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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...
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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."
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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
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3187
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:
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 more than a reenactment, as on some stage of the mind. This being so, to object to the meters as unnatural because unrealistic is to miss the point. Like the odd mustaches and baggy pants of the old comedians, they put us on notice that we are at a certain distance from the normal rules and expectations of life. The effect has been variously called a distancing or a framing. Wordsworth described it as serving "to divest language, in a certain degree, of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of half-consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole composition." The meters signify this much at least, that we are at that remove from life which traditionally we have called art.
Their very presence seems to testify to some degree of plan, purpose, and meaning. The meters seem always faintly teleological by implication, even in company with an anti-teleological argument, as the case may be. They are proof of the hand and ear of a maker (uncapitalized), even in a poetry which otherwise effaces the self. They seem to propose that an emotion, however uncontrollable it may have appeared originally, was not, in fact, unmanageable. "I don't know why I am crying" becomes "Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean." The difference seems important to me. The poetic line comes to constitute a sort of paraphrase of the raw feeling, which will only get broken back down close to its original state in some future critic's re-paraphrase. The writer in meters, I insist, may feel as deeply as the non-metrical writer, and the choice whether or not to use meters is as likely to be dictated by literary fashion as by depth of feeling or sincerity. Nevertheless, they have become a conventional sign for at least the desire for some outward control; though their use cannot be interpreted as any guarantee of inner control, the very act of writing at all does usually imply an attempt to master the subject well enough to understand it, and the meters reinforce the impression that such an attempt is being made and perhaps succeeding. Even so, the technology of verse does not of itself affirm a philosophy, despite arguments to the contrary. Certain recent critics have argued that even syntax is now "bogus," since the modern world contains no such order as that implied in an ordinary sentence, much less a metrical one. But the imitation theory underlying this argument seems naive and unhistorical, for it was never the obligation of words or of word-order to imitate conditions so reflexively. Syntax deals, after all, primarily with word-order, not world-order, and even the meters, or so it seems to me, can imitate only by convention.
Let me take a simple case. Yvor Winters once offered his line "The slow cry of a bird" as an example of metrical imitation, not strictly of a birdcall itself but of "the slowness of the cry." The convention would seem to be that two or more strong syllables in succession carry associations of slowness and heaviness, while two or more weak syllables in succession carry contrary associations of rapidity and lightness: melancholy on the one hand, playfulness on the other. But the displacement of a stress from of to cry in the Winters line, bringing two stresses together, fails to slow the line down, as I hear it. Substitute for this "The quick cry of a bird," and the two weak syllables following cry can be said to do as much to speed the line up, or as little. But whether the cry is to sound quick or slow, the metrical situation itself remains, practically speaking, identical. If any question of interpretation arises from the reversed foot, the meaning of the reversal must depend on the denotation of the adjective rather than on the particular arrangement of syllables and stresses, for denotation overrides any implication of the meters apart from it. Though apparently agreed on by generations of poets, the minor convention on which Winters was depending is hardly observed any longer except in criticism or occasionally the classroom. Nor was it, for that matter, observed by Milton in his great melancholy-playful pair. "Il Penseroso" and "L'Allegro," or if observed, then only to be consciously played against. Composers of music for the movies learned early that direct imitation of a visual image through sound was best restricted to comic effects (pizzicati, trombone glissandi, staccato bassoons). Pushed far enough, and that is not very far at all, the results of metrical imitations can seem similarly cartoonlike:
I sank to the pillow, and Joris, and he;
I slumbered, Dirck slumbered, we slumbered all three.
In any case, simple imitation by means by rhythm would seem to be more plausible in free verse, with its greater flexibility, and most workable in prose, which is allowed any and every arrangement of syllables. Wordsworth ascribes to the meters a different power, finding in them a "great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling," and, he goes on to add, "of feeling not strictly and necessarily connected with the passion." The meters move along in their own domain, scarcely intersecting the domain of meaning, except in some illusory fashion or by virtue of conventions nearly private. The responsibility they bear to the sense, comic writing aside, is mostly not to interfere. But so effacing themselves they will have accomplished all that they must accomplish in relation to the sense. Speech they can and do imitate, from a little distance, but rarely by quoting, that is to say, by attempting to become speech. Song they perhaps are or can become, their natural inclination; no question in that of imitating anything outside their own nature.
Whether their nature really embodies an imitation of natural processes may be arguable. But I do not think the meters can be, in any such sense, organic. A recognition of this, conscious or not, has been reason enough for their rejection by contemporary organicists, poets and critics both. The meters seem more to resemble the hammer-work of carpenters putting together a building, say, than waves coming in to shore or the parade of seasons. We do inhale and exhale more or less rhythmically, as long as we stay healthy; our hearts do beat without much skipping, for years on end. Breath and heart are the least remote of these similitudes, but any connection between them and the more or less regular alternation of weak and strong syllables in verse seems doubtful to me and, valid or not, need carry no particular prestige. In urban life, far from the Lake Country of 1800, are to be found analogies as appropriate as any from nature, if no more convincing. Signals timed to regulate the flow of traffic not only seem analogous but at times remarkably beautiful, as on a nearly deserted stretch of Ninth Avenue in New York City at three a.m., especially in a mild drizzle. If the meters do represent or imitate anything in general, it may be nothing more (or less) than some psychological compulsion, a sort of counting on the fingers or stepping on cracks, magic to keep an unpredictable world under control.
Where the meters are supposed to possess anything of an imitative character, the implicit purpose must be to bring the poetic text closer to its source in reality or nature by making it more "like" the thing it imitates. Such an illusion may be enhanced if the poet's conviction is strong enough to persuade an audience to share his faith, but such conversions are more likely to be accomplished through criticism than through poetry alone. The twin illusions of control and understanding seem more valuable to me than this illusion of the real or the natural, since it is through these, I suspect, that the meters are more firmly connected to memory. To remember an event is almost to begin to control it, as well as to approach an understanding of it; incapable of recurring now, it is only to be contemplated rather than acted on or reacted to. Any sacrifice of immediate reality is compensated for by these new perspectives. The terror or beauty or, for that matter, the plain ordinariness of the original event, being transformed, is fixed and thereby made more tolerable. That the event can recur only in its new context, the context of art, shears it of some risks, the chief of which may anyhow have been its transitory character.
If for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth, at the same time casting over them the illusion of a necessary or at least not inappropriate fitness and order. There is a kind of accrediting in the process, a warrant that things are being remembered right and set down right, so long as the meters go on working. In this way the meters serve as a neutral and impersonal check on self-indulgence and whimsy; a subjective event gets made over into something more like an object. It becomes accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album. Memory itself tends to act not without craft, but selectively, adding here to restore a gap, omitting the incongruous there, rearranging and shifting the emphasis, striving, consciously or not, to make some sense and point out of what in experience may have seemed to lack either. That other presence of which I spoke earlier—the charge of feeling, let us say, which attaches perhaps inexplicably to the subject, what the psychologist might call its affect—is not much subject to vicissitudes and manipulations of this sort, except for a natural enough diminution. It remains, but more than likely beneath the surface.
The meters are worth speculating about because they are so specific to the medium, if not altogether essential. Without them nothing may, on occasion, be lost; with them, on occasion, something may be gained, though whatever that is probably has little or nothing to do with sense or ostensible subject. This, in fact, appears to be the sticking point, that in themselves the meters signify so little. It seems a mistake for a rationalist defender of the meters to insist on too much meaningfulness. Let us concede that the effects of the meters are mysterious, from moment to moment imprecise, often enough uncertain or ambiguous. Like Coleridge's incense or wine, however, their presence may "act powerfully, though themselves unnoticed." To which he adds an interesting comparison to yeast—"worthless," as he says, "or disagreeable by itself, but giving vivacity and spirit to the liquor" in right combination. Meters do accompany the sense, like a kind of percussion only, mostly noise. Over and above syntax, they bind the individual words together, and the larger structural parts as well, over and above whatever appearance of logic survives in the argument; as a result, the words and parts seem to cohere, more perhaps than in plain fact may be the case. How they assist the recollection is by fixing it in permanent, or would-be permanent, form. This, for the poet, may be the large and rather sentimental purpose which gives force to all their various combining and intersecting functions.
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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 realize that would be ambiguous. I meant "approximately." After so long it's difficult to know exactly when you wrote something. I didn't want to say the poems were arranged in chronological order because I couldn't be quite sure of that. But as well as I could reconstruct the history of it these are in order. In some cases I'm positive of the sequence because it meant something to me at the time.
Do you keep notebooks and dated papers?
I do now but I didn't in the past. I've become more compulsive instead of less. In quite a few cases I can remember where or when I wrote a certain poem. One poem I remember writing on Memorial Day, 1954. We were supposed to go to a couple of parties and I kept saying, "Let's wait until I finish this, it won't be long now." It took me all day and well into the night, so we didn't make the parties.
You can probably remember when you wrote a poem more easily than many other things.
Perhaps. But I do generally remember where and when I saw movies, for instance, and I can remember where I read most novels. I read Madame Bovary in the railroad station in Portland, Maine.
Sometimes you have remembered very precisely, as with, for example, the poem "Fragment: To a Mirror," which has two dates, '63-'72. Was that one you returned to and finished?
Yes. I had started it in 1963. I keep notes while working on poems—phrases, lines, passages, perhaps only words—if anything at all seems promising in the project. I had gone back to the notes for this one more than once to try to make something out of them. And finally, when preparing Departures, I just decided I would do what I could with those old notes, and if I couldn't do anything I'd throw them away. They'd been around long enough. I left out a great deal of the ambitious scaffolding for the poem but did get it whittled down to what I could accept.
When you say you keep notes …
I mean all the paper that has been written or scribbled on while working out the poem.
I had a remarkable experience once. I was working on a poem that wasn't going anywhere, but once in a while you can rescue something from the wreckage of the notes. I'd been fiddling with this particular poem off and on for two or three years, and one night I made a little progress. So when I was free to work on it again, three or four nights later, I looked around for the notes containing those small advances. I couldn't find them. I'd spent thirty minutes looking for them, I guess, when I gave up and decided to start back at the point I'd started before. I worked perhaps till midnight and again made a little progress. Well, the next time I came to work on the poem, I found both sets of notes and they were almost identical, almost word for word, including scratchings out. "Oh," I thought, "I'm really doing marvellously well on this poem; I must have found what has to be done." I have a sort of Platonic notion that somewhere ideally exists the poem I'm trying to write, if only I can find it, and here I had this excellent testimony, a sign that I was on the right track. As it happens, I finished the poem and it wasn't very good. I published it, but it's not in Selected Poems. I had been mistaken, you know; the signs were wrong. Very disappointing, considering all the work I put into it, and the sign.
I picture lots of papers around, in cardboard boxes and desk drawers.
Boxes, and now I have a fine filing cabinet that I've been picking through in preparation for going away for the year. Yes, it has a lot of stuff in it. And I've thrown things away as well.
One of the things you have to do now is decide which poems to take along.
Yes, that's right, and that was interesting. I'm taking five poems and four plays. Plays are what I want to try to work on this year, but I have a few poems too that I haven't quite finished.
Are any of these poems of Tremayne? We've seen three of those, two in Selected Poems and another in The New Yorker. They suggest a series.
That most recent Tremayne poem is one that was left over from Selected Poems; I hadn't been able to finish it. There was meant to be a group of four poems, and two of them simply weren't finished in time for the book. In a fourth Tremayne poem, still not done, I have, maybe, twenty versions of the last stanza, and I'm not satisfied. I'd like to get it out of the way. I've spent more than enough time on it already and probably should settle for one of the versions I have, but I know there is something better.
What I seem to have been doing this year is simply trying to finish whatever I could not finish before. Actually that seems to be the condition I'm often in, and not just after a book. There always seem to be notes and bits of things and fragments lying around and I keep trying to complete them, put them together. It's a little bit like—I don't know whether you have this compulsion or not—trying to make the meat and the bread come out together. If you don't, you have to take a little bit more of one or the other. Well, there always seem to be notes spilling over from poems just finished. An endless process, thank goodness.
When did you know the Tremayne poems were going to be a series of four?
Early. Four happens to be one of those literary numbers, like three or nine. I noticed that in the first couple of Tremaynes, seasons were mentioned. And I thought, "Ah ha, one for each season." Someone with the predictable sense of design I have is always looking for ways to make things go together, and a set of seasons adding up to four would make the kind of obvious sense that appeals to me. It turned out that the third one didn't have anything to do with a season; nevertheless that was part of the idea.
It spoke of seasons of the day: "And something starts all over, call it day."
Right but … the last one, what I think will be the last one—I don't know, if I enjoy doing them and have another workable idea I wouldn't necessarily keep to my own rule—but the fourth and last one I intend to write is about autumn.
I'm curious about your decision when putting together Selected Poems to move to chronological order as opposed to whatever were the ordering principles of the other volumes. What guided that shift?
I'm not sure. I know I had organized my other books by considering two factors: subject or theme, and form or type or genre. In the first book, for instance, I put all the sestina-like poems together. In another part I put together a number of poems dealing with madness. That at least was my principle. But in combining three books and the uncollected poems I found myself backtracking again and again to some of the same topics, and I didn't think it would make very good sense to put all the poems on childhood together, say, dating from the early fifties to the late seventies. And I didn't want to put all the rhymed poems together, or all the syllabics together. It seemed wrong somehow. So, it occurred to me that others had arranged their selections in chronological order, and I had really been interested in seeing history unfold itself, so to speak, in their work. I tried it and it seemed to make good sense, even perhaps to reveal something. I have had letters from friends saying that they hadn't seen so clearly before how the books seemed to follow from one another, or how all of them seemed more of a piece than they had supposed. If that's the impression, good; I was lucky to have chosen a chronological order.
That choice touches on your fascination with memory; it allows us to see the book itself as a kind of chronology, less of your life than of your memory.
Yes, I hadn't thought of that and I would be happy if that were true. It may be.
It would seem that one of the ways that you could tamper with things if you're going to make a chronological order is by omission. You could heighten a connection or a sense of thematic closeness by leaving something out.
I didn't leave things out for that reason. I left things out because I didn't like them any longer. They had failed to achieve their intention or were written in a style I had become unwilling to acknowledge as mine.
Obviously that must be true, but it did strike us that the other kind of tinkering could be hovering on the margins of things. To leave the "ABC" poem out of Departures, for example, allowed you to put "Fragment" first, which emphasizes a very different theme in that book.
Not intentionally. "ABC" was much influenced by Continental poetry, particularly French. Postwar French poets seemed to have, as I read them, one dominant theme, which was poetry itself. I read a fair amount of the poetry from that period, translated some of it, and became hung up on the theme myself. "ABC" is in part a product of that. But it came to seem to me not a theme I wanted much to do with after all. I was grandiloquent in that poem, I thought, and I didn't like that. I left out at least one other poem on the art of poetry, a poem from my first book, entitled "Thus." It was a nice exercise in a way, but it didn't really represent the way I fell about the case. I still have some left-over notes for "ABC" around, I think, because that was a poem that took a great many pages to write. Some of the metaphors I generated by whatever means I was using—I was using a variety of means—were unbelievable. At least I couldn't believe in them.
"Variety of means," could you itemize?
Well, one of the things I was doing at the time was using my all too notorious cards.
Yes. And another thing I was doing—I don't know how to describe this method, if it's a method, and yet it's something others have done too—was conscientiously to mistranslate. I don't know quite how to explain what you do, but you might say that you worry more about getting it interesting than about getting it right. If a word in French suggests a word you like, you're quite willing to use it even though it's not what the French means. It's a way of displacing the mental attention, which I think is often fruitful in composition. If you can look not straight at the object, but from an angle, you see it differently. I had a student in California, a very talented student, who claimed he had nothing to write about. And I asked if he knew French. He did. "Well," I said, "do you know Spanish?" He did not. And I suggested he get a book of poems in Spanish, the language he did not know, and translate them. That afternoon he wrote twenty or so poems, and perhaps seven or eight of them were beautiful—I've never seen the method work so well for anybody else. I don't think he uses it any more, but it was like a small revelation, that once. I think it might work for anybody, on a lucky afternoon.
That suggests something about faith in the riches of the mind, doesn't it?
Yes, you have to have something—a certain character, say—to bring to whatever method or process you're using and you have to have a certain facility, but if you've got those you don't have to write directly about whatever may seem to be deepest in your soul. Whatever that is, if it is strong and true, will come out anyway.
Can you think of times when you tried to write directly about what you thought was deepest in your soul?
I cannot remember a time when I tried that, I'm sorry to say. Not certainly since adolescence.
We were wondering about changes in Selected Poems. Not only were the poems reordered, several were revised. In "The Confession," the first stanza now reads, "You have no name, intimate crime; / There is nothing to whisper. / You have fled across many pillows, / But you leave nothing behind." Originally it was, "You have no name, intimate crime, / Into which I might plunge my hand. / Your knives have entered many pillows, / But you leave nothing behind."
I found those two images somewhat melodramatic—maybe they were appropriate to the crime itself—but I felt they were mannered in a popularly surreal sense. I wanted to make them quieter while keeping the same argument. Also one or two people who had taken the trouble to speak of that stanza had been slightly confused by the images. I didn't think they were unclear or I wouldn't have written them in the first place, and I might have been willing to simplify in the interest of clarity alone if I had not been even more strongly motivated by this desire to cut down on the melodrama and the manneristic surrealism of the images. I myself think the surreal image is most powerful when it is rooted in the real.
Another revision I wanted to ask you about was "Sonatina in Yellow," a poem I'm very fond of.
What did I change, the end?
Right. Originally it was, "Repeat it now, no one was listening. / Repeat it, the air, the variations."
Why did you remove the line, "Repeat it, the air, the variations"?
Well, I always had had trouble with what I think of as the coda of this poem, the last little paragraph. Now what it should do, I felt from the start, was repeat or take up again motives, or motifs even, to speak of the question musically, from what had gone before. Now the "air" is a pun on the dead air of summer mentioned earlier in the poem and also on a musical air. That much is obvious. The "variations" would have to do with musical form as well—also of course with the verbal variations on the phrases and as a consequence on the themes that appear earlier in the poem. In that sense it fitted in the coda, but it seemed to me that it slowed things down a good deal. It was in there merely for a sort of formal reason. It was doing its job. And I wanted whatever I had in there at the end to be doing more than its job. I'm glad you like the poem, because I like it too, but I'm worried about some of its features. Particularly there at the end. When I first sent in the text for the book, the "Repeat it now" line was also gone. Finally I thought I needed one "repeat" line but not two. Who knows? Listen, the first time I finished this poem, there were crows flying around through several of the stanzas.
And you got all the crows out.
And kept them out.
It seems like a willful thing to do, putting crows in a sonatina in yellow.
Well, the poem is in a way about death, and they seemed to me, with their blackness, to associate very well with that. Also their harsh music. But they were too symbolical really.
One of the things I was wondering about taking south with me was the notes on this poem. I haven't given up on this. It has a prose commentary intended to accompany the verse text which I haven't shown to anybody. Still, I decided finally to leave all this behind in the filing cabinet. I didn't want to get hung up on that again. I've spent a lot of time on this poem and on the other sonatina and on a couple of others I haven't published. But one day I may get it right, in which case it will have a prose commentary, and that prose commentary will describe a descent into the underworld, a legendary sort of descent. Because that is implied in this poem. The prose commentary will bring out undertones and make them much stronger perhaps. All speculative, of course.
So when you come to offering a prose commentary as in "Childhood," the last poem in the volume, that's not something that you've just happened upon.
It's an idea I've wanted to put to work for a long time. Once the notion of a prose commentary enters your head, it's hard to get it out. You'd like not only to write the poems but to write the commentary, you know; don't leave that up to the others, who're likely to get it wrong anyhow.
Do you have models in mind for that kind of writing?
Coleridge, Hart Crane. But I wasn't able to do it as they did it. I wanted to write elevated, mystical, highly charged prose. I just couldn't screw my courage up to that—or my style, more likely.
Prose that would be more rhetorical than the poetry?
And that would serve as some sort of ironic counterpoint to the poetry?
Yes, in the commentaries on the sonatinas which I have, but which I haven't been able to get right, that is indeed the case. I was reading some of The Bridge marginalia yesterday and it's a prose much more as I would want it, you know, nicely florid and elevated.
And yet I have to acknowledge that one of the afflictions of American verse at present is the prose poem, and one reason it is an affliction instead of a salvation is that poets allow themselves all sorts of licenses regarding rhetoric, elevation, diction, and foolish ideas that they wouldn't think of allowing themselves in their so-called verse. I've been saying to my students in the last few years. "Your prose has got to be at least as well-written as your poetry," because most of them really do write their poems more conscientiously than they do their prose. Maybe we've come to another historical moment.
You've expressed a conviction that there really is no such thing as organic meters, that you can't imitate the sea, breathing, the heartbeat.
I do think that. I may be wrong, but that is a conviction.
You also believe that music is the one art that does not have as its motive memory.
So far as I can experience the arts that is true.
Given these two convictions, I'm surprised that I find music entering your poetry at the moments of most intense memory.
I knew you were working up to some sort of paradox.
In "Memory of a Porch," "I heard / The thing begin / A thin, skeletal music," or in "Absences," "Like the memory of scales descending the white keys." The sonatinas themselves, especially the "Sonatina in Yellow," are intense poems of memory, I think, and your sonatina form apparently tries to imitate music in language.
I think I can account superficially for what you're pointing out, which I hadn't noticed before. I think it may be because my own memory happens to be rich in memories of music. I have felt very strongly about music at times. So recollections of music come back to me naturally enough sometimes when emotion approaches. I mean quite naturally out of experience, rather than from any theory, involving hierarchies or distinctions among the arts.
What about the sonatina form then?
The sonatina form is really very simple. I'd wanted to try a quasi-musical form and the simplest of all among the classical possibilities, it seemed, would be the precursor of the sonata form, the sonatina, in which you only really had to have two parts, two themes. I didn't want to get into a complicated sonata-allegro, even if it could be done. I certainly didn't want to get into any sort of complicated set of quasi-musical forms such as you find in the "Four Quartets," or think you have found after reading the criticism. It seemed to me that you might wish to start modestly. The sonatina is a modest classical form which involves an A part and a B part. It involves saying A again and saying B again in a key different from the one it was said in the first time around.
The only thing I had to find was an A thing to say and a B thing to say, and—which was trickier—a way to change the key of B. The form also allows a little freedom; you can either say A B A B or you can say A B B A or you can say A plus transition plus B, you know, or you can put a coda or several codas at the end. There's little flexibility, a little give. I tried to find a change of key, a modulation, which would be linguistic or grammatical rather than musical. So I worked all these schemes out in advance of writing the poem; that was part of the pleasure of the whole business for me at the time. And it seemed to me that one of the ways of modulating, grammatically, would be to change the tense; another might be to change the person. I've forgotten now, but I worked out four or five of these; I guess one was to change from interrogation to declaration. But then I felt it really wasn't literarily interesting just to repeat A if there were more than two or three lines to it; so I modified A, which also happens in the musical form, at least as it moves toward the sonata-allegro form—you get into development sections.
It becomes analogous to your way of using translation as a mode of invention, not just in fidelity to the original text.
Yes, that's true; to think about something else allowed me to write about what I was interested in, but indirectly, from an angle. I hadn't meant when I started "Sonatina in Yellow" to write about my father. But I did have as a general idea in all the sonatinas the mythic or legendary theme of descending into the underworld, and once I began mentally or spiritually or esthetically to descend into the underworld I found my father.
Had he been dead then for some time?
For thirteen years. But I hadn't written any poems about him. So I need not have been surprised to find him there.
Are musical forms generally available to you?
Not so much what I would call forms—but yes, vaguely musical possibilities, though I think "musical" as a critical term referring to effects of sound in poetry is much overused, abused even. I am interested in the musical sounding of the words in some poems, and in a few places I have gone to some trouble to make these sounds linguistically rich; but I haven't loaded up the sonatinas in this way. They're probably a little more musical in this primitive fashion, that is, in the mere sounding of their words, than most of what I would write, but it's the structure of the music that I was interested in imitating, not otherwise the sound. I would be interested in trying to write something in another musical form sometime. I've tried the blues but that's even simpler.
You did that in the "uncollected" section of Selected Poems.
I was using up what I knew about the blues in the two I included in the book and in four or five others I wrote at the same time but didn't publish. I may publish three or four more sometime, but …
So you have more blues songs around.
Oh yes, but by now I've almost forgotten which lines come from traditional blues and which ones I've invented. I know they don't sound like Mississippi Delta blues, for instance, but then I didn't want them to, I'm not from the Mississippi Delta. I wanted them to be a sort of "literary blues."
The blues lend themselves more to poetry because they have words built into them.
Yes, that's quite right.
And the sonatina is a much more abstract form.
Absolutely, but I do believe poetry is capable of being structured in terms that can be described abstractly. There may be half a dozen schools of theory which can't entertain that notion, but not to do so is an historical and esthetic blindness both. Obviously there is room for abstract structure in any esthetic design. There may be no necessity for it, but there is room for it.
But in the case of the sonatina you had some sense of that abstract structure when you began, while in other cases you may discover the structure along the way.
Actually I discovered the sonatina along the way too because although I knew what a musical sonatina was and I'd played many sonatinas on the piano, I didn't know what a sonatina in poetry would be until I had tried to write one. I don't think it turned out to be what I might ideally have imagined a literary sonatina to be, but it's similar. It's as close as I've been able to get, and I think it's as close as anybody's been able to get to a musical form in poetry—musical form, that is, so far as the structural outline goes.
The synesthesia in the titles mixes an aural form with a visual image; why did you add color to the musical structure?
Several reasons, but one was simply to emphasize the abstraction because the colors, musically speaking, must seem abstract. Actually in the text of the poems, there's very little reference to the color; it's background. There would be more reference to color in the prose commentary, but at least once in each of the poems, I think maybe only once, there's a reference to it. Yellow seemed to me eventually to associate with decay. And green with freshness. Not very original associations. The simple practical reason for the titles, however, was that I had bought in the university bookstore a four-color notebook to start writing the poems in, and one of the four colors was green and one was yellow, one was blue and one was pink. Pink was very hard; blue I almost managed, but not pink.
Is a "Sonatina in Blue" one of the sets of notes you're taking along?
No, I decided not to take it. I've given up on blue.
Are those five poems you're taking along new or old poems?
One goes back to the fall of '74, the one I'm most serious about, but it's very hard and may end up rather long. It's in several parts and I've finished maybe two parts of it, or three. I don't know what will eventually become of it, but I must finish it. And the Tremayne poem I'm still working at I started in the fall of '77. That happened to be dated. All of these are failures, you might say, up to this point. They're poems I haven't been able to get right but that I have had some hopes for.
The same with the plays. One of the plays I started in 1964 and I think the beginning of it is really very good, but it's hard to go on with.
Will the plays be easier to complete than the poems?
No, I don't think so. I know more about writing poems than I do about writing plays, so the poems really are easier.
Can you tell us something about the plays?
I don't think I should spoil them by talking too much about them. But I can say that one of them has to do with Lorca. One of the things I've done so far is to translate some Lorca poems not just into American but into what I think of as a sort of California language of the future. Not of the distant future, but if something like the death of Lorca were to occur in America, California would be the most likely place, wouldn't it? But that's enough on that, I think.
Another play you've been working on is an updating of The Tempest, isn't it?
Is part of your updating that it's no longer verse drama at all?
What I've written of it is definitely not verse, it's prose. The updating amounted to a complete rethinking. The Tempest was going to be a king of ideal model in the back of my mind which perhaps no one would ever think of in seeing the play. In the first version—it has now been changed a little—Caliban was going to be the second son of the Prospero character, and was going to be an auto mechanic by occupation and an amateur of the viola da gamba. It really should be Ariel, I guess, who plays this instrument, but I thought Caliban, who speaks so beautifully in the play—"This isle is full of noises"—ought to have it. Well, you know, I was just amusing myself by making false analogies.
Yes, yes, that's better.
You do that all the time.
Well, yes, perhaps so. I don't know whether I'll be able to write these two plays or not but I'm going to try.
You mentioned four plays.
The other two are short, and whether anything will come of them or not I don't know. One is called "Faust: A Skit"—a farce, partly in verse. The other is called "The Whistler" and is about anti-Semitism.
These are subjects you would not feel like dealing with in poems?
I suppose not. Anti-Semitism, for instance. I don't know quite why, but early in life I was probably too much influenced by Poe's theory of poetry. Poems were not to be didactic, for example. I no longer think that's true, but I must have been affected by it.
I think poetry ought to be capable of dealing with anything. I mean, I do basically believe that. On the other hand, for me, it's very difficult to write a poem about something I could write an essay on.
Maybe it's because in something like anti-Semitism there aren't many permissible views.
Well, the forbidden view has lately begun to become more and more permissible, apparently. Your point is a good one, but I think the unthinkable is becoming acceptable again, and I find that tragic, alter the experience of the thirties and forties. This week I've been reading newspapers from the thirties because my wife happened to buy some from an antique dealer a few years ago. They're fascinating. One of the stories that keeps cropping up, on the front page of course, concerns whatever the latest decree of the Nazi government may have been. These decrees are treated just like ordinary news stories. And I remember how horrible it became. And the theme comes around again these days; it begins to matter a lot. Even so, I can't see myself writing a poem directly about it.
Can we return once more to "Sonatina in Yellow"?
The epigraph is from Rilke. "Your quickly vanishing photograph in my more slowly vanishing hand." That strikes me as applicable to all your work.
I think it might be.
It's applicable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the reference to photographs. You've talked about poems at their best transmuting subjective experience into an object, and have said that that object at its best would be like a snapshot. It would be a memory captured that you could come back to and deal with because it's there now in an object.
I do believe that, yes.
The experience of many of your poems, for me, is the experience of reading a sensitive description of a snapshot or photograph, a photo that you care for greatly. I wonder how many of your poems actually are based on snapshots.
I don't think any of them are except the one I just finished, and even that wasn't a snapshot; it was a photograph by Walker Evans, a scene in Alabama in the thirties. I do carry around a packet of photographs of my parents and of houses we used to live in and that sort of thing. I've never been able to use them. You might say they have become for me a sort of talisman. I keep thinking they will fructify. But I don't think any poems I've written except this new one, are based on photographs. What they are based on, some of them, is memories of the way something looked at a certain time.
It's as if you were doing a photograph mentally, taking your own snapshot.
Yes, that's right.
So making the poem, then, is more like making a photograph than like describing one?
In "Memories of the Depression Years" there are three memories, at three-year intervals, and those are the snapshot-like moments that stand out?
Yes, that's right.
Are there more that you're working on?
I certainly meant to write an endless series, but those were the only three I've managed to finish. I have no other notes on hand. I do mean to remain alert to the possibility of doing others that would fit into such a series, but I haven't got any.
Now that you've written a poem describing the Walker Evans photograph, what's the difference between writing that poem and creating the "photograph" or "snapshot" out of your memory?
I felt more limited in this case. I didn't want to depart from the facts of the photograph, which anybody else could look at too, and check up on. So I think the poem will seem esthetically cooler. I like to think that many of my poems seem objective and well-distanced, but I think this poem may be even more so. I was interested in it as practice, and indeed I've tried to write others; but I haven't been able to, and I've just about given up on the idea. I wanted to see what the answer would be to the question you just put to me, I think. I did not put as much of myself into it, and my own experience, though the scene was the kind of scene I recall from childhood.
I was going to ask what attracted you to the photograph. It was not a purely esthetic attraction.
No, it wasn't; it made a connection with my own life and the life of my relatives in the South in the thirties. I would like to be able to say, and it would be partly true, that it was like a photograph made of a long-ago part of my life.
This was a farm family?
No, it's a photograph sometimes identified as "Mule Team and Poster." It depicts a brick wall of what appears to be a warehouse. It's in Alabama in 1936, but I don't think it's in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It's just one of the Farm Security Administration photographs; it depicts a brick wall of what appears to be a warehouse in front of which a couple of mules are standing, munching com shucks on the arid looking earth, and there's a poster of a Silas Green traveling show peeling from the wall. It's really quite beautiful, and I'm sure that one of my interests in it, one of the secrets of its appeal to me, was that the manifest content of the photograph was ugly and unpleasant—and I myself knew that ugliness and unpleasantness because I had been in Alabama in 1936, and in the summertime, and it really was like a photograph of something I could almost remember. My father was from Alabama, farther south than where this photograph was made, and we used to visit our relatives over there, poor farmers and store clerks and so on. There seemed to be a lot of this sort of thing—brick walls and mules standing in front of them, and posters advertising movies of traveling shows. Out of this very unattractive but quite sympathetic scene, an arrangement of great beauty, I thought, and evident art had come forth, through Evans. Art having occurred, I wanted to try to multiply that art.
And then, last week I spent trying to describe another Evans photograph and wasn't able to.
What do you mean? That you found that what you thought to say about it just doesn't interest you once it's said?
In part, I simply was not able to see enough in the photograph to make saying so much worthwhile. The words were not paying off with a high enough quotient of what Aristotle would have called "thought"—what I call "perception." So it just wasn't worth it. I could describe the thing perfectly well, in a somewhat heavy style, as luck would have it, but once I'd done that, it didn't make any difference. It didn't make enough difference. With the first of Evans' photographs I judged, maybe wrongly, that I had seen enough in it to make the saying count.
Had your father grown up on a farm in Alabama?
Yes, he had been born in southern Alabama and then as a youth he moved over to a part of Georgia adjoining Alabama and which looked just like it as far as I could tell. This was a part of my summers growing up, not a part I really liked.
Are you aware much of generations beyond, say, your grandfather?
Not much beyond great-grandfathers, no. I can't account for it, perhaps because we were always poor, but on neither side of my family do recollections go back beyond what would be my great-grandparents—except for a story about a woman ancestor on my father's side who became a stowaway to North Carolina supposedly because she had committed some technical offense against a king or a king's property, a king's forest perhaps. Maybe she poached. But those stones grow to be a little like myths; you don't know how much to credit them. And there aren't many such stories in my family, unhappily. I wish there were.
Have you always been fascinated with family albums and looking at pictures?
I didn't know that I was, but I was; my mother was, and she thrust them upon me from the start.
When you were working on the Evans photograph, did you think of Williams' Pictures from Brueghel?
Absolutely. It would be awfully hard not to. I once tried writing a series of poems on Hopper paintings and they sounded like Williams' Brueghel poems, but defective somehow. Yes, the Williams poems are very powerful; it would be hard to resist them. But I tried to, not quite successfully.
It's interesting that your memory leads to repositories of lore like family albums or the attic (as in "In the Attic" and "Fragments") whereas the more popular American metaphor for examining the past is digging in earth. Archaeological excavations, roots, seem more the clichés of our time.
I hadn't thought of that. I don't know what that means. If you grew up in South Florida as I did, houses had no attics. Or very few houses had attics. If you went to visit a relative somewhat farther north there might be an attic, and you might go up into it. It would have been a privileged place—a repository of the really rather distant past, you know, of strange, exciting objects. Many children must have felt that. I don't think the attic fails to be a kind of cliché too, for a place the past has been left in. Roots may be a more active and dramatic metaphor, but I hadn't thought of the contrast.
The attic is the image of the family past.
As opposed to roots and the archaeological past, the tribal past.
Right, and what I write about, I guess, is narrower than archaeology, tribes, and all that. What I can think about seems more limited.
It's personally associated memory rather than historically or pre-historically associated memory.
I couldn't write about bog men, for example, like Heaney. I just can't imagine bog men.
But he lives around bogs.
All right, and I don't so I mustn't write about bog men.
But we could conceivably write about the Hopewell or the Effigy Mound Builders.
If we'd taken part in the digging, perhaps.
There's another kind of memory alive in your poems, that being the memory of a spacious poetic past. In "Ladies by their Windows," which opens Selected Poems, you write, "It is the lurch and slur the world makes, turning. / It is the sound of turning, of a wheel / Or hand-cranked grinder turning." I hear an echo from Conrad Aiken's "Sound of Breaking," where he says "It is a sound of breaking, / The world is breaking, the world is a sound of breaking." There are frequent echoes of this kind in your poems. Did you intend this one?
I was aware when writing it of that one and yet in all the years since no one, till now, has ever mentioned the Aiken poem to me. I'm pleased that you know it. Yes. I discovered that poem when I was about fifteen, I think, at least I remember the summer, reading it on my grandfather's porch. I've always liked it, and I was not sorry to echo it if it could be done gracefully.
Do you find Aiken helpful in other ways?
No, I'm afraid not.
I ask because as I was looking up that poem to hear exactly the lines I was hearing in your poem …
It was the sound that I was after, the sound.
I came across "Senlin."
That was a poem I knew, definitely.
I was fascinated because when I read the Tremayne poems again after reading "Senlin," I thought of them as similar types of character.
Maybe as types of character, but I would think the Tremayne poems had more in common with Robinson or perhaps Hardy than with Aiken. Aiken is smoother, the edges are more shorn off. Maybe I'm wrong, but the poems of his that I remember from the period I liked most in him impressed me with their beautiful smoothness. I was unable to write smoothly then. It realty is easy once you get the knack of it, but when you don't have that knack, smoothness may come to seem like an overpowering virtue.
Also, when I was young, I was interested in writing very elaborate syntax. Some of the poets I liked a lot were interesting in part because of their syntax. Yeats sometimes has a very elaborate syntax. And I wanted to try that. Even Williams, though he looks simple, has a very elaborate syntax, and this challenged me. But then at some point comes the desire to purify, to simplify, and that has, you know, begun to appeal to me more and more.
One of the things that interests me syntactically now is the use of fragments, as in the last line of "Thinking about the Past," which goes "Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs …" I don't know that anybody else likes or ought to like that, but I like the line myself and in part because it's just like little bits of consciousness floating up. Touches of a brush, say. It seems to me that fragments sometimes can have that effect. The first time I recall really liking fragments myself and seeing more powerful possibilities in them was in reading Alberti, who uses fragments beautifully, dramatically. Ever since I've tried to do something with them. Of course I don't at all mean the notational style you see frequently, ever since the Imagists at least, and not only in amateur verses—as if to suppress a verb were to write a line.
Whether we're talking about elaborate or simplified syntax, or about fragments for that matter, we're talking about kinds of technical proficiency.
Yes, there are properties which, I think, belong unarguably to poetry, and one of them is technical virtue. I don't know how else to put that, but without it poetry dies. I think, on the other hand, poetry can live on the strength of technical virtue alone, but it only lives a sort of half life then, like much of Aiken, which I regard as quite beautiful but not whole. When you write, you have to be willing to settle for that, I think, but what you really desire is something whole; large, even. Aiken wanted that too, I'm sure, it's just that he was probably best when he concentrated on lesser goals. A number of poets have been best when they weren't trying too hard.
Poetry at its best, is fulfilling its nature most entirely, when it has a great mastery of form, or technique, and shows considerable, though perhaps a hidden or disguised interest in its own formal or technical character. Otherwise it might as well be prose. I love prose, and it really might as well be prose. Now once it has this, it is of course much better if what is said proves interesting and intelligent and intelligible and true and perceptive and has all those virtues one would expect even of expository prose. And of course it becomes even better if the themes it deals with are grand. A seven-line poem ought to be better than a six-line poem, all other things being equal, simply because it contains more. But all those things are not equal, and what is basic and absolutely necessary is formal and technical character; otherwise the poem will be forgotten eventually, or remembered only for something like the personality or history of the poet, or the fact that he may have been the first or the loudest to deal with a certain topic, or something of that sort. Well, that is of a certain interest, too. I don't wish to deny it. But for the art of poetry itself, basic is some formal or technical interest. That does not mean that anyone can or should prescribe the nature of that formal or technical interest in advance of the occasion. That always remains to be defined, or ought always to remain to be defined, for the various occasions, and by the age. But I think it is absolutely essential.
Many poets today would say that memory seeks out its own meter, but in a very real way, with you, meter seeks out memory, right?
Well, I'm willing to go with that version, though it seems an extreme way of putting it.
It's an extreme reversal, but you've talked about meter as a kind of substantiation of your poetry, even as a "fixative" of memory.
If you're working in meter in the first place—you don't have to work in meters, in the kind of meters I'm thinking of—but if you are, then to get it wrong proves to you that you haven't even, as I would suggest, remembered it right. If you commit yourself, if you give yourself over to the meters, they have to be right. If you don't, well, that's a different story.
If we think less of meters than of form, much the same thing applies. In "Sonatina in Yellow," you hadn't been seeking out a way to talk about your father in a particular form, but the form you devised gave you the memory of your father.
In a sense that's true, yes. It is a false notion, I am sure, to propose that poetry comes only from subject, is never more than an extension of content, as one might say. Poetry comes from anywhere, and the subject is certainly a major source, probably the major source. If you have something you care a lot about, then you may well write a poem about it, may indeed be driven to do so. But it can come from elsewhere—just as a composition in music may come from merely fooling around. Or from thinking: This time I'll try D minor; or, I like what Handel wrote just there, I think I'll try some variations on it. It comes from anywhere, and as far as I'm concerned, there should be no hierarchy of values in the consideration of this. What matters is the result, not the source, the origin, or the theory.
Your history so far seems to suggest a particular interest in seeking conscious deflections from established forms. I'd see that interest in deflection as central, as you say, to the "formal or technical character" of your work.
I would like to think so.
In "Variation for Two Pianos," for example, were you thinking of the villanelle when you started the poem?
And simultaneously thinking of not doing the villanelle.
Yes, exactly. The villanelle is practically impossible, at least in English, and I don't know of any villanelle that doesn't have at least one waste stanza in it. There seems to me no obligation to carry on with a proper villanelle when it may mean including one or two stanzas less good than the others. So you may end up with a quasi-or pseudo-villanelle if you're going to do one, unless you happen to be very lucky and get the whole thing. A double villanelle, even. I can imagine that, but it would be hard to find.
What do you mean by "get" and "find"?
"Find" may be the better word for it. I mean something like going on a voyage of discovery in the old days, or prospecting, digging for precious metals.
The sestinas are another example; they avoid the usual sestina metrics.
When I was writing those sestinas, I think all the sestinas that had been written in English before, all that I had read anyway, were in iambic pentameter—or at least in what I would call a casual pentameter, one in which the line might get a little longer or a little shorter, as in Pound's or the two by Kees. But I consciously shortened the lines; I varied the length of the lines. Nowadays anybody may do that. The Katmandu sestina has a small place in the history of the form, I think.
I want to get to your "Odes" in a moment but by way of "Elsewheres." That seems to be a more sophisticated deflection. "North," "South," "Waiting Room," that's not …
It should be the Midwest, say, or the middle of something anyway, right?
You mentioned the checkered fields of the Midwest in that, but that was another attempt, I take it, not to be satisfied with the symmetry you would expect—North and South—but to get outside of it.
In addition to specific deflected forms, groups of your poems sometimes deny expectations of patterns. In the gathering of three odes, for example, the "Cool Dark Ode" addresses night and suggests winter night: the "Warm Flesh-Colored Ode" suggests late summer. But what does the "Pale Tepid Ode" suggest? You set up a pattern, then jump track.
Well, on the other hand, it keeps to the track because you have "Cool Dark," "Warm Flesh-Colored" and what's left? Not much.
You reverse the placement of the adjectives—"Pale Tepid" rather than "Tepid Pale."
But that's the way it would be in speech probably; you wouldn't say "tepid pale." If you did it would be like the overcareful Joycean placement of adjectives before a noun. It's just something other than the two that come before it—what's left? That's the way I thought of it. Sort of the bleaching out of colors, of definition. I don't know how to put it, but it seemed to me altogether obvious that "Pale Tepid" followed from "Cool Dark" and "Warm Flesh-Colored." Just set yourself that problem. What pair of adjectives having to do with color and temperature could possibly come next?
Well, given cool and warm, you'd have to say something like …
Lukewarm anyway, or pale, or tepid, or …
Sure, but that's not my style.
I'm fascinated that you say it seemed perfectly natural that that would be the completion. I think it's not perfectly natural to most people.
All right, okay, but I'm asking, well, "terribly hot," yes, all right. But what color? After dark and flesh-colored. If you had to have a third.
Well, "flesh-colored" seems mild. I might think of something harsh, say, "dazzling."
"Dazzling" might be good. I may write a fourth, "Hot Dazzling Ode."
If you do, you owe that one to us.
I do indeed. But look, one reason I like series and groups is because once you have a couple of poems connecting somewhere or associating in some way, another may be produced simply by thinking: What would be related, what would come out of, or what would connect with that? Anybody becomes inventive thinking along those lines.
I'm thinking of a pattern suggested by "Unflushed Urinals" and "Sunday Afternoon in Buffalo, Texas."
I consider the Walker Evans poem I spoke of as a third along those lines. They're American scenes, and I really feel I should take a couple more bus trips and see what turns up.
It has to be by bus?
Well, it seems so. The bus still shows you the America of the past. Plane rides, in this respect, don't seem to turn up anything. One of the great experiences of my married life was to take the bus from Albemarle, North Carolina to Palo Alto, California years ago. It was an awful and wonderful experience. Four nights and three days, or three nights and four days; I've forgotten which. And we'll never forget that trip.
Speaking of things American, do you see an American tradition that has influenced your own work, an American tradition in poetry that you look back toward?
I can say whom and what I like, that's about all. In America there is not just one line of evolution, one stream, despite the propaganda. As for American poets of the nineteenth century, I like Emerson; I think he's a good poet, and I like some of Melville's poems. I like Emily Dickinson very much; I think she's a very great poet. I like Trumbull Stickney; Tuckerman. And I respect Whitman, without having the kind of affection for him many people seem to have. The twentieth century begins for me with Edwin Arlington Robinson. And in this century the best poets seem so different from one another that any attempt to define an American tradition ought to involve some strong sense of the variety and the diversity and the going off in all directions. Emerson does not necessarily end up in James Dickey.
Hart Crane is a master, yes, in a few lines anyway. Such beauty as I hope not to be forgotten.
Early Pound anyway, yes, a master. Thereafter, I don't know. Thereafter I think he became victimized, as far as I can tell, by ideas. As Emerson might have put it, "Ideas are in the saddle and ride mankind." When that happens with poetry, something goes wrong, I believe, and I believe that happened to Pound. I know that not everyone thinks so, in fact most people probably don't. But just reading him for pleasure and the power of invention or recovery, for the beauty of sound and the shapeliness of his expression, the early poems seem certainly very fine—Personae, including of course Cathay.
Which of the American poets do you find yourself returning to and reading most?
Williams would be among them, certainly. Williams is so inventive, and he does hold up. Stevens of course is another. Eliot remains for me a great model of seriousness. His ideas are another matter, but … Well, let's see, Robinson I read frequently with pleasure, and Emily Dickinson. I shouldn't forget Frost, for years my favorite. Those are, I think, the main ones.
Do you subscribe to the separation of the Dickinson and Whitman traditions?
If it's forced upon me, I do. If there were an election in November, I'd go with Dickinson, the one with the more modest scope.
I sometimes hear Dickinson off-rhymes in your poetry.
Maybe so; I think off-rhymes can be very nice, but they may have come as much from incapacity as from remembering Dickinson.
Ransom, Tate, Warren?
Yes, I haven't gone back and read them lately, but they certainly were a formative influence. I wrote my master's thesis on them, and in a way I've always known their work. Ransom is a favorite.
You mentioned once that the first poet of note that you heard read was Robert Frost.
I don't think other poets were reading much in public then. I lived and went to school in Miami where he wintered in the early forties, and he would read at the university. He would say at the end of a reading, "Now what are your favorites, what would you like to hear?" That used to embarrass me. I was studying composition with a composer named Carl Ruggles. At one of those readings, maybe the very first one I went to, Ruggles—who also came down from New England to winter there and who knew Frost—called up one of his favorites and I felt terribly embarrassed for those two great men. It seemed to me, in my juvenile way, not sophisticated. Come to think of it, it still does.
What about the European poets? Obviously the French and Spanish poets.
Mainly them; I don't really read any foreign language with great ease, and certainly I don't speak any. Those are the two that I know best. I worked hard to get acquainted with some poetry in German, postwar poetry, but French and Spanish I feel a little more comfortable with.
Is Alberti the master in that group for you?
South American poets?
Oh yes, well, my favorite American poet in Spanish is a Mexican poet. Ramon López Velarde.
I don't know of him at all.
Paz calls him the father of Mexican poetry. He died about the time the First World War ended, at an early age, but I think he's a very great poet. H. R. Hays translated some of his poems during the Second World War, and he's been intermittently translated since, but there's never been collection of translations and there should be; he's very good.
Let's go back to the Anglo-American poets briefly. When you go back to Williams, which periods or volumes do you favor?
Well, there are two moments in his career that I particularly like. One is the Spring and All period, 1922 or thereabouts. The other is the Pictures from Brueghel period, postwar, indeed post-Paterson. For me those are the two most moving and instructive passages in his career. I like the historical book, In the American Grain, I like much of that very well indeed. The novels have not grabbed me; a few stories. I think he was a major figure in the twentieth century, perhaps in spite of himself.
With your interest in meter and measure, how do you react to Williams' emphasis on measure, on finding an American measure, and his attempts to break a Whitman line into three parts, to put the Whitman line into a proper measure, his creation of the variable foot, and so on?
Well, very simply and with great respect for Williams, it's this: that his theories about meter are interesting because he writes meters, not because he writes about meters. I think mat he writes, when he writes critically, too confusingly, too vaguely, which he does not do when he's writing poems.
The direct influence of Williams on your work would be seen in "American Sketches."
I was trying to perform a sort of homage to Williams there, but I wouldn't be surprised if I could show …
I would think in these snapshot-like pieces, too.
Maybe. What I think happens is that, say, X turns something up, but it really doesn't belong to him or her; it's something that's in the culture, and you are free to deal with it, to try your hand at it too, I think, without becoming an epigone. Now there have been epigones of Williams, but that's a different story.
You wouldn't be mistaken for one of those.
To tell the truth, I don't think that he would have liked me, but that doesn't matter.
He's the one of that generation you read the most.
If I'm looking to learn something, yes, and next to him Stevens. Stevens would be a close second. They are very different, even though they were friends of a sort.
I read her, but I prefer Elizabeth Bishop. I would think that Elizabeth Bishop is Marianne Moore perfected. On the other hand something must be said for Moore because she was in this vein the pioneer. I like reading them both actually, but seeing things historically is important, I believe, for the writer. I have students who don't think so, who think everything was all written at about the same time, usually yesterday. I think it is interesting to know that Elizabeth Bishop comes after Marianne Moore, if only for the sake of accuracy and historical truth. But also for the evolution of an art; the changes, aside from their intrinsic interest, cannot fail to show you something about your own work if you're willing to learn.
That brings us back to Selected Poems and why it's in "fair chronological order."
Well, I did some things after other writers and some things before other writers and this ought to lay out the record of which was which. For those who care.
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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 of Iowa writing program, and a few outspoken critics who have been trying to tell us for years that he is an important poet, Justice has not been a writer who has been widely read.
Justice's work presents a uniquely difficult job in seeing as a whole because the poet has self-consciously tried to write in as many new and different ways as possible. There is not a poet in America who has mastered as many styles as Justice. At times, his most recent book, Selected Poems, reads almost like an anthology of the possibilities of contemporary poetry. There are sestinas, villanelles, and ballads rubbing pages with aleatory poems, surreal odes, and Williamsesque free verse. Yvor Winters once observed that Wallace Stevens was the only poet of his generation who could write equally well in both free and metered verse. That remark could be applied to Justice with almost equal exclusivity. This unsurpassed ambidexterity betrays years of discipline and work, but his remarkable technique never calls attention to itself in Justice's understated work. Justice rarely writes when he has nothing new to say. A new technique is often developed, mastered, and exhausted in one unprecedented and unrepeated poem. A new theme is handled definitively in a sequence or a pair of poems. Justice has published very little, but he has also distilled a decade of writing and experimenting in each new volume.
Despite its variety, Justice's poetry has several identifiable characteristics—a sense of form, a tone of understatement, and a high degree of self-consciousness. No matter whether he is working in formal or in open poetry, it is always possible to see an underlying form in Justice's work. Nothing seems arbitrary. Even when he is imitating Williams, his line breaks make a kind of sense his model's never do. His poems are also highly polished. There never seems to be a word uncertain of its place. Just as the form seems controlled. Justice's voice always seems objective and understated.
Under their highly polished surfaces most of Justice's poems deal with basic emotional themes like love, friendship, sorrow, and loss. He is specially concerned with the loss of his childhood world, and many of his best poems present the Miami of his boyhood and are filled with a brooding nostalgia for its lost people and places.
If it is now impossible to misjudge the shape of Justice's career, much of the credit must go to the author's editorial instincts. Selected Poems is a model of editorial judgment. Justice has gone over his entire work, from early uncollected poems to new unpublished poems, and rearranged it chronologically. Many of the older poems have been drastically revised. For example, the title poem of his first volume, "The Summer Anniversaries," has only two lines out of thirty-six remaining from the original forty-eight line poem. Likewise Justice has dropped many of the original poems and rearranged and reordered the remaining ones. Many authors revise their early work, but the results are often mixed. Justice is unerring in his revisions.
What Justice has finally achieved through all the revision, rearrangement, and omission is a nearly perfect volume. There are almost no bad poems in his Selected Poems and quite a few perfect ones. Surveying Justice's finest work, it is hard to believe that either future readers or anthologists will want to pass up poems like "On the Death of Friends in Childhood," "But That Is Another Story," "On a Painting by Patient B of the Independence State Hospital for the Insane," "American Sketches," "Men at Forty," "Unflushed Urinals," "Variations on a Text by Vallejo," and many others.
If Justice has a remarkably high percentage of successes, he also has his limitations. There are no long poems in his canon, no epics, no dramas, none of those ambitious single poems on which most contemporary reputations are founded, not even any pieces of moderate length. About two pages seems Justice's maximum. Nor are there any extended sequences. Occasionally there is a pair of related poems or a short series like his "Three Odes," but even these groups are usually best read as a series of independent poems informed by the same technique. The decision to eschew longer forms must be deliberate in so talented a poet. Like his English contemporary, Philip Larkin, Justice is content to excel within very definite, self-imposed limits.
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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 poet keeps his old attachment to the community of vulnerable creatures—lovers, children, the old, the weak. And he bestows on them the richness of sound and cadence, the depth of feeling and subtlety of language that he displayed in his earlier collections.
What draws him to such people is not their dependence but their openness to affection and fantasy, to strong emotions and wild thoughts. For Justice, the receptivity of the artist feeds both his creative imagination and his human sympathy, two aspects of one impulse. Conversely, what seems to matter most to him, in the labors of art, is the chance the imagination offers us to keep in touch with those who share our world but not our neighborhood; the dead, the remote, those imprisoned by their frailty or foolishness.
Justice has marvelous poems about the way the creative process goes: the need to be tough, violent, and fearful at the same time ("ABC"); the difficulty of the effort and the littleness of the reward ("Sonatina in Green"). One that exemplifies his power to charm us is "The Telephone Number of the Muse." Here the poet feels his talent is dwindling; his muse has turned to other, younger lovers:
I call her up sometimes, long distance now.
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.
The unfashionable refinement of the syntax, like the unfashionable purity of the language, is typical of Justice. Both these features are touching contrasts to his pathos when Justice gives in to the elegiac mood and turns to his central concern. This is with the class of people who sink in the trajectory of their wayward natures, who leave the tribe sooner than alter their own essence. I suppose that for him the poets belong to this class.
The circular patterns that Justice loves sound appropriate to the solitary character of such people, turned back on themselves, shut in willingly or unwillingly, caught in irreversible cycles. No wonder he finds so much occupation for mirrors, guitars, pianos, repetitions of words and syllables. Such images and devices, such iterative and musical designs, suit the meditations and recapitulations of the solitary life.
The dead belong here, because our relation with them must be circular. They prepare us for their place, and we have taken it. The hushed tone that marks Justice's voice mounts to reverence as he evokes his relation to his father in "Sonatina in Yellow." Here, the ambiguities, continuities, and repetitions move parallel to memory and forgetfulness, in a sequence impressively like a musical modulation. Love for the dead suggests love for the past, the poet's desire to keep with him the beauty and awfulness of the filiation that he will hand on in his turn; and the imagination then seems our one genuine weapon against mortality:
The pages of the album,
As they are turned, turn yellow; a word,
Once spoken, obsolete,
No longer what was meant. Say it.
The meanings come, or come back later,
Unobtrusive, taking their places.
Solitude falls into loneliness, isolation decays to imprisonment, repression gives way to murder, as Justice travels across his land of self-enclosures. And we meet the neurotic in the sanitarium, longing to get back to the way of life that sent her there ("A Letter"), or the love-hungry poet (not Justice), reliving in his poems his love-hungry youth ("Portrait with Flashlight"). Because he has the habit of understatement and terseness in an era when overexpression is normal, Justice may sound too reserved. But the intensity of vision that directs his work will be evident to those who care to observe it, as when the poet admits his complicity in the terrors he conveys:
You have no name, intimate crime,
Into which I might plunge my hand.
Your knives have entered many pillows,
But you leave nothing behind.
In making these new poems, Justice discarded some of his old traits. He has given up regular meters for free verse. He has enlarged his allotment of dreamlike images and veiled meanings. But his ear and his sense of design are so reliable that the poems remain seductive in sound and shape.
He has not reduced his most engaging feature, the mixture of gentleness with power. The confidence Justice has in his own selfhood enables him to reach out to lives that would unsettle a thinner character; and he can obey his admonition in "ABC":
Be the statue leaning out from the stone,
the stone also, torn between past and future,
and the hammer, whose strength we share.
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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 of the very nature of poetry lies in this fact."
For at least one reader, perhaps the essential part. (One can think of poets who have written beautifully without metaphor, without sensuous or concrete diction, without subject or drama, even without intelligence, but none who has done so without an ear.) And I would go further: I would say that the poet who has the requisite power not only discloses the very nature of poetry but seems to penetrate to the very nature of experience. I am not speaking now of onomatopoeia or the various kinds of mimicry, crude and sophisticated, that ingenious poets are capable of. Any poet of sufficient skill can slow down his tempo and articulation "When Ajax strives, some rocks' vast weight to throw," or contrive the flashy magic of Tennyson's moaning doves and murmuring bees. Justice's skill is more than sufficient for such professional illusions as in
To stand, braced in a swaying vestibule,
or, at somewhat greater length,
And then a
Slow blacksnake, lazy with long sunning, slides
Down from its slab, and through the thick grass, and hides
Somewhere among the purpling wild verbena.
(We shall save the delights of that characteristic rhyme for another occasion.) No, I am thinking rather of something like Wordsworth's "Or the unimaginable touch of Time," something that cannot quite properly be called imitative form but thrills us all the same with its power to evoke, by means of little more, apparently, than a couple of very light accents and a diction almost entirely abstract, an intense, almost physical apprehension of the slow, soundless crumbling of the centuries. Wordsworth calls it unimaginable even as he makes us imagine it. In such lines we have the sensation that words have somehow slipped free from their characters, their shadowy life in the world of signs, and come down, as Yeats implored his sages to do, to participate in the world of experience. It is as if we are touching, through the medium of language, that constantly receding wonder, reality. We feel that the poem is creating truth itself. Perhaps that is why we cannot do without it, those of us who cannot.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the obvious sorts of verbal mimesis, however fine, and this deeper thing I have been trying to describe. One mark of the distinction may be that the former is likely to be susceptible of analysis and the latter not. For example, in this lovely quatrain about a sofa in a dance teacher's parlor (her "makeshift ballroom"),
At lesson time, pushed back, it used to be
The thing we managed somehow just to miss
With our last-second dips and twirls—all this
While the Victrola wound down gradually.
I would say that that last line is a particularly beautiful instance of imitation. One could lead a reasonably sensitive student to see how the third line with its vivid lexicon, fluid cadence and short vowels speeds to the dash, to be pulled up short as the last line, beginning with the long "while," almost a syllable and a half, descends to the long vowels in mid-line, the insistent nasals, the juncture that enforces a slight pause between "wound" and the unaccented but long, heavy "down," the faded rhyme, and the limpness, the dying fall, of the adverb with its feeble final accent. (Of course it goes without saying that all such effects depend utterly on the meanings of the words; meters and tropes of sound mean nothing in themselves. So I began my brief analysis by indicating the lexicon, and so Justice was careful to include a similar stipulation in the paragraph I quoted earlier, for there are still many simple souls in the textbooks and classrooms who think that every trochee expresses conflict or resistance and that sibilance in a line of verse signifies evil. One would think that Ransom had laughed such readers off the stage forever; alas, apparently not.)
But how, I wonder, would I analyze the effect of these two lines from an elegy for a friend kicked to death in an alley (a poem, by the way, that has my nomination for the best villanelle in the language)?
I picture the snow as falling without hurry
To cover the cobbles and the toppled ashcans completely.
How does he do it, and so effortlessly, or so it seems? That calm, steady, almost nerveless line, that dry, cruel phrase, "without hurry," the infinitive that suggests intention without in the least asserting it, the intricate pattern of sound in the second line, subtler than any chiasmus, flakes of vowel and consonant that bond together to cover the fifteen syllables of the five-beater completely—I am waxing impressionistic because I am at a loss to account for the haunting power of these cold-eyed and heartbreaking lines.
Or take the ending of his exquisite version of Rilke's "Letzer Abend," where the doomed officer's jacket hangs across the chair
Like the coats scarecrows wear
And which the birdshadows flee and scatter from;
Or like the skin of some great battle-drum.
It is elementary to suggest that the static quality of the trimeter derives partly from the heavy ionic foot, the thick jam of consonants, especially the s juncture, and the internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, but it is impossible, at least to me, to tell clearly how the extra syllable of "birdshadows" and the lighter assonance of "-shadows" and "scatter" seem to embody the wild and panicky movement the line describes; it has something to do, surely, with the dramatic preposition that ends the clause and the ominous semi-colon, not to mention the odd force of our realization that we are following not the fleeing birds but their shadows, but now we are trying to explain the inexplicable. And that great last line—yes, only a dullard would fail to feel the reverberation of the internal rhyme (another one!), but what accounts for the power of the final word, a power that lies to some extent in its nearness to and its distance from being a triple rhyme and seems almost to summon up the much more dreadful scattering to come? I don't know.
This is state-of-the-art, as they say. I wish it were truly representative of the state of the art. But, still, it gives some cheer to remember that at the end of the 20th century, when American poetry is drearier and more amateurish than it has been at any time since the end of the 19th, a few writers are "saying the thing once for all and perfectly." The gratitude I feel for "Last Evening" and for so many of Donald Justice's poems is the gratitude I feel for any act or gesture of love and loving care. That is, no doubt, "a love that masquerades as pure technique." But it is love.
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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, described him as "an uncertain talent that has not been turned to much account." Wrote Gerald Burns: "Selected Poems reads like a very thin Tennessee Williams—little poems about obscure Florida people and architecture…. As a career his, though honest, does not quite make the ascent to poet from racket." And Alan Hollinghurst, appraising the same volume for The New Statesman, complained that Justice's poems lacked "vitality … urgency … colour and surprise," that they suffered from "lassitude," "a weary passivity," and "a habit of elegance which cushions meaning," and that the poems, "formal but fatigués … create the impression of getting great job-satisfaction without actually doing much work."
What has Justice done to deserve such attacks? Well, he was imprudent enough to begin writing poetry at a time when the Beats were at the height of their popularity and when many readers were unable to see, in his low-decibel traditional verses, anything but an absence of the "vitality and urgency" that they admired in the Beats and in the recognized non-Beat camps of the day: the Black Mountain poets, the New York poets, the confessionalists. Nor did Justice necessarily appeal to the academic admirers of his fellow traditionalists Richard Wilbur and Anthony Hecht; for it was, and is, in the nature of a certain kind of postwar academic critic to feel very much at home with the poems of a Wilbur or a Hecht—many of which seem, by their intricacy and impersonality, to solicit critical attention—while feeling uncomfortable with a plainer and more personal poet such as Justice, to whose sublime and delicate music such a critic may well be deaf and to whose conspicuous and compassionate interest in people's lives and feelings he may be constitutionally incapable of responding except by reflexively and defensively dismissing the poet as sentimental.
Nor has Justice gone out of his way to endear himself to the poetry world. While many poets of his generation have distributed enthusiastic blurbs like Halloween candy, Justice has committed the grave error of saying what he really thinks about his contemporaries, In the interviews collected in Platonic Scripts, he scorns the vapid, glibly romantic idées reçues—"Nature is good … government is bad … [poetry is] good for the Soul"—that form the contemporary Poets' Code: in a time when poets pay more attention to politics than to aesthetics, Justice declares that poems should not be didactic; in a time when one of the major prerequisites for an American poet seems to be an endless capacity for self-righteousness about his vocation, Justice observes stingingly that poets today "act as if they believed there were something almost sacred in the name of poet." While other poets hesitate to step on toes, he refers bluntly to the "so-called poetry of the Beats." dismisses terms like Olson's "organic form" as so much pretentious blather, and is "appalled" by poets who brag about moving young people to tears, saying that such things are "morally wrong" and that poems should properly be "objects of contemplation." Ultimately, the dismissive reviews of Justice's Selected Poems are a reflection not of any failing in the work itself but of the manifold moral and cultural failures of an age in which it has been Justice's peculiar honor to be the apotheosis of the unfashionable poet.
Justice's poetry is, it must be said, understated. (He once agreed with an interviewer who remarked that "understatement is to you, practically, a religious principle.") But it does not lack vitality and urgency. What it lacks, rather, are the vulgarity, hysteria, conceit, anarchism, and morbid fixation on madness, drug abuse, grubby sex, and the like that characterize the most extreme Beat and confessional verses and that some readers, alas, equate with vitality and urgency. The urgency of Justice's finest verse is of a thoroughly different order. It is the urgency of deeply controlled feeling about loss and mortality, about the inevitable passing of time and the irrevocable pastness of the past. And while a table of contents that includes such titles as "Sonnet to My Father" and "Tales from a Family Album" and "On the Death of Friends in Childhood" might well strike many a critic as a firm guarantee of a poet's sentimental leanings, Justice's poems are delivered from sentimentality by honest feeling, careful observation, and fresh expression—and by a seemingly stoical resistance to grief. In an age of emotional exhibitionism, Justice rises, time and again, beyond his particular circumstances toward the level of tragic myth. To be sure, many a line from a Justice poem might indeed sound maudlin in other contexts, such as the closing line of one poem: "But already the silent world is lost forever." Yet such a line is maudlin only if it strikes one as false and easy, as having been forced onto a poem rather than having grown out of it. Such is not the case here. On the contrary, the poem positions the reader perfectly for the line, so that it seems true and heartfelt, the inevitable terminus of a very real emotional journey: the poem, in other words, captures with extraordinary precision the tenor of a mind and the rhythms of its thought, and the concluding line comes as the natural reflection on all that has gone before.
It is, to be sure, misleading to speak of Justice's poetry as if it were all of an ilk. His first book, The Summer Anniversaries (1960), established the intelligent, composed, and pensive voice with which he is most frequently identified—and established, too, his independence from the accepted poetic modes of the day. For many of his contemporaries, notably his teacher Robert Lowell (whose pivotal Life Studies had appeared a year earlier), the breakthrough to using autobiographical material in poetry was coupled with a break with form, a rejection of virtuosity as the ultimate poetic value in favor of sincerity; but though many of the poems of The Summer Anniversaries patently concern people and places that are of great personal significance for the poet, none of the poems is in free verse; Justice refuses to join Lowell, Snodgrass, Sexton, et al., in emphasizing sincerity at the expense of formal artistry ("Now that is simply not the kind of poetry I write," he once told an interviewer apropos of Snodgrass). Justice distinguishes between writing about himself, which he tries not to do ("I've always felt it was an author's privilege to leave himself out if he chose." he has said, citing with approval Eliot's now-unfashionable theory of the impersonality of the poet), and writing about people and places that have been important to him. Indeed, though his family and friends proliferate in The Summer Anniversaries, Justice attempts to restrict himself to the role of the observer and chronicler, and when he is present (or, more accurately, when there is an I in the poem that one tends to identify with the poet), he does his best to objectify his experience, to place mythic elements in the foreground and to exclude the irrelevantly personal.
Justice has said that poems, at their best, transform a subjective experience into an object not unlike a treasured family photograph, an object that preserves a precious moment for readers of present and future generations as well as for the later refreshment of one's own memory, and he has expressed the hope that "some of the poems I've tried to write were treasurable in the sense that I know a photograph can be treasurable. Treasured." ("I like it," he has said of his poem "First Death," "because it records something otherwise lost.") Rather than write subjective, anti-literary, free-verse effusions in the manner of the Beats or the confessional poets, then, he seeks to create timeless, unapologetically literary objects—made objects ("I think of poetry as making things")—that preserve selected encounters, observations, and reflections. More than one interviewer has seemed bemused by Justice's traditional bent, by his habit of constant revision and his devotion to established forms; one interlocutor even asked if he ever felt the need to "free yourself from this restraint or control?" Justice's reply: "I don't think I feel the need to let go. Nowadays people may think of that as a flaw. I don't." Critics routinely praise the "courage" of an Allen Ginsberg; but there is more pluck in Justice's firm "I don't" than in all of Ginsberg's Collected Poems.
Formal though they are, though, Justice's poems do not recall what he has called the "hard, thuddy iambic pentameter line" of Lowell's dense, formal verses in Lord Weary's Castle any more than they recall the more relaxed free-verse rhythms of Life Studies and after. Rather, his poems exhibit a limpid lyricism, a gracefully flowing music; trained in his early years as a pianist, Justice himself makes reference to the musicality of his poems, prefacing his volume The Sunset Maker with several tempo markings from major modern composers: "Sec et musclé" (Milhaud), "Avec une élégance grave et lente" (Debussy), "broadly singing" (Carl Ruggles). Justice's most representative poems do tend to display these characteristics: they are dry, muscular, elegant, grave, and slow (one might mark them piano and andante), with a fine, smooth, and austere melodic line, as it were, reminiscent of many a modern French composer.
Justice is, moreover, a poet who, even as he pays tribute to the radiant possibilities of human experience and the natural world, associates unalloyed wonder and joy at these things with the innocence of childhood, characterizing life, in "To a Ten-Months' Child," as a state that one enters from a "remote … kingdom" and, in "Song," describing a glorious dawn with awe and saying that" all that day / Was a fairy tale / Told once in a while / To a good child." To Justice, growing up is a matter of recognizing that life is not the perfectly sublime affair that one may have believed it to be in one's early years: in "The Snowfall," he refers to the "terrible whispers of our elders / Falling softly about our ears / In childhood, never believed till now." The innocence of joy and the terror of knowledge are also themes of the memorable "Sonnet," in which the innocents are not children but Adam and Eve:
The walls surrounding them they never saw;
The angels, often. Angles were as common
As birds or butterflies, but looked more human.
As long as the wings were furled, they felt no awe.
Beasts, too, were friendly. They could find no flaw
In all of Eden: this was the first omen.
The second was the dream which woke the woman:
She dreamed she saw the lion sharpen his claw.
As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.
They had been warned of what was bound to happen;
They had been told of something called the world;
They had been told and told about the wall.
They saw it now; the gate was standing open.
As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.
Both in its vision of man and his world and in its means of imparting that vision, this poem is vintage Justice. With one stunning final image—an image that is all the more effective for the quiet simplicity with which it is presented and for the omission of any reference to Adam and Eve's reaction to it—Justice makes one feel the terror of the knowledge that comes to all of us when we move beyond the complacent bliss of childhood: the knowledge of our mortality, of the world's imperfection, and of our separation from the awful, winged majesty of God and His angels. The irony here, a familiar one in Justice's poetry, is that though the happiness of a child, or of Adam and Eve in Eden, is untainted by the adult's bitter knowledge, it is only in that state of knowledge, born of loss, that the irreclaimable joys of creation can be fully appreciated.
A reader of "Sonnet"—and of the numerous poems in which Justice refers to saints and angels and heaven—might be excused for concluding that he is a religious man. Yet though he was raised as a Southern Baptist, Justice has said that he lost his faith as a young man. "I don't believe in the spiritual," he declared flatly in a 1975 interview. "You know, there is a power in the obvious. That which is hidden I can't see." Yet in these secular times, Justice has a remarkable sense of what one cannot describe as anything other than the sanctity of the quotidian (he writes in "Unflushed Urinals" of "The acceptingness of the washbowls, in which we absolve ourselves!"): to him, sin and grace manifestly remain vital concepts, and life, for all its deficiencies, has its moments of sublime radiance.
His second and third collections find Justice in territory that one doesn't necessarily think of as his own. These are books of experiment, in which Justice wanders afield from the disciplined forms and elegant musicality of his debut volume to try his hand at blank verse, syllabic verse, and free verse. Both books also contain a number of verses inspired not by personal experience but by the work of other poets; since such poems as "The Telephone Number of the Muse" suggest that Justice felt abandoned by the Muse, one presumes that imitation and experiment were his way of keeping busy at his craft during her supposed absence. And indeed, though they are far from unaccomplished, the poems of Night Light (1967, revised 1981) and Departures (1973) represent something of a loosening, a thinning out, a descent into the fine but familiar from the serene and singular music of The Summer Anniversaries.
The models for the poems in these two volumes come from all over the map. There is a pair of "American Sketches" written in imitation of William Carlos Williams (to whom they are dedicated): there is a poem entitled "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens": and there are several elliptical, portentous poems, with wildly different line lengths and short, clipped sentences, in imitation of Lorca and Vallejo. These poems, surreal and often deliberately disjointed and fragmentary, are quite admirable of their kind, but they strike one as being very much against the grain of Justice's own native music, which typically casts its spell by means of clear and coherent imagery, elegant and supple language, and delicate variations on the iambic line. Justice's Lorcaesque poems, by contrast, tend to be too metrically varied, too expressionistic, and too loosely conversational in tone and rhythm to satisfy a lover of Justice's best work: conversely, there may well be too much in these poems of Justice to satisfy an ardent admirer of Vallejo or Lorca. The bottom line is that Justice's gently responsive sensibility and strong sense of control don't really lend themselves to the jagged rhythms and erratic thought patterns of a Lorca-type poem; to read Justice's Lorcaesque poems, in fact, is a bit like hearing an opera singer do Showboat: it's not great opera and it's not great Kern. Nonetheless, both books show a side of Justice that one cannot but admire: namely, Justice the astute and sensitive student of his art, who has never lost the essential humility, and the willingness to learn, of the earnest young painter copying an Old Master canvas in a museum.
In the new poems included in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Selected Poems (1979), Justice leaves Lorca and company behind and writes in what might be described as a sharper, more seasoned version of his Summer Anniversaries voice. Indeed, one of the finest poems in Selected Poems is "The Summer Anniversaries," an alternate version of "Anniversaries," the opening poem in his debut volume. The poem charts the speaker's growth from a ten-year-old who, though wheelchair-bound, glories in the bounties of the earth—
I thought it absurd
For anyone to have quarreled
Ever with such a world—
O brave new planet!—
And with such music in it.
—to a twenty-one-year-old who sees a balloon "veer crazily off" and compares it to himself. "All sense of direction gone"; to a thirty-year-old who watches
Through the window beside my desk
Boys deep in the summer dusk
Of Iowa, at catch,
Toss, back and forth, their ball.
Shadows begin to fall.
The colors of the day
Resolve into one dull,
And I watch them go in from their play[,]
Small figures of some myth
Now, vanishing up the path.
With extraordinary concision and effectiveness, the poem captures in turn the child's naive enthusiasm about life, the adolescent's confusion and romantic self-pity, and the adult's preoccupation with the prosaic business of existence, which, when he notices young people at all, causes him to think of them—and of his own younger self—as if they were part of some half-remembered legend. The poem is a splendid example, too, of Justice's genius for distancing: as much as any sonnet of Donne, it represents not an indulgence in personality but an escape from personality's restrictions; the specifics take on a symbolic weight, and one does not find oneself wondering (as one does with much confessional verse) about the poem's degree of autobiographical accuracy. (The poem is reminiscent, in particular, of Donne's "A Valediction: Of Weeping," in which three round objects—a ball, a tear, and the earth—are connected imagistically; here, similarly, Justice connects three round objects—a wheelchair wheel, a balloon, a ball—all emblems of the cycle of life.)
The Sunset Maker (1987) displays the music of Justice's poetry at its most elevated and austerely beautiful. In this volume, which contains not only twenty-five poems but two stories and a prose memoir, Justice is more than ever a poet of things past and passing, lamenting his incalculable losses and tendering his most cherished memories—mostly of his parents and of his childhood piano teachers—in language replete with allusions to the fragile beauty of music, to the ever-shifting light and shadow of nature ("The sun seems not to move at all, / Till it has moved on"), and to the tenets and typology of Christianity, with its assurance of an eternal and omnipresent deity (after rain. Justice writes in "Mule Team and Poster," the sun returns, "Invisible, but everywhere present, / and of a special brightness, like God"). The echoes of Stevens are more multitudinous than ever: if a line like "Mordancies of the armchair!" (in "Tremayne") brings to mind "Sunday Morning," a reference to "the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama" (in "Mule Team and Poster") recalls "Anecdote of the Jar." As in earlier volumes. Justice takes somber note of the contrast between the real world and childhood's fanciful view of it, noting that the world a child dreams "is the world we run to from the world."
For the Justice of The Sunset Maker, the chief function of art is to preserve what little it can of life. Perhaps the book's two most idiosyncratic items are the poem "The Sunset Maker" and its pendant a story entitled "Little Elegy for Cello and Piano"; both works concern the speaker's friendship with a recently deceased and largely forgotten composer named Eugene Bestor, who survives only in a six-note phrase remembered by the speaker:
The hard early years of study, those still,
Sequestered mornings in the studio,
The perfect ear, the technique, the great gift
All have come down to this one ghostly phrase.
And soon nobody will recall the sound
These six notes made once or that there were six.
It is to be hoped—not only for his sake, but for that of American poetry—that Justice's work will be more widely remembered than that of the fictional Bestor. Certainty there is more than one phrase in Justice's verse—plain, unaffected, and gently apocalyptic—that haunts the memory: "Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back towards." "It is the lurch and slur the world makes, turning." "To shine is to be surrounded by the dark." Justice is the poet of a world in which loss is ubiquitous, sorrow inevitable, and adult joy always bittersweet; a world in which the genuinely heroic act, for a literary artist, is not to thrash about uncontrollably, raising a manic and ugly din, but to fashion a body of work whose beauty and poise and gravity in the face of life's abomination may, one trusts, help it to endure.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5012
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 antecedents. If poetry grows out of the dialectic between innovation and emulation, our literature has always prized originality over continuity. Originality is, after all, America's one strict tradition.
Donald Justice, however, appears unconcerned about revealing the extent to which his poems rely on the literary tradition. Departures, Selected Poems, The Sunset Maker, and A Donald Justice Reader all end with "Notes" in which the author identifies the sources of particular poems, including some borrowings that even a sophisticated reader would not have detected. Other poems begin with clearly labeled epigraphs that contain images or phrases used later in the text. Even Justice's titles openly advertise their genealogy: "Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees," "Last Days of Prospero," "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," "Variations on a Text by Vallejo," "Henry James by the Pacific." Whereas most writers diligently hide their literary debts, Justice practices what accountants call "full disclosure." In this respect he writes as a historian would, carefully crediting all of his predecessors to acknowledge that scholarship—like literature itself—is a collective enterprise. Justice's meticulous notation not only attests to his integrity as a writer, but it also suggests that his borrowings are a conscious and central aspect of his poetics.
Until going through all of Justice's published poetry, however, even a careful reader may not realize the full extent and diversity of the author's appropriations. Moreover, such an examination also reveals the surprising fact that Justice's conscious employment of other texts for his own imaginative purposes is not part of an early imitative stage but has increased with each collection. Whereas his first volume, The Summer Anniversaries (1960), contains only five poems (out of thirty-two total) that have overt literary sources, Justice's second collection, Night Light (1967), includes no less than eleven (out of forty). In Departures (1973), the ratio increases with ten out of twenty-nine poems openly drawing material from other literary works. In Selected Poems (1979), four of the sixteen previously uncollected poems employ borrowed literary models. (This count does not include the Tremayne poems, which show an oblique debt to Kees's Robinson and Berryman's Henry poems). Finally, in The Sunset Maker (1987), not only do nine of the twenty-five poems owe debts to other literary works (three are translations), but the last half of the book constitutes two internally referential sequences of poems, stories, and memoir that borrow and develop material from one another.
I do not claim this census is scientific. Another critic might arrive at a slightly different total or make a convincing argument why a particular poem does or does not belong on the list. But by any count, it appears that at least one quarter of Justice's published poems utilize openly borrowed material—even if it is only something as small as a memorable phrase. His appropriations vary from entire poems (like Attila József's 1927 "O Europe," which Justice rewrote about the American landscape as "1971") to borrowed situations and characters ("Last Days of Prospero"). He may steal an opening line (as he did from the beginning of John Peale Bishop's "Ode," which now also starts Justice's "The Grandfathers"). He may adopt elements of a poet's style (as in his Guillevic homages) or a particular typographical arrangement (like Hart Crane's use of marginal commentary in The Bridge, which found its way into one version of Justice's "Childhood" before being revised away). He also has reshaped prose passages into verse while keeping much of the original phrasing, as in "Young Girls Growing Up (1911)," which recasts an incident from Kafka's diaries. And sometimes he simply quotes an author in a passing allusion. The sheer diversity of his textual appropriations is not only impressive but unusual, as is his habit of underscoring each debt with a conspicuous epigraph or end-note that heightens the reader's awareness of the transaction. One often reads an allusive author unconscious of his borrowings. Justice, a lifelong teacher, intends his allusions to be recognized—whether the reader is prepared for them or not.
When critics discuss the debt one poem owes to another, they usually analyze the relationship in terms of influence. In understanding the nature of Justice's textual appropriations, however, traditional concepts of influence are not especially helpful. Except for a few early poems influenced by Auden (one of which, "Sonnet," is equal to anything in its model, Auden's "In Time of War"), Justice has always had an identifiable tone and manner. His obsession with formal experimentation and his impatience with writing the same kind of poem for very long have given his work an extraordinary stylistic variety out of proportion with its relatively small size. But his poetic signature remains constant—clarity of expression, relentless economy of means, self-conscious formal design, unpretentious intelligence, and quiet but memorable musicality. Reading his work, one always senses an integrating and independent imagination.
Discussing literary influences, one also looks for the critical relationships between an author and one or two dominant predecessors. Reading Blake, one recognizes the crucial importance of Milton as a model. Studying Baudelaire, one considers his obsessive relationship with Poe. A contemporary writer like William Everson, for example, cannot be understood without constant reference to his lifelong master, Robinson Jeffers. Harold Bloom insists that such dominant influences must be seen in Freudian terms as decisive psychic struggles. In order to become strong and mature, a younger poet must assimilate and then overpower his elder authority figures. Such theories, however, do little to clarify Justice's case. Not only does one not sense any psychic wrestling with his three dominant early masters—Stevens, Baudelaire, and Auden—one also doesn't find much evidence of them in his poems outside of a few deliberate homages. Likewise, the broad range of Justice's borrowings—from T.S. Eliot's prose and Hart Crane's marginalia to Duke Ellington's lyrics and Mother Goose's syntax—makes it impossible to discuss dominant single influences. If Justice is, to use Bloom's term, a "strong poet," one aspect of his strength is the ability to draw from the breadth of world literature.
The one critic who provides a helpful model for Justice's appropriations is T.S. Eliot. In his 1920 essay on the Elizabethan dramatist Philip Massinger, Eliot wrote that one could learn a great deal about a poet by understanding the way in which he borrows:
Immature poets imitate: mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
Except in his conscious homages, Justice does not imitate the styles or employ the thematics of the texts from which he draws material. Instead, like Eliot's mature poet, he steals an image or idea, a phrase or pattern to use in a new imaginative context. In "Counting the Mad," for example, Justice borrowed the meter and syntax of the Mother Goose toe-and-finger counting rhyme, "This little pig went to market." But Justice's poem imitates neither the style nor effect of its source:
This one was put in a jacket,
This one was sent home.
This one was given bread and meat
But would eat none,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.
This one looked at the window
As though it were a wall,
This one saw things that were not there,
This one things that were,
And this one cried No No No No
All day long.
This one thought himself a bird,
This one a dog,
And this one thought himself a man,
An ordinary man,
And cried and cried No No No No
All day long.
The original nursery rhyme (or at least the most common modern variant, which Justice uses as his model) is playful and intimate—as befitting a verbal and tactile game a mother shares with a small child. By keeping the syntactic pattern of the original more or less intact but substituting shocking new subject matter, Justice achieves the double effect of familiarity and dislocation. The harmless market-day adventures of five childlike pigs become a nightmarish tour of an insane asylum. Significantly, Justice formalizes the idiosyncratic rhythms of the original nursery rhyme into a fixed stanza. Repeating this pattern three times, always ending with the staccato cries of the inmate who "thought himself a man, / An ordinary man," Justice creates a formal feeling of confinement analogous to the mad's physical incarceration. Imaginative literature about insanity often tries to re-create the disjunctive mental processes of the mad. This method tends to create complex imitations of the mad's interior monologue. In "Counting the Mad," however, Justice views the insane from a largely exterior perspective. He reproduces what a visitor would see or hear, and in doing so also reproduces the horror a visitor would feel. The only projection into the interior life of the mad is in the final stanza, where he states the central figure's self-image of normality. Although Justice's subject is potentially complex and unknowable, by using the Mother Goose paradigm he makes the finished poem simple, lucid, and accessible.
"Counting the Mad" also illustrates Eliot's point that good poets improve or transform what they take because Justice's poem is both more ambitious than and different from its model. This sort of appropriation is typical of Justice. He takes something from one context and uses it in another. Reading in a newspaper about "a hatbox of old letters" to be sold at auction, he transformed the item into the elegiac poem "To the Unknown Lady Who Wrote the Letters Found in the Hatbox." Finding a striking description in a John D. MacDonald detective novel ("One of those men who can be a car salesman or a tourist from Syracuse or a hired assassin"), Justice—who was then living in Syracuse—expands the passage into a menacing, metaphysical poem, mysterious in ways quite alien to MacDonald. Justice's poem "The Tourist from Syracuse" ends:
Shall I confess who I am?
My name is all names and none.
I am the used-car salesman,
The tourist from Syracuse,
The hired assassin, waiting.
I will stand here forever
Like one who has missed his bus—
On my usual corner,
The corner at which you turn
To approach that place where now
You must not hope to arrive.
The way Justice elaborates MacDonald's brief description into an independent poem is characteristic of his creative method. "The Tourist from Syracuse," however, illustrates this intertextual procedure at its simplest. Although Justice's poem achieves a degree of linguistic and intellectual complexity beyond MacDonald's original, it nonetheless bears a paraphrasable resemblance to its prose parent. Justice rarely develops borrowed material in so linear a fashion. Usually his appropriations only provide a point of departure toward an imaginative end unforeshadowed in the original.
More typical of Justice's creative method is his "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," which bears as its epigraph an eight-word fragment from Stevens's notebook ("The alp at the end of the street"). Justice has revised the poem significantly since its first appearance as a three-part sequence. Its most current version reads in full:
The alp at the end of the street
Occurs in the dreams of the town.
Over burgher and shopkeeper,
Massive, he broods,
A snowy-headed father
Upon whose knees his children
No longer climb;
Or is reflected
In the cool, unruffled lakes of
Their minds, at evening,
After their day in the shops,
As shadow only, shapeless
As a wind that has stopped blowing.
Grandeur, it seems,
Comes down to this in the end—
A street of shops
With white shutters
Open for business …
This poem does bear a family resemblance to Stevens's work. Justice not only borrows the opening line from his Hartford master. He also employs Stevens's characteristic dialectic between the sublime and quotidian suggested by the borrowed phrase. Moreover, Justice uses some Stevensian stock characters, the burgher and the shopkeeper. But no sooner has Justice established this Stevensian scene in the three opening lines than he liberates the town from the elder poet's metaphysics. The new poem uses the contrast between the cold, primal presence of the mountain and the increasingly self-contained, man-made reality of the village to make points quite alien to Stevens. Justice observes the psychological situation of the townspeople, who have banished the paternal image of nature to the boundaries of their consciousness. He postulates no Stevensian struggle with abstractions of reality. Rather than transforming his observations into the premises of a supreme fiction, Justice accepts the loss of mythic consciousness as a condition of modern life. Justice even celebrates—despite the touch of irony in the last stanza—the functional beauty of the burghers' workaday world. Without mocking Stevens's fixation on the loss of religious faith, Justice quietly moves beyond this late romantic concern to create a poem of contemporary consciousness.
Justice's poem acknowledges Stevens as its precursor. It even initiates a subtle ontological discussion between the younger and the elder poet. But there is no Bloomian struggle for displacement. Rather than the anxiety of influence, Justice displays a characteristic confidence and respectful tolerance. "True poetic history," Bloom has asserted, "is the story of how poets as poets have suffered from other poets, just as any true biography is the story of how anyone suffered his own family—of his own displacement of family into lovers and friends." Justice's example demonstrates the sheer inadequacy of such Freudian theories of poetic influence. As a means of apprehending how Justice works his intertextual appropriations, Bloomian displacement offers no more insight than does the simple theory of imitation. It is more helpful here to expand Eliot's notion of the "mature poet." No anguished rebel, Justice is a thoroughly mature writer—stylistically, intellectually, psychologically. His authorial identity meets its precursors with the self-assurance, independence, and discriminating affection found in a fully developed and healthy psyche.
"After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens" also demonstrates the unusual manner in which Justice uses borrowed material to generate new poems. There were several distinctive ways in which quotations from other texts were commonly incorporated into Modernist poems. They were, for example, used as decorative devices, arresting local effects to add interest to the surface of the poem. Although Modernist poetics minimized the notion of decorative language, properly proportioned decoration remained one of its fundamental poetic techniques. Marianne Moore frequently employed striking quotations in this manner, as in, for example, the second stanza of "England." Quotation was also used as an emphatic device to add force or authority to a passage. Ezra Pound habitually inserted classical quotations into his poems to achieve this effect. Emphatic quotation became a central technique for his "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley." Quotation was also used as a contrapuntal device to provide an ironic contrast to other elements in a poem. Eliot borrowed lines of poems, songs, prayers, and nursery rhymes to use contrapuntally in The Waste Land and "The Hollow Men." Sometimes an author even used borrowed language architecturally, as Nabokov did in several of his novels, using, for instance, Poe's "Annabel Lee" as a recurring emotional scaffold in Lolita.
Although one Finds examples of decorative, emphatic, and contrapuntal quotation in Justice's work ("After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," for instance, borrows a decorative phrase from Auden's song "Fish in the unruffled lakes"), Justice's characteristic method is to use quotation as a generative device. He coaxes a new poem out of the unrealized possibilities suggested by a borrowed phrase or image. His Stevens poem proceeds directly from the images and ideas of the fragment. "The Tourist from Syracuse" likewise uncovers levels of meaning in MacDonald's phrase beyond the normal depth of the detective genre.
In the work of Pound or Eliot, borrowed quotations usually maintain their original identity despite their new context. Even when they are used ironically, one hears them as foreign words imported into the new text. Their quotation marks, as it were, remain intact. The final text often has the texture of a collage in which borrowed and original materials combine to create a novel effect. But in Justice's work, quoted material usually seems totally assimilated into the new poem. Not only does it no longer seem foreign to the text; the new poem appears to have grown organically and seamlessly out of it. One occasionally sees this generative technique in the early modernists, as in the opening section of Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday," which incorporates a line translated from Cavalcanti ("Because I do not hope to turn again"). But even in "Ash-Wednesday," Eliot ends the passage by returning to emphatic quotation. Having stolen a line to begin his poem, Eliot makes public penance by quoting the end of the "Hail Mary" as a self-standing coda.
Although Justice has appropriated other texts with the imaginative rapacity of an Eliot or a Pound, he has never been much drawn to the techniques of collage. The surfaces of his poems reflect such high polish, his syntax unfolds with such architectural assurance, that one suspects he found the disjunctive energy of high-modernist collage unappealing. Even when he began poems out of chance fragments (as in the aleatory poems in Departures), he left them with a seamless finish. Generative quotation has been a technique more compatible with his tastes, and no American poet has used it more effectively. When Justice titled his third collection Departures, he slyly but self-consciously confessed to this obsession. Stylistically the volume was a departure from his earlier formal work, but the book was also built around a series of poems that began as imaginative departures from other texts, some drawn from literary tradition, others from chance methods. Justice's title signals the author's unabashed reliance on the intertextual play between tradition and innovation. Tradition, to tweak Prof. Bloom one last time, is not a threatening father intimidating creation, but a generative matrix for new poems.
The reason why theories of influence as Romantic rebellion have so little applicability to Justice is that he is essentially a post-modern classicist, a contemporary artist who understands the sustaining power of tradition without seeking to stifle innovation and experiment. "Classicist" and "tradition" have often become code words for aesthetic and political reactionism, but Justice is no traditionalist in the narrow sense. As a poet, critic, and translator, he has assimilated the achievements of international modernism, but he has from the beginning also recognized that his historical position comes after that aesthetic revolution ended. Justice's response to the predicament of the post-modern artist is part of his originality. He fostered no illusions of perpetuating the superannuated avant-garde aesthetic (a temptation that ruined many artists of his generation, especially the composers). Instead, he confronted the burden of the past by exploring and consolidating the enduring techniques of modernism to create a style that reconciled the experiments of the previous two generations with the demands of the present.
A central means of achieving this synthesis was to borrow material and techniques from the major Modernists and determine—in practical poetic terms rather than the abstract critical concepts—what remained viable for the contemporary artist. Eliot, Pound, Stevens, James, Williams, Rilke, Crane, Vallejo, Lorca, Kafka, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, József, Alberti, and others provided the material for experiment. The imaginative mission of consolidating the heritage of modernism also explains why, despite his voracious appropriations, Justice so rarely borrows from earlier writers. With only a handful of exceptions, his appropriations begin chronologically with Baudelaire and Rimbaud, at the start of modern poetry. (And even his use of earlier sources like Dante in "Hell" often have an Eliotic or Poundian flavor). Contrasting the chronological range of Justice's allusions and quotations with those of a Pound or Eliot, Kees or Lowell demonstrates how closely focused Justice has been on Modernism.
In someone less talented or self-critical, Justice's allusive method might have proved dangerous. To borrow the words of great writers for inclusion in a new poem forces the reader to compare the new text with the original. Poetry so openly intertextual also risks seeming remote or pedantic, something drawn bloodlessly from books rather than learned firsthand from life. The common complaint of "academic formalism" leveled at members of Justice's generation is inadequate to address either the early work or ultimate accomplishments of poets like Richard Wilbur, Louis Simpson, James Merrill, Donald Hall, William Jay Smith, or Adrienne Rich. Nonetheless there does remain—as often is the case with unfair but enduring criticism—an uncomfortable kernel of truth in that generational stereotype. Some of Justice's contemporaries have produced dully learned and pointlessly self-conscious work. Poets are often scholarly creatures, and much intelligence and learning goes into every genuine poem. But intelligence cannot endow a poem with life in the absence of emotion or imagination. Perhaps a poet can never know too much, but a poem can.
Despite the literary models behind many of his poems, Justice rarely seems bookish. Although subtle in language and sophisticated in technique, his work—except for the overtly experimental pieces in Departures—is exemplary in its clarity and accessibility. One always senses the emotional impulse driving the poem (which is frequently a painful sense of loss or, more recently, bittersweet nostalgia), and that intuition clarifies all of the other elements, even when they are complex or deliberately ambiguous. But if Justice's language is often tentative, his poems never display the densely allusive or obscure manner of his teachers, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. His learning is assimilated into the total experience of the poem. One need not know the source of his allusions to understand what they mean in their new context. Even writing about literary subjects such as Henry James or the forgotten poet Robert Boardman Vaughn, Justice remains accessible. In this respect, his work reminds one of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges. Despite their formidable learning, Borges's poems are not difficult, because their intellectual content is always integrated into their imaginative and emotional fabric. Borges might have been speaking for Justice when he said, "I am also living when I dream, when I sleep, when I write, when I read." Reading is a natural part of Justice's poetic process because it is an integral part of his life.
Justice has fulfilled Eliot's challenge in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He has demonstrated what Eliot called a poet's indispensable "historical sense," the ability to perceive the literary past in order to develop his own contemporary identity. Tradition, Eliot maintained, "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor." Not every poet is willing to make the effort. Most are content to work within a received (and therefore entropic) idea of tradition. Aside from the sheer excellence of his poetry, Justice's importance comes from his determination to explore and redefine the traditions available to contemporary poets. The Modernists accomplished the task for their generation largely in their prose. Justice, however, has conducted his inquiries almost entirely in verse.
Prefacing Platonic Scripts, his only prose collection (which includes more pages of interviews than essays), Justice regrets having written so little criticism. "I see now," he remarks, "that criticism can be of enormous value in helping to define and refine one's own thinking." But even while sharing Justice's regret, one must point out that his poems have performed an important critical function in evaluating the heritage of Modernism. Without ever becoming didactic or dully programmatic, they have clarified the possibilities of contemporary poetry. They are intellectually challenging without losing their emotional force. Although his poems pursue an investigative mission, they never forget that their primary purpose is to be good poetry. They are experimental in the happiest sense—experiments that succeed. His achievement has been to synthesize the diverse strands of Modernism into a powerful, new classical style.
Justice's poetry combines the concentration and energy of Modernism with the clarity and accessibility that typify classical styles. Although the tradition out of which he writes is the Modern movement, his sensibility exhibits the chief features of classicism—unity of design and aim, simplicity of means, clarity of expression, and a governing sense of form, all grounded in an informing tradition. There is also a notable element of restraint, but not in the stereotypical sense of excluding violence and emotion, which classical styles do not do (Beethoven, after all, was the apogee of classicism). Instead, classical styles control and balance emotional energy within a total design. Classicism has never had much good press in America. Our nation prefers the technicolor claims of Romanticism. But classicism is not a single style; rather, it is a sensibility that must in each age reinvent its own means of expression. At its best—which in contemporary art is very rare—classicism can achieve a unique balance of accessibility and profundity, of energy and concentration.
To demonstrate how effectively Justice's style achieves classicism's double aims of simplicity and profundity, we will end by examining "The Grandfathers." In this short, early poem Justice had already created a style with an accessible surface and complex subtext, Characteristically, he did this by appropriating another poet's words to create a subtle intertextual argument. "The Grandfathers" begins with the opening line of "Ode" by John Peale Bishop (a largely forgotten figure who wrote half a dozen of the best American poems of the twenties and thirties). Here is Justice's poem:
Why will they never sleep?
John Peale Bishop
Why will they never sleep,
The old ones, the grandfathers?
Always you find them sitting
On ruined porches, deep
In the back country, at dusk,
Hawking and spitting.
They might have sat there forever,
Tapping their sticks,
Peevish, discredited gods.
Ask the lost traveler how,
At road-end, they will fix
You maybe with the cold
Eye of a snake or a bird
And answer not a word,
Only these blank, oracular
Headshakes or headnods.
On a narrative level "The Grandfathers" is a descriptive poem about taciturn country elders, the sort of old men one might observe while traveling backwoods roads. Read as a realistic lyric examining archetypical figures of American folklore, "The Grandfathers"—with its quirky irregular rhyme scheme and sharp images—is a haunting poem. Aside from compliments, it does not appear to need much commentary. But if one goes back to its source, Bishop's "Ode," one finds an unexpected poem, which begins:
Why will they never sleep
Those great women who sit
Peering at me with parrot eyes?
They sit with grave knees; they keep
Perpetual stare; and their hands move
As though hands could be aware—
Forward and back, to begin again—
As though on tumultuous shuttles of wind they wove
Shrouds out of air.
Bishop's poem describes a frightening vision of the three Fates, who become symbols for a tragic pagan worldview. The three sisters serve as horrific reminders of man's mortality and the transience of human accomplishment. Bishop has no protection from them because his Christian faith, with its promise of salvation and resurrection, is dead. "Ode" ends:
There was One who might have saved
Me from the grave dissolute stones
And parrot eyes. But He is dead,
Christ is dead. And in a grave
Dark as a sightless skull He lies
And of His bones are charnels made.
Returning to "The Grandfathers" after studying Bishop's poem of existential dread, one sees a different text. What seemed like a macabre but naturalistic lyric now also reads as a densely metaphorical examination of how religious anxiety persists even after the religion itself has died. One now notices, for instance, the ambiguity of reference for "they" in the opening line. Does it refer to "the grandfathers," as one might initially have assumed, or to "The old ones," or to something else left unstated (such as the "they" in Bishop's original, quoted in the epigraph)? One also notes that the grandfathers themselves may not be as entirely literal as they as first appeared. These ancient figures consistently operate on both a realistic and metaphorical level. Continuing through the poem, the reader now finds that many of the seemingly realistic details also have sinister, religious meanings. If they are indeed divinities, Justice's "old ones," those "Peevish, discredited gods." may indeed "have sat there forever." Two carefully elaborated levels of meaning coexist in the poem, each becoming a metaphor for the other. On a realistic level, "The Grandfathers" is a study of malign but impotent backcountry elders; on the intertextual and metaphorical level, it describes the silent but troubling gods who still haunt the modern psyche. Characteristically, Justice designs the poem so it can be read satisfyingly on the first level alone, but he also creates a mythic subtext that can be understood only by reference to the poem's source. Justice's headnote from Bishop, therefore, isn't only an acknowledgment of the poet's borrowing; it is also a necessary clue to the poem's tradition, which includes not only Bishop's "Ode" but other Modernist poems about the death of religion.
Poems like "The Grandfathers" demonstrate the centrality of textual appropriation to Justice's aesthetic. Without understanding the intertextual complexity of his work, one cannot fully read his poems. Placing Justice in his own self-defined Modernist tradition and appreciating the hidden complexity of his sometimes deceptively simple classical style, however, reveals a profound and challenging poet. He has shown that Modernism remains a living tradition for artists strong enough to approach it with imagination and independence.
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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 Anniversaries (1960), Night Light (1967), Departures (1973), and The Sunset Maker (1987)—two were fifty-two pages or less. (A 137-page Selected Poems, containing seventeen new poems, came out in 1979.) No wonder Justice's 171-page Reader, which has seven previously uncollected poems, is as slender as it is.
Justice has been equally restrained with his prose. This too sets him apart from the poets of his generation, who are, for the most part, a critically garrulous bunch. Justice's lone prose volume, Platonic Scripts (1984), contains six essays, seven interviews, and ten pages of extracts from a notebook. The Reader doesn't exactly ameliorate the situation. The book's prose selections—three essays, two stories, and a memoir of Justice's Miami childhood—are superb, but one yearns for more.
One essay omitted from the Reader is the one on his late friend, Henri Coulette. This essay, which was co-written by Robert Mezey, served as an introduction to the 1990 edition of Coulette's Collected Poems. This omission is unfortunate because Justice and Coulette are kindred spirits. Both poets, as Justice said about himself in a 1970 interview, seek to "displace the self from the poem—not to remove it entirely, but to displace it, in some degree." In Coulette's work, the displaced self gives way to other selves—actors, double agents, and Jews destined for death camps—who speak for the absent poet. In Justice's case, the standbys are writers, mostly poets.
The writers on whom Justice relies, however, seldom speak in monologues, as do the selves in Coulette's poems. Instead, the words Justice borrows are assimilated into poems that seem to be spoken in Justice's voice. His borrowings from César Vallejo, Weldon Kees, Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Catullus, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, and others are openly acknowledged in titles, epigraphs, and notes.
Justice once observed in an interview that when reading Robert Browning, the master of the dramatic monologue, "you know clearly and definitely it's not Browning talking, and the poem is the better for it … [nowadays there is an] unacknowledged confusion of a poet with narrator." Justice continued:
Aren't you surprised how easy it seems to be to assimilate a great multitude and variety of experience which others have spared us the necessity of acquiring for ourselves, and not only to assimilate but to write about…. If you develop … a great affection for Chekhov, say … then you can invent for yourself Chekhovian characters or situations or even borrow passages from things he wrote and treat them as if they were your own, almost your own…. You could feel that way about a hundred others, too, and master their experience as well simply by turning the pages.
Even though Justice abjures dramatic monologues that imaginatively freed poets like Browning and Coulette, the writers' words that Justice "treats as his own" are needed for the same reason: to unchain his imagination. Justice admits his handicap: "neither suffering nor exaltation … leads to poetry, at least not for me," Justice writes in the essay "Bus Stop: Or, Fear and Loneliness on Potrero Hill." Or, as he writes in "Variations on a Text in Vallejo": "When I took out this paper and began to write, / Never before had anything looked so blank, / My life, these words, the paper, the gray Sunday."
None of this is meant to imply that Justice isn't moved by the things of the world. Hardly; but when it comes to consigning those emotions to the page, he often needs the bits and scraps of perfected language to get him going. No doubt there are times when Justice responds without assistance to reality's often paralyzing realm, but if the poems are any proof—"Sestina on Six Words by Weldon Kees," "Variations on a Theme from James," "After a Phrase Abandoned by Wallace Stevens," "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens" (in which he writes: "Now all quotations from the text apply, / Including the laughter, including the offstage thunder, / Including even this almost human cry")—he'd just as soon rely on books. Much the way Virgil led Dante, Justice likes to be guided, by his many literary betters, through the inferno of the poem.
Justice, who usually writes in meter and rhyme, claims that his main interest in poetry is form. Although subject-matter is not unimportant, it is a secondary consideration. This would make Justice an Old rather than a New Formalist, since poets of the latter camp emphasize subject-matter over form. "Sincerity," he writes in an essay on Baudelaire, "is saying what the form obliges you to say regardless of whether or not you believe it." No wonder, as Justice notes in the same piece, that a poet's "pose" may paradoxically "be sincere." The sincere poet, Justice writes, "becomes a performer, a charlatan, a great pretender; art is artifice. What he has to be sincere about is his art." Justice would agree with Picasso's remark. "We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."
It comes as no surprise to learn that as a young man Justice studied the most abstract of the arts, music. From the beginning Justice has been skeptical of a naively mimetic poetry. The difference between poetry and music, of course, is that music is quite forthright about its inability to reproduce physical reality. Poetry, on the other hand, with its seemingly referential statements and images, suggests a closer relationship to reality than it actually possesses.
Justice likes to remind readers of the distance between poetry and life. One way he does this is to write artificially—to use meters. "Like the odd mustaches and baggy pants of the old comedians," Justice writes in the essay "Meters and Memory," meters "put us on notice that we are at a certain distance from the normal rules and expectations of life." Another way to point out the poem's distance from reality is to divulge its literary origins. One more way to show how far poems are from life is to use imagery that suggests it. Justice isn't above a flagrantly self-reflexive remark, like "the the has become an a" (in "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens"). Usually, though, Justice's poems live a double life—as a commentary on life, and as a commentary on the poem's status as a nettlesome aesthetic object.
One poem that leads this kind of double life is "Children Walking Home from School through Good Neighborhood." It seems, at any rate, that the "good neighborhood" through which the children walk exists not only in the real cities and towns of our experience, but on the page, as well: a tranquil aesthetic "neighborhood" that is even more serene than the one it evokes:
They are like figures held in some glass ball,
One of those in which, when shaken, snowstorms occur;
But this one is not yet shaken.
And they go unaccompanied still,
Out along this walkway between two worlds,
This almost swaying bridge.
October sunlight checkers their path;
It frets their cheeks and bare arms now with shadow
Almost too pure to signify itself.
And they progress slowly, somewhat lingeringly,
Independent, yet moving all together,
Like polyphonic voices that crisscross
In short-lived harmonies.
Today, a few stragglers.
One, a girl, stands there with hands spaced out,
A gesture in a story. Someone's school notebook spills,
And they bend down to gather up the loose pages.
(Bright sweaters knotted at the waist; solemn expressions.)
Not that they would shrink or hold back from what may come,
For now they all at once run to meet it, a little swirl of colors,
Like the leaves already blazing and falling farther north.
This poem is the last word in formal polish and grace, but how well does its image of quiet tranquility reflect reality? Not all mat well, at least not in Justice's view. Hence his wish to self-reflexively question the mimetic accuracy of an image that appears to be a by-product of the search for formal perfection. The questioning starts with the first line's held, which here means, not just borne, but imprisoned; aptly, for what is being held hostage in the poem's beautiful but inanimate prison is a group of living children. It would appear, at any rate, that the first stage of this poem's composition involved formally following through the initial motivation or spark, and the second stage involved disavowing the posing-as-real images that the heedless aesthetic imagination had wrought.
Not all of the poem's self-reflexive images are so critical of the poem's mimetic claims. For instance, the lines, "And they go unaccompanied still, / Out along this walkway between two worlds," appear to suggest that the children move, not only between the "two worlds" of childhood and adulthood, but between the "two worlds" of art and life, as well. Also not overtly critical are the lines, "Independent, yet moving all together, / Like polyphonic voices that crisscross / In short-lived harmonies," which could conceivably describe both the children and the lines of the poem. Also uncritical is the image of the girl whose movement is described as "a gesture in a story." (Her gesture exists in two stories: Justice's and hers.) Although none of these images casts a shadow on the poem's ability to reflect reality the way held does, they do remind us that poetry is as much on Justice's mind as reality.
Also curious is the image of the snowstorm that doesn't occur because the glass ball "is not yet shaken." This seems to suggest that it is wrong to grant the reality's "storms," especially its emotional storms, access into the poem. For allowing these "storms" into posing-as-real poems diminishes and dilutes them. "First Death," a poem about the death of the poet's grandmother, is stripped of strong emotions, one senses, because Justice doesn't want them taking part in the counterfeit life of the poem. It is this counterfeit life that Justice wants to keep us apprised of by means of the self-reflexive images.
Once one knows to keep an eye out for them, Justice's self-reflexive cues pop up everywhere. When he writes, in "Sonnet to My Father," that he is "leaving this likeness only in [his dead father's] place," it is unclear whether "likeness" refers to the poet or to the poem. And in "Poem," Justice writes that the poem in question is "not sad, really, only empty." And in the first section of "American Scenes (1904–1905)" (which Justice tells us is culled from James's Notebooks), the poet writes: "Each fanlight, each veranda, each good address, / All a mere paint and pasteboard paltriness!" These self-reflexive images are much like the admissions of borrowings in other poems: intimations of inadequacy that this intensely conscientious poet must impart.
In "Thinking about the Past," the poet chides himself for attempting to preserve those moments of the past that will, as he writes, "never change, nor stop being." For to seize the past in verse reduces its vanished abundance to words, all "fixed into place now," as Justice writes, "all rhyming with each other":
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.
That red-haired girl with the wide mouth—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands,
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvellous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton …
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs …
In "Cinema and Ballad of the Great Depression," meanwhile, Justice likens the economic indignity of men with the indignity of having been transformed into a lifeless aesthetic object: "We had become a line somehow," gripes the poem's speaker.
In "Mrs. Snow," however, the memory is vivid, the poetic rendering doesn't vex Justice all that much, and the poem is free of self-reflexive omens:
Busts of the great composers glimmered in niches,
Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,
Counting the time out in that hushed falsetto?
(How early we begin to grasp what kitsch is!)
But when she loomed above us like an alp,
We little towns below could feel her shadow.
Somehow her nods of approval seemed to matter
More than the stray flakes drifting from her scalp.
Her etchings of ruins, her mass-production Mings
Were our first culture: she put us in awe of things.
And once, with her help, I composed a waltz,
Too innocent to be completely false,
Perhaps, but full of marvellous clichés.
She beamed and softened then.
Ah, those were the days.
But just as often the past is fading from view, not coming into focus.
And yet, as alert as Justice is to the representational failings of poetry, and as much as this reticent poet seems to flirt at times with total silence, he never quite washes his hands of poetry. One reason, certainly, as he himself has suggested, is the many formal rewards of verse. It could be argued, in fact, that each poem is a kind of hopeful formal rejoinder to the painful knowledge, expressed in the content, of its many representational shortcomings:
We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.
ON THE DEATH OF FRIENDS IN CHILDHOOD
But beyond the strictly formal excellence of Justice's work, there is the added marvel of one poet's unrelenting honesty about the boundaries and limitations of art. Donald Justice is one of our finest poets.
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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.
Reviews A Donald Justice Reader, focusing on theme and Justice's place in contemporary American poetry.
Leithauser, Brad. "Getting Things Right," New York Review of Books XLIII, No. 14, (19 September 1996): 49-50, 52.
A review of New and Selected Poems in which Leithauser claims that the collection reflects the solid work and skill of Justice's career and that the new poems continue to impress.
Nemerov, Howard. A review of The Summer Anniversaries, by Donald Justice. American Scholar 29, No. 4 (Autumn 1960): 578.
Describes the principal subject of Justice's poems as "the journey from innocence to experience."
St. John, David. "Scripts and Water, Rules and Riches." The Antioch Review 43, No. 3 (Summer 1985): 309-19.
Remarks on the importance of "technical virtue" in Justice's poetry.
Turco, Lewis. "The Progress of Donald Justice." The Hollins Critic XXIX, No. 4 (October 1992): 1-7.
Provides a brief survey of Justice's writings, covering the major themes and stylistic development evident in each of his collections.
"Donald Justice Special Feature." Verse 8 and 9, Nos. 3 and 1 (Winter-Spring 1992): 3-72.
Collection of essays and other material centering on the work of Donald Justice.
Wright, Charles. "Homage to the Thin Man." Southern Review 30, No. 4 (Autumn 1994): 741-44.
Describes Justice as a "contemporary master whose public ink is nowhere near his poetic achievement."
Fitz Gerald, Gregory, and William Heyen. "Falling into Place: A Conversation with Donald Justice." Edited by Philip L. Gerber and Robert J. Gemmett. Prairie Schooner XLVII, No. 4 (Winter 1973–74): 317-24.
Discussion of theme, style, and voice in Justice's poetry.