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Justice, Donald 1925–

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Justice, an American poet, short story writer, and editor, writes in simple and straightforward language. His poems reflect loss, particularly loss of the past. Commenting on the source of his poetry, Justice says that "one of the motives for writing is surely to recover and hold what would otherwise be lost totally—memory or experience. Put very simply, so that one might not wholly die." (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Thom Gunn

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There are a few obvious misfires in [The Summer Anniversaries] (the only disastrous one being the final poem, which is really too close to Auden to be taken seriously), but otherwise it is a most accomplished collection. There is a great deal to be thankful for in such [a poet as] Donald Justice. [His very modesty is part of his virtue. He is] humble before the tangible world, attempting to understand it at the same time as [he reproduces] it. It is a brave humility, too, much braver than the desire to do away with the rules of common sense and perception so that the idiosyncrasies of one's personality may rule the page, much braver than the arrogant cultivation of an individual voice at the expense of everything else….

Mr. Justice is a gentle poet, and in his best poems the gentleness has its own firm clear strength, but sometimes there is a possibility that the gentleness may deteriorate to a mere wistfulness. (p. 597)

Thom Gunn, "Voices of Their Own," in The Yale Review (© 1960 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIX, No. 4, June, 1960, pp. 589-98.∗

Lewis Turco

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Mr. Justice writes a spare line, and he writes by the line, painstakingly. His determination to get the perfect word in the perfect place is absolute, and if he doesn't succeed every time, he does so often enough to make [Night Light] a remarkable book.

His early poems were lyric and nostalgic. In a review of his first book [The Summer Anniversaries] I said, "The diction … is deceptively simple and spare, but rich in allusiveness." That remains true of the present collection but the lyricism has been absorbed by a new mode—syllabics—so that the songlike quality of these poems emerges in terms of image rather than form….

What is left, in these new poems, is a sense of compassion. What is gained is a voice with a hard, clean edge and a vision to match. (p. 31)

Lewis Turco, "Of Laureates and Lovers," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 41, October 14, 1967, pp. 31-3, 99.∗

Vernon Young

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I doubt if there are six poems in [Donald Justice's Selected Poems] which could be claimed for the public sensibility. But Justice has written a dozen lyrics I'd call virtually incomparable—of a kind rivaled only by W. S. Merwin or the early Merrill. And it's my sad duty to acknowledge that most were written fifteen or twenty years ago. Justice has lacked the gift for renewing himself poetically; however, the initial gift remains sufficiently impressive to inhibit critical reproaches. (p. 234)

"Ladies by Their Windows" [from The Summer Anniversaries is] … among the loveliest musical and purely evocative things I know in contemporary verse: it never descends to the explicit and is one of the last poems I should ever want to overhear an "explanation" of in a Creative Writing Class…. Sustained at the same level of elegiac fancy, the beautiful cadences move on, in measured stanzaic waves, to their radiant and funereal climax. (pp. 234-35)

After ["Ladies by Their Windows"], anything further is shadowed by anticlimax. There is not, for me, another poem by Justice that equals this one, although "Tales From a Family Album" is as deftly modulated … and as fraught with skilled echoes. Both in this volume and in Night Light of 1967 there are several poems that bear remarking for their pristine melancholy elegantly controlled, sometimes in sonnet or sestina form (the sestinas do not have conventional line lengths). Almost always, the conditions mirrored are those of loss, of the irrecoverable, of the transitive and the doomed. A short, formal but unrhymed poem, "On the Death of Friends in Childhood" is a succinct example of the tonal center to which many of these verses are keyed…. "Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy," "Last Days of Prospero," two exiguous poems suggested by Chekhov plays and one suggested by Guillevic, "Hands"—"And all that they grasp is air"—reveal the poet as inexorably, if wittily, dedicated to a kind of shadow-play experience in which he notes absence more sharply than presence, senses the pain of things but is more readily disposed to translate it into études than commit the vulgarity of expostulation.

With the "Departures" collection of 1973 there is a definitive thinning out, I would say, something akin to exhaustion (but not to imprecision of the word). The embracing title was a nod of recognition: departure is certainly the most prominent activity recorded, as in the poet's sardonic farewell to his Muse or, as it is centrally announced in a poem called "Presences"…. And Justice moves forward, at a stroll: announces themes for variations which are only half-executed or quickly fade; writes a poem that pertly excludes the reader; predicts his own death in the manner of Vallejo (I suspect this is a tongue-in-cheek adaptation); plays with visual motifs from Ingmar Bergman. Then, having failed to find a new source of integrated lyricism, he returns in quiet desperation to scenes from his childhood.

I call it desperation because Justice had already distilled the subject in earlier poems and had seemingly turned his attention, if obliquely, to the more complex world of culture and the faintly absurd. (pp. 235-36)

Since poetry is where you find it, one accepts the source. Among the Uncollected Poems at the end of this volume, undated, is at least one, "In the Attic" … which is drily reminiscent of the early, inventive Justice: the scrupulous music, the Proustian consolation. (p. 237)

Vernon Young, "Two Hedgehogs and a Fox," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1979, pp. 227-37.∗

Doug Lang

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Donald Justice is a conservative poet. He works within the established boundaries of modern poetry and makes no attempt to extend those boundaries. He is also a very literary, academic poet: you do not need to be familiar with The Tempest to understand or take pleasure from Justice's poem, "Last Days of Prospero," but such a familiarity will deepen your understanding and increase your pleasure; a reading of the poem may even strengthen your appreciation of Shakespeare's play. Selected Poems contains many literary references, but previous knowledge of the works to which Justice refers is more of a bonus than a necessity, when it comes to understanding and enjoying his poems. At no point in this book will you be confounded by your inability to interpret a Chinese ideogram or to translate from the original Greek. Donald Justice is even an old-fashioned poet, equally as willing to give a new twist to an old form (the sonnet, the sestina, the sonatina), as he is to find a new form to fit the materials at hand.

This latter aspect is the key to an appreciation of his value. Justice's concern with form is really a concern with experience being committed to an appropriate arrangement of words. Some of the forms he finds are very direct and simple. Take, for example, "The Stray Dog by the Summerhouse," and compare it with Richard Eberhart's well known poem, "The Groundhog." The two poems are thematically similar: in both cases the poet reflects on the discovery of a dead animal. In doing so, Eberhart invokes Alexander the Great, Saint Teresa, Montaigne, and the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, while using his description of the gradual disintegration of a groundhog's corpse to comment on the passage of time as it affects human life. Justice's poem is quite minimal. He describes the dog lying dead in the sun … giving a vivid impression of both the dog's corpse and the unpleasant experience of seeing it. He compares the smell with that of an overripe pear…. By staying with the essentials, Justice manages to give us a strong physical sense of what the experience he is describing might be like. This allows us to respond with our own thoughts and feelings, whereas Eberhart's thematic elaborations tend to impress us more with his own. Justice gives each poem structure according to its own weight and he shows great versatility in the process. As an example of the more complex and poetic side of him, [there is] "The Evening Of The Mind."… Here one has the sense of a poem coming from a particular set of cadences, rather than from a specific experience, and so the whole feeling is different. This variation of form and feeling is sustained as Justice writes about suicides, about grandfathers, about the hopelessly insane, about a dressmaker's dummy, and as he takes us with him to Kansas and to Katmandu. What one gets is a sense of a continuing drama, with each independent episode reported in appropriate language, and with the whole united by Justice's highly visible sensibility. He is as American as Edward Hopper and he gives us a sense of American life that is as unique and as strong as the one that Hopper's paintings gave us.

Doug Lang, "The Pleasures of Poetic Justice," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), February 10, 1980, p. 11.∗

Charles Molesworth

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What some might see as proper formality might strike others as unnecessary stiffness. This difficulty is compounded in the case of Donald Justice, for his poetic sensibility can be seen as centered either in virtuous modesty or inescapable limitation. How you see Mr. Justice at this formal turning of his career depends a great deal on how urgently you feel about scale and subject in poetry.

Mr. Justice's first book, "The Summer Anniversaries" (1960), deals mostly with a poetry of small scale dooms and dim light…. His second book, "Night Light" (1967), continues the exploration of a dim or twilight perspective verging on total darkness….

But with this second book Mr. Justice begins to deal more openly with what becomes a central, perhaps the dominant, theme in his work: The lack of an ennobling subject brings about a poetry that deals with the reasons for not writing. In a startlingly self-conscious poem from "Night Light" called "Early Poems," we hear the poet say "How fashionably sad these early poems are!" But this poem concludes: "—Now the long silence. Now the beginning again." Here those who appreciate Mr. Justice will hear the tone of beleaguered honesty, an indomitable trust that is earned both through and with a clear-eyed humility. Others will hear a doomed, almost Pavlovian tenacity that is less to be applauded than simply endured….

In his third volume, and in the uncollected poems from throughout his career now gathered together in ["Selected Poems"], Mr. Justice continues to explore the problematic nature of his vocation. His voice often has the sound of the true "native strain."… [His] early master was John Crowe Ransom…. Sestinas and rondeaus appear less often than they did in the earlier volumes, but there remains a chaste quality to the prosody that sometimes recalls W. S. Merwin. (p. 8)

Mr. Justice is capable of wit, but it is often the wit of the defeated. In "The Telephone Number of the Muse," he tells us:

      I call her up sometimes, long distance now.
      And she still knows my voice, but I can hear,
      Beyond the music of her phonograph,
      The laughter of the young men with their keys.
 
      I have the number written down somewhere.

The self-deprecation here has many American precursors, from Edwin Arlington Robinson to Frank O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems, and the tone will continue to attract younger imitators. It is to this poet's credit that he doesn't shrink from his own selection of scale. I can't help but wonder if he knows how fully cynical and deadening are the implications of those sounds coming to us from "her phonograph." But if you are the sort of reader who occasionally suspects too much of poetry's grandeur is "pre-recorded," then the whisper of Donald Justice may be music to your ears. (pp. 8, 16)

Charles Molesworth, "Anniversary Portraits," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 9, 1980, pp. 8, 16.∗

Thomas Swiss

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From the beginning of his poetic career, Donald Justice has focused obsessively on a central theme: loss….

But it is not Justice's themes that first strike the reader on coming to the Selected Poems. It is the language itself, the particular idiom and pattern of the poems. While some poetry aims directly at arousing the feelings, Justice's poetry appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. Form is present in an emphatic way—we notice the poem's structure, the elegant musical language. (p. 44)

There is no attempt at realism in Justice's poetry; the action and language are structured, contrived. Justice has always been interested in working out a form that expresses and accompanies what he wants to say….

Influenced by Eliot's essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Justice early on worked within, from, and against his "received" tradition. He continues to do so. (p. 45)

Many of Justice's poems apply the principle of theme and variation….

Tension [in "Landscape with Little Figures"] achieves an elegant balance of force. On the one side, there is the theme of loss and the subject matter of a decaying landscape; on the other side, there is the texture of language and the title of the poem. The language is direct and child-like in its simple declarations…. A story is being told, distance is being created. The title of the poem, which sounds like the title of a painting, also creates distance. In a poem that deals with such an emotionally charged theme as loss, these elements give us a sense of equilibrium between the past and the present, history and experience, so that the objects and figures in this poem are alive yet living only in art, still with us but lost long ago.

Balance is also achieved by coupling parallel elements in the poem. In "Landscape with Little Figures," "form" shapes "content" by doubling, duplicating…. [The] repetition of words in the poem both mirror and are what Justice has to say about his theme of loss. For the poem is ultimately about moderation and compromise. One way of coming to terms with loss is to account for the thing lost; to observe and realize the inevitability of change is the first step towards acceptance. (p. 46)

Like his sestinas, Justice's "theme-and-variation" poems often have a subject which is identical to the structure…. "Absences" and "Presences" are also about adapting to change. The poems begin with a statement about loss and end with a statement about the recurrence of loss. Their structural order images human process as it moves through time; the poet's rhythm reveals his feeling about temporal relationship and movement. (pp. 46-7)

[In "Presences" we] notice, after several readings, some elements of order. There are thirteen words and phrases that repeat exactly or with a slight variation; several words repeat three times. Although unrhymed, a pattern of expectation is built through conspicuous repetition: the poem moves forward by pulling the ear forward. Finally, there is a temporal pivot at the center of the poem … providing a crucial prosodic and thematic balance….

"In the Attic" is about loss, childhood loss, and the variations of thought are captured in the repetition of eight end-words, each repeated once as the poem unfolds. Like the other poems, this one has an urgent gravity, an authentic resonance. (p. 47)

Formal pattern serves as a kind of obliquity. As [John Crowe] Ransom often noted in his essays, the fixed form proposes to guarantee the round-about of the artistic process and the aesthetic distance. But as we have seen, any form—fixed or free—does the same if carefully handled. Justice's reticence, his allegiance to aesthetic distance, is aligned to another of Eliot's propositions: "the emotion of art is impersonal." As balance can be achieved through a tug-of-war, Justice paradoxically finds that one way of fulfilling his "simple wish to be elsewhere" is to write a self-portrait. In "The Poet at Seven," Justice chooses two immediately apparent means of achieving psychological distance. The poem is in the sonnet form and the title proposes a temporal distance of more than (at the time the poem was written) twenty-five years. A new poem, "First Death," is a self-portrait at eight. The temporal distance is now more than forty-five years and the poem's formal distance—rhymed tetrameter couplets—allows the poet to speak openly about the loss of his grandmother.

In the 1960's, Justice's interest in form led him to write more free verse. Certainly Williams' poetry and theories about prosody—"break from the old arrangements of the word"—were an influence on him. Justice's new poems accepted the challenge of writing in free forms (variations by definition), while maintaining a sense of conscious organization. (pp. 48-9)

But if his prosodic decisions were related, in any part, to changing literary fashions, other decisions—psychological distance and manner of speaking—were not…. [In 1960] when the poetic fashion was to write with a tendency toward personal disclosure, Justice chose to continue with an aesthetic of impersonality. The best poems in Night Light are balanced by Justice's new freedom of form (radical) working with the old (conservative) aesthetic of the "impersonal emotion."

Justice continued to work toward a conscious effacement of self. The verse forms changed, but the rhetorical properties remained about the same. The poems are understated and often witty; while seemingly detached in attitude, they are engaged fully in the style of saying.

Justice did not begin writing more free verse to get closer to "common" speech. Understanding that the language of poetry is artificial by nature, he is skeptical of the poem's ability to duplicate real speech—a theory which some free-verse poems propose. The poetry in Night Light speaks, with increased syntactical variation, to the subjects the poet has been interested in all along. The voice has the same elegant timbre.

And the poetry exhibits a variety of discernible arrangements. Several poems are in traditional meters (including the witty "My Early Poems"); some are "loosely" metrical; others are ordered according to syllabic and strong-stress principles; two are prose-poems. The reader feels the poet performing with a great sense of confidence, clearing a path for himself between the radical and the conservative.

"To the Hawks" is typically graceful and orderly. Atypically, it is a political poem. Its theme is loss and the subject is the Vietnam war. The function of convention—the poem is syllabic—is immediately apparent: convention tempers the sentimental possibilities that the poet risks…. "To the Hawks"—with its humble voice and reliance on convention—is still able to move the reader. (pp. 49-50)

Justice's approach to creating aesthetic distance is linked, of course, to the poet's temperament…. His sensible emotional wariness can be defined as an attitude which is agnostic and stoic.

Justice applies this attitude to his central theme: the passing of time and the impermanence of self and the world. We find in the poetry that the flowers are "fading," the summer is "dying," the greenery "decaying;" photographs "turn yellow."… Characters in the poems are "aging," "weary," "exhausted," "tamed," "passive and ornamental."… Yet the objects and characters in these poems are "most beautiful in their erasures." In his third book, Justice further develops and explicitly defines a poetry which means to stand, as well as it might, in the way of decay and diminution.

The epigraph, used with variation, is a distinguishing characteristic of many of the later poems…. He borrows widely, performing variations on a poet's sense of line; he borrows themes, images, phrases, and prose sentences. There are acknowledgements to Guillevic, Stevens, Williams, John Peale Bishop, John D. MacDonald, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Lorca, Vallejo, Bergman, Rilke, Alberti, and others, a diverse group of precursors. (p. 51)

A comment on the title of the third collection, Departures, might help clarify what I see as Justice's intentions, and give us a better idea of how to read the poems. The poems are not, we know, translations; and they are not "imitations," a word which implies close study of an "original." These poems are departures: they "go away from" or "set out" from received matter or form. The influences are fluid and become, through the construction of the new poem, indirect. Because Justice has assimilated and digested what he has borrowed, the poems are original—if we do not take that word to mean "novelty." (p. 52)

[Mirrors] are an obsessive image in Justice's work. Mirrors and imaged variations of mirrors recur: sunglasses, storefronts, train windows, reflecting pools, and, more abstractly, all of art in the sense that "art mirrors life." (p. 55)

Any experience, for Justice, is aesthetic experience. His poems present the world as an object of experience, not as experience itself. In a new poem, "Childhood," Justice is speaking of the Olympia Theater, where he can "look up at a ceiling so theatrical / Its stars seem more aloof than the real stars." For the poet, the illusion of reality, an artful manmade star, is more magical than reality itself. Justice's metaphoric mirrors serve both to reflect and absorb presences. The stars on the ceiling reflect the stars in the sky; but as objects of art, they also mirror, by having absorbed, the personality of the artist-maker.

Memory, too, has the ability to absorb and hold "hidden from us" those objects and experiences that have sunk deeply into it…. It is the poet's duty to retrieve from memory those things that deserve to be saved. The poet passes through the mirror and returns to write the poem. The poem, in turn, is the record of a successful journey….

["Fragment: To a Mirror"] is composed entirely of questions. Justice's philosophy—or rather his way of making a philosophical inquiry—is explicit here. Death and life are equal halves of "nothingness"; the "promised absence" is the equal portion of the poet's given presence; and memory—the poem is filled with images from his childhood in the South—is the other half of imagination. It is in this manner that Justice's inquiry, his meditation on time's passing, conducts itself: abstract questions of imagination are answered, as well as they might be, with specific images from memory. (pp. 55-6)

In "Things," he calls his mirrored reflection "My still to be escaped from." In "Poem," Justice speaks about the effacement of self and the construction of the poem which must represent the poet in his physical absence. The attitude is clearly agnostic and stoic: "You have begun to vanish. / And it does not matter. / The poem will go on without you." (pp. 56-7)

In "Variations on a Text by Vallejo," Justice assumes the responsibility for writing that hardest elegy of all: an elegy for the self. Characteristically, he is able to speak most openly when creating a distance between himself and his chosen subject. The poem begins, as does Vallejo's poem, "Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca," with a premonition: "I will die in Miami in the sun, / On a day when the sun is very bright, / A day like the days I remember, a day like other days." Justice's departure from Vallejo's text is largely in terms of expansion; the poem qualifies and explains with added and altered descriptive details. Emotionally, the poem "feels" about the same as Vallejo's—intense and personally daring. But by making personal the details and style, the poem becomes distinctly, if not exclusively, Justice's. The final stanza begins with the boldness of a newspaper headline: "Donald Justice is dead." The stanza goes on to elaborate and pull together the elements and images of the first two stanzas. The variations play themselves out; the poem proves the premonition true. (p. 57)

Thomas Swiss, "The Principle of Apprenticeship: Donald Justice's Poetry," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1980, by Media Study, Inc.), Vol. X, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 44-58.

Gerald Burns

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Donald Justice has not improved since I reviewed Night Light a dozen years ago. [Selected Poems] reads like a very thin Tennessee Williams—little poems about obscure Florida people and architecture. And yet the words he chooses are the words he chooses; he really does want them, so the poems have that solidity. Each line is a sort of family portrait. That the poems as wholes haven't much energy doesn't matter much because his subjects are People Remembered (muffled by distance), and landscapes dying on the vine. The late ones are eclectic. "Thinking about the Past" is a Stafford poem. His early ones are Audenesque. "The Telephone Number of the Muse" is frightening. "Homage to the Memory of Wallace Stevens" is uppity. His little fantasies smell of attics. If you invited him to speak at your luncheon he would seem a bit watery. As a career his, though honest, does not quite make the ascent to poet from racket. (pp. 218-19)

Gerald Burns, "Duration Is Destination—Verse in the Eighties," in Southwest Review (© 1980 by Southern Methodist University Press), Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 218-20.∗

Alan Young

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[Many of the poems appearing in Selected Poems taken from Summer Anniversaries] have the feel of apprentice pieces, a formalistic and workshop atmosphere pervading…. The somewhat awkwardly worked frames of sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, odes, and other formal poems do not entirely constrict a naturally lyrical talent. The first poem in the book ["Ladies by Their Windows"], though with echoes of late Eliot, has gentle rhapsodic bursts to ruffle the generally detached posture….

By the time of Night Light …, Justice has moved an appreciable distance from academic and provincial formalism…. The influence of William Carlos Williams is evident in poems of the American landscape, and there is a hard-won new simplicity of diction in his improvizations on themes from Guillevic ("The Man Closing Up"). "Men at Forty" shows the gain in both freedom and control of this sparer medium: "Men at forty / Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to."

Departures … is the harvest of Justice's search for a voice. Even when he employs chance methods (sparingly) as in "The Confession", "The Success", "The Assassination", and two "Sonatinas", the way of saying is authentic. Imitations of poems by Vallejo, Catullus, and Baudelaire have his own assured, cool and elegiac manner too. There are several very early pieces as well as new very nostalgic verses among the previously uncollected poems; it is as though he has decided to settle for the contrary yet complementary moods of his poem "Tremayne"—mild despair and contentment. It would be sad if Justice, who has struggled through to a polished and urbane yet completely American manner, should have persuaded himself that the muse favours only the new generation….

Alan Young, "Identifying Marks," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4027, May 30, 1980, p. 620.∗

Calvin Bedient

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[Selected Poems] is Justice at his best, as plain and poignant as he is fragmentary and narrow…. Consisting of shadows cast by the world just before dusk, his poetry is not the "bright shadow" that experience itself casts on the world. Justice does not aspire to be our Confessor; he confesses (touchingly, at his best) for himself….

[The] collection as a whole reflects an uncertain talent that has not been turned to much account. For one thing influence has been a problem. The early poems unwittingly feature Auden and, divergent but starting from the same place in dismay, like the second hand of a clock, John Crowe Ransom…. [Both] poets serve his mock-spry sense of form. Yet we want from poets not other poets at one remove, but the new.

The same complaint must be made of some of Justice's more recent work, in which the sense of form dims in the shadow cast by Mark Strand at his most despairingly abstract. These poems repeat the early moods with less concentration and brilliance. (p. 475)

Calvin Bedient, "New Confessions," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1980 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 474-88.∗

Alan Hollinghurst

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Donald Justice's [Selected Poems] persistently haunt and are haunted by the past, to the extent that their present is characterised by a weary passivity, a lack of vitality that is supported by fastidious formal elegance. They do not need to say that what happens now is pointless as there seems no likelihood of anything happening anyway…. The poems lack urgency from early on—typically motiveless sestinas, for example—with a habit of elegance which cushions meaning, and a lack of colour and surprise. He will over-explain his material, flattening a striking comparison of a childhood memory with a [D.W.] Griffith film by including: 'But already the silent world is lost forever'…. The poems occupy a cultured space, as aware of European poetry as of American (though in a way typical too of the British awareness of American poetry, that of a couple of generations earlier)—but with a certain lassitude and narcissism, looking in the mirror as much as out of the window. Formal but fatigués, they create the impression of getting great job-satisfaction without actually doing much work. (p. 18)

Alan Hollinghurst, "Good for Nothing?" in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2579, August 22, 1980, pp. 17-18.

J. D. McCLATCHY

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Donald Justice is an elusive poet, esteemed but not widely read, and it is a convenience to have so much of his work brought together in one volume [Selected Poems]…. Whatever the convenience, a new book by Justice is always likely to be a notable event; his output has been slight and infrequent, his work fastidious. In fact, as a poet he is that rarity—an artist at once deeply traditional and resolutely new fashioned. He sometimes writes (as in "Bus Stop") in an intentionally flat style, whose effects are predictable and tiresome. He also writes the trendy kind of expressionist poem—though he usually does it better than his peers or imitators—that heaps up portentous images with all the automatism of a school exercise. (p. 640)

But his richest work is in neither of those veins. As his Selected Poems' chronological rearrangement makes clear, he has been most successful when his dry, raffiné intelligence is in command. I admire those poems—like "Fragment: To a Mirror," "The Assassination," "Portraits of the Sixties," "Sonatina in Green," or his wonderful new pastoral memorypoem, "Childhood"—that indulge in metaphysical repartee, or in what Justice himself calls, with an apposite allusion to Wallace Stevens, "Mordancies of the armchair!" He is a poet of invention rather than of vision—the impetus for a poem often coming from, say, themes in a French poem, or the format of a sonnet or sestina, or some compositional gimmick. Still, the results have the fine authority—simultaneously unnerving and satisfying—of a canny poet working, if not at the heights of the art, then at least at the height of his powers. (p. 641)

J. D. McClatchy, "Summaries and Evidence," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1980 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVII, No. 4, 1980, pp. 639-44.∗

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