Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1924
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,” he meditates on how a suicide ultimately has his or her “back …always to us.” In the lighter poem “Twenty Questions,” Justice turns an interview into an ironic summation of the hopelessness of examining the creative self:
Is it raining out?
Is it raining in?
Are you a public fountain?
Are you an antique musical instrument?
Are you a famous resort, perhaps?
What is your occupation?
Are you by chance a body of water?
Instead of a coherent identity that is often just a mask or an official disguise, Justice finds the self as a kind of emotional weather, or a showcase for the amusement of others. His “body of water” suggests depths that cannot be plumbed, regardless of how much the writer tries to convey himself in poetry. Once again, where the reader might expect clarity, Justice conveys the ironic distance between the public identity and the private self.
This distancing effect helps Justice write about themes such as love and loss without becoming mawkish, and he often finds a gentle humor in recollection. His poem “Heart,” for example, has his narrator trying futilely to reason with his heart. After pointing out “These nightly sulks, these clamorous demonstrations,” the narrator tries to guide his emotions by saying “Henceforth, let us conduct ourselves more becomingly!” By the end of the poem, the persona has largely given up on improving on his heart's fundamental childishness: “Go then, O my inseparable, this once more./ Afterwards we will take thought for our good name.”
In the much anthologized “Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy,” Justice takes Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to another level by writing a love poem to a Sears, Roebuck dummy, where the hint of its female form both arouses and mocks the poet's ardor:
How like the terrified,
Shy figure of a bride
You stood there then, without your clothes,
Drawn up into,
So classic and so strict a pose
In a way, the dressmaker's dummy serves as a useful emblem for Justice's aesthetics. Its classical strictness of posture helps ameliorate the absurdity of desire that underlies the poem's creation. Justice frames unruly emotion through aesthetic control, ending up with a light humor interlaced with melancholy that seems fitting for any objective view of love.
Justice's brand of detached aesthetics creates distance that can be both spatial and temporal but also tightly focused. In a later poem, “Vilanelle at Sundown,” he asks whether “distance lends a value to things?” And then he answers: “One can like anything diminishment has sharpened.” This movement explains his tendency to write poems depicting landscapes and memories of his youth, as memory is another way to distance and distill feeling.
As he got older, Justice increasingly wrote of his Depression-era childhood, as if his current experiences as an influential poetry professor were of no poetic use. Certainly, the earlier period better suits his frugal aesthetic. His memories of being an only child during the Depression are largely eventless. They often form a still life of youthful consciousness, where the persona escapes to the attic or some untoward spot outdoors to hang out all afternoon. In the poem “In the Attic,” he characterizes “Childhood” as “Lost in the very longueurs it redeems.”
As he writes in the early poem “The Poet at Seven”:
And on the porch, across the upturned chair,
The boy would spread a dingy counterpane
Against the length and majesty of the rain
And on all fours crawl in it like a bear,
To lick his wounds in secret, in his lair
The memories of a pointless afternoon as a child have meaning, in part, because they are independent of any social coercion or traditionally meaningful activity. The boy of this poem has to create a space with the cheap materials at hand, just as the poet does. The counterpane forms a protection from the elements that is extended to include anything that impinges on his youthful consciousness, and the sonnet form and its meter create a parallel enclosure to the counterpane and the chair. Both as an adult writer and as a child, the poet finds a way to order experience.
In later poems, Justice looks for ways to juxtapose memories so that they form new aesthetic wholes. In the sonnet “Thinking About the Past,” the transitory nature of what he remembers finds interesting parallels with the give and take of each line:
Certain moments will never change nor stop being—
My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
After the images of his mother's face and the rock wall rise and collapse in each respective line, Justice leaves out the caesura in “Our upright downward slowly out of tune” to turn the rise and fall itself into a melody that becomes fixed into meter and rhyme soon after. Without the salvaging effects of the poem, the sense of loss in the memories would be overwhelming, but the lines have their restoration of order built into them, even as the memories fade into one another with increasing speed by the end: “Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs.” Justice's poetry provides a kind of haven for memory in proportion to how it emphasizes the transience of human experience.
Justice's desire to retain experience in some ordered, melodic form helps explain why he consistently experimented with difficult poetic forms and why he often wrote about music. While his poetry would switch from emphasizing formal verse to free verse, over the course of his career one can see him continually returning to musical devices such as metrical variations, rhyme, and repetition in his poetry, even though he stated in an interview that the correlation between poetry and music is overstated and often wrong. Justice studied music before he settled on English as a major, and his work is replete with pictures of musicians, music teachers, and memories of lessons, especially those of his childhood during the Depression. Within his poetry, as in his piano playing, he can let go of his passion and restrain it simultaneously through discipline. The give and take between the unruliness of emotion and memory and the saving grace of aesthetic control often defines the tension of his best poetry.
One can see this contrast at work as he depicts his youthful self in the late poem “After-School Practice: A Short Story”:
He looks around, full of secrets;
His strange deep thoughts have brought, so far, no harm.
Carefully, with fists and elbows, he prepares
One dark, tremendous chord
Never heard before—his own thunder!
And the strings will quiver with it
A long time before the held pedal
Gives up the sound completely—this throbbing
Of the piano's great exposed heart.
Then, soberly, he begins his scales.
Book World 34 (August 15, 2004): 15.
Booklist 100, no. 22 (August 1, 2004): 1891.
Library Journal 129, no. 16 (October 1, 2004): 85.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (August 29, 2004): 16.
Weekly Standard 9, no. 47 (August 30, 2004): 35.
The Yale Review 92 (October, 2004): 157.
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