Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3119
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.
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 relishes “rich refusals”; Justice, beginning again, departed from the beautiful intricacies of formalism and developed a plainer style.
There are no sonnets or sestinas in Night Light; there are two prose poems. Rhyming infrequently, Justice experiments with varying line lengths and minimal punctuation. “Dreams of Water” consists of three short lyrics linked by subject and mood; reluctant to relinquish the unifying power of symmetry, Justice gives each poem the same shape: three three-line stanzas followed by a single line.
Most of Night Light is concerned with neither the self nor poetry but with obscure people—an anonymous servant and artist who lived centuries ago; the man at the corner who might be a salesperson, a tourist, or an assassin; people in bus stops; the stranger whose lights are burning at 3:00 a.m.; men turning forty; a woman whose letters are sold at auction. Imagining what their lives might be like, Justice conveys a sense of their humanity and, in some cases, their otherness. “The Man Closing Up,” free-verse “improvisations on themes from Guillevic,” is unified by images of decay and enclosure. Cutting off all outside influences, the title character climbs up into himself like someone ascending the stairs of a lighthouse. Still more unreachable and mysterious are the suicides, once regarded as friends, who refused to show themselves in life and now must always be strangers (“For the Suicides of 1962”).
Night Light, written in the early and middle 1960’s, is a transitional book. Still committed to the polish and detachment favored by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, Justice did not reject, as some contemporaries did, the patterned regularity of meter and rhyme, but he more frequently allowed his forms to “make themselves up as the poems get written.”
The aptly named Departures deals with endings, partings, and other moments when one realizes the futility of trying to deflect time. Several of Justice’s speakers and characters are weary or broken. “A Letter” sketches the desperation of a woman in an asylum. Depressed, disoriented, and troubled by painful memories, she thinks of exposing her “wounds” and her bosom to “the young doctor/ Who has the power to sign prescriptions, passes.” Reading her letter, the speaker in the poem understands that she cannot escape her sadness. If she is released, she will return to the city (itself a sanatorium, Justice suggests) to resume her former habits—and find herself “suddenly/ Ten years older, tamed now, less mad, less beautiful.” In “A Dancer’s Life,” neither neurosis nor sex obscures a celebrated dancer’s vision of the emptiness of her life. Although she is still famous and beautiful enough to attract young men, she realizes that she has already passed her peak and thinks, “How disgusting it always must be to grow old.”
The title Departures also reflects a change in Justice’s style. There are few signs of formalism. Some pieces are fragments, bits from a notebook. Two consist entirely of questions, two of riddles. Justice uses occasional rhyme, assonance, consonance, and other means of structuring his poems. “Absences,” an evocation of subtle, evanescent things and experiences, is composed of related images. The dreamlike companion poem “Presences” uses repetition and association to convey the paradoxical constancy of loss and change. Most of the key words and end words in “Presences” are repeated; departures, disappearances, and transitions are dreams and drifting clouds, “going away in the night again and again,” yet they persist in the mind as they do in the poem. Justice’s statement that he likes a poem “to be organized,” “to have an apprehensible structure,” is not surprising. His typical poem is not contained by, but is, its structure. Often it further defines itself in relation to other works of art.
By identifying various sources (including Rafael Alberti, Eugene Guillevic, César Vallejo, and Ingmar Bergman) and noting that some of his poems “come, in part, from chance methods,” he asks the reader to consider the way in which the individual poem develops and its relation to other compositions. For this unromantic writer, poetry is a tradition and a craft, not just the pronouncement of a personal vision. Justice presents even first-person narratives as things composed, not manifestations of his unique sensibility. A poem based on the premise that “Donald Justice is dead” and buried under “the black marl of Miami” is titled “Variations on a Text by Vallejo.” Poets, human beings—not just “I”—find ways to deal with mortality. Justice has explained his use of chance methods as a way of distancing himself from his materials. By shuffling cards on which he had written sentences and words that interested him, then choosing among them, he formed some lines and images that he was able to develop into poems.
A third of the poems in Departures are concerned with artists and art, especially with poetry. “Self-Portrait as Still Life” distinguishes two kinds of artists: those who wish to come, singing and playing guitars, “into the picture,” and those who say, “Myself, I’m not about to/ Disturb the composition.” Two other poems assess contemporary poetry and Justice’s relation to it. The “I” of “The Telephone Number of the Muse” dryly but with some regret chronicles the end of his affair with the mistress who now wishes to be “only friends.” He still calls her sometimes, long distance, “And she still knows my voice, but I can hear,/ Always beyond the music of her phonograph,/ The laughter of the young men with their keys.” Youths who barge unprepared and uninvited into the muse’s presence are satirized in “Sonatina in Green” (“for my students”). The young anticipate ecstasy; they do not think of work. The ironic poet, an experienced teacher of writing and literature, also looks askance at “[The] few with the old instruments,/ Obstinate, sounding the one string”—limiting themselves to the music of another time instead of responding to the requirements of the present. The poem argues that there is too much performance, too much publication, too little craftsmanship: “There has been traffic enough/ In the boudoir of the muse.” Justice himself is a relatively reticent poet, publishing only ninety-eight titles (some poems have two or more parts) in his first three books.
Selected Poems includes seventy-six poems from the previous collections, arranged, as he puts it, “in fair chronological order.” He revised many poems as he prepared this book. A group of sixteen previously uncollected titles, also arranged chronologically, once again demonstrates his stylistic virtuosity. The earliest poem is a Shakespearean sonnet; there are several free-verse poems, while other compositions, including some of the most recent ones in the collection, are rhymed.
In the middle and late 1970’s, Justice continued to observe ordinary people and seemingly insignificant incidents and places, sometimes drawing on memory, as he had done at the beginning of his career. “Childhood,” set in Miami in the 1930’s, is narrated in the present tense. Justice represents the texture of the child’s “long days”: the Sunday boredom, his delight in the starry ceiling of the Olympia Theater, the exhilarating crime of using a drinking fountain for “colored” people. This personal poem is placed, as Justice tends to do, in relation to tradition: There is an epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud, and the work is dedicated to William Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Hart Crane, and Rafael Alberti, “the poets of a mythical childhood.”
“First Death,” a narrative in tetrameter couplets, uses concrete details to re-create the child’s loneliness, restlessness, and fear in the three days following his grandmother’s death. Justice comments on the poem’s subject and form in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (1977). This essay elucidates what might be called his philosophy of composition. As he recalls, “First Death” began with his writing couplets about “nothing” until an image activated boyhood memories. Writing in a tight form about the child he was in 1933 provided “the illusion of distance” that makes him a craftsperson. Although the poem is easily paraphrased, Justice remarks that its form—the shaping and cadences and rhymes that “fix the poem, as the right solution fixes the snapshot”—gave its maker the pleasure of finding an appropriate form and enables the reader to experience the child’s misery. Justice concludes that he likes the poem “because it records something otherwise lost.”
All of Justice’s poems are attempts “to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered.” He captures the essence of a fantasy, experience, or memory in a vivid detail or image—funeral flowers “sweating in their vases,” the “clean blue willowware” prayed over in Depression Miami, the pianist rapt in his finger exercises, Death’s extended hand “a little cage of bone”—and “fixes” it with a form appropriate to it, using free verse, metrics, syllabics, rhyme, or any device or convention that helps to make it durable. Much of his work develops by alluding to or departing from other poems or art forms, European and Latin American as well as Anglo-American. For Justice, the choice to make craft, not the self, his chief concern has meant freedom to develop his individual talent.
New and Selected Poems
New and Selected Poems opens with fifteen new poems from Justice. Readers can discern the subtle changes that have occurred in Justice’s style and themes over his three and a half decades of writing, seeing, for example, a gradual enlargement and exactitude of tone and scope, and an increasing use of dissonance. His growth is witnessed in “In Memory of the Unknown Poet, Robert Boardman Vaughn,” a villanelle written in the early 1990’s and distinguished by some critics as one of the twentieth century’s best. In it, Justice erodes the elegant repetitions with urban images of “toppled ashcans” and drunken ambulations “between St. Mark’s Place and the Bowery.” His minimalism here is evident not only in length but also, as critics have noted, in his “capacity for selflessness” and a “humility before his subjects.”
The works in this collection are accessible to a broad range of readers, showing an extraordinary range of modes and forms—from the sonnet to the sestina—and displaying the “personal” without being self-indulgent. It is a controlled poetry, cast in subtleties and nuances rather than bright and primary colors, and both the new and old poems are evocative recollections, improvisations, and meditations. Justice’s preoccupation with the figure of Orpheus is again present here. Orpheus’s glance back at Eurydice on their way back to the world of light marks the moment and condition of loss as well as the threshold where narratives begin. Similarly, Justice often employs the moment of looking back, casting his words into a particular Orphic tradition that elegizes even while it creates new forms. “The Artist Orpheus,” one of the most striking of his new poems, presents a portrait of the poet: “It was a tropical landscape, much like Florida’s, which he knew./ (Childhood came blazing back at him).” A companion poem to “The Artist Orpheus” is the elegy for the poet Henri Coulette, “Invitation to a Ghost.” The speaker invokes the dead poet as a muse, “I ask you to come back,” and as an allusion to Jean Cocteau’s figure of Orpheus, “Let it be as though a man could go backwards through death.” The living poet is attempting not only to invoke the presence of the dead poet, but also to reinstate the fullness of memory, that is, to “correct me if I remember it badly.”