost forever'…. The poems occupy a...
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Donald Justice is an elusive poet, esteemed but not widely read, and it is a convenience to have so much of his work brought together in one volume [Selected Poems]…. Whatever the convenience, a new book by Justice is always likely to be a notable event; his output has been slight and infrequent, his work fastidious. In fact, as a poet he is that rarity—an artist at once deeply traditional and resolutely new fashioned. He sometimes writes (as in "Bus Stop") in an intentionally flat style, whose effects are predictable and tiresome. He also writes the trendy kind of expressionist poem—though he usually does it better than his peers or imitators—that heaps up portentous images with all the automatism of a...
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