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.
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.
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.
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."