Donald Justice Justice, Donald (Vol. 102) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Donald Justice (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 percussion only, mostly noise." (We are reminded of Ransom's characterization of meter as a low-grade musical material.) The function of the meters—apart from their power to set memory and imagination in motion—is architectonic. Like syntax they serve to articulate the words and the larger elements of poetic form.

The poet who uses the meters "may feel as deeply as the non-metrical writer…." A young woman once asked the great pianist and teacher, Artur Schnabel, whether she should play in time or in accordance with her feelings. Schnabel answered, with his usual wit, "Why not feel in time?" Professor Justice, in rejecting the fallacy of imitative form and its corollary that a disorderly world requires a poetry without meter and syntax, argues that the meters help the poet gain mastery of his subject. And by learning to feel in time, his feelings become both understandable to himself and more truly communicable to his audience.

The mnemonic value of meters seems always to have been recognized. There are, to begin with, the weather saws, counting spells, and the like, which one does more or less get by heart in childhood. But any ornament, however trivial and even meaningless, probably assists the recollection to some degree, if by ornament we mean a device of sound or structure not required by the plain sense of a passage. Repetition obviously functions in this way—anaphora, refrains, even the sort of repetition which involves nothing more than an approximate equivalence of length, as in Pound's Sapphic fragment:

Too long….

Likewise with such structural features as parallel parts or syllogistic order, whether in verse or prose. For that matter, fine and exact phrasing alone enables the memory to take hold about as well as anything. A friend of mine, at parties, preferred to recite prose rather than verse, usually, as I recall, the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.

The purely mnemonic character of a passage, however, contributes very little to its aesthetic power. Often enough rhymes are more effective mnemonically than meters, and occasionally other devices may prove to be. But the meters, where employed at all, are likely to be the groundwork underlying other figurations, hence basic, if not always dominant. Consider a couplet like "Red sky at morning, / Sailor take warning." Here the meters cooperate with the rhymes to fit the lines to one another, not only as lines of verse but as linked parts of a perception. It is no more than a slight exaggeration to claim that the couplet becomes fixed in memory by reason of this sense of fittedness. But few devices of sound are enough in themselves to ensure recall. Should, for example, the sky of the couplet be changed from red to blue, although neither rhyme nor meter would be affected, I cannot, believe the couplet would survive. Survival in this case has something to do with aptness of observation, with use, that is, as well as cleverness or beauty. The kernel of lore provides a reason for keeping the jingle; the jingle preserves the lore in stable form.

Now all this is to consider memory, as is customary, from the viewpoint of an audience, as if a significant purpose of poetry were simply to put itself in the way of being memorized. For my part, when I am at work on a poem, the memory of an audience concerns me less than my own. While the meters and other assorted devices may ultimately make the lines easier for an audience to remember, they are offering meanwhile, like the stone of the sculptor, a certain resistance to the writer's efforts to call up his subject, which seems always to be involved, one way or another, with memory. (Hobbes somewhere calls imagination the same thing as memory.) In any case, memory is going to keep whatever it chooses to keep not just because it has been made easy and agreeable to remember but because it comes to be recognized as worth the trouble of keeping, and first of all by the poet. The audience will find it possible to commit to memory only what the poet first recalls for himself. Anything can be memorized, including numbers, but numbers that refer to something beyond themselves, as to the combination of a safe, are the easier to keep in mind for that reason. Something other than themselves may likewise be hidden in the meters, and an aptness to be committed to memory might almost be taken as a sign of this other presence. Pattern is not enough. The trivial and insignificant pass beyond recall, no matter how patterned, discounting perhaps a double handful of songs and nonsense pieces, where the pattern itself has somehow become a part of what is memorable. But such a result is exceptional. What happens in the more serious and ordinary case is that some recollection of a person, of an incident or a landscape, whatever we are willing to designate as subject, comes to seem worth preserving. The question for the poet is how to preserve it.

One motive for much if not all art (music is probably an exception) is to accomplish this—to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered. So much seems true at least from the perspective of the one who makes it. Nor should any resemblance to the more mechanical functions of camera and tape recorder prove embarrassing; like a literary text in the making, film and tape also permit editing, room enough for the artist. Let emotion be recollected, in tranquility or turmoil, as luck and temperament would have it. And then what? Art lies still in the future. The emotion needs to be fixed, so that whatever has been temporarily recovered may become as nearly permanent as possible, allowing it to be called back again and again at pleasure. It is at this point that the various aids to memory, and meter most persistently, begin to serve memory beyond mnemonics. Such artifices are, let us say, the fixatives. Like the chemicals in the darkroom, they are useful in developing the negative. The audience is enabled to call back the poem, or pieces of it, the poet to call back the thing itself, the subject, all that was to become the poem.

The transcription of experience represented by the meters ought not to be confused with the experience itself. At best they can perform no...

(The entire section is 3187 words.)

Donald Justice with The Iowa Review (interview date Spring-Summer 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10504 words.)

Dana Gioia (review date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Mary Gosselink De Jong (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2370 words.)

Irvin Ehrenpreis (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 876 words.)

Robert Mezey (essay date Winter-Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1252 words.)

Bruce Bawer (essay date Winter-Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3485 words.)

Dana Gioia (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5012 words.)

Robert Rich man (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2413 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 346 words.)