Born and reared in Miami, Donald Rodney Justice graduated from the University of Miami in 1945. He received an M.A. degree from the University of North Carolina in 1947 and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1954. From 1948 to 1949, he attended Stanford University to study with Yvor Winters. Among his other teachers were Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. He married Jean Ross in 1947 and had one son.
Justice taught at various universities, including Syracuse; the University of California, Irvine; Princeton; and the Universities of Iowa and Virginia. He joined the faculty of the University of Florida at Gainesville in 1982, where he taught until 1992, when he retired from teaching. Justice died in 2004 in Iowa City.
Growing up in Miami, Donald Rodney Justice studied piano and then composition. After graduation from the University of Miami, he concentrated on literature and writing at the universities of North Carolina, Stanford, and Iowa. He taught for many years in the graduate writing programs of Iowa, Syracuse, and Florida.
Justice describes his early years in the poem “Childhood,” which was first published with marginalia on facing pages. In New and Selected Poems those notes appear at the end of the book, whereby the poem loses the antiphonal effect of a line such as “Forlorn suburbs, but with golden names!” being answered by “Sunny Isles, Golden Glades, Buena Vista, Opa-Locka, etc.” The poem is dedicated “to the poets of a mythical childhood,” and this mythical tonality is matched by orchestral richness in the language and cinematic sweep in the imagery. It begins with a child’s game of spinning a globe to see where one’s finger lands, after which the poem points to a particular place and time (Miami in the thirties), with images of reading comics, playing by a lily pond, going to the movies, getting a haircut, shopping in a department store, and looking through trays of eyeglasses at Woolworth’s. Justice’s “osteomyelitis-anesthesias,” noted in a gloss, becomes an image within the poem: “on my knee a small red sun-glow, setting.” In Justice’s oeuvre this is a long poem, although it contains just a few more than sixty lines of loose blank verse.
Justice is married to a fiction writer, Jean Ross; his sister-in-law is the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, and his brother-in-law was the fiction writer Peter Taylor. Perhaps because of a natural reticence, not many details of his biography are known, and those that are revolve to an unusual degree around his work and the way it has developed from one collection to the next.
Since his first book, The Summer Anniversaries, Justice has devoted himself primarily to exploring and renewing traditional poetic forms. His sestinas, for example, contain several innovations such as short lines in “Here in Katmandu,” transformed end-words in “The Metamorphosis,” the omission of the envoi in both of those poems, the use of narrative in “A Dream Sestina,” and a borrowing of end-words in “Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees.” His subjects tend to be literary. Even poems that might seem autobiographical preserve a safe distance; “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” begins not with specific friends but with an oddly sad and comic observation: “We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven.”
Two poems about insanity are triumphs of order and recovery. “Counting the Mad” imitates the nursery rhyme “This little piggie”: “And this one cried No No No No/ All day long.” “On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane” uses a very loose iambic pentameter, perhaps to suggest how the patient and his painting have almost fallen apart, shaky and wobbly, “not at the expected angles.” These even-tempered views of madness contrast greatly with the confessional poems of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton.
In an interview in Platonic Scripts, Justice notes that his second full collection, Night Light , represents a...
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